Interview with Elif Shafak, author of The Bastard of Istanbul
The Bastard of Istanbul is the story of two families and four generations of women. What inspired you to write about a cast of such strong female characters?
I have always been intrigued with the stories and silences women transfer from one generation to another, from their mothers to their daughters. Women are great storytellers. Oral culture and female wisdom are sources of inspiration for me. That said, perhaps my own childhood was a latent inspiration too. I did not grow up in a typical, patriarchal family in Turkey. I was raised by a single mother. I spent part of my childhood surrounded with women – grandmother, aunts, neighbours etc., and no father in the house. So I know how precious and yet at the same time, suffocating women’s loves can be.
How do you think the absence of men in the Kazanci family influences the identities of the Kazanci women?
At some level it makes them more independent and gives them the opportunity to do the things they might have been restricted from had they been living with an authoritarian father at home. But that’s only part of the story. The other part is it probably makes the mother in the house, now in her role as the head of the household, more uncompromising, if not oppressive. She has to guard the chastity of her daughters in the eyes of the society. Obliged to act twice as cautiously, she feels the need to be more rigid and repressive. Paradoxically, single mothers/divorcees/widows can be more rigid toward their daughters in the absence of a father in order to protect them from the harmful effects of patriarchal society.
One of the strongest themes in The Bastard of Istanbul – and in your writing generally – is the need to confront the past. How do you explain your preoccupation with this idea?
If the past is gloomy, if it is sad, should one know more about it or less? Is it better to be past-oriented and dig into that or is it better to let bygones be bygones and be future-oriented. I don’t think this is an easy question. Neither for individuals nor for societies. I dealt with this duality. I also probed the gender roles in the reconstruction of memory. The culture of women in typical Turkish families intrigues me as a writer. If and when memory survives we owe it to women. Mothers, grandmothers, aunties pass stories to their daughters and granddaughters. Women are the main carriers of collective memory.
Do you remember how you first learned about the Armenian massacres of 1915, and why did you decide to deal with this controversial subject in The Bastard of Istanbul?
I think I started with the question of memory and amnesia because my childhood too was gloomy. There came a point in my life when I realized that without memory of the past, you cannot possibly mature. This is true for individuals and for nations. And yet at the same time, if you stick to the past all the time, you cannot move forward and will find yourself in a loop of repetitions.
So I guess what we need is a combination of memory and forgetfulness. Remembrance is a responsibility and I criticize my own state for its refusal to face the deportation events of 1915 and grieve for the tragedy. Nevertheless, I also find it misleading to be so past-oriented so as not to see the changes that the present holds.
The biggest difference between Turks and Armenians is this dilemma. Turks are generally future-oriented, and Armenians in the diaspora are oftentimes past-oriented. Eventually, hopefully, Turks will remember more, Armenians will remember less. Only then we can all fully move forward.
You have a reputation for being a very outspoken writer. When you write a novel, do you approach it as a vehicle for making a particular statement, or is this a secondary concern?
I do not approach the genre of the novel to make particular statements. I do not write with a mission and I do not try to teach anyone anything. I believe literature needs to be fluid and free as flowing water. I like the fact that different readers read the same book with different interpretations.
There is a split between the writer in me and me in my daily life. When I write fiction I almost become a different person. It is as if you use a different part of your brain while writing. When I am writing fiction, I am much more daring and inventive. The only thing that matters is the story. The ghosts of dead writers watch me as I write and I feel connected to an old, undying heritage. That keeps me going. I solely follow the footsteps of my imagination. How can imagination be banned?
I believe writers and literature can play an important role because literature and art have an amazing transformative power. Writers and artists can help to heal old wounds and transcend the boundaries that people on all sides take for granted. At the core of literature lies the ability to empathize with others.
While you advocate the freedom of intellectual thought, do you believe there should be any limitations on freedom of expression, and what do you see as the role of a writer in this debate?
I see freedom of expression as a universal value that should be defended in each and every country. The only thing I am cautious about is hate speech. Discourse that triggers racism, violence, xenophobia.
You were born in France, educated in Spain, and have lived and worked in Turkey and now the United States. How do you find living abroad has affected your writing?
All my life I have been a nomad, a commuter. I am both Turkish and a world citizen, that’s how I feel. I am deeply in love with Istanbul, every time I leave this city I come back with a longing. This emotional pendulum characterizes my relation to my homeland.
To be an established novelist in Turkey means to be a public figure. This is a writer-oriented culture, rather than writing-oriented. The writer is always in the spotlight. It is interesting for me to see the differences between the literary world in the West and the one in Turkey. In the West it is the book, the writing itself that’s being highlighted. Whereas here it is the writer. We are a passionately politicized society and we politicize debates on art and literature.
How did you find writing The Bastard of Istanbul, and your previous novel, in English, compared with your mother tongue?
I am in love with words. I follow the letters the way a mystic would follow the meaning of the holy book. I wrote The Bastard of Istanbul in English (I wrote my first four novels in Turkish and the latest two in English). When I started writing fiction in English, some people in Turkey accused me of betraying my nation and abandoning my mother tongue. But this is precisely the dilemma of ultra-nationalism. ‘Are you one of us or are you one of them?’ they ask all the time.
My approach is different. I think it is possible to be multicultural, multilingual, to be multiple things in life. I do not have to make a choice between Turkish and English. There are certain stories that come to me in Turkish and some other stories come in English. English for me is more mathematical, Turkish is more sentimental. I am connected to each in different ways. In English I find irony easier. In Turkish I find expressing sorrow easier.
In 2006, like Orhan Pamuk, you were charged by the Turkish government with ‘insulting Turkishness’, and were facing possible imprisonment. The charges have now been dropped, but what affect do you think this experience will have on your writing in the future?
The biggest danger that awaits writers is self-censure. This is far worse than any legal restrictions that the state can impose. If I start weighing each word, counting the costs, than the authenticity of the text will evaporate.
I also think it is a pity that Turkish writers grab the attention of Westerners more for political than literary reasons. Otherwise there is limited interest in the art and artists coming from Turkey. The thing is Turkey is neither “exotic” enough nor Western or ‘inside’ enough in the eyes of many Westerners, so it kind of falls in between cracks. I believe we need further intercultural dialogues…
Who are your favourite authors, and why?
There are so many, I have a very eclectic reading list. Balzac, Dostoyevsky, Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allen Poe, Hisham Matar, Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, Michel Tournier, Julian Barnes, Milan Kundera, Henry Mulisch… And the great Sufis, especially Rumi’s Mathnawi…. I am also very interested in political philosophy, especially Heraclitus, Spinoza, Deleuze, Walter Benjamin…
What are you working on at the moment?
At the moment I am working on my baby daughter. Becoming a mother has changed me and perhaps created an existential split. Being a novelist is a very self-centred task. The book has the priority. But motherhood is just the opposite. It is based on ‘giving’. How to reconcile the writer in me with the mother in me? I find it difficult. I think it is easier for male writers in Turkey. They write, and their wives take care of their babies and houses. Men do not go through the same dilemma.
As a novelist, I believe that a writer needs to have a bisexual pen. A writer needs to be both man and woman while writing fiction. The masculine and the feminine in me live side by side. In my daily life I have to suppress this plurality because this is what it means to be ‘normal’ in this society. But when I am writing my novels I set myself free. I can be both man and woman.