Writing Under Lockdown
Tempest and Shafak On Connection and Numbness
Whichever way you look at it, this is a threshold moment. An in-betweendom. A perplexing interval between a prolonged end and an unknown beginning. – Elif Shafak.
Two of the best books that have come out in 2020 about the human condition and our existential crisis (a crisis that pre-existed but has been made more urgent and glaring by Covid-19), are by writers not well known beyond their niche readerships. If you don’t know about Elif Shafak and Kae Tempest’s latest essays you are missing out. Their books should be on every bedside table.
Strangely, or maybe not, they are by writers who appear to be miles apart in style and life experience.
Strangely, or maybe not, they are by writers that I was lucky enough to share a room with in late 2019 – the last year before Covid-19 brought the roof down.
I shared a room with Elif Shafak and about 500 others in Oxford’s ancient Sheldonian theatre, where she was giving the annual Blackwell’s lecture: that month she was on the shortlist for the Booker Prize for her 2019 novel, Ten Minutes and 38 Seconds in this Strange World. She signed my copy.
In the auditorium on Cowley Road the town audience roared. In the Sheldonian theatre the gown audience clapped politely.
But both womxn were speaking the same language. They were resonating at a point that went deeper than the individual identity of members in each audience. Strangely, or maybe not, their words that night, became the subject for both of their 2020 lockdown long essays.
Shafak spoke a lot about numbness being the “the opposite of goodness” and the importance of storytelling for keeping empathy and emotion alive in the times we live in. It became the basis for her book, How to Stay Sane In an Age of Division.
Tempest performed her latest epic poem, including the poem People’s Faces (which made tears well up this morning when I listened to it again). Her experience on that night – and many nights – and her connection with me, a person she does not know, is at the heart of her book, On Connection.
So let me start with Tempest.
On Connection, written in 2020, doesn’t feel the need to outwardly connect her monologue with what Covid is doing to the surfaces of our lives. In fact they mention it only once, noting that “there is something infuriating about writing this in the Covid-19 lockdown”. Yet they do lament the loss of connection, particularly for artists, that comes from the new technologies for communication we have had to adapt to.
Tempest: “The internet makes it possible for like people to find each other, and this is extremely important. But it makes it difficult for unlike people to contact each other without their defences up.”
Tempest probes the nuances and ironies of identity on the internet.
“It is a relief to feel understood without having to point out the differences in lived experiences. But because of the importance of creating alternative communities, we have arrived in a place where we project selfhoods that are dependent on our differences. Communities develop in opposition to each other.”
That way connection, and finding each other, is thwarted.
Tempest’s book is therefore a critical reflection on all art, her art, creativity, connection, and numbness. Tempest had been a girl-wonder of the British poetry scene (the first person under 40 to win the Ted Hughes award in 2013), which makes it great that they problematise the idea of being a girl, becoming Kae this year, and recognising that her surface appearances gave them protection to write and speak words that might have shut others out of the official literary scene:
“If I wasn’t white and young looking, and so coded as ‘unthreatening’, would I really have got away with saying half the things I’ve said over the years? Let alone been lauded for it?” they wonder – knowing the answer.
Yet, although On Connection – just like her previous poetry books Brand New Ancients, Let them Eat Chaos – is about politics and inequality it eschews these surfaces, announcing right at the start that, while her poetry will always speak to the inequalities and unmet needs that mar the human condition, “it is also my understanding that, right beside these basic requirements, humans have always needed – and will always need – to play, to create, to reflect and release”.
“They therefore move away from the things that divide us to try and excavate the things that unite us, and what it takes to make that connection, declaring that they write for ‘people who share my beliefs and people who find them fucking ridiculous’.
“Everyone. All the time. No matter what.”
I can’t do justice to Tempest’s sustained, simple, resonant series of observations, so I won’t try to. Read it, if you can find it. If I had enough money I would buy a few hundred copies and give them away to my best friends and my best enemies.
Shafak is the author of many poignant political novels, novels that draw from the well of her Turkish upbringing (“I am an Istanbulite at heart”) and which rebel against the drift to fundamentalism and authoritarianism in that country. Her book is about numbness and how to dismantle it, but its premise is that to do that we may have to dismantle ourselves, we need a forensic examination of the soul.
“Acts of barbarity can happen fast and on a large scale not when more people turn immoral or evil, not necessarily, but when enough people become numb. When we are indifferent, disconnected, atomised.”
Shafak, too, toys with identity: “I have multiple belongings”, she says, having noted a few pages earlier that “sometimes you are at your loneliest among people who physically resemble you and seem to speak the same language”. She asks how can we “begin to talk about that sense of displacement when there isn’t even a word in our vocabularies to describe it? The closest word I know of is ‘exile’”.
We are all familiar with the 20th Century meaning of exile, especially in South Africa. But exile while you are still “at home”? That’s an interesting but not at all implausible idea … and it is from such insights that Shafak concludes that “what we are going through is also a crisis of meanings”.
And on the next page my pencil made thick marks beneath the lines that follow:
“For far too long, in our social and political dealings, we have consulted the same old leather-bound dictionary that was for the most part compiled in the aftermath of the Cold War. … but now a strong wind is blowing in, turning the pages too fast. There is a burning candle next to the dictionary and before we realise it the wind tips it over. Our dictionary is in flames. We reach out to save what we can, but many pages of entries are badly scorched. We must replace them and that leaves us to redefine some of our fundamental concepts. Paradoxically the simplest will be the hardest.”
Some of the concepts Shafak lists for redefinition are democracy, normal, freedom, selfishness, happiness.
Shafak implores that we all become more engaged and sees stories as a way to do that. “Stories bring us together, untold stories keep us apart. We are made of stories.”
Her stories, read The Forty Rules of Love to experience the currents that her writing can set in motion, are testament to that. But like Tempest she knows that stories only become complete once they catalyse imagination in the minds of the reader. It is the reader who finishes the poem or the novel. Tempest puts it this way: “In the throes of creation that give life to the text, the writer is the pilot of the force. They stand alone at the brink of an idea, trying to reel it in. But once the writer has delivered the work, it does not belong to them any more; it belongs instead to whoever picks it up and completes it.”
These are both unpretentious little books, but they are both brimming with thought and connection. My copies are pock-marked with pencil-marks. Sentences of poetry and meaning found in narrative essays. Pointing to our truths. There is no substitute for your reading them.
Ultimately, at the heart of both books is a recognition and an evocation of a beauty in human beings that we need to rediscover and the role of artistic creation in doing that. Referring to a poem by Walt Whitman, Shafak notes how “a human being, every human being, is boundless and contains multitudes”.
Tempest puts it another way pointing out that “connection balances numbness. Connection is the first step towards any act of acknowledgment, accountability or responsibility. It offers, whether fleeting or long lasting, a closeness to all others”.
So, as Tempest says, if you can just open yourself up, put your phone down, you will see that “everything is resonating”. Or, put another way in the closing paragraph of On Connection: “Look up. There’s life in there. Put yourself away. Let go of yourself. Tune in to other people.”
There are two other books written under the lockdown that I would highly recommend: How Contagion Works: Science, Awareness and Community in Times of Global Crisis by Paolo Giordano and Another Now, Dispatches from An Alternative Present by Yanis Varoufakis. One written by an economist, the other by a physicist, their subject matter and style is very different. I will reflect on them in a future article.
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