Sunday 20 October 2019

'Storytellers must rehumanise those who've been dehumanised' - Elif Shafak on the power of the novel

Turkish author, political scientist and intellectual Elif Shafak on the power of the novel in an age when culture has become a battleground

Fury of the ultranationalists: in 2006 Shafak was prosecuted for 'insulting Turkishness' in her book The Bastard of Istanbul
Fury of the ultranationalists: in 2006 Shafak was prosecuted for 'insulting Turkishness' in her book The Bastard of Istanbul

Joanne Hayden

It's both surprising and unsurprising to hear Elif Shafak describe herself as an introvert. In her writing and lectures she has often talked about the importance of being many things at once. Linguistically, geographically and creatively, she embraces her own multiplicities, speaking out against tribalism and the danger of staying within cultural cocoons. A political scientist and public intellectual as well as a prolific novelist, she writes in English and Turkish, enjoying the commute between languages, setting her stories all over the world.

"It's not easy for me to speak up in a public space to be honest," she says on the phone from London, where she has lived for the past decade with her husband and two children, "and yet I also know that if you happen to be a storyteller from wounded countries like Turkey, Pakistan, Venezuela, Philippines, Russia, you don't have the luxury of saying, 'I'm only going to write my stories, I'm not interested in politics'. We can't have that luxury when so much is happening."

For this reason, Shafak engages in the public sphere, contributing to newspapers, judging literary prizes and advocating for minority, women's and LGBT rights. Her two TED talks have been watched by millions online. She has published 10 novels, most recently Three Daughters of Eve, a story set in Istanbul and Oxford that explores sexual harassment, economic inequality and the tension between secularism and faith.

It's quite a CV, the result of luminous intelligence, vast imagination and particular life circumstances. Shafak was born in Brussels in 1971 to Turkish parents who separated when she was young. She spent her early childhood in Ankara. In a society composed of large, patriarchal families, she was raised on her own by her mother - who was secular, educated and later became a diplomat - and by her maternal grandmother - who was more spiritual and less educated, a local healer.

In her TED talk, 'The Politics of Fiction', Shafak reflects on how her grandmother used to cure people of warts and acne, an intricate ritual involving apples, rose thorns and circles of black ink. When she asked for an explanation, her grandmother told her to "beware the power of circles." She uses this as a springboard for one of the lecture's key points: "If you want to destroy something," she says, "surround it with thick walls."

On the TED stage, she is strikingly authentic, cerebral and emotional, breaking down walls with her words. She may be following a script, but it's also how she speaks on the phone, digressing at one point to ask if the background noise is disruptive; some trees are being pruned on her street.

As a teenager, she lived in Spain with her mother and later spent time in the US. A self-declared global soul, she frequently uses the word coexistence. Integration, she says, requires a narrative that goes beyond party politics. For her, democracy is not only about the ballot box, it's also about rule of law, separation of powers, a free media, an independent academia, women's rights, LGBT rights and, crucially, stories.

"Every extremist ideology from racism to Islamic fundamentalism, they have this in common: they dehumanise the other," she says, "and when that happens, when we don't see the other as our equal fellow human being, upon that ground anything can be sown: the seeds of racism, sexism, all kinds of discrimination.

"So for me it's very important to understand the other, the stories of the other... storytellers need to rehumanise those who have been dehumanised, and we need to bring more nuance into the conversation, because the age we're living in is based on dualities, clashes. Culture has become warfare, a battleground. Culture is not a battleground. It's how we connect."

Shafak is the most widely read female writer in Turkey - every book that she signs there, she says, has been read by four or five people - but her relationship with the Turkish state has been fraught. In 2006, pregnant with her first child, she was prosecuted for "insulting Turkishness" in her novel The Bastard of Istanbul. Comments made by her characters on the massacre of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire during World War I were used as "evidence" against her. She was acquitted but it was an extremely difficult time.

"There were ultranationalist groups on the streets burning EU flags next to my picture, spitting at my picture, associating me with the EU, trying to say, 'These liberals, they're western stooges...' And after the trial... for a year and a half, I lived with a bodyguard. And then you ask yourself, why would you live with a bodyguard for writing a novel? For writing a work of fiction?"

Though at the time she didn't link it to the trial, she suffered from depression after the birth of her daughter, an experience she writes about in her memoir Black Milk. Clever, playful and heartfelt, the book investigates her ambivalence about motherhood by way of personifying several of her different selves - cynical, ambitious, spiritual, pragmatic, nurturing - and looking at the choices of other women writers, including Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir and Zelda Fitzgerald. Writing Black Milk, she says, helped her achieve a better "inner democracy".

Shafak often speaks about Turkey's "slide backward" under its current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan - the fact, for example, that it now jails more journalists than anywhere else - but she is wary of dividing the world into "liquid" and "solid" countries. Liberal democracy is a very fragile ecosystem, she says, and can't be taken for granted. A British citizen, she watched the lead-up to the Brexit vote, especially the deceptions within the Leave campaign, with dismay.

"Seventy-seven million Turks were suddenly at the gates, hordes of barbarians, that was the impression created... The people who were saying these things, they knew that Turkey wasn't joining the EU anytime soon, but it was used like a fear card."

People look to Shafak for insights into Turkey, which is sometimes considered to be a bridge between East and West, and though she provides those insights and often sets her stories in Turkey, she rejects identity politics and the idea that as a woman writer from a Muslim background, she should tell the stories of Muslim women.

"We don't expect an Afghan writer to write sci-fi," she says. "We want an Afghan writer to tell us how dark and sad life is for Afghan people, so-called realistic stories. And then we leave other areas such as avant-garde, experimental fiction, genre-breaking fiction to authors who do not have to represent a certain collective identity. All these expectations are things that I'm very critical of. I think writers cannot be reduced to a single identity."

Since 2016, Shafak says, "we have entered a new stage in history," and she notices more Western authors feeling a similar urgency to speak up about the dangers facing "our core-shared values in a democracy".

"I think it's important to understand how politics works, how power works," she says. "The old maxim is true: you might not be interested in politics but politics is interested in you."

Elif Shafak will be in conversation with Seán Rocks on March 2 as part of the Ennis Book Club Festival.

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