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  1. Diary
28 February 2024

A travelling tribute to James Baldwin

Also this week: Underdressed in snowy New York, the beauty of book covers, and delighting in London’s diversity.

By Elif Shafak

I look out the plane window at New York covered in white. I was not expecting the snow. I have neither the right shoes nor the proper coat. This happens to me often. An immigrant, a self-imposed exile and a nomad pretty much throughout my life, and yet still terrible at packing. I once travelled to a festival in Marseille in early summer wearing a wool cardigan, and to a literary conference in the Netherlands in autumn in a linen dress. I do not do these things deliberately; they just happen. In Marseille, only an hour before my event, I had to roam a shopping centre with my French editor, who kindly helped me choose a T-shirt. In the Hague, I rushed to the stores with a translator, who thankfully knew where to get the best deals. And now, I am in New York on a chilly morning, shivering in my thin jacket.

At noon I have a meeting with my publishers at Knopf. I walk up and down Broadway, listening to The Rest Is Politics. British accents reverberate inside my ears, mingling with American sounds from the street. I find a café where I warm up my half-frozen fingers. Out of my bag, I produce a votive candle in a glass jar. I saw it in a small shop and loved it at first sight. Since then I have been carrying it with me everywhere. On the front of the candle is a picture of the author and civil rights activist James Baldwin. On the back, it says: “Patron Saint of Poets, Uncles and Exiles.” I have slightly rephrased this in my mind. For me, Baldwin was, and will always be, Patron Saint of Storytellers, Poets and Exiles.

How books happen

Upstairs in the publishing house, the rooms warm and full of books, we have an inspiring meeting about my new novel There Are Rivers in the Sky. For the first time I hold the cover in my hands and it is so beautiful. Book cover design is an art in and of itself. My heart is filled with gratitude. It is a blessing for an author to have great editors and to work with a team of caring and dedicated people. We know how hard it is to make books happen in a world shaped by speedy consumption and unfeeling algorithms. Not only to make art and literature happen but also to help creativity survive and thrive. As I get older, my respect for booksellers, librarians, translators and all those working in various positions across the book industry grows and grows.

Found in translation

Later in the afternoon, I will be giving a talk at the UN headquarters. I have been invited by UN Women to speak at the Unstereotype Alliance Summit. It is incredible to speak inside an iconic room with people from all over the world, every word ferried into multiple languages by translators in glass booths. I find it moving to meet young climate activists and older women’s rights activists from Brazil, the United Arab Emirates, India, Canada, Chile, Sweden… My speech focuses on dismantling stereotypes and prejudices through the art of storytelling and empathy. I do believe that telling our stories, as well as hearing each other’s, helps us connect beyond borders. Silences keep us further apart.

“Dirty old river…”

Back in the UK, not yet aware of how jet-lagged I am, I take a walk by the Thames, watching a couple trudge the shore, mudlarking. While writing my upcoming book I lived in a river house for two and a half months, observing the tides, the dance of the currents. It is a zombie, the Thames, a river that has returned from the dead. Once declared incapable of sustaining any life, it has renewed itself with such potency that it is now home to more than 125 species of fish and no fewer than 400 invertebrates. But we are going backwards, refusing to learn from history. Today the Thames is being contaminated, yet again, by waste, greed and neglect.

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In support of migrant writers

This year I am judging a new literary prize, alongside Philippe Sands and Dina Nayeri. The Footnote x Counterpoints Writing Prize, developed in association with London’s Southbank Centre, is open to writers from refugee or migrant backgrounds. The winner will get a publishing deal and we are excited to contribute to this important prize and much-needed encouragement.

Holding a candle for London

As the weekend starts, I realise the candle featuring James Baldwin’s picture is still in my tote bag. I take it with me everywhere, and as I walk around I listen to myriad accents percolating in the air. I observe people of all backgrounds, sharing the same water and air and dreams, all of us who have found a sense of belonging in this city and made it our home. No matter what populist demagogues tell us, I do not take London’s diversity for granted. I love it. I treasure it.

Elif Shafak will appear at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 20 April. See cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

[See also: Elif Shafak’s Diary: Solidarity with Iranian women, Instagram anxiety, and a turn at the Booker Prize ceremony]

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This article appears in the 28 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The QE Theory of Everything

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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