Elif Shafak is one of the most prominent Turkish novelists of her generation. Through her cosmopolitan novels, such as The Saint of Incipient Insanities, she questions Islamic traditionalism, but also Kemalist secularism. She’s currently teaching women’s studies at the University of Michigan.
NPQ: You were born in France, raised in Turkey, educated in Spain, lived in Jordan, Germany and now in Arizona after Boston and Michigan. You have learned from early on to handle many identities. Is that the reason that nothing is as solid as it appears in your novels? Your characters keep changing countries, time, gender, name.
Elif Shafak: Sometimes I feel like a nomad lacking solid space. According to an old Islamic narrative there is a tree in heaven that has its roots up in the air. Sometimes I liken my past to that tree. I do have roots, but my roots are not in one place, neither in the ground nor in the air. I’m connected to different cultures, and that’s, I think, part of the reason why I believe it’s possible to be multicultural, multilingual and multifaith. On the other hand, I’m not sure this is a good time to be multicultural because, to tell you the truth, on many sides you’re kind of being rejected—it’s difficult. To a certain extent I’m very much attached to many things in Turkey, the women’s culture, the Folk Islam and so on, but I’m in no way attached to the national identity. Sometimes I feel like a misfit when I’m there.
The only continuity in my life has been writing. I started writing at a very early age not because I wanted to become an author, but because I’ve had a very lonely childhood full of cultural alienation. So writing was the only thing that came with me when I moved from one place to another. And in that sense, I think it gives me a sense of coherence and unity. It holds my pieces together.
I wrote my last book in English, The Saint of Incipient Insanities. Before that I was writing in Turkish. Language has always been a central issue for me, which is a bit unusual for novelists in Turkey. If you are a novelist, what you are saying is important but not how you are saying it. And very few novelists in Turkey question Turkish language reform. Only if you are a poet might you be interested in the subtleties of language, but otherwise why bother? Novelists are thought to be doing something very cerebral, like intellectual engineering. So the message becomes important but not the style. That was not the case with me at all. And it’s kind of ironic today.
Many literary critics praise the richness of my language but that is because my contact with my mother tongue has been cut off at several points. Sometimes people take their mother tongue for granted. Just the sheer fact that it is your mother tongue doesn’t mean you know it or you profess it. I don’t see language as something we profess; I don’t see it as a vehicle, as a tool. I see it as a space, as a continent we enter into. And continents shrink. Our imagination shrinks. The way we think shrinks.
NPQ: Turkish language is a good example of a language that has practically shrunk. As you have pointed out, the change of the Ottoman alphabet in Turkey was a deliberate movement by the reformists. Could you elaborate on that?
Shafak: Back in the Ottoman times the alphabet was Ottoman script with mostly Arabic letters, but there were a lot of words coming from the Persian and the Arabic languages. It was a mixture of many things, a multiethnic fabric. However, the Kemalist reformers in 1925 changed the alphabet in a day, but the change does not seem to me as colossal as the change in the language. The alphabet is something more technical, but how can you change a language? We got rid of words coming from Arabic and Persian. As a result, very few people in Turkey question today the Turkeyfication of the language that we went through. I find that very dangerous because I think that linguistic cleansing is something comparable to ethnic cleansing. Imagination shrank, culture and information couldn’t flow from one generation to another. We have generations of people who don’t know the things their grandparents know, who cannot read the writing of their grandparents, who cannot read the names or who don’t know the meanings of the street names. The language of the Ottoman time is quite magic and unique. And it takes the same effort to learn it today as it does to learn another language.
I learned English in Spain where I attended a British college, which perhaps was not the right place for me. It was a place where the children of diplomats went; it was a very cosmopolitan elite school. And I was coming from a different environment. I couldn’t adapt to it. But there and then I experienced that whoever you are in the eyes of others you are first and foremost your nationality. I was the only Turkish child in that school, and I remember vividly it was a time when a Turkish terrorist had tried to kill the Pope, so all these children ostracized me in a way because I had tried to kill the Pope! I remember observing there a hierarchy of nationality; an Indian girl and I were at the bottom. There was nothing popular about being Turkish or Indian—it was good to be Dutch!
These things leave an impact on you and you start to question "what does it mean, why should I represent my nationality?" Little questions you start asking yourself at an early age. Then, when I came back to Turkey I always felt like a latecomer, an outsider. I’m both inside the Turkish culture and yet I have these other links that many other people in Turkey do not have, so you don’t know how to deal with that feeling of being a foreigner in your own country.
Language is a continuous, almost perpetual discovery for me and that was also the case with the Turkish language to begin with. I wasn’t happy with the language that was given to me and I continuously tried to explore it. I discovered all Ottoman words, Sufi expressions and then the next step was discovering a new language. I moved into the English language the way I moved along with the Turkish language. I’m always curious if there are any boundaries drawn in front of me. I want to transcend those boundaries and see what is beyond them. So that is one instinct that I had; it’s like an animal instinct: You are being trapped in a certain linguistic category and you just want to escape from that category. The second thing, however, was coming from Turkey to America for me as a novelist.
Coming from the Turkish language into the English language was a trip to the language rather than to a continent. That’s how I experienced it, and it was pretty difficult at the beginning because if you are a painter you can bring your own paintings with you. But if you are a writer and you have not been translated yet, you cannot bring your work with you. You leave it behind and you become a nobody. I was somebody in Turkey and I became a nobody in America. And I like that existential challenge. Rather than being a linguistic challenge it was an existential one. I came to America when my fourth novel was published in Turkey. I was the center of a lot of attention. But then I come to America and I’m nobody. I like that so much! Like a child you start from scratch. You discover yourself in another language. The risks, the dangers but at the same time the liberty that comes with that step are intriguing, amazing.
NPQ: Christopher Hitchens, the British writer who recently became an American citizen, has said that in the United States "internationalism is your patriotism." I found it very interesting and very real for all of us who’ve chosen the US as a second home.
Shafak: True. It’s ironic but I don’t feel like a foreigner in America anymore. But in Turkey I was a native and there were times I used to feel like a foreigner and I didn’t know how to deal with that. That said, I’m still very much attached to Istanbul. For instance, people in Eastern European departments, I observe, have a very clear distinction between their past and present. That’s not the case with me. I feel like I’m living in two places, Istanbul and Arizona, at the same time.
NPQ: It’s a balance that exposes reality through a different perspective.
Shafak: And we need that. Writing is very self-centered work. We can end up playing God in a way. We create characters, we create plots, we can become very much full of ourselves. We need something other, a balance, to make us more aware of our limits.
NPQ: Some of your compatriots, Orhan Pamuk being one of them, have heralded you as the best author to come out of Turkey in the last decade. Do you find the Turkish intellectual community supportive?
Shafak: The irony is that generally speaking there is very little support among Turkish intellectuals. It makes me sad. At the recent PEN conference, there were Iranian novelists working together, a novelist praising the work of a translator, a translator praising the work of a scholar. That is never the case with the Turkish intelligentsia. It’s a very much writer-oriented world. In a way it’s a small world very much based in Istanbul. There is no geographical mobility. What I find very healthy in the US is mobility. You are born in San Francisco, you go to college in Chicago, you come to work in Boston and you meet a woman from Wisconsin. In Turkey most of the intelligentsia is born in Istanbul. Lives in Istanbul, dies in Istanbul. It’s one single neighborhood. You go to certain cafes, everybody knows each other. Some writers enjoy that because they can very easily become the king or the queen of that small pond. But what makes me sad is that intellectual dynamism and creativity don’t circulate in the society and we become very elitist.
One central issue for me is the past. In Turkey it is treated as if it’s a bygone thing. We try to modernize and Westernize and secularize by distancing ourselves as quickly as possible from our Ottoman past. So everything in Turkey starts at the year 1923. Anything that might have happened before that is of no interest to us. That’s part of a big problem. For instance, we cannot speak about 1915, the year of the Armenian massacre, and many people don’t know anything about it and they’re not interested in it. We lost our curiosity for the past.
NPQ: That’s something that also concerns Pamuk’s work. "Whatever is suppressed," he told me once, "always comes back." In the same way you are the one who always comes back to capture the forgotten past through your novels. Are you in the same boat with Pamuk?
Shafak: Yes, definitely, but I do it in two ways. I do it both with the content of my novels, in other words with the stories I deal with, and also I do it with my style. I do not only try to unearth the stories that have been buried under the ground by the Kemalists. I also try to unearth the words that have been kicked out of Turkish language. I bring them back.
NPQ: Modernization in Turkey came from above. Today modernization again comes from above in Turkey in the form of a soft Islam ideology that is trying to appease Europe in order for Turkey to get into the EU.
Shafak: I think we should take into account the fact that most of the Turks do want to join the EU, sometimes for different reasons. But it’s not only a political decision. The Turkish society too wants to join the EU. We should all struggle for it because it’s important for many reasons. I want to see the role of the military and the role of the state apparatus diminish in Turkey. I want Turkey to become a more civil society-based country rather than a state-centered country. Even academic intellectuals are so state oriented, they always think about the well being of the state but not really the well being of the civil society. But the interesting thing is that Turkey has witnessed a different kind of opening. Many private television and radio channels and publications increased visibly since the 1980s when Turkey experienced one of the worst military takeovers. In a way the centralized ideology was fragmented. Popular cultural sometimes has an interesting potential.
Turkey in the EU. Turkey’s inclusion in the EU is going to be good for both sides. We are living in a very dangerous time. There is the danger of the world being divided into two camps. There are people who believe in a clash of civilizations between the Muslim world and the Western world. Turkey’s inclusion in the EU would be a good bridge and we all need to struggle to make it possible to find a way to coexist. I’m not claiming that Turkey should be included in the EU without making structural changes. She should do these changes not only to join the EU but also because it’s about time to democratize ourselves. However, Turkey’s role is also important for the EU. My worldview is that it’s not a clash of civilizations but it’s a clash of opinions.
On the one hand we have the nationalists with a lot of xenophobia, people who want to live with their mirror images; on the other hand there are the cosmopolitans, people who are willing to live with others coming from different backgrounds. It’s also a big test for the Europeans because most Europeans are asking themselves "what are we going to do with so many Muslim minorities in the middle of the EU?" So it’s a big question of coexistence for all of us. But, of course, today international relations doesn’t appreciate ambivalence. We live in a world in which you always have to clarify "are you one of us or not?" The world of diplomacy wants to draw everything very clearly and that is what makes Turkey’s situation very difficult because it’s a threshold society. It has great potential. It could be a very creative, very prolific potential as long as we don’t see it as a problem. What I see as a problem is the need for national religious identities; the need to reduce all that cosmopolitan plurality into one single voice. Turkish history is a good case to study because we were once a multiethnic empire and then in the name of creating a supposedly monolithic nation state all those ethnic religious minorities have been discarded and their voices have been silenced. Part of my job is to bring back these voices.
NPQ: What’s your take on behalfism—the ambition of certain writers to express themselves on behalf of nations, thus setting themselves as the voice of a nation?
Shafak: Part of the dilemma that I face is that there’s always a label, an identity, attached to you, especially when you’re coming from the Middle East and especially when you are a woman. If you are an Algerian woman novelist the expectation is you should be writing about the problems of being a woman in Algeria, period. Especially in America, function is attributed to fiction. The repressive and the progressive circles, I call them, because it’s especially the progressive circles that have these expectations if you are coming from the so-called Third World. In the name of giving a voice to a suppressed sister they attach a national identity. And that identity walks ahead and the quality of your fiction follows behind.
On the other hand the relationship between politics and aesthetics is very important. It’s not black and white, like you either choose politics or aesthetics. If you choose the latter then political matters are not important for you and if you choose aesthetics, well, then the world of aesthetics is a luxury. If you are a writer coming from Afghanistan, do you have the luxury to question these literary traditions that people in New York discuss? It’s dangerous when art becomes the property of a very selective minority in the Western world. The rest of us are excluded from that. So the matrimony between politics and aesthetics is quite important.
NPQ: The veil is a great indicator of the gap of civilizations in Turkey. How do you react to it?
Shafak: Whenever I have signing days in Turkey I always meet so many veiled women waiting in line. I have a lot of readers from that camp. I’m also a columnist for the second most widely read newspaper in Turkey, a conservative paper, and there are a few leftist intellectuals still writing for it. The reason I do that is because I don’t like this division into islands, which is very prevalent in Turkey. It’s a very polarized society: Kemalists vs. Islamists, and there is no dialogue in between. Words or information do not circulate from one island to another. One thing we never managed in Turkey is the thing the Jewish intellectuals were able to do, especially the Frankfurt School, the critical school theory. These intellectuals in the 1940s were agnostics, atheists, Marxists, socialists; however, they knew the tradition of Jewish mysticism. They were interested in Jewish religious history and philosophy. In Turkey we can never do this.
If you are a secularist, then you should have no contact whatsoever with religion, and if you are interested in religious thought, it becomes a matter of faith and you don’t have a critical eye anymore. I try to develop a third path. I think there are big similarities among Jewish mysticism, Islamic mysticism and Christian mysticism. Especially the heretics of each religion have so much in common. It is those paths that I’m interested in. When I’m moving in that direction I’ve had both leftist readers and women readers with the veil. I do oppose the Turkish state policy about not accepting these girls and women to university, imposing secularism from above. It’s the French model that we have adapted and it’s creating its own backlash.