A Writer on the Edge of Her Culture: Elif Shafak
Author, Elif Shafak, may be new to many American readers, but with her two most recent novels written in English — The Bastard of Istanbul and The Saint of Incipient Insanities — rather than in her native Turkish, this is about to change.
In addition to her books, the thirty-four year old author writes articles for Turkish, European, and American newspapers, teaches classes at the University of Arizona in Near Eastern Studies half the year, and works with women’s networks and speaks out for the reconciliation of Armenian-Turkish organizations.
Crafting her words carefully, she illuminates, informs, and entertains to bring us into her world. Through her novels, she gives us a fresh look at Turkish history and culture.
Turkey’s hardcore nationalists have already criticized Shafak for incorporating old Ottoman words into her Turkish translations, and thus not keeping the language pure Turkish. These nationalists continue to defend and enforce laws, which forbid Turks from criticizing the state, even in light of the country’s possible entry into the European Union.
But to understand today’s controversy over Shafak’s books, it’s necessary to look at Turkey’s past. After World War I, in an effort to westernize the country by blotting out its Ottoman past and creating a secular government, Kemal Ataturk converted the Ottoman-Arabic script into Roman letters, required all citizens to take a surname, forbade the wearing of the fez and veil, and disbanded the once powerful Sufi dervish sects. Almost overnight, the new republic, fearful of moving backwards toward its east roots, worked to eradicate centuries old traditions, the poetic language rich in Persian and Arabic words, and religious mysticism. This would prove to be Turkey’s salvation and its nemesis.
Shafak’s critics are the same nationalists who have charged and indicted the Turkish author Orhan Pamuk with crimes against the state for criticizing Turkey in the press. Like Pamuk, Shafak shares the belief that her country’s inclusion into the European Union will be a good move for Turkey and Europe. But generation X author, Shafak’s Turkish heritage was formed not in Pamuk’s Istanbul, but in an international environment. Born in France and raised in Europe, the only child of a single diplomat mother, she has the advantage of viewing her Turkish culture from the outside looking in. Instead of her roots growing into the earth, she talks of them extending into the air, growing upward “like a giant African baobab tree.”
While most of Istanbul’s literati cling to their own intelligentsia, Shafak crosses borders, living half the year in Arizona and the other half in Istanbul. Her vision refutes the either — or labels of nationalist or fundamentalist, just as she resists classification of an eastern or western writer.
At 34, you’ve published six novels, are professor of Near Eastern Studies and Women’s Studies at the University of Arizona, write articles, and speak at any number of symposiums. How do you fit your novel writing into this schedule?
Some people need silence and order and tranquility in order to write. With me it is the exact opposite. I need sounds and chaos and I need to be on the move to write. I never believed in the need to isolate oneself from everything and everyone in order to be able to concentrate on a book. It is true, writing is a lonely process, and I am usually lonely and introverted while writing. But I am not isolated. My fiction is not isolated either. Neither my fiction nor I exist in a social vacuum. Perhaps it is because I do not see writing as a task or a job or a “thing” that I do. If anything, it is like glue to me, my existential glue. The only glue that connects my different pieces and selves together.
What is your writing process? Do you approach each novel separately or have several ideas or drafts in the works at any given time?
I approach each novel differently. Every one of my novels is different both in terms of content and style. My novels alter tremendously mainly because I am a different person with each book, at each turning point. Usually I do not know what I am going to write until I start to write. It is like there is something inside me and I am getting ready to discover it. Writing is less a rational, rationalized construct than an exorcism, a state of frenzy. This is quite unusual in the “Turkish novel” because right from the beginning the novel as a genre has been either a “consciously constructed world” or a “microcosm to discuss larger issues” in Turkey, and the surreal and subconscious has been left behind. For me, however, it is the dance of the intellect with intuition.
Is there such a thing as the “Turkish literary voice,” and how would you describe this and, in contrast, your voice?
There is no Turkish literary voice in the sense of a monolithic identity. There are different traditions of writing in Turkey. My fiction equally challenges and disturbs two opposite camps in Turkey. With the language I use, I disturb the Kemalist reformist elite because I oppose the Turkification of the language and I bring back the old words they had tried to take out of the language. What they took out, I bring back.
But then with the content of my novels, I disturb the conservatives too. My characters are marginalized people, homosexuals, transvestites, outcasts, mavericks… many conservatives love my language but do not know what to do with the content. I think it is good to disturb both sides in a country as polarized as Turkey.
What authors/books do you read for inspiration? And how might they have influenced your writing style?
I have been equally inspired by Western literature and Sufi narratives of the Eastern world. Just to give you some examples: Michel Tournier, Witold Gombrowicz, Nikolai Gogol, James Baldwin, Edgar Allen Poe, J.L. Borges, Rumi, Sadi, or Khalil Gibran…
Why did you decide to write your two most recent novels in English?
It was less a rational decision than an instinct, like an animal instinct. I had this powerful urge to express myself anew and only a new language could give me that additional space of existence that I sorely needed. It was less a linguistic challenge than an existential challenge. When you start writing in a new language, you have to rediscover yourself, and your voice, or voices.
However, I have not stopped writing in Turkish. After the publication of my novel the nationalists in Turkey were very angry, because they saw this as a cultural betrayal. Their mind is so rigid. It is “either… or…”. I think it is possible to be multilingual, multicultural, and even multifaith. I do not have to make a choice between Turkish and English. There are things I’d rather express in Turkish, things I’d rather express in English. If it is pure sorrow that I am dealing with, I think I’d rather write it in Turkish. If it is humor, I prefer English.
Each of your books takes on complicated historical, political, and emotional issues. How do you go about researching the subject matter?
Stories come to me and I move towards stories depending on the stages and seasons of my life. When a story comes to me, when I have a feeling about it, even if it is a vague feeling, I do a lot of research, I read a lot. I read everything I can find on that subject, especially if there is a historical setting.
I read political history, cultural history, and religious history… For instance when I was writing The Mirrors of the City, I read so much on Jewish mysticism and 17th century Istanbul and Sabbetai Tzvi. When I was writing my first novel I worked on Ibn Arabi and Islamic mysticism for two years. When I was writing The Saint of Incipient Insanities I did research on Turkish and Moroccan immigrants in the USA. Even a tiny detail, like how to make chocolate, I investigate, collect details and facts and information and pictures and names. When I was writing The Flea Palace I read books on insects, and pesticides. I collected wall writings from every neighborhood in Istanbul to then put it in the book. I am attracted to details and I am obsessed with details. So I study them with great care. But then when the moment of writing comes, I stop reading and studying. I just write.
You were a young girl living in Europe during Turkey’s 1980 coup when many artists and leftists were arrested. From what I’ve read, this was a time you experienced a lot of turmoil in your personal life with your parents’ divorce and your mother taking a diplomatic position. Did this political event affect your life as the child of a diplomat, and later an activist and writer?
I never grew up in a family environment. I was born in Strasbourg; shortly after my parents got separated, I came to Turkey with my mother and then for a while I was raised by my grandmother until my mother took me to Spain, this time as a diplomat. For some reason still unknown to me, my father never came to see me. To this day I have seen him 3 times in total. His absence was difficult to understand, especially when he was such a good father to his other kids. I felt like I did not exist for him. As for my mother she was too busy earning a living for both of us, so oftentimes I was alone and I was very introverted. So I read a lot. My only playmate was writing. Life always meant sudden ruptures and moves. I had no sense of continuity. Because I had no solid family, I never had a sense of safety and continuity. But precisely because of this I think I became a good observer.
How did your first book get published?
I wrote my first novel in a state of frenzy right from the beginning till the very end. When the novel was over, it was too much. I felt like for her to come into existence I had to lose something. I was less. I was exhausted. I didn’t want to see her. I mailed it to a good publishing house and stopped thinking about her. Two weeks later they called me, congratulated me. I felt happy but heavy.
Has your experience growing up outside of Turkey, the only child of a single professional mother, allowed you to see the country differently from other Turkish writers?
I think it did. The fact that I was raised by a single mother has a big impact on my life and writing. I never took the male-dominated, father-dominated Turkish family life for granted. Also the fact that I had to move from one culture to another, from one country to another gave me a different perspective. I was always an outsider.
You’ve written about the importance of words and how you’ve woven old Ottoman words into your book translations to much criticism by Turkish nationalists. In his most recent book, Orhan Pamuk describes the definition of the Turkish word hüzün, a melancholy mood, or to suffer if one is not suffering. Do you believe this word and concept still hold true for your generation, or is this word and thinking now out of fashion?
I do not think hüzün is the word that embodies the gist of Istanbul, as Pamuk claims. Istanbul is a vibrant city that throbs, grows and pulsates with endless energy and hunger. The whole city throbs with life. It is a crowded, chaotic, difficult city that has lost so much of its history but it is not a melancholic city. And my generation in Turkey is not a generation of melancholy.
Your book topics seem to have pushed the envelope with Turkish nationalists and religious fundamentalists alike by tackling controversial and politically sensitive issues such as: Armenian genocide, homosexuals, sexual abuse, mystics, Turkey’s Jewish culture. Do you feel threatened by possible arrest or censorship?
Turkey has been a country where publishers, writers, journalists and scholars tackling with minority issues or human rights have easily found themselves in front of hostile judges. ’How many great poets, like Nazım Hikmet, could we have had if in the past hundred years our culture had not been suppressed?” Yashar Kemal had once lamented. It is so true. My country has imprisoned and punished its brains. There is no guarantee. What can you do? But when I am writing I do not think about these things. I am a more carefree and much more courageous person when I am writing than I am in my daily life. So while I am writing I do not hold my thoughts back. But when the book is over, when I am done with writing the novel, I become a less courageous person. I become more anxious and I fear reaction but then it is too late because the book is already written!
Why did you write your soon to be published novel: The Bastard of Istanbul about four generations of an Armenian family after deportation from Turkey?
My novel is the story of four generations of Turkish women but their genealogy converges with the story of an Armenian-American family from the bay Area. After the 1915 deportation and massacres there were many Armenian orphans left behind. Some of these girls have been converted to Islam and married into Turkish families. Today there is a whole generation of people in Turkey whose grandmothers are Armenians and they do not know about it. I am intrigued by silences. And the Armenian orphans who have become Turkish grandmothers are a silenced issue.
I felt attracted to this story. I have been collecting the stories of Turkish grandmothers and Armenian grandmothers for two years. There came a point where I felt I had taken too much inside and I started to write. I am also grateful to Armenian-American friends who have shared their personal stories with me. It was a personal journey for me as well. As a child of a diplomat, for me the word Armenian meant a terrorist who wants to kill my mother. Around the time I was eleven or twelve ASALA had started to kill Turkish diplomats. So when I was writing this novel all these old memories came back, resurfaced. My main concern was “memory and amnesia”. The eternal struggle between the two.
What advantages do you have, if any, by being a woman Turkish author, over your male counterparts?
I do not see any advantages other than being in touch with women’s culture, which is an amazingly rich source of wisdom and knowledge. Thanks to my being a woman, I am more in touch with folk Islam and superstitions and women’s culture in Turkey. But other than that there are no advantages. Turkey is a male-dominated society and being a woman in a male-dominated society means you have to struggle for things that men take for granted. Additionally, Turkey is a country where age is respected but not youth. The only way for a woman writer to earn respect is to age as quickly as possible. I do not think it is a coincidence that women in the Middle East age more quickly than women in the West. We do it deliberately. When you are no longer “young” in the eyes of the society, you are empowered.
You mentioned that you will be creating and teaching an American Culture course in Istanbul. Can you explain why you believe this is important, at this time, to Turkish students?
America is the only country on the surface of earth about which people can so easily make so many sweeping generalizations with such little knowledge. Likewise in Turkey too people think they know a lot about the USA and they usually make generalizations about Americans. The myriad voices of this country are unheard in Europe or the Middle East.
Most academic research on the USA concentrates on American foreign policy. But for me America is its cultures, its countercultures, its multiple voices, conflicting and coexisting colors, and diversity. I want to reflect this complicated structure and culture.
There’s a quote from your book, The Saint of Incipient Insanities: “Who is the real stranger — the one who lives in a foreign land and knows he belongs elsewhere, or the one who lives the life of a foreigner in her native land and has no place else to belong?”
It’s a description of how many of us Americans feel today about our own country’s heightened sense of nationalism. Since you live and work half the year in the States, and are writing novels in English, do you see yourself as a writer who has crossed cultures, or do you see yourself as a stranger in both?
I can empathize with the “real stranger” because that is how I feel most of the time both here and there, everywhere. In the Islamic narration there is mention of a tree in heaven called the Tuba tree. It is said to have roots up in the air, instead of in the ground. Sometimes I liken my writing and life to the Tuba tree. Not that I do not have roots, it is just that my roots are not rooted, they are up in the air.
BOOKS BY ELIF SHAFAK
The Bastard of Istanbul: The story of four generations of women where the secrets and stories of Turkish women converge with Armenian women. This novel is highly critical of the nationalist and sexist layers of Turkish society. (written first in English — to be published)
The Saint of Incipient Insanities: Multicultural, the story of Turkish, Moroccan, Spanish grad students in Boston, a book on non-belonging, bulimia and cultural clashes (written first in English, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
The Flea Palace: An urban saga. The story of an apartment building in Istanbul that was built by White Russians escaping from the Bolshevik revolution. (translated into English, published by Marion Boyars)
NOT YET IN ENGLISH TRANSLATION
Mahrem (The Gaze): A novel on surveillance and the equally confining gaze of God and society. On sexual abuse. Won the Best Novel Award in Turkey in 2001.
Mirrors of the City: A historical novel that takes place in 17th century. On Sephardic Jews
Pinhan — The Sufi: Hermaphrodite Mystic (won Mevlana Prize for best work in mystical and transcendental literature.)
Freelance writer and illustrator, Angie Brenner, is a contributor to the online magazine, Wild River Review, covering PEN World Voices Festival and Los Angeles Times Festival of Books events, international topics, current events, political issues, and author interviews such as those with Orhan Pamuk, Elif Shafak, and Pico Iyer.
Brenner is currently writing a cookbook with co-author and Wild River Review founder, Joy E. Stocke, Anatolian Kitchen: Turkish Cooking for the American Table, to be published by Burgess Lea Press in the fall of 2016. Her first book, a travel memoir, also co-authored with Stocke, Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses, and Saints was published in March, 2012, by Wild River Books.
Brenner left the security of a managerial job to follow her passion and opened a travel planning service, Journeys by Angie, where she created personalized travel itineraries for clients that included researching history, art, and cuisine. Later, she bought and operated a travel bookstore, Word Journeys, in Del Mar, CA. For nearly ten years, Brenner nurtured her inner travel bibliophile by buying and selling travel literature. She closed her store in order to travel and write.
With a business background, Brenner worked in the health care industry in Southern California for several years, and later as Business Manager for a public school district. Yet, a love of travel and a curiosity of foreign cultures led her to explore Europe, East Africa, Vietnam, and South America. For over twenty-five years, she traveled the four corners of Turkey, and became immersed in all aspects of Turkish culture from food, to politics and religion. She is a member of the Turkish Women’s International Network.
It was during a research trip to Turkey that Brenner began to sketch and watercolor, and to create the illustrations that are included in her memoir. A certified yoga instructor, Brenner lives, writes, and facilitates weekly yoga classes in Julian, California.