A Conversation with Elif Shafak

The written word is a superpower, it allows to time-travel, to seek knowledge and perspective, to enter the mind of another, to experience the greatest and worst of humanity – and to tell the story of who we are.

We write for the same reason that we walk, talk, climb mountains or swim the oceans- because we can…” said Maya Angelou, adding that, “…we have some impulse within us that makes us want to explain ourselves to other human beings. That’s why we paint, that’s why we dare to love someone- because we have the impulse to explain who we are….” (Interviewed in Thought Economics, 2013) This act often manifests as storytelling, something which Yann Martel notes as being, “…the glue that binds us together,”  adding that, “With no stories—personal, familial, local, national, global—we are nothing; that is, we’re solitary animals, dumbly crossing a plain, not knowing where we are going or why. Stories define us, telling us who we are, giving us direction…” (Interviewed in Thought Economics, 2016)

Elif Shafak is an award-winning British-Turkish novelist, and the most widely read female author in Turkey.  She has published seventeen books, eleven of which are novels, and has had her work translated into fifty languages.  She is a storyteller, and social commentator – holding a PhD in political science, and frequently being called-upon to give her views on the world’s most pressing issues.

I caught up with Elif to learn more about her art, her writing, and how literature can change the world.

[bios]Elif Shafak  is an award-winning British-Turkish novelist and the most widely read female author in Turkey. She writes in both Turkish and English, and has published seventeen books, eleven of which are novels. Her work has been translated into fifty languages. Shafak holds a PhD in political science and she has taught at various universities in Turkey, the US and the UK, including St Anne’s College, Oxford University, where she is an honorary fellow. She is a member of Weforum Global Agenda Council on Creative Economy and a founding member of ECFR (European Council on Foreign Relations). An advocate for women’s rights, LGBT rights and freedom of speech, Shafak is an inspiring public speaker and twice a TED Global speaker, each time receiving a standing ovation. Shafak contributes to major publications around the world and she has been awarded the title of Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres. In 2017 she was chosen by Politico as one of the twelve people who would make the world better. She has judged numerous literary prizes and is chairing the Wellcome Prize 2019. [/bios]

Q: How did literature come into your life?

[Elif Shafak] I started writing fiction at an early age. I was about 8 years old when I began writing my first short stories. But it wasn’t because I was dreaming of becoming a novelist someday. I didn’t even know such a thing was possible! There were no published authors around me, no such role models. So, it was a bit like walking in the dark, trying to find your own path, following an instinct without quite knowing why. To me literature was, and still is, an existential need.

Back then, as a child in a conservative, religious neighbourhood in Ankara, the capital of Turkey, I thought life was quite boring. I had no siblings, not many relatives, and after an incident of sexual abuse in the neighbourhood, like many other girls, I wasn’t allowed to go out and play on the street. I remember vividly those long afternoons of boredom. I wanted to find a gate to an “elsewhere”, to another land, a Storyland. Books and stories have been that gateway for me.

That’s why I think it’s fair to say that I started writing fiction because I was lonely. I was an only child, a solitary child, raised by a single working mother, which was very unusual at the time in Turkey. Until the age 10, I was with my grandmother, who was an extraordinary, incredibly colourful and compassionate person. Grandma was a healer and her house was full of magic, superstitions, herbs, dangling evil eye beads and coffee cups waiting to be “read”. I would watch all of these with a sense of wonder. She showed that words had power.

When I look back at my own literary journey, I realise two things. Firstly, I was always an avid reader and I read both from the East and West. Secondly, I have way too often felt like “the other.” Even in my motherland, I did not quite fit in. I never did.

This is partly because I was born in France, Strasbourg. After my parents separated, my father stayed in France and remarried. Meanwhile, my mother brought me to Turkey. So I grew up with two women and no father. That, too, was a bit unusual.

For my mother, Turkey was, no doubt, the motherland, where we belonged. For me, it was a totally new country that I had to discover from scratch. Thus we arrived at the house of Grandma in Ankara—a very conservative, patriarchal, inward-looking environment. Here I felt like an outsider, clinging to the edge of the society, trying to understand its ways, observing, observing.

Then around the time I was 10 years old, my mother became a diplomat, and she and I travelled quite a bit afterwards: Spain, Jordan, Germany. I went to international schools and learned other languages.

In my early twenties I moved to Istanbul on my own, passionately believing the city was calling me and as a writer this was where I should write and publish my books. But Istanbul—which I think is a She-City—was a difficult lover. After many years of writing and publishing, I moved to Boston, Michigan, and then Arizona, Tucson. Then I returned to Istanbul with a longing, and then left it for good and moved to London. This state of continuous exile is one that I find difficult to explain to other people but it’s who I am. Life was always peripatetic. I am a nomad—intellectually, physically, spiritually. A commuter, in the words of James Baldwin. Literature gave me a sense of continuity, coherence; it kept my pieces together. It helped me to connect even when I felt like I didn’t quite belong. That’s why, when I say books can save us; books can be our dear friends, our amazing teachers, our loyal companions of the road, I really mean it, because it happened to me.

Q: How can fiction and storytelling broaden our lives?

[Elif Shafak] Well, I want to give an example, if I may. I was a high school student in Turkey, (having returned from Spain) when I read for the first time The Bridge over the Drina by Ivo Andric—the Yugoslav novelist, and back then, there was a Yugoslavia of course.

Until then, at school in Turkey, I had swallowed the nationalistic version of history in the textbooks. I had learned that the Ottoman Empire was a mighty, glorious empire, and we had brought justice and civilization and kindness wherever we went. The people of the lands we conquered should be grateful to us because we were a superior civilization and stronger military force and helped them to develop themselves. Classic narrative! But this official version of history was the only narrative I had heard as a student. But then as I was reading this novel by Andric, because I loved novels, and I found a scene in which two peasants in the Balkans were talking about the Janissaries—the Ottoman army. One of them says thanks to the Ottoman system, poor boys across the Balkans could get educated, and provided they were bright and successful they could even become viziers! They could go all the way up the social ladder, earn riches, power and prestige.

But the other peasant says because of the Janissary system people suffered enormously. These boys were taken from their families by force, converted to Islam without their consent. They never saw their mothers again. They were forced to erase their identities, forget their language, forget their memories…. How could this be a just system?

So here I was reading this dialogue and suddenly a window opened in my mind. I understood what the novelist was trying to do. There is no such thing as History with a capital H. There are histories, multiple stories waiting to be told, researched, understood and appreciated.

“The story” changes depending on who tells it. The Janissary system that I had learned to be proud of at school as a Turkish citizen had brought pain and misery and injustice to so many people throughout the centuries. But it also had its positive aspects, so the truth was complicated, multi-layered and it was only via fiction that we could grasp this complexity in a nuanced, human way. What politics couldn’t say and left silent, fiction could tell.

This is why literature is so important. It takes us out of our comfort zones and pushes us to see the issues from various angles. Fiction is an intellectual exercise. We all exercise—or at least want to— to take good care of our bodies. But how do you take care of the mind? Stories help us to develop cognitive flexibility, strengthen our epistemic muscles. It is an intellectual growth but also a spiritual one. It changes us deep inside. Stories rehumanize those who have been dehumanized. They help us to understand that there is no “us” versus “them”, and that “The Other” is, in fact, my brother, my sister; the other is me.

Q: Can fiction and storytelling counter ingrained narratives around gender, sexuality, race, etc?

[Elif Shafak] The writer is alone when s/he is writing, the reader is alone when s/he is reading. When we read a novel we retreat into an inner space, we journey within. At least for a few hours, we are not part of a collective identity. We are just a human being reading about another human being. This bond is precious.

Societies like Turkey are divided into tribes. Collectivistic, tribal entitites fail to coexist. Collectivistic identities erase individuality. It is not a coincidence that authoritarian ideologies depend on “crowds”—masses, collectivities chanting in unison with synchronized energy. This is how we lose individuality.

What novels do is to turn the tide and restore our individuality in such a way that we can reconnect with our fellow human beings.

Q: What is the role of cultural diversity in building a strong nation?

[Elif Shafak] Populist demagogues like to claim that “sameness” will bring “safety”. That is an illusion, if not a downright lie. Whether we like it or not, all of us, everywhere in the world, we are far too interconnected to assume that simply by raising walls we can avoid the problems of other people. It doesn’t work like that—not anymore. Therefore, it is a better and wiser approach to encourage internationalism. To work together as an international community. To collaborate. We have major challenges as humanity—terrorism, environmental crisis, food shortages, refugee displacements…. These are massive issues we can only and only solve if we work together across nations. But the political tide at the moment is the opposite: tribalism, insularity, isolationism…

Turkey lost its diversity and by losing this, we have lost a lot. Not only economically or politically, but also, I believe, something in our conscience was gone. The damage is huge once a society fails to appreciate its own diversity.

We live in an age of entrenched dualities. That is the first thing we need to challenge: binary oppositions. Why should I accept having only two options? Why can’t we look for a third way, a fifth way, a tenth way? They are telling us, “you have two options: on the one side is completely open borders, no checks, so anyone can come in, chaos. On the other side are strong walls. Now choose your side. You are either here or there.” Well, sorry, I don’t have to accept your dualistic thinking. This binary opposition is completely artificial, imposed from above. Rather, we can defend a sensible immigration policy with reasonable security checks and be pro-immigration, pro-diversity, pro-multiculturalism at the same time. Don’t believe artificial dualities. Historical epochs that lose their capacity for nuanced way of thinking and arguing will be darker than others. Adorno knew this. He wrote incredibly poignant passages about the importance of nuances. Authoritarianism is the erosion and erasure of multiplicity, ambiguity, pluralism.

Overall, I believe that as human beings we learn from people who are different than us. This is why cities have historically been centres of culture, art, democracy, philosophy. The city, as Richard Sennett said, is the place where you are most likely to meet someone who is different than you, it is “the human settlement where strangers are likely to meet.” Societies benefit from movements and migrations just like humanity benefits from inclusiveness and diversity. While we defend these core values whole-heartedly we must also understand the need for national and international security, peace and coexistence. And we can at the same time.

So don’t believe the far-right machinery that says “progressives don’t even care about these issues; they want to have fully open borders because they don’t care about security or social cohesion.” That’s sheer propaganda.

Q: What can we learn from the populists, isolationists and tribalists?

[Elif Shafak] We can learn a lot. And we must. I like to take Khalil Gibran’s words and turn it into a motto for our age. Gibran used to talk about how he learned silence from the talkative, kindness from the unkind… Likewise, we can learn the value of diversity from nationalists, the importance of pluralistic, liberal democracy from populists, the beauty of global solidarity from tribalists.

Today’s biggest conflicts are taking place in the field of culture. The biggest clashes are not about economy per se… not about party politics either. The main “battlefield” is culture. This really breaks my heart. Culture, which is the strongest bridge humanity has built to connect with each other across all borders, is now a battlefield. Without understanding this we cannot understand today’s antagonisms.

Populists love to divide the society into two camps: the people versus the elite. They like to think of the people as a monolithic camp. That’s an illusion. Likewise they identify “elite” with “liberals” and that’s a distortion of reality. For populists “elite” has nothing to do with money or power or privilege. It’s all about values. So according to them Nigel Farage, a businessman and a politician, the very epitome of ‘the establishment” is not elite, but a university student who cannot afford to pay his tuition fee and has liberal values is the elite. Really? Are we going to believe that? I am saying, no. Look at Marine Le Pen, is she not the elite? Lok at Geert Wilders, Steve Bannon, are they not the elite? Of course they are.

The elite can be from various political views: conservative, liberal—and yes, populist. Pareto wrote about this a century ago. He talked about the shift of the elites, calling them lions and foxes. We need to understand that populists, despite all their grandiose claims, have no problem with elitism at all, so long as they are the new elite.

Q: What is the role of philosophy in understanding life?

[Elif Shafak] I find it very important to think carefully about the way we think, the way we “know”. The Sufi mystics used to talk about the importance of unlearning—letting go of your truths, your certainties, to accept and understand being a bit confused, a bit lost, a bit perplexed. That’s fine. It’s better than the totalitarianism of certainty.

So for me, confusion is not necessarily a bad thing. We have forgotten to say “I don’t know”. We don’t say that anymore. If there is anything we don’t know, we can google it! That is the ignorance of our age.

I make a triple distinction between “information” and “knowledge” and ”wisdom”.  These are completely different things. The age we are living in is full of information —and misinformation. We tend to think that the more information we have about an issue the better we know it. Actually, it’s the opposite. The more information, the less our knowledge. Then wisdom is something else altogether. Wisdom requires emotional intelligence. It requires empathy, knowledge, stories…. I am worried about how we are now divided into epistemic tribes and the gap is widening. If we cannot even agree about what’s happening how can we find common solutions. Philosophy both in an ontological and epistemological sense must be a big part of our conversation. But again, I am talking about the kind of philosophy that engages, that practices, that goes beyond the walls of academia.

Q: How important is freedom of speech, and how should we best use it?

[Elif Shafak] I remember an American scholar once told me it was quite understandable for me to be a feminist because I lived in Turkey after all. I said to her I didn’t understand why she wasn’t a feminist because after all, she lived in the US. She took it as a joke. It wasn’t.

I have never understood that geographical duality. It was as if some parts of the world were regarded as “liquid lands”, and it was in these places that one needed to fight for human rights and freedom of speech. Meanwhile some other parts of the world—namely the West—were regarded as solid lands, and they were thought to be far beyond such concerns.

In the year 2016 and after, this dualistic view of the world has been shattered to pieces. Now we know that there is no such thing as solid lands versus liquid lands and we are all living in liquid times—as the late Zygmunt Bauman told us. Therefore, we have entered an age in which we all need to be advocates and activists for women’s rights and freedom of speech and LGBT rights and liberal pluralistic democracy.

I have taught at different universities and it worries me to see how difficult it has become to defend freedom of speech, on both sides of the Atlantic,  especially on university campuses. No platforming, too much emphasis on ‘safe spaces’, vetoing all speakers with different views… these are not the right way forward.

We can and we should engage with speakers of different world-views. Especially in academia we need a multiplicity of voices and views. This is how we grow. We all need to learn not to be offended easily. This might sound harsh, but when I hear students say they are offended because of what someone said, I tell them “try not to be offended”. Practise it. Try challenging the argument intellectually—with facts, words, emotions, intelligence and passion. That’s better. As Rumi said, “if you are irritated by every rub, how will your mirror be polished?” We need to be challenged intellectually in order to grow intellectually.

That said, it is also true that we have unprecedented and urgent new challenges in front of us. It’s very painful to see how words have become toxic, in some cases lethal. The radio in Rwanda, Facebook in Myanmar…. The alt-right websites that the terrorist in New Zealand followed religiously…. Or the Islamist websites that the terrorist in Sri Lanka have followed…..Digital tech is being increasingly to spread hatred and violence. So for me, the red line is violence.

Words that incite direct violence must be treated as a different category altogether. On this issue we need to act in unison and urgently. We cannot be passive or naive. Tech companies have a huge responsibility and they must stop pretending that they don’t.

Q: What are your biggest concerns about society today, and what gives you hope?

[Elif Shafak] You will remember there was so much optimism in late 1990s and early 2000s. Back then the biggest optimists were tech people. Fast forward to this day, we have entered the age of pessimism. This is the age of anxiety, fear, anger, resentment…  Whereas I think we need to follow Gramsci’s synthesis. He used to talk about the pessimism of the intellect, of the mind and the optimism of the will, of the heart. We need a healthy dose of pessimism to understand what is at stake. Democracies can and do die. From environment to liberal democracy, from LGBT rights to human rights, lots of things of fundamental importance are being endangered today. To understand the dangers will make us more alert and awake citizens. Yet we also need a healthy dose of optimism. And that will come, not from politics or politicians, but it will come from the people, our fellow human beings.

We have entered an age in which we all need to become activists for human rights.

I think faith is way too important to leave it to the religious. Patriotism is way too important to leave it to the nationalists. Politics is way too important to leave it to self-serving career politicians. Environment is way too important to leave it to the whims of the elite. And technology is way too important to leave it to profit-driven tech monopolies. In all these fields and many more, we must become more engaged as citizens of this lonely planet.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.