Elif Shafak was born in France to a Turkish diplomatic family in 1971, and as a child lived in Spain, Jordan and Germany before studying in Ankara.
She has taught Ottoman history and culture at Istanbul Bilgi University and, from 2002, at American universities in Boston, Michigan and Tucson, Arizona.
A prolific columnist and fiction writer, she has published six novels: The Flea Palace (shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize) and The Gaze are available in the UK from Marion Boyars.
Her novel The Bastard of Istanbul (published by Viking) provoked a court case in 2006 that led to her acquittal on a charge of "insulting Turkishness". Shafak, whose daughter Shehrazad Zelda was born at the time of her trial, now lives in Istanbul.
After years of interviewing ego-driven writers, one truth looms larger all the time for me. Authors who have precious little to say or to fear always make the biggest fuss about their precious work and their sacred little selves. Then there is the modest minority in whom talent, courage and self-knowledge converge; who fight high-stakes battles against dangerous enemies, but never succumb to vanity, bitterness or dogmatism.
Influenced by Sufi Islam
Quietly eloquent at breakfast-time in her Bloomsbury hotel, the Turkish novelist, journalist and academic Elif Shafak explains how the Sufi strand of Islam that she loves helps to ground her in internal as well as external realities. "It's an endless chain," she explains. "I'm both observing the outside world, and observing myself. And this is something that perhaps I derive from Sufism. Because I think the human being is a microcosm: all the conflicts present outside are also present inside him."
Compared to the trivial spats that occupy so many writers in the West, Shafak has had to endure enough external conflict over the past year to extinguish many lesser lights. In September 2006, she joined the scores of Turkish authors and intellectuals (notably, Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk) who have faced trial for the crime of "insulting Turkishness" under Article 301 of the republic's penal code.
Secular chauvinists brought trial against Shafak
Inevitably, the charges – pushed through by a cabal of hard-line nationalist lawyers – stemmed from a fictional discussion of the mass deportations and deaths of Armenians in 1915, as the Ottoman empire crumbled, at one point in her new novel The Bastard of Istanbul (Viking, £16.99).
The hearing took place just as her first child, a daughter named Shehrazad Zelda, was born. Shafak was rapidly acquitted; a verdict welcomed at the time by Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (re-elected last Sunday).
In court in Istanbul, she faced a Satanic Verses-style charade, with the words of one (Armenian) character in a novel of cultural and emotional polyphony plucked from their context and treated as a manifesto. With one, crucial difference from Salman Rushdie's plight: the judicial harassment of authors in Turkey comes not from Islamist forces but secular chauvinists.
A focus on multiple meanings
Although she has had to walk through fire, Shafak carries herself with an uncanny air of calm ("cool" would be misleading; she has warmth as well as poise). Much of her mischievous fiction plays with the treachery of appearances, the mutability of identities. What you see is, consistently, not what you get. Take the headscarf, now worn by around 60 per cent of Turkish women. Shafak explores its multiple meanings, with only some of them linked in any way to political Islam.
The Bastard of Istanbul, with the matriarchal clan of the Kazancis at his heart, dramatises the kind of Turkish family where "Sometimes the mother's covered and the daughter isn't; one elder sister is a leftist; another is very superstitious. We are very much mixed, and I think there's nothing bad about it." As she puts it, "Islam is not a monolith. It's not a static thing at all. And neither is the issue of the headscarf."
Shafak herself could baffle stereotypes as gleefully as her characters often do. Born in Strasbourg, to a family of diplomats, she had a father who left home early on and a feminist mother (a foreign-ministry official in her own right) who brought her up in Spain, Jordan and Germany. She has taught in three American states and travelled all over the world.
The author of six exuberantly digressive novels packed to bursting with jokes, tales and ideas ("carnivalesque", she calls them), she first wrote The Bastard of Istanbul and its predecessor not in Turkish but in English. "If it's sadness I'm dealing with," she says, "I prefer Turkish; for humour, I prefer English."
A passion for folk culture
Now here she sits in a Bloomsbury hotel lounge, peppering her conversation with references to Johnny Cash or Walter Benjamin. An archetype of the secular, Westernised Turkish woman? Not at all: her involvement with the path of Sufism began as an intellectual quest, but deepened. "Only years later did I realise that perhaps this was more than intellectual curiosity, that it was also an emotional bond. Sufism has always been more open to women, and it's always been more feminine."
Along with Sufism comes the passion for Turkish popular traditions – in demotic language, folk-tales, customs and, above all, cuisine – that enlivens her books, especially when women wield them. Her grandmother read fortunes, warded off the evil eye and believed in the occult power of djinns. "I realised that women who have been denied any power in other spheres of life can find a means of existence in this little world of superstitions, of folk-tales, of storytelling... They are the queen in that sphere, especially as they get older".
Then, of course, there's the boundary-busting lore of food. In The Bastard of Istanbul, a Turkish and an Armenian family tragi-comically discover their kinship in part via the recipes each thought peculiar to their tribe. "When I was writing this book I wasn't interested in the masculinist political debates," Shafak explains, but "in the small things that mean so much in the lives of women. And when you do that, you start to notice the similarities."
It always amazes her "how food can transcend national boundaries". As in the Middle East's "baklava wars": "The Lebanese say, 'it's our baklava', the Turks say, 'it's ours', the Arabs say, 'it's ours'... It doesn't belong to any group. It's multi-cultural."
The need to remember and forget
If the new novel celebrates the potential togertherness of Turks and Armenians, it also shows how divergent approaches to the past can keep obstacles in place. Her rupture-happy Turks love to forget; her history-haunted Armenians to remember.
For Armanoush, the Armenian-American from San Francisco who unearths her connection with the feuding, eccentric Kacanzis, her own people think of time as "a cycle in which the past incarnated the present and the present birthed the future". Whereas for the Turks she grows to know (and even love), "time was a multi-hyphenated line, where the past ended at some definite point... and there was nothing but rupture in between".
"If the past is sad, if it's gloomy," Shafak asks, "is it better to know more about it, to think more about it, or would you rather let bygones be bygones and prefer to start from scratch? I don't think that's an easy question, and I don't think it has a single answer." In general, Shafak suggests that the Turks would benefit from a lot more past, the Armenians from a little more present. "I think human beings need a combination of memory and forgetfulness."
Court case wilfully misunderstood multiplicity of voices
She stresses that the unending dialogues that fill her fiction leave its readers free to enter it by "multiple doors and multiple windows". It's a liberty that seems entirely wasted on some single-minded jurists. "When I look at the whole year in hindsight, that's one of the things that hurt me most," she says. "Here we are talking about multiplicity, and a plurality of voices, and for completely political reasons one of these voices is being singled out and seen as representative of the book. That's something that hurt me as a fiction writer."
The Bastard of Istanbul had circulated without impediment and sold around 150,000 copies prior to the case. Shafak underlines that "My experience with readers in Turkey has always been very, very positive...I get amazing feedback from them."
Art needs conflict
So she's happy to be back amid the inspirational hubbub of Istanbul after a couple of years of teaching in the "sterile, quiet and tidy" liberal enclave of Tucson, Arizona. "This can be good if you want to write a book," she reflects. "But if you want to establish a lifestyle, I don't think it's good for art, for literature. Art needs conflict, and other forces... Cities like Istanbul, or New York, or London: they might have more problems, they might make life more difficult, but I think these are the right places for writers and artists."
For Shafak, art must struggle to safeguard its space of free enquiry from the dead hand of doctrine: "Because the world we live in is so polarised and politicised, many people are not willing to understand that art and literature has an autonomous zone of existence... I'm not saying there is no dialectic between art and politics – there is, indeed – but art cannot be under the shadow of politics. Art has the capacity constantly to deconstruct its own truths... That's again why I think there's a link between Sufism and literature. For me, both of them are about transcending the self, the boundaries given by birth."
Resisting pressure to have one identity
"I think it's perfectly OK to be multi-lingual, multi-cultural, even multi-faith," she adds when we talk of her current fascination with the "labyrinth" of the English language. "In a world that's always asking us to make a choice once and for all, we should say, 'No: I'm not going to make that choice. I'm going to stay plural'."
Staying plural in Istanbul can still exact a steeper cost than doing so in Islington. Yet she has no shortage of allies. The people who applaud Shafak and her freedom to break out of religious and ethnic cocoons poured onto the streets in their hundreds of thousands in January after her friend, the Turkish-Armenian editor Hrant Dink, was murdered by extreme nationalists. In the wake of Dink's funeral-cum-demonstration, she wrote that his killing "united people of all ideological backgrounds" in "a common faith in democracy".
But the September trial, despite its successful outcome, did plunge her into "a period of mourning". "I was very demoralised for some time." Fiction has taken a back seat lately to Shafak's typically fearless journalism, and she has been developing a TV screenplay about "honour killings". "At the moment, fiction waits in the background," she concludes, "but it's the main thing for me, it's the way I feel connected to life. So I cannot keep her in the background for too long." (BT/AG)
* This interview was published in The Independent on 27 July 2007. Bianet added sub-headings.
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