by Claire Chambers
Leila Aboulela's debut novel The Translator (1999) is about a love affair between a Sudanese translator, Sammar, and her employer, the Scottish lecturer Rae Isles. Turkish novelist Elif Shafak similarly handles various transcultural love affairs in her 2012 novel Honour, but is more concerned with their darker aspects of jealousy and disgrace. Both novels contain the repeated motif of a new migrant from a Muslim background finding it hard to adjust in her new life in Britain and living as though she were still in the home country.
In The Translator, Sammar sometimes observes a British object or phenomenon and is transported back imaginatively to Sudan. We see this connective dissonance when Scottish central heating pipe noises call to Sammar's mind the azan or Muslim call to prayer. Sammar also attempts to recapture the tropical weather she is accustomed to by spending time in Aberdeen's heated Winter Gardens.
In Honour, the fractured identity of the migrant is dramatized most vividly through the split selves of Kurdish twins Pembe (who moved to Britain) and Jamila (who stayed at home in Turkey). Even as children, each girl's subjectivity is inseparable from that of her twin. For example, Pembe's father takes her miles away from Jamila to get a rabies injection, but the sister cries out in pain at the same moment the shot is administered. As the narrator puts it, 'When one closed her eyes, the other one went blind. If one hurt, the other bled'. This is an idea of connection drawn from Islam, since in a hadith Mohammed describes the indivisible nature of the ummah or global community of believers as being like 'that of one body; when any limb of it aches, the whole body aches'.
To theorize the translocal disconnection that makes the UK veer off into Sudan, Turkey, or elsewhere for diasporic writers, I reach for Jahan Ramazani's A Transnational Poetics and for Derek Gregory's analysis of imagined geographies as 'doubled spaces of articulation' in The Colonial Present. As a geographer, Gregory is alert to both the linkages and the severances that are caused by globalization. He offers the term 'connective dissonance', which is helpful in allowing insight into the frequent moments in these novels at which characters experience the world swinging around and Britain becoming Sudan/Turkey or vice versa.
The neologism plays on the concept from psychology of cognitive dissonance, which concerns the stress often felt by a person who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time. Migrants and Muslim migrants in particular are especially vulnerable to cognitive dissonance, since they have strong 'home' values connected to religion and culture but are expected to learn the 'host' ones as well. Gregory adds a spatial dimension to the psychological idea of cognitive dissonance. His adjective 'connective' gestures to globalization's population flows and the idea that the world is a disparate web of far-flung nodes, separated by time and space, but linked by the internet, growing anxiety about climate change and extremism, the ravages of capitalism, and so forth.
From a literary perspective, Ramazani writes in A Transnational Poetics that early twentieth-century modernists such as W. B. Yeats, Gertrude Stein, and T. S. Eliot 'translated their frequent geographic displacement and transcultural alienation into a poetics of dissonance and defamiliarization'. It is interesting to note that Ramazani uses the diction of translation and defamiliarization (as well as unwittingly echoing Gregory's noun 'dissonance'), for these are also key ideas explored by Aboulela and Shafak. Some pages on, writing about the later poet Seamus Heaney, Ramazani makes the similar point that in the Irish poet's work 'the here becomes inseparable from the not here'.
Perhaps the most illustrative example of Aboulela's representations of connective dissonance comes early in the novel when Sammar and her friend Yasmin leave their employer Rae's house. Sammar has visited this home for the first time. She is surprised by his well-fed cat, so different from the strays that frightened her in Khartoum. When Rae tells the women that he was expelled from school for writing an essay entitled 'Islam is better than Christianity', Sammar is impressed by his long-standing sympathy for Muslims. She is also struck by some moments of familiarity, as when she notices that he has a print of the Uleg-Beg Mosque in Samarkand on his fridge. Outside his house, feeling the loneliness that has gripped her in Scotland ebbing away, she has something of an epiphany:
Sammar stepped into a hallucination in which the world had swung around. Home had come here. Its dimly lit streets, its sky and the feel of home had come here and balanced just for her. She saw the sky cloudless with too many stars, imagined the night warm, warmer than indoors. She smelled dust and heard the barking of stray dogs among the street's rubble and pot-holes. A bicycle bell tinkled, frogs croaked, the muezzin coughed into the microphone and began the azan for the Isha prayer. But this was Scotland and the reality left her dulled, unsure of herself. This had happened before but not for so long, not so deeply. . . [S]he had never stepped into a vision before, home had never come here before.
Just as Ramazani writes that 'the here' becomes inseparable from 'the not-here' for those he deems transnational poets, so too in this passage 'home' (the long-departed Sudan) 'had come here', to damp, orderly Scotland. For Sammar, experience 'spills across national and psychic borders', as it does for the authors Ramazani explores.
As the novel progresses it becomes clear that Sammar's connective dissonance stems from grief and an inability to deal with the present, akin to the phenomenon that Dennis Walder terms 'postcolonial nostalgia'. Even four years after her widowhood, ‘her soul had dived into the past' and she is described as being 'full to the brim with distant places'. Both of these water-logged images resonate with the novel's broader interest in the fluidity and purity of water.
Sammar lost her husband Tarig in a car accident while he was training as a doctor in Scotland. Amid her sorrow, the bond between Sammar and her toddler son comes undone. She chooses to abandon the boy in Khartoum when she takes Tarig's body there to be buried. Sammar then spends four years in a 'hospital room', which it emerges is merely her neglected bedsit. During this period of depression, the room is a place of mourning and 'hibernation' where she consumes mouldy food and puts up with shabby curtains and dirt on the floor. She longs for Sudan, the place she still views as home, and asks herself, 'Could she trance herself to hear the azan?'. But connective dissonance cannot be willed into existence, and tends to come when she is least expecting it.
The connective dissonance of Pembe in Honour also stems from homesickness, if not mental illness. Daughter Esma concludes that the Turkish Kurd matriarch 'had a selective memory', remembering only the positive aspects of her home, so that 'The native land remained immaculate, a Shangri-La, a potential shelter to return to, if not actually in life, at least in dreams'. And son Iskender thinks that his family does not live in their 1970s London flat, but are only visitors there: 'Home to us was no different than a one-star hotel where Mum washed the bed sheets instead of maids'. For the older generation of Kurds, Britain is a temporary outpost, and their village near the River Euphrates is the imaginary homeland to which they long to return. By contrast, the younger generation, Esma, Iskender, and the only British-born sibling Yunus, are fluent in English but struggle with their mother tongue and with the lack of privacy in their closely-knit home. They rightly see themselves not as sojourners, 'interloper[s]', or 'passers-by' like their parents, but as people who are here to stay in Britain.
A turning point in The Translator is the quiet Christmas Sammar spends in the ghostly university that most students have deserted to visit their families. During these few weeks, Sammar and Rae become increasingly intimate. Rae regularly rings the payphone outside her flat and they talk about everything from his 1970s trip to Morocco to her need to learn how to drive in Scotland. Energized by their conversations, she spring-cleans her flat, turning it into a sanitary, bright, and welcoming space. From this moment on, she is less often subjected to connective dissonance and begins to dream about the present rather than the past. She also starts to find Aberdeen familiar, anticipating 'where the road changed from asphalt to cobbles' and recognizing certain people's faces where before she only found 'a maze of culture shocks'.
This is not to say that the earth remains completely stable beneath Sammar's feet. From Christmas onwards, if the ground ever seems to fall away, it is not to be replaced with Sudan's red soil, but is instead the out-of-body experience of being in love. For instance, when Rae assuages her fears that he is an atheist by telling her that he does believe in God, 'The landing, the bicycles under the stairs, Yasmin upstairs were superseded'. This sense of everything else being replaced by the loved one is felt by Rae as well as Sammar: 'he turned his back on everything else, his students who were coming out, the next class that was going in. When he spoke to her it was as if there was no one around, no physical world'.
In Honour it is also through a love affair that Pembe starts to put down roots. She meets the part- Lebanese, part-Iranian Canadian chef Elias Grogan when he intervenes as she is receiving racist service in a bakery. Grateful for Elias's help, she eventually agrees to go to the cinema with him. She does this with trepidation because she is still married to Adem, a Turkish man who loved her sister and only married Pembe, the older of the twins, with reluctance. Adem is now living with Roxana, 'a girl from a sleepy town in Bulgaria pretending to be Russian and dancing to Brazilian sambas in a striptease club in the heart of London'. He can do this with relative impunity because he is a man. The consequences for Pembe of embarking on an extra-marital relationship have greater enormity, because 'Women did not have honour. Instead, they had shame'. As she starts seeing Elias regularly, always coming into a film ten minutes late and meeting him under cover of the cinema's darkened lights and noisy soundtrack, her eldest son Eskender, now 17, grows suspicious. Under the spell of the Orator, a radical preacher, and his conservative uncle Tariq, Eskender thinks that he stabs his mother in what is almost an out-of-body moment of second-generation connective dissonance:
Somebody was howling. Oddly, it sounded like my mother. But it couldn't have been her, for she was lying on the ground, bleeding. Echoes growing inside my brain. I looked at my left hand. […] But it had gone slack, as if it had been attached to my body only temporarily and now belonged to someone else.
At the same moment, Pembe experiences a similar kind of dissociation when she witnesses her son kill her twin sister – for it is Jamila he attacks by mistake. She hears somebody screaming and takes some time to realize that she is making the noise. Through free indirect discourse Pembe thinks of herself in the third person: 'She couldn't budge, for she had no body. She had no substance. She was only a voice'. Even Esma, who by the end of the text is a successful novelist, is occasionally 'seized by a sense of estrangement', as when she thinks of the story we have read, purportedly written by her, that it does not belong to her.
To conclude, the amorphous concept of home has rightly attracted attention from innumerable postcolonial critics over the years, with Susheila Nasta's Home Truths as an outstanding example. The Translator and Honour are novels in which Muslim women migrants begin with a very clear sense of home and homesickness, but over time the boundaries between homeland and host land become blurred. Aboulela's heroine Sammar experiences what Derek Gregory terms 'connective dissonance', in the form of Scotland and Sudan seeming to her to coalesce. Shafak is more interested in the notion of split selves, as embodied in her rooted and peripatetic twins Pembe and Jamila, and in out-of-body experiences engendered by trauma. Despite their many differences, both texts portray the disorientation – in its dual senses of loss of one's way and of the East – and eventual reorientation, through love, of the dislocated female Muslim.