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February 18, 2017

In Conversation With Turkish Author Elif Shafak

Text by Nisha Paul. Photograph by Zeynel Abidin

The award-winning novelist is known for her outspoken views as well as books that resonate with spirituality

Born in Strasbourg, her childhood spent in Ankara, Madrid, Cologne, Amman and Istanbul and extensive travels have impacted her world view. In Elif Shafak’s own words, “I am a storyteller with a curious mind and a student of life. For me, it’s important that I never stop being open to learning. I can never assume I have arrived. It’s always about travelling, always being on the move.”

Today, her internal compass is firmly fixed around Istanbul. Professor, journalist and fiction writer, Shafak is an active political commentator, columnist and public speaker, and has been on several international platforms advocating gender equality and women’s empowerment. In a tête-à-tête at London’s Chiltern Firehouse, she reflects on what it means to be Turkish, her books and the upcoming release.

Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
“I was raised by a single mother as a single child, which was unusual at that time in Turkey. In a way, I was the creation of two women. My grandmother and my mother both brought me up — I had the benefit of seeing two separate worlds coexist. My grandmother was traditional, less educated and superstitious, whereas my mother was well-educated, a feminist, sophisticated and westernised. I started writing when I was eight years old out of loneliness; I had no friends and my grandmother’s style of storytelling impacted me hugely.”

Tell us about your new book, Three Daughters of Eve.
“Writing it has been both a fascinating and challenging journey. I do a lot of research when I am drawn to an idea and my new book is contemporary, unlike the previous one, The Architect’s Apprentice, which is a historical novel. It’s about a Turkish woman’s quest to find god, faith, identity, love and the challenges and failures she faces. It is set in present-day Istanbul and is a sharp observation of what is happening in Turkey right now.”

Of your 14 books (nine of which are best-selling novels), which one has special significance for you?
“I can never choose just one because each and every book was special to me at the time I wrote it. If I have to choose, it will have to be the one not written yet or yet to come. Each of my already-published books contains my personal journey till that point in my life.

I am interested in discovering the silences in Turkish history and I wanted to tell the story of the Ottoman Empire at its peak — when it was full of glory and richness — through the eyes of unlikely characters, people who have been pushed to the periphery, forgotten and marginalised. I am always trying to give a voice to the silenced. I built a big challenging canvas because I wanted to bring out all the colours of that period.

It was important for me to expose the collective amnesia that is prevalent in Turkish society and how they easily forget everything except the works of our poets — because they are written in our hearts — and our architects, because they are written in stone. Everything else is written in water and it just flows away.”

You were accused of insulting ‘Turkishness’ with The Bastard of Istanbul. How do you deal with criticism?
“Unfortunately in today’s world people take offence very easily and we really have to stop doing that. There is a wonderful line by Rumi that says ‘If you are offended by every rub how is your mirror going to be polished?’ For the mirror of our soul we need criticism, it’s part of life to handle situations we don’t agree with. The answer is to write another book or draw another cartoon or write another poem.

I am a big believer in freedom of speech but unfortunately we are sliding backwards in Turkey. My book speaks about an Armenian family and genocide and I think we have to talk about the past even if it’s painful…not to cause disharmony but to ease the suffering of people who have been wronged. Truth brings learnings. We have to handle memory responsibly.”

What do you enjoy reading?
“I am a very hungry reader with eclectic reading lists. I love political history, neuroscience, philosophy, mysticism, in addition to world literature. Writers need to be readers first, and that’s how we should always stay. The journey of reading should never slow down.”

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