Imagining Brunei: Elif Shafak’s “Honour” and David Mitchell’s “Slade House”

Two very different (and very good) novels, with one very interesting thing in common: Brunei is mentioned!

The mention of Brunei in Slade House is pretty cursory and throwaway, as seen below. When her father, a “Shell Oil man” gets promoted and moves to Brunei, it breaks up the family, and the protagonist gets sent to a boarding school in Great Malvern in Worcestershire (fun speculation: if she meant Malvern College, a lot of Bruneians actually have attended that boarding school, so it wouldn’t have been impossible for the protagonist to meet them there).

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relevant excerpt from “Slade House”

In Honour, a Bruneian plays a much larger role, and is actually pretty pivotal. Set in the 1970s, this novel is the story of an emigrant Turkish family in London by  award-winning Elif Shafak. It’s a wry lovely novel about family, patriarchy and pushing at horizons. It’s a little uneven pacing-wise, and not as tight as it could be, but there’s a really effective divide between the voices of men and women that ties into the honour killing that focuses the plot of the novel.

Anyway, the Bruneian! His name is Zeeshan (not a Bruneian name I’m familiar with, but I’m willing to believe there are Bruneian names I’ve never heard of. Maybe Zeeshan is a shortened form of something else?), and his English is of a variety that I’ve never heard from a Bruneian ever (see and repeat caveat above here). The protagonist, Iskender Toprak, meets Zeeshan in Shrewsbury Prison (again, quite a lot of Bruneians have attended Shrewsbury boarding school, so maybe Zeeshan is one of those students gone wrong.)

Honestly, Zeeshan, who helps Iskender come to a new spiritual understanding, (and is described as being from the “Far East”), seems to inhabit a sort of Mr Miyagi role – ostensibly not Muslim, Buddhist or Christian, but deeply spiritual or mystical. He refers to the animal kingdom a lot.

He’s definitely not familiar to me as a Bruneian, but it’s definitely interesting to see this imagined Brunei, imagined Bruneian, in fiction.

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excerpt 1 from “Honour”

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excerpt 2 from “Honour”

If anyone has spotted imaginings of Brunei in any other fiction, I’d love to hear from you!

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