Review: Honour by Elif Shafak

Honour is an inter-generational saga set in 1970s London which highlights the narrow-minded and dangerous opinion of some cultures when it comes to a woman’s ‘honour’. Written by an author who excels in narrating domestic settings and struggles, Honour is yet another work of fiction where Elif Shafak does not fail to leave us speechless, retrospective and entranced with her words. This is a book which shows us the importance of communication and how we as human beings lack the ability to share our troubles and thoughts with one another. How falling short of this ability often costs us relationships and how understanding and communication could possibly save a life. It highlights the impact someone’s actions have on those around them, along with other aspects of the immigrant life all the while, subtly reflecting on the clash of cultures and traditions.

A theme I find common to Shafak’s books is the realization that everyone in your life has their stories, their struggles and are very often absorbed by them. In Honour, this theme is brought to life by the focus of the book- the Topraks, a Turkish family disconnected from each other most of the time and broken by their individual experiences. Pembe and Adem Toprak leave for London from Istanbul to start a new life for their family and try to keep their Turkish and Islamic traditions alive in their three children- knowing they will be influenced by Western ways of life. The children find themselves torn between tradition and modernity, further troubled by the stifling situation at home.

By telling us the stories of Pembe and Adem, who had tough childhoods, absentee parents and dysfunctional families the author shows us that however hard you try, you cannot escape or erase the past. For it will find a way to catch up with you and seep into your present. This is another trademark theme of Shafak’s books- expressed here through Pembe and Adem’s past affecting their lives in London as well as those of their children who suffer its consequences.

The basis of the book is of course the concept of ‘honour’ and its varying perceptions in Turkish and Western culture. In the case of the Topraks, honour is more of a code consisting of the chastity, fidelity and modesty of a woman and a man’s ability to lead and assert his power over his family and ‘act like a man’. Thus we see how breaking of this oppressive code leads to shame and disgrace of various members specifically women of the Toprak’s past and unbelievably, their death. Honour killings, which Western culture would think of as a brutal crime is somewhat normalized in the minds of certain characters in the book.

In Honour, Elif Shafak brings light to a topic that isn’t talked about enough- honour killings. She lays emphasis on what I would assume is the reader’s perspective, that is the dark and wrong side of honour killings but provides insight into the mindset which fuels it as well. This is done through the characters for instance, two of the Toprak children- Iskender and Esma. Esma is the outspoken and confident feminist daughter (one of my personal favourites) who questions her mother’s old-fashioned traditions. Esma is juxtaposed with her brother Iskender, a product of the expectations of men. He finds himself shaped by bullying and conservative friends and family. So, you disagree with his opinions but can’t help empathize with him as well for what he’s gone through.

Final thoughts~ Overall, Elif Shafak’s Honour is a powerful read. It shows us that honour is but a social construct which can ruin lives. The same honour which determines someone’s reputation in Turkish society does not hold the same importance in Western culture. We see how ‘shame’ is considered almost a punishable crime in the eyes of Pembe, but is used lightly by the Londoners around her. Even if the ending is a hopeful one, the devastating events described throughout the book still leave your heart heavy. This book takes you places whether it be a nameless Kurdish village or a building of squatters in London. Elif Shafak’s books take something esoteric, such as an honour killing and make it something approachable. She is such an underrated author.

“Everything in the universe, no matter how little or insignificant, was meant to be an answer to something else.”

~Elif Shafak, Honour.

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Review: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah is a note-worthy work of fiction featuring two journeys that are both extremely different yet similar in some ways. Although the main focus is a love-story, it branches into so much more giving us well-rounded, brilliant but flawed characters. It shows us what finding your place in the world looks like and that it isn’t the destination, rather the journey. This is peppered with insights on racism, immigration and politics which are narrated through the characters’ experiences. The book is centered around Ifemelu and Obinze, who meet and fall in love in high school in Nigeria.

The characters are deep and multifaceted for they’re predictable yet unpredictable. They i.e the author expresses things that seem profound but you realize that these observations are so obviously visible in our world. The characters are my favorite part. Ifemelu, our opinionated ‘Americanah’ is a Nigerian woman who is uncomfortably frank at times and dares to question everything. We then have Obinze, her first love, sort of the only one who could stand Ifemelu’s hotheadedness and pushed her to think ahead. Both characters are very similar in terms of their ideologies and most of all their aspirations. Growing up in Nigeria, Ifemelu and Obinze are happy but always longing for more. They talk about how it wasn’t only them but everyone in Nigeria who was conditioned to believe that prosperity, happiness and ‘the good life’ is found outside of Nigeria. However, both set out only to find that even outside of Nigeria ‘the good life’ isn’t found easily. Halfway through college, Ifemelu has enough of the protests and political instability in Nigeria and applies to a university in America. Obinze sets out years later but to the UK instead, unable to get a visa he lives an undocumented life.

There’s a consecutive struggle and depressing period for both characters on eventually settling in and it’s inspiring to see them fight through it. Ifemelu’s life in America is filled with self-discovery, great people with interesting personalities and her uncovering truths about racism. She talks a lot about the difference between being an American Black and a Non-American Black in America. These parts were truly eye-opening and brought light to a phenomenon so relevant to today’s America. These insights have been woven into the story seamlessly so don’t seem educational or preachy but a mere thought of the character. I enjoyed seeing America through Ifemelu’s eyes.

Another focus of the book is immigration in both America and England. Both places have different histories and reputations which leads to the two characters’ having contrasting experiences as well. In America, Ifemelu’s story mainly deals with racism. Her race is seen as a barrier in everything she wants to accomplish. She acknowledges Black hair politics, the Obama administration and in general America’s race divide. Obinze in London on the other hand, lives in constant fear of being deported. The author also describes the saddening lengths he has to go to in order to get his papers. Apart from them, the many terrors of immigration are shown in the form of other characters like friends and family members. The book really highlights how immigration begins to define you and remains a sword hanging above your head.

The main storyline however, is that Ifemelu and Obinze eventually return to Nigeria. Both are altered by what they’ve faced. We see how Nigeria to them is a symbol of comfort, of one another and a place where they finally find what they were looking for.

Americanah is a story of discovery, of facing your fears and of staying true to your roots. Some say it’s a classic immigrant story and maybe it is, but I think it is more of a modern take on it. Even if the characters struggled and faced what might seem like things you’ve read about before, isn’t that a sign that there needs to be change?

Final thoughts~ With reference to the name, ‘Americanah’ is what people call Ifemelu when she returns to Nigeria. It’s a reference to the fact that her persona is now Americanized and her perspective has changed. But, Ifemelu proudly takes on the title. I think it’s also a reference to the fact that America not only impacted her, but changed those around her for the better. That being said, this book is full of witty remarks and strong-willed characters with lots to say. It’s the kind of book which asks the hard questions and pushes you to ask them. After this, I’m looking forward to reading more of Chimamanda Adichie’s work!

“Why did people ask, ‘What is it about?’ as if a novel had to be about only one thing.”

~ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah

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