Today's date:
Spring 2007

Turks Look Forward With Amnesia

Elif Shafak is a Turkish novelist whose most recent book, The Bastard of Istanbul, set off a firestorm in Turkey because she discusses the Armenian genocide. She was accused, like her fellow novelist Orhan Pamuk, of insulting "Turkishness." Contributing to the controversy, Shafak's friend Hrant Dink, editor of an Armenian paper in Turkey, was recently murdered in an attack by a young nationalist. Shafak spoke in February with Michael Skafidas, former editor of Greek NPQ.

NPQ | The assassination of your longtime friend Hrant Dink has stirred an unusual national reaction: Dink was buried in an ocean of anger, remorse, tears and united voices shouting, "We are all Armenians!" Is that a short-lived indication of unity caused by an intense sense of guilt or a new day for Turkey on the path of reconciliation?

Elif Shafak | Hrant's funeral was a poignant, moving experience for hundreds of thousands of people in Turkey. People who didn't know him personally wept for him, mourned his loss and tried to put themselves in the shoes of "the Other." In some ways, the funeral was a healing that united people of all walks of life, ideologies and ethnicities, and showed the whole society and the world that we can mourn together. And if we can mourn together, it means we can live together. And if we can live together, it means we can dream together.

NPQ | In a previous interview, you told me, "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, myriad minorities have been discarded and their voices have been silenced. Part of my job as a writer is to bring back the voices." Are politics and literature part of the same equation in modern Turkey?

Shafak | Czeslaw Milosz once underlined how contemporary Polish writers were shaped by their history and how they were forced to take a political stand, sometimes against their own will. The Turkish experience is pretty similar, if not even more complicated. Writers are always more than "writers" in this country. They are first and foremost public figures. Politics and literature are inextricably linked.

This entrenched pattern urges the writers to face a nuance that has deep implications: the distinction between "novelist" and "intellectual." Not every writer is an intellectual. Not every writer has to be an intellectual. That is the way it generally is in the West. But in Turkey, the literary world is so politicized and polarized, more than art, we end up talking politics. Writers face a new challenge: Are you going to withdraw into a safe space of your imagination and produce your work from there, or are you going to train yourself to become a public intellectual? The general setting pushes you in the latter direction. A writer who wants to live the life of a hermit and solely write novels cannot cope with this challenge.

NPQ | The Bastard of Istanbul, your latest, recently released novel (and the second you wrote in English), deals openly with the question of amnesia and memory. How did it come about? Was it the offspring of your years of living and working in the United States?

Shafak | We are the grandchildren of a multiethnic, multilingual, multireligious empire. The Ottoman Empire was fascinating in many ways, and it saddens me to see how the new generations in Turkey have no knowledge of this heavy but equally rich past. The duality between memory and forgetfulness intrigues me deeply. It also intrigues me to see how Armenians tend to be memory- and past-oriented while Turks tend to be amnesia- and future-oriented. It is as if we are speaking two utterly different languages and somehow cannot hear each other's words.

I am a writer who is fascinated with details. In all my novels, I do extensive research for every single detail that comes my way. But particularly for this book, in addition to reading books and doing research, I also closely observed the lives of Armenian-American women in America and Muslim-Turkish women in Turkey. The more I observed, the more I was intrigued by the vastness of the common ground they share, often without knowing. Instead of macro questions of politics, it was the small things of daily life that inspired and guided me while writing this novel. Folk tales, lullabies, songs, recipes—especially Armenian and Turkish cuisine. Interestingly, cuisine is a boundary breaker. It recognizes no national or religious boundaries. So this is a novel in which women play the central role, both Armenian and Turkish women.

NPQ | As a global citizen, you have lived in many places. You have worked and taught at the University of Arizona, while you are currently working and raising a newborn daughter in Istanbul. How did it strike you then when last year you became part of that very large and distinct group of Turkish intellectuals who were accused of "insulting Turkishness"?

Shafak | My novel came out in Turkey March 8th, International Women's Day. And it became a best-seller; it sold more than 120,000 copies; it was read and discussed and circulated freely. I have had tremendous feedback from people of all backgrounds, especially from women, for it is a novel wherein women play the central role. So my general experience with the Turkish readership has been very positive. And this is the point that makes me sad. Because the ultra-nationalist groups that attack writers do not compose the majority of the society, and they are giving the whole country a black eye.

NPQ | Despite its troubles, or perhaps because of them, Turkey has become a first-page newsmaker around the Western world: ambition to join the EU; denial to face its past; a Nobel prize in literature; intimidated intellectuals vs. testy ultra-nationalistic judges; religion; headscarves and Chanel eyewear; kebab and sushi. What's behind all this stereotyping? What is it that modern Westerners perhaps don't get about Turkey today?

Shafak | Turkey is not composed of one single color. It is an unusual country wherein different forces and voices both clash and coexist. In my opinion, any outside observer should first and foremost attest to this multilayered nature of the society. However, the general tendency in the West is the opposite. I often see Turkey being reduced to one single layer in Western discourses.

Let me give you one example. This is something I witnessed firsthand. A leading European TV team arrives in Istanbul and it starts shooting in Taksim, which is one of the most crowded and cosmopolitan quarters of the city. It is a good location to show the hybrid fabric of Turkey, the mixture between West and East, modernity and traditions, etc. But then I realize the team is only shooting women with headscarves and sherbets that look exotic. This selected perception not only Orientalizes and Othernizes Turkish society but also fails to see its multiple layers and therefore fails to see the general picture.

I criticize the existing xenophobia and ultra-nationalism in my country and I criticize the dominant patriarchal precedents for its unwillingness to embrace the Other, and welcome pluralism, multiplicity and full gender equality. However, I also criticize the ongoing Islamophobia and Turcophobia that exist in the West, because these, too, are suppressive.

NPQ | Some people believe that it's not only the Islamophobia in Europe but also the xenophobia in Turkey that keeps Turkey out of the EU. What's your take on that?

Shafak | I wholeheartedly support Turkey's EU membership. I think it will be good not only for Turkey but also for Europe. With millions of Muslims living at the heart of Europe, the old continent needs to face the question of hybrid cultures wherein Islam and Western culture are juxtaposed. This is a serious challenge for Europe. As for Turkey, it occupies a unique position. It is true that the country needs to take several other steps for reform, but it should be encouraged in that direction, not discouraged.

After 9/11, we are living in an increasingly polarized world, and the number of people who believe that Islam and Western democracy cannot really coexist is increasing by day. It is time to prove them wrong. There is xenophobia in Turkey, but there is also xenophobia in Europe. They keep breeding one another. Hardliners only create more hardliners elsewhere.

NPQ | Nadine Gordimer once argued, "We are not only children of our time but of our place." Do you share this conviction?

Shafak | We are the products of our age, culture and place. And yet at the same time, via literature and art, we also possess the ability to transcend the very boundaries that are drawn in front of us by birth. Imagination recognizes no national frontiers. I believe that we can transcend gender and religious and nationalistic boundaries through literature and the infinity of imagination and the power of words. People always talk about what is lost in translation. True. But it needs to be seen that a greater deal has been gained in translation and transliteration.

NPQ | How does it feel raising a child in a country of contradictions?

Shafak | I am stricken with grief over the loss of a dear friend. Hrant was a bridge between Turks and Armenians. He believed that these two cultures and peoples had more in common than they were willing to recognize because of politics. He loved his Armenian roots, and he loved Turkey at the same time. This wasn't an easy position in a world so deeply polarized. But he never played to the gallery.

Turkey can distress, enervate and age its writers and intellectuals too quickly. And yet at the same time, it is an endless source of inspiration and stimulation. This is difficult to explain to outsiders. But Istanbul is an amazing city of contradictions and one you are in love with. You understand that the poet Cavafy was right: The city will follow you wherever you go.