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An Interview with Elif Shafak

[Author]
“The beginning of anger is beautiful.”
Things Elif Shafak loves:
Keeping an eye on what’s happening in her country
Ambiguity
Words
History, philosophy, the waltz of loneliness and love
by Kaya Genç
Illustration by Charles Burns
header-image

An Interview with Elif Shafak

[Author]
“The beginning of anger is beautiful.”
Things Elif Shafak loves:
Keeping an eye on what’s happening in her country
Ambiguity
Words
History, philosophy, the waltz of loneliness and love
by Kaya Genç
Illustration by Charles Burns

An Interview with Elif Shafak

Kaya Genç
9 Snaps

I first met Elif Shafak in 2000, at the dawn of her literary career, whose success few could have predicted at the time. It was my second year at Bilgi, a liberal-arts university in Istanbul where she worked as a lecturer. Although she was a familiar face for students, Shafak was little known beyond the borders of the university. She was an ethereal presence in the university corridors, and it was her silence that defined Shafak more than anything else. Nowadays her voice has international reach; back then she was more of a listener. I used to see her at the cafeteria, where she drank a cup of Turkish coffee after classes. Fellow academics and students would talk to her. She would often be on the receiving end, observing the conversation as if from a distance.

One day in September 2001 I went to Shafak’s office in order to register for the Romantic poetry course. It was taught by a professor she was assisting. After taking note of my name and student number, she said there was a problem with the computer system, but she would make sure I got a place in the class. (I did.) Before leaving the room, I recognized how small it seemed when compared to the size and ambition of its inhabitant. She seemed out of place in an academic setting.

Shafak’s third novel, The Gaze, became a favorite among critics when it was published, in 1999. Her tale about an overweight woman and her lover, a dwarf, questioned the moralistic gaze of Turkish society. Her 2002 book, The Flea Palace, read like a book by Georges Perec: it chronicled the lives of an apartment’s inhabitants in a cosmopolitan neighborhood of Istanbul.

In Arabic, elif is the first letter of the alphabet. In Turkish, şafak means “dawn.” When Shafak began to use the Anglicized version of her surname and started writing books in English, some Turkish readers were offended. But overall hers had been one of the most successful Turkish literary careers in recent times, perhaps surpassed only by the Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk.

I met Shafak in a fancy restaurant in Istanbul’s Bebek neighborhood thirteen years after our initial encounter at the university. The restaurant was adjacent to the apartment where the great German philologist Erich Auerbach lived during his exile, in the 1930s and ’40s, and wrote his masterpiece, Mimesis. Her schedule was very busy, but we spoke for nearly two hours. She carefully listened to my questions before answering them with her trademark energy.

—Kaya Genç

I. ACADEMIC LIFE AND MICRO-HISTORY

THE BELIEVER: Your first book of stories came out in 1994. You were twenty-two. What was your idea of a writer’s life back then?

ELIF SHAFAK: All I wanted was to write and to keep on writing. While writing my first novel, Pinhan, I felt as if a story was boiling inside my head. I just needed to bring it out. I was more focused on my writing than on what it meant to be a published author in Turkey. Writing had been a continuous activity for me. It was the only existential glue that kept my pieces together. I found questions about authorship rather confusing. One should avoid them for as long as possible.

BLVR: Did you think you would survive as a writer?

ES: Psychologically or financially, you mean?

BLVR: The latter.

ES: I didn’t think I could make ends meet by writing fiction in Turkey. We as a nation like to keep our authors poor and battered, you know. We are accustomed to honoring our authors after they are dead. But while they are alive we expect them to suffer. I have been educated in international relations, women’s studies, and political philosophy. So I have an interdisciplinary academic background, and I was teaching at the time. I always thought I would need to do a second job and work in either journalism or in academia. I [thought I] might also work as a translator. It would be within the world of ideas.

BLVR: How did you divide your time between academia and your own writing?

ES: I have always respected the inner core of academia. Not its rules and regulations and all that, but its intellectual depth. I still enjoy teaching and learning from my students. When I stay away from academia for too long there is a part of me that misses that vibe. But for that to happen, of course, academia needs to be free. So I went to the United States, became an assistant professor, and then stopped. I was also writing a column for a newspaper. There were times when I would come home after a long day at the office and write until the next morning.

BLVR: So you were writing for three audiences: newspaper readers, academics, and fiction readers.

ES: The academic audience was the most limited one. I never thought I had an academic audience, but I still enjoyed being part of that ocean of ideas. I feel comfortable in interdisciplinary settings. When I went to the States, I worked in women’s studies and cultural studies departments. I could thereby teach side by side with a historian or a philosopher or a literary critic. I am a soul of cultural crossroads and cosmopolitan environments. I cherish hybridity.

BLVR: Didn’t you feel the urge to devote all your time to writing novels?

ES: That was more than an urge. It was my nexus. It kept me together. I have seen myself as a storyteller first and foremost. All the other things I was doing were extra layers that contributed to my writing. I wanted to build bridges between academia and literature, and between written and oral culture. I wanted to bring ideas from the world of academia into the world of fiction. My ultimate aim was storytelling. I love keeping an eye on what’s happening in my country. I cherish micro-politics. Not only the things that make the news but the tiny, invisible power relations of daily life. I wanted all of those to flow into my storytelling.

BLVR: Didn’t you find a conflict between academic writing and fiction?

ES: I would have found a conflict if I had had academic ambitions. I did not want to climb up the academic ladder. What I wanted was to nourish my soul with knowledge and ideas. As fiction writers we love ambiguity. This feeling of being “in between things” is good for us. It is very difficult to express that state of mind in academia or journalism. Over there you have to reduce things and turn them into compact messages. But I believe the truth arises from nuances.

BLVR: The kind of “academic” writers you said you were interested in during those years were Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Walter Benjamin, Judith Butler, Baruch Spinoza, and Julia Kristeva. Many of those were also very literary figures. When you attempted to bring academic subjects into fiction, you seem to have brought in something that was already literary.

ES: I guess the main question I had in mind was “How to read the world?” A writer needs not to forget that she is a reader first and foremost. I was interested in women’s studies and post-colonialism. I read people from the Frankfurt School. Those writers were interested in the act of reading. They attempted to read culture and its fine details. They focused on the body, sexuality, consumption, and love. They advised their readers not to take any of those things for granted. So I grew an interest in micro-history, which is an ocean for the novelist. Imagine The Cheese and the Worms, by Carlo Ginzburg. It is about the life of a peasant living in Italy, a treasure for literary minds. I really loved that kind of academic writing.

BLVR: You said you had been writing from a very early age and that it was a private affair for you.

ES: I was an only child. I was raised by a single working mother. In 1970s in Ankara that was very unusual. I was very lonely and I thought my life was incredibly boring. I didn’t believe for a second that I needed to tell the world my story or that people would be interested in it. I was a curious observer, a fast learner, a good listener. This was a survival skill and writing was part of that.

BLVR: How frequently did you change cities as a child?

ES: I was born in Strasbourg. My father was pursuing his PhD in philosophy at the time. After they broke up we came to Ankara with my mother. I lived with my grandmother for a while. Then my mother became a diplomat, mainly to take herself and me out of that setting. We went to Madrid, Amman, and Cologne. I came to Istanbul because I felt that the city was calling me. Here I was completely on my own. I had no home, no job, no friends. I just jumped into that cold water. Then I lived in Boston, Michigan, Arizona, and, finally, London. There is a restless energy in my soul that baffles people, because I am also a calm person by nature. I have opposite sides sharing the same house. I don’t think I can settle down; the only place I feel at home is in Storyland.

BLVR: When did you feel the urge to turn your writing into a public activity?

ES: Things happened so gradually. The need to write was there; the urge to publish came later. When I sent my first manuscript to the publisher, I felt uneasy. There is a side of me that is mystical or irrational. It tells me that we are merely scribes, that we don’t own the stories we write. We don’t write stories; we merely connect with them. So it was a strange experience to go and say to the world that from now on I was an author.

II. THE OTTOMAN DICTIONARY

BLVR: Did Turkey’s intelligentsia welcome you to the cultural scene?

ES: Of course not. Turkey’s established intelligentsia had two deeply rooted tendencies: elitism and sexism. So many critics were incredibly harsh toward my work. The conservatives were upset that I was writing about sex and gender issues and the topics I dealt with. And the “modernists” or“nationalists” were upset because I was using old Ottoman words, which in their opinion belonged to the past or were ethnically “impure.” They picked on my language and criticized me for non-literary reasons. They said: “A young woman shouldn’t know those ancient words!” The cultural scene was very polarized. Unless you were a conservative male writer above sixty, you were not supposed to know the kind of Ottoman words I used in Pinhan. That the author was a liberal and a feminist in her early twenties came to those critics as a big surprise. In book supplements and panels they expressed their disbelief: “How can she know all those words?” They acted as if the Ottoman language belonged to a certain social group, whereas I thought it belonged to everyone.

BLVR: So they saw your use of Ottoman words as a political gesture.

ES: It was a political gesture! I have never denied that. But it was also about love. I love words. I love them! I used to sleep with an Ottoman dictionary in my bed.

BLVR: What makes them so attractive?

ES: I love new words as well. They don’t have to be ancient. Turkish words have a tragic history. They were bruised by the state elite when the language was purged of Ottoman words. I am very critical of this. No one has the right to say, “OK, you are not using these words anymore because we are using only modern words.” That authoritarian attitude resulted in a rupture with traditional culture. I felt that those banned words were somehow hurt. I wanted to touch and heal them. I never accepted the “Purification” of language—the removal of “un-Turkic” words as part of a top-down elitist project that says, “These words are very old and they are not Turkish enough so we won’t use them.” This is a very dangerous thing. The “purification of the language” resulted in the shrinking of the imagination in Turkey. Our ability to express ourselves diminished because our vocabularies had shrunk. In Pinhan I made use of both modern and ancient vocabularies. Why not? I don’t like dualistic thinking. And there is too much of that in my country. So I said: you can be liberal or leftist and still have command over both old and new words. You can be agnostic and mystic. You can be Eastern and western. Why not?

BLVR: It is interesting that you were seen as an experimental writer not because you invented new words but because you made use of old ones—to me it seems similar to and in line with Eliot’s program for modernism, which looked to antiquity in order to create the modern.

ES: I wanted to restore the nuances we had lost during the country’s top-down modernization. It pained me to see that they were gone. I care for words; they are not tools for me. They are alive, and when I wrote my first novels I wasn’t playing games with the reader by using those ancient words. I was trying to push myself. This was a challenge for me. I didn’t look down upon the reader and think that I knew better. I wasn’t trying teach them anything or show off my linguistic skills in Ottoman. It was an organic process.

BLVR: How did you learn the Ottoman language?

ES: I was twenty-three and I had already taken Ottoman language classes and learned the Ottoman script. One of my main concerns was to read tombstones. Imagine: we walk around Istanbul and we have no clue what it says on historical monuments. Why? Because we lost touch with the writing and the culture. We can’t read the tombstones of the previous generations. This is a big problem with huge implications for our consciousness. I was already questioning the rationale behind this. I realized that only the conservatives could read Ottoman words while the urban, secular, liberal people from the middle and upper classes lacked that ability.

BLVR: The Mirrors of the City, your second novel, attests to your continuing interest in Ottoman history and religious philosophy.

ES: I love history, philosophy, the waltz of loneliness and love. While I was writing that book I was reading extensively about the seventeenth century. I wanted to look more closely at Jewish and Islamic mysticism and show how they overlapped, or how they could have overlapped. Isaac Luria and Ibn Arabi were kindred spirits, in my opinion. So was Teresa of Ávila, by the way. So the mystics of each mono-theistic religion share a natural affinity. When you go back in time you see that those two extremely rich hermeneutical traditions have a lot in common. Today we don’t speak about those things, but it was a serious conversation back then. Also, The Mirrors of the City was the first book where I dealt with anger. I was an angry person at the time. I was twenty-five. I didn’t grow up an angry person, but when anger came tome—and it came late in life—I loved the feeling of it. There is something in rage that is very transformative. Of course it poisons you at the end so you have to get rid of it before you reach there. But the beginning of anger is beautiful. I was angry with many things in my country. I was also angry with my father because I had grown up without seeing him. In my early twenties I met my half brothers and I realized that he has been a very good father to them. Then how do you explain his absence in your life? The Mirrors of the City is the story of two brothers. One of them travels from Spain to Venice, the other from Spain to Ottoman Istanbul. The older brother’s quest ends when he reached Venice. The younger brother’s quest never ends. I followed in his footsteps: he is an inquisitive character and so was I.

BLVR: Your next novel, The Gaze, also featured angry characters: a very fat woman and a dwarf whose relationship is looked down upon by the society.

ES: I literally lost my balance while writing The Gaze. The experience consumed me. I wanted to deal with the idea of the gaze—the gaze of God, the gaze of society, the gaze of neighbors, the gaze of patriarchy. Critics said The Gaze was my most schizophrenic book. It is composed of stories within stories. Gaze provides the thread that connects them together. I wanted to question the totalitarian, omnipresent gaze that is always watching and judging us. On the surface the book tells the story of an incredibly overweight woman and a dwarf who fall in love. Istanbul being Istanbul, they can’t walk hand in hand. People laugh at them; they are mocked; people point fingers at them. The book is about this feeling of being “the other.” While writing the book I realized that I had always dealt with “the other.” In Pinhan the hermaphrodite dervish is the other; in The Mirrors of the City the Jewish converts who came to Istanbul experienced he same feeling of not belonging and of being the other.

BLVR: Did you lead an isolated life while writing the book?

ES: I was less normal before I wrote The Gaze [laughs].That book has a lot of chutzpah. I was isolating myself from everything at the time. My life had changed because I came to Istanbul. I had written Pinhan in Ankara. Things were very different in Istanbul. I didn’t stay at the same place for a long time. While writing The Gaze I gained weight—I was physically and psychologically off balance. This taught me a lot about the destructive side of constructing something. When we talk about writing we always assume that we are building or creating things. But it is also about destroying things. I saw this dark side of creativity.

BLVR: Your fourth novel, The Flea Palace, was very popular and seemed to mark a change in your career. It was as if your readership was changing, too. My mother, for example, started reading your work after the publication of The Flea Palace.

ES: Yes, it was a popular book, but I find this division between popular books and highbrow literature very artificial. Why do we take it for granted that something that is widely read can’t also be intellectual? Or why do we assume that something intellectual can’t be widely read? I wanted to challenge these dualities, not in the name of challenging something but because I don’t believe in them. The Flea Palace is a very cosmopolitan book and in that sense it resembles Istanbul. There is a terrible smell in the apartment where the events take place. Everyone thinks that the smell is coming from outside, because in Turkey people assume that all the bad things come from outside and therefore from outsiders. This is how we had all grown up in Turkey. But in reality the smell is coming from inside. There is this old Greek Christian lady who collects old stuff in her flat, but with all good intentions. She is a collector in a city where nobody has time or patience for the past. I heard stories about such people. I was living in Istanbul’s Beyoğlu neighborhood at the time. I was very curious about the neighborhood and was always listening to stories like that. I was taking notes, exploring the city, trying to conquer every little detail of Istanbul. If I sat down on a stone I wanted to know about its history. I carried a camera with me and took pictures. I went to Fatih and Dolapdere and other Istanbul neighborhoods. I was passionate about documenting all the sorrow and passion I witnessed there.

BLVR: The Flea Palace placed you at the center of Turkish contemporary literature. I was an undergraduate when it was published and all my fellow students could talk about was your work, some admiringly, others critically.

ES: At the time there was a monopoly in the literary world. Writers from the previous generation had suffered more from this monopoly than we did. There were a limited number of literary journals. They featured essays by the same people all the time. Everything was based in Istanbul and all the intellectuals seemed to live in the same few neighborhoods. There was something deeply unhealthy about this. Although my book had a good reception among the intelligentsia, I found this state of Turkish intellectual life very worrying.

BLVR: Perhaps that was one reason you went to the United States, where there is a larger literary scene with more magazines and critics.

ES: That was not the only reason, but it certainly had an impact! Istanbul and I are terrible lovers. We need to abandon each other and unite again and again. My connection with this city is a pendulum of love-hate, love-hate. The US literary scene is so big and so decentralized that I instantly fell in love with it. I have had my second insanity attack there because of this new, vast landscape. I went there in an academic capacity and started writing my next novel, The Saint of Incipient Insanities, in English.

III. WRITING AND DREAMING IN ENGLISH

BLVR: What did people say to you when you told them you were writing a novel in English?

ES: I didn’t tell anyone! It was such a tiring process that my chemistry changed. I had been writing stuff in English since I was ten, so it wasn’t like I was writing in that language for the first time. I just said, “OK, now I am going to do this publicly.” It was very scary. I shut society out, became a recluse, and tried to finish my novel. I was a fellow at Five Colleges, in Massachusetts, where I was surrounded by amazing women academics and artists from all nationalities. The Saint of Incipient Insanities is filled with details about American daily life. I loved integrating popular culture into it. It is a campus novel with characters who love to talk about food, clothes, and jokes. Music, too, was very important.  I realized that I had always been interested in popular culture. This doesn’t mean I approve of it but I never lost my curiosity about it. In Turkey people said I was abandoning my national identity by writing in a foreign tongue. I have been bitterly criticized, particularly by nationalists. Writing in English amounted to cultural abandonment. But there is no such thing as abandoning one’s language. Again, they were thinking in either/or terms. They said: “If you write in English Then you can’t write in Turkish.” Or vice versa. But I was like, Why not? We all dream in more than one language in today’s world. Our minds make no such distinctions while we dream. The mind doesn’t say, “Now you are dreaming in your mother tongue; now you are dreaming in a foreign tongue.” I sometimes see English words in my dreams. Some of my dreams are filled with words from a language I had never heard before. Ideologically and politically I believe in cosmopolitanism. A century ago, writers in the Ottoman Empire could write in three, four languages. It was totally possible! And nobody would ask, “Why are you doing this?” The Turkish female writer Halide Edip Adıvar, who is one of my heroes, was writing both in English and Turkish.  There were Armenian, Jewish, and Muslim writers who expressed themselves in different languages and that was an acceptable thing. Another interesting part of that book’s composition was its subsequent translation into Turkish. When my translator, Asli BiÇen, finished her job, she gave me the Turkish manuscript and I reshaped it. So I wrote the same book twice. It was insane! My relationship with Turkish is a curious one. There is a part of me that always remains a student of the Turkish language. People say you don’t need to study your mother tongue, because you already know it. I don’t believe in that. I was educated partly abroad. When I came to Turkey I could still speak the language but I realized I didn’t understand the jokes and the slang. That is because the language kept moving while I was away. This is something that I still think about in London nowadays.

BLVR: You also penned your most recent novel, Honor, in English. It was long-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. So is it fair to say that now that you’re writing in English, Turkish may become a foreign tongue for you in the future?

ES: I wouldn’t call “foreign” any tongue in which I dream. If you feel it in your heart, if you are somehow connected to it, then it is not foreign.

BLVR: Still, I find it interesting that you are not writing in your native tongue; you also turned into Turkey’s best- selling writer after the publication of Forty Rules of Love, which I believe sold more than a million copies. These must be life-changing experiences. Can you compare them to the acquired anxieties that followed the publication of your first book?

ES: In Turkey a novelist is more than a novelist. She is a public figure. People always talk about writers but seldom about their writing. As novelists we are asked more questions about politics and world affairs than on art and literature. Most important, people (and the government, of course) don’t realize that literature needs freedom. Freedom of expression, freedom of imagination. As a result there is too much expectation from the novelist to “save the women; save the nation; save something.” It is suffocating and it makes the writer anxious. On the other hand, you have the genuine love that comes from readers who see you as part of the family just because they like your books. That bond is so beautiful and precious; I have had amazing encounters with readers throughout the years, and I cherish that bond.

BLVR: In The Black Milk you describe the author’s self as a  multifaceted phenomenon: she consists of different personalities, and the bond that keeps her together is a very thin one.

ES: I have six different women living deep within my soul. I know their names, their ages, even how they look. Overall they get along well enough to keep together, though they also clash bitterly at times. It took me a long while to achieve some kind of culture of coexistence among them. We have gone through stages: oligarchy, monarchy, coup d’état, and finally inner democracy. . . Both the best-selling author and the bohemian anarcho pacifist post-feminist in me have one thing in common: they love stories.

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