Interview with Elif Shafak

"There is a lack of democratic culture in Turkey"

The Turkish writer Elif Shafak is one of the country's best-selling authors and one of the best known Turkish writers worldwide. In her books, she intertwines sensitive Turkish issues with cosmopolitan stories and Sufism. In this interview, she talks to Ceyda Nurtsch about how she plays with language, the role of fiction and the democratisation of Turkey

Ms Shafak, so far you have written 13 books, nine of which are novels. Five were written in English first, then translated into Turkish. You have said on many occasions that you enjoy playing with language and words and bridge-building between languages. What is the difference between writing in Turkish and writing in English? How do you choose which language to write in?

Shafak: I commute between languages in the same way that I commute between cultures. I write in both English and Turkish. If we can dream in more than one language, why shouldn't we be able to tell stories in more than one language? For the past ten years, I have written first in English, then each novel is translated into Turkish, then I take the Turkish translation and rewrite it. In a way, I write each novel twice. It is a bit crazy, but I love working with and within language.

There are things I find easier to say in Turkish; other things are easier to express in English. If I am writing about melancholy and longing and heartache, I think it is easier in Turkish. If there is strong humour, satire and irony, then it is easier in English.

But it is a cultural difference more than a linguistic difference. More importantly, writing in two languages helps me to pay more attention to details that people sometimes take for granted. I love thinking about the words that cannot be translated directly from one language to another. There lies the secret door to each culture.

Cover of Elif Shafak's book "The Bastard of Istanbul"
In her novel "The Bastard of Istanbul", Elif Shafak addresses a subject that remains an absolute taboo in Turkey: the way people deal with what many refer to as the Armenian genocide of 1915

When writing in a specific language, do you keep in mind the readers that you want to address? For example, when writing in English, do you have an English-speaking community in mind?

Shafak: I don't think about the readers when I am writing a novel. When I am composing a story, I live inside that story. The characters, the plot, the landscape are almost real to me. So I do not think about how the readers or the critics will respond.

That thought, that anxiety comes much later, when the story is finished. When I finish a book and give it to my editors, then I can have anxiety attacks, but by then it is too late, the story is born.

This is a good method. I don't think it's healthy for a writer to think too much about what the readers will say. It's better not to worry about such things while you are writing and to just stay inside the story until it is finished.

Do Turkish-speaking and non-Turkish-speaking readers react differently to your work?

Shafak: In Turkey, like elsewhere, most readers of fiction are women. The publishing world owes a lot to female readers. Interestingly, in Turkey, a book is not a personal item. You buy it, you read it and then you share it with other people – with relatives, friends, friends of friends. So one single copy is read by five, six people.

If they like a book, the readers see the author as part of the family. This is very moving and touching. I cherish my connection with my readers. It is important to me. The downside in Turkey is that words are heavy. We do not have fully fledged freedom of speech or freedom of imagination. Words can get you into trouble. Every writer, every journalist, every poet knows this deep inside.

In your novels you tackle sensitive issues such as the confrontation with history and the Turkish–Armenian past. You also have strong women characters. Do you consider yourself a political writer?

Shafak: If you are a writer from a country like Turkey, Nigeria, Pakistan or Egypt … countries where life is no stranger to turmoil and turbulence, I don't think you can ever be apolitical. I am not an apolitical person. I am also a political scientist by training. I have a PhD in political philosophy.

If you care about the world, of course you read and you think and you analyse. However, politics is not – and never has been – my guide. My only guide when I am writing a book is the art of storytelling. My imagination is my guide.

With regard to the Gezi movement, you were of the opinion that it was time for people and institutions to question themselves and for people from different camps to be more open to criticism and discussion. What role can literature or fiction play in this form of communication within society?

Shafak: Turkey has become an extremely politicised and polarised country. People are so divided. They don't talk to each other anymore. This is not healthy. There are only three areas left that still have the potential to bring people from different backgrounds together: art, literature and football.

One thing that makes me happy is to see how diverse my readers are. They come from all walks of life. My books are read by conservatives, liberals, social democrats, Kurds, Alevis, Turks, feminists … this is important to me. The doors of a novel should be wide open to everyone, equally.

Clashes between police and Erdogan opponents in Istiklal Avenue in Istanbul (photo: BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
Deep divides: "Turkey has become an extremely politicised and polarised country. People are so divided. They don't talk to each other anymore. This is not healthy" says Elif Shafak

You were one of the writers who signed a petition against the recent Twitter ban in Turkey. In the early days of the AKP's rule, most critical voices said that the party was making changes that were good for the country. Recent developments, however, have made even hard-line supporters distance themselves from the AKP. What is your assessment of these developments? Do you still see Turkey as being on the threshold of becoming a more democratic state, as the Gezi protests made many people think and hope?

Shafak: I am very worried about the state of Turkey's democracy. The politicians seem to think that democracy is only – or mostly – about the ballot box. They think that if you get the majority, then you are entitled to do anything.

But democracy is not only about the number of votes you get. It is also a culture. It is a culture of inclusiveness, openness, empathy, freedom of speech and freedom of the press. This is why Turkey today lacks a culture of democracy.

For true democracy to exist, one needs the separation of powers, a diverse press and plurality of voices. Increasingly, however, the government sees every criticism as a "national betrayal". If you voice criticism, they think you are acting for Western powers. I find these clichés very dangerous. Democracy needs self-criticism. Societies can only move forward if and when they allow free speech and criticism.

Ceyda Nurtsch

© Qantara.de 2014

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de

Elif Shafak was born in Strasbourg in 1971 and has lived in many countries. She holds a PhD in Political Science and works as a writer and columnist. So far she has published 13 books. Her books have been translated into many languages and published in over 40 countries.

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