Elif Shafak: How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division

Elif Shafak

The School of Arts have teamed up with WoWFest2021, with students from across the School previewing events from this festival of radical writing, taking place throughout May. 

Katie Hall (year 3, English) previews Elif Shafak: How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division, Saturday 15 May, 6 pm. Tickets £10/£5 concessions.

This year has been difficult for everyone. If the world was a place of anxiety before the global pandemic, it’s one tightly-wound-string away from snapping now. But the world is re-opening and Liverpool is reverting back to its natural form: Concert Square is crawling again with overenthusiastic university students and twenty-somethings, the line for Primark is longer than ever and we’ve even seen the return of live music events at the docks. Although these are all extremely exciting things (well, maybe not the Primark line), we should reflect on the past year and what we have learnt, as well as understand that, for some people, anxieties do not ease as the lockdown does. 

If there is one positive we can take from this last year, it is our ability to communicate and connect in a time when we needed it the most. Whether it was through Zoom calls, or text messages, FaceTimes, or group chats, this year we stayed more connected and in touch than ever, because we had to. We also saw important issues and topics receiving the platform they deserve. On 31st May 2020, the people of Liverpool peacefully stood outside St. George’s Hall. Different faces with different backgrounds were all there, kneeling, for the same reason: justice. At a time when we were kept apart through restrictions and guidelines, we respectfully came together and George Floyd’s name echoed over the streets of central Liverpool for hours on end. No justice, no peace. Voices were heard, people listened and maybe even were changed.

But now, the question is, as the world reopens: how we will sustain this sense of unity and community? Yes, we are so eager to all get back together physically but how will we ensure that we stay connected mentally, that the real issues are not pushed to the side-lines as the pints are poured and that voices are not silenced over fake laughs and cheap jokes. If the murder of George Floyd had not taken place in the time frame of a global pandemic, would the outpouring of white solidarity with the black community have been the same? Would people around the UK have put down their knives and forks as they watched the five o’clock news or would they have skipped the channel and put on something that was easier to digest? How do we ensure that we continue to try to understand and support one another? 

This is where WoWFest comes into play. In ‘How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division’, Elif Shafak will discuss the importance and power of stories and their ability to bring us together. Shafak is an award-winning British-Turkish novelist and author of 18 books, one of which, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Shafak has a Ph.D. in Political Science, and is an advocate for women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights and freedom of speech. The Sunday Times have described her as ‘passionately interested in dissolving barriers, whether of race, nationality, culture, gender [and] geography.’ The WoWFest event takes its name from Shafak’s recently published manifesto, in which she explores the anxiety of contemporary society and how we feel in response to the constant displays of crisis that we witness, what that feels like, every day. 

Throughout her manifesto, Shafak encourages the need for continuous optimism and hope in the face of injustice. She encourages this through the power of listening to one another and allowing a diversity of voices to be heard in order to become more empathetic as a democratic society. Whether it be listening to people from different backgrounds, people with similar mental health problems or people who are different from you in every possible way, Shafak emphasises that we need to communicate and empathise with each other in order to appreciate what she calls our ‘common humanity’. Shafak stresses that, as a society, we are constantly worried about the world, its problems and how we fit into all of it, but that we forget to talk about the effects of this constant state of tense living on our psyches. On Saturday, these topics and others will be discussed, as Shafak reflects on her own memories and advocates for the power of stories to maintain hope for a better future that caters for everyone. 

Our lives are speeding up again: an influx of coffee dates, catch-ups, gym sessions and ‘too busy to hang out’ work schedules. We must not allow ourselves to slip back into unhealthy patterns and bad habits. In lockdown our world stopped and we had time to listen. But, what happens when you take away the freedom of time? Maybe we’ve always had the time but we were just never willing to use it. Either way, Elif Shafak will provide the inspiration and motivation to continue to communicate and connect with one another, in person and through social media. She will help answer this pressing question: how do we stay sane in an age of division? 

Part of WoWFest21: celebrating 21 years of radical writing. Check out the full programme here