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.