Frail but fearless is the impression one gets after a conversation with Turkish writer Elif Shafak.
Elif Shafak is a luminous personality on the contemporary Turkish literary scene. Widely translated, her works have won critical acclaim and wide readership inside and outside Turkey. One of her novels, The Flea Palace, sold 15,000 copies in three months. She writes mostly in Turkish though two of her novels have been in English. Elif contends that too much should not be made out of the language dichotomy. Shafak holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and has taught both in Turkish and American Universities. She has lectured in History, Politics and Culture and her courses have included such diverse topics as “Ottoman History from the Margins”, “Literature and Exile”, “Politics of memory”. Besides literature and academia, Elif has been a courageous journalist as well, writing newspaper columns and TV documentary scripts.
Elif lived through some tough moments when she was taken to court by ultra nationalist lawyers under Article 301 for the Turkish Criminal Code for “Insulting Turkishness” when the words of one of her novel’s characters was thoughtlessly foisted as evidence of transgression. Fortunately after one hearing, Elif was acquitted.
You have expounded much on the theme of ‘ambivalence’ through your works and have cautioned more than once that fiction should not get tied down to function. Do you then see your literature, in some sense, as ‘postmodernist’, defying structure?
I do not see my literature as “postmodernist”. Frankly, I have not favoured such categorisation. To this day I have eight books published and when I look at them retrospectively, I realise each one of them is different. Each is different in both content and style, because I myself was a different person at each point. I see my writing as an open-ended journey. Essentially I see the writer as nomad. The nomad lives in a ‘perpetual present moment’ with very few possessions. The nomad is able to make new friendships meet new situations and above all is able to let go of many things old. A certain sorrowful enrichment attends the soul along this quest. I do think these qualities of a nomad could greatly contribute to writing.
Some of the characters like the protagonists in The Saint of Incipient Insanities seem almost like existentialists and on the other hand your love for Sufi thought and passion for folklore is well explored in your first novel Pinhan. So what is the world view that comes across through the lives of your characters?
There are multiple characters in my novels, from all sorts of walks of life and all types of backgrounds. But none of them are heroes. I have never believed in creating “heroes” on paper or in life. Brecht used to say “what we need is not heroes but a society that is not in need heroes.” They are full of conflicts, just like us. This is important to me. I do not see myself as The Creator of those characters. I think as I keep writing, they create themselves. And they have all sorts of flaws, conflicts. I can also say that I am usually more interested in people who are pushed to the margins than those at the centre. Just as the characters resemble us, the readers, in some sense, become co-creators along with the author. They create the view, making reading such an individual and subjective experience. I would go on to say that the hierarchy implied between the writer and the reader is completely imagined. It never really exists.
As a writer do you try to widen the spectrum of human experience as much as possible, journeying across great many circumstances and realities, and then try to sensitise the reader to the human condition leaving it to her/him to choose the manner in which the creative work affects her/him. Or is there an inescapable activism or politics mingled in there?
One important legacy of feminism has been to demonstrate that “the personal is political”. Politics is everywhere, including our homes and kitchens. I am interested in politics and activism in this sense of the word. But as a writer I do not want politics to conduct art and literature. Art needs autonomy. So does literature. Just like Sufism, literature strives to transcend the boundaries of the Self. I do not want to anchor my writing into an identity and situate myself there. Rather I want to keep exploring. I think writers need to be forever curious and ready to discover. The trouble is today’s identity politics goes on to place expectations on what a writer could produce depending on his or her circumstances. This expectation at first could sound naïve but then you realise it is not such an innocent expectation. If I am a Muslim woman writer why should I be writing only about Muslim women or why African writers should confine themselves to writing about black people? This pigeonholing of us writers, particularly writers from non-western world is to be resisted. The western literary establishment wants us to tell ‘characteristically eastern stories’ and leave wild imaginations or avant-garde art forms to white, Western writers. Altogether we need to challenge this division of labour.
You have been critical of state-machinated secularism in Turkey that excludes lot of the pluralism. Elsewhere in the Islamic world, you see again excluding viewpoints emerging from religion-based politics. Wearing your academic hat, what is your reading of fundamentalism and the best ways to address the same in the context of engagement with modernity?
I think Islamophobia and anti-Westernism are two opposites that keep breeding one another. Hardliners create more hardliners elsewhere. One thing that worries me deeply is “mental ghettoes”. It doesn’t matter if you are a progressive liberal or a let’s say a religious person as long as you live in an enclosed space of your own. It’s the same thing. Many people withdraw into a mental ghetto and do not even realise it. If everyone around us thinks alike, acts alike, is alike… there is a problem there. I believe in this life whatever we will learn we will learn from people who aren’t like us. So I find it very important to increase the channels of dialogue and interaction between “dissimilar” people.
Controversy has stalked you in Turkey and that has attracted a great deal of interest. Do you feel that this shift of focus away from your work and on to you and the controversies as something unfortunate?
It makes me sad me to see “the writer” being discussed instead of “the writing”. I see my novels as buildings with multiple doors and entrances and exits. Every reader enters from a different door. Sometimes two readers can read the same book, they can be inside the same building without ever running into each other. Reading is a constructive, active process. The reader contributes to creating the meaning. And that is different with every reader. In Turkey my books are read by a very heterogeneous readership that cuts across cultural or political boundaries. That includes people from all sorts of walks of life- Leftists, liberals, feminists, nihilists, University students, professionals and mystics. I also have a lot of readers from conservative circles, especially many woman readers with headscarves. I like and cherish this diversity.