“Creating the Story Together”:
An Exclusive Interview with Elif Þafak
Over the last decade, Elif Þafak has emerged as one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary literature in both Turkish and English. Her works, from 1997’s Pinhan (The Sufi) to 2009’s Aþk (The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi), have attracted a diverse worldwide audience through their exploration of an everbroadening range of subjects in a great variety of styles, reflective of the author’s own distinguished academic background, deep political concern, and willingness to reach for new literary horizons. Through its engagement with both Western and Eastern literary and philosophical traditions, her work reflects a profound commitment to celebrating the diversity of human experience while still recognizing that, despite our inner and outer contradictions, there is always already a shared common ground for all. The editors of JTL would like to express their gratitude to Elif Þafak for providing this generous and enlightening look into her literary world.
In recent years, Rumi has become the most popular poet in the United States. Why do you think this might be? Did this popularity in any way influence your most recent novel, The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi? How do you predict, or hope, the English version of this novel will be received? Do you expect a reception and/or reaction similar to that which the book received in Turkey?
The age we live in harbors two opposite tendencies. On the one hand there is a growing interest in Rumi’s philosophy and poetry, and perhaps to a lesser degree in Sufism. On the other hand there is also a deeply-rooted ignorance with regards to Islam and too many clichés and generalizations out there. These two tendencies flow side by side in the modern world. The Forty Rules of Love will come out against this kind of background. I am excited about bringing the novel out in other languages and meeting with readers worldwide. As for its reception, I cannot know that beforehand; I can only be hopeful. I am assuming the subject of the novel could be of interest to many people all around the world. We all are looking for love and we all feel incomplete without it. The story of Rumi and Shams strongly resonates with our needs and longings in the modern world.
The Turkish title of The Forty Rules of Love is Aþk, a word generally translated as “love”. You have said, however, that you did not want the novel’s English title to be “Love”, as that word has a different tone in English. How would you characterize this difference in tone, and how might this difference relate to the themes explored in the novel?
In Turkish we have at least two different words for “love”. I like the sound and depth of aþk very much. It can be very passionate and mundane, yet at the same time it cam be spiritual and otherworldly. The Turkish aþk and the English “love” do not sound exactly the same. That is one reason why I wanted to have a different title. The second reason is that in Western societies the word “love” has been used more frequently to name books, movies, etc. Whereas for us Turks to name a novel aþk is still out of the ordinary. In other words, the perceptions are different. Therefore, in English I wanted to name the novel The Forty Rules of Love. In French it is even different, Sufi, Mon Amour [Sufi, My Love]. I think each and every society has its own perceptions, each language has its own rhythm and melody, and in general I like to pay attention to these differences when naming my novels. I do not believe in a one-to-one absolute cementlike translation. I believe in flexible transformation.
Do you feel that the view of love as expressed in The Forty Rules of Love fits wholly within the scope of the traditional Sufi view of love, or do you believe that you have given it something of a modern twist? What do you see such a view of love as offering in the modern world?
Sufism is not a monolithic bloc. I rather see it as a tapestry of multiple colors. I rather see it as many brooks, rivers, waterways… all of which flow in the same direction, towards the same ocean. What I have done in my novel was to illustrate my own waterway. In my novel Sufism is not presented as a theoretical bulk of information. It is a living, breathing, moving story. In that sense I am interested in what Sufism means for the modern world today, for us in the modern world. I wanted to bring out how Rumi’s philosophy appeals to us today, even when we seem to be miles and centuries and cultures away from it.
Both your first novel, Pinhan (The Sufi), and The Forty Rules of Love draw on themes related with Sufism. There is, however, a distinct difference in the type of Turkish vocabulary employed in the two works. Does this change in language in any way reflect a change in your own approach to Sufism? If so, how would you describe this change?
Pinhan is my first novel and it has a special place in my eyes. I wrote it when I was 23 years old. I was young but I was so “drunk” and therefore I wasn’t my age when I wrote that novel. I was head over heels in love with Sufism and I wrote with and within that love. It is a novel that has not only many Ottoman words and Sufi concepts but also layers upon layers. The Forty Rules of Love is completely different in style and structure. The Forty Rules of Love is extroverted. It radiates energy from inside out. Pinhan likes to hide itself, even the name of the novel means “The Hidden”. The energy in each book is different because I was a different person while writing them. Life is about changing. Writing is about changing. Each book changes me and makes me a different person.
Pinhan has not been translated into English. Is there any particular reason for this, or are there any plans for it to be translated?
Pinhan is a very esoteric, “introverted” novel and it is, to this day, the one book of mine that is most difficult to translate into any other languages. I would love to see it in English someday but it is not easy. It might take time. One day…
With The Forty Rules of Love, some critics in Turkey have claimed a turn towards a more “popular” voice in your work, whereas your previous novels were more generally seen as “high literature”. What are your views on this subject? Do you think that the “high literature” versus “popular literature” distinction is applicable in today’s literary climate, and how do you think it relates to developments in your own work?
True, some critics have accused me of abandoning “highbrow literature” for more popular writing. I have to say I do not believe in these distinctions in the first place. What exactly is “highbrow literature”? Is it more “sophisticated” writing? If a novel is read by thousands, even millions of people, does that automatically mean that novel is shallow? There is a lot of elitism embedded in the overusage of “high literature” and I am not fond of elitism. I do not think there exists a hierarchy between the writer and the reader. I do not situate myself above my text, above the characters in a novel, and definitely not above readers. There should be a horizontal, egalitarian bond between us: the reader, the book, and the writer. We create the story together.
In a novel such as The Flea Palace, we can see the influence of the complex frame-story structure of Arabian Nights, while with such works as Pinhan and The Forty Rules of Love the influence of Rumi’s Masnavi-i Ma`navi and of Sufism in general is apparent. Apart from these works, how would you relate your own work to older, “classic” literature produced in Turkish or other languages? Do you personally feel especially drawn to the classical literature of the “East”?
My work is about combinations and connections. I like to connect things, stories, cultures… I believe in the power and beauty of syntheses. When I am writing fiction I like to combine the heritage of women and oral culture with the foundations of written culture, which is more male-dominated. In a similar way, I like to combine Eastern and Middle-Eastern techniques of storytelling with Western literary forms, especially the genre of the novel.
National literatures tend to be broadly categorized according to the language in which works are written. Considering that you wrote The Saint of Incipient Insanities and The Forty Rules of Love in English and your other novels in Turkish, do you see these works, or their translations, as in any way “belonging” to either the English or the Turkish literary tradition?
I understand your question and respect it. However, I also think we need to be more flexible in our usage of categories and perhaps create new categories altogether. Because the old/classic categories are not sufficient to explain the complex reality of contemporary world. This is the age of mobility. It is the age of migrations, transformations, and global connections. True, there aren’t too many writers writing in more than one language, but there are several, and most importantly, in today’s world there are thousands and thousands of people who express themselves in another language, who dream in more than one language.
I am a Turkish writer and I feel deeply connected with my culture. But at the same time I am a world citizen. I commute between languages the way I commute between cultures. I am a commuter, a nomad. For me writing fiction is about “journeys” anyhow. It is possible to be local and universal all at once. Like a compass. One leg of the compass is fixed and stable, it is local. The other leg draws a huge wide circle and travels the world. It is universal. This is how I see my fiction.
Your works have been well received by both American and Turkish audiences. Have you, however, seen any difference between the reception of your work in the United States as compared with its reception in Turkey? If so, why do you think this might be? And in more general terms, what have you noticed about the general reception of Turkish literature in American or English-speaking literary circles?
Many novels are being published in America, hundreds of them, but perhaps they evaporate more quickly. In Turkey they do not evaporate as quickly. Here the overwhelming majority of fiction readers are women. If and when they like a novel, they make it part of their private world. Sometimes the same book is being read by five or seven people in the same family—aunts, grandmothers, granddaughters. I have not seen anything like this elsewhere. There are differences between Turkish readers and American readers but there are also similarities, of course. Around the world women read more fiction than men do. And I always find it fascinating to cross cultural and national boundaries through the art of storytelling.
As for the reception of Turkish literature in the West, we read Western literature more than the Western world reads Turkish literature. The amount of translated works in the West is unfortunately still too little. And my feeling is that sometimes Turkish literature is seen as neither too “exotic/Eastern” nor too “Western”. But I believe that precisely because we are on the threshold we have so much to offer. I think we need to build more bridges. Turkish literature is amazingly rich and complex but unfortunately it is not that well known in the world. If we can build genuine bridges through culture and art, bridges that extend across cultures, we can all learn from each other.
How would you characterize the similarities and differences between the American and Turkish literary scenes in terms of both production and consumption? How do readers’ expectations of what a writer should do or be differ in the two environments?
Turkey is an amazingly complicated country. It is difficult to place it in a static category. We are a very young, dynamic society. We are capable of changing fast. And we are future-oriented. At the same time, we are a country of syntheses and combinations— East and West, past and present, traditions and modernity, Islam and Western political culture. Such multiplicity is not easy. But it is a source of strength and richness. Living in Istanbul is very stimulating and inspiring for artists and especially storytellers. However, the Turkish literary scene is too “writer-oriented” rather than “writing-oriented”. We discuss writers more than we discuss their writing. That is something that can be tiring for the writer as an individual. We need to have more literary criticism, not personal criticism.
In your personal view, what sort of social or political role, if any, does or should literature have? How would you relate this to any socially or politically oriented criticisms your work has received in Turkey?
Art and literature require taking a closer look at the world. Artists and writers cannot be content with the surface. They need to go deeper. I do not write with political goals in mind, but there is politics in life and we writers reflect life. That said, I see myself first and foremost as a storyteller, and stories belong to all of us, all humanity. I think good fiction should bring people together, not divide them. I believe that at the heart of storytelling lies the concept of “empathy”. To put yourself in the shoes of another person. I do not believe in heroes. In my novels you cannot find characters that are absolutely good or absolutely bad. I believe in each of us there is good and bad. Every person is a tapestry of conflicting voices. I like to explore the dialectics of life.
As an author who has been put on trial in Turkey, do you find that your creative process is at all hindered when writing for a Turkish-speaking audience?
To be put on trial for writing a novel was a sad experience for me. That period of my life was difficult and I cannot deny that. However, despite the difficulties of being a novelist in Turkey, I believe the beauties are far more important. Over the years a very special spiritual bond has developed with my readers and I learn from them all the time. Fiction readers in Turkey are amazing and the feedback and energy and inspiration and morale they give you is matchless.
In your opinion, have the broad political changes in Turkey over the last decade, particularly those regarding the status of Kurds and non-Muslim minorities, had any effect on the literature produced in Turkey? What do you see those effects as being?
Literature has always been an area where critical thinking has been possible and prominent. Yet especially in the last ten years the Turkish literary scene has become more vivid, colorful, and dynamic than ever. Now there are more actors on this stage than before. More publishing houses, more books, more writers… I personally like and support this multiplication and diversification. There are new genres coming out, new styles. Children’s books are also becoming more important. Rather than one centralized voice in art, rather than a monopoly, it is better to have multiple voices, multiple centres of creativity.
In recent times, Turkey has witnessed a nationalistic reaction against governmental policies regarding the so-called “initiatives” relating to the Kurds and to Armenia. What do you think such developments as these will bring to Turkey in the future?
We need to develop peaceful relations with our neighbors and strengthen our democracy within. In my opinion, both as individuals and collectively we should learn to trust ourselves and trust humanity more. Xenophobia is “fear of the Other” and fear usually stems from not really knowing the Other. We need to listen to each other more and build more connections of trust, peace and coexistence.
Do you read or follow “minority literatures” in Turkey and in the world in general?
I read everything and anything that I find interesting and moving. I read novels all the time but I also read philosophy. I enjoy reading philosophers. I try to read as many different styles as possible, not only one style or one major category.
With the rise of postcolonial studies, the term “subaltern” has become a widely discussed topic in literary and cultural studies. Do you see this concept as one that is relevant to your works and to Turkish literature in general? In other words, does the subaltern speak in your literature and in Turkish literature?
I am very interested in postcolonial, poststructuralist, and post-feminist studies. I see the “subaltern” as all kinds of marginalized groups and identities whose voices are not heard enough in written culture. In that sense, in my novels there is a constant attempt to hear the subaltern speak. In all my novels there are minorities, people on the fringes of society, and I do like to explore the underbelly of society. But that said, I am also wary against turning any identity into a hero and putting the “subaltern” on a pedestal. What I like to do is to keep exploring the Other of the Other of the Other…
Themes such as emigration, emigrants, and “nomadism” are frequently employed in your novels. What is the place of such themes in your work, and how would you say this relates to your own experiences and/or to your general worldview?
My interest in such themes is partly a reflection of my own life. Until becoming a mother, I lived my life out of a suitcase. I was raised by a single mother and family life was something I observed from a distance, not feeling part of it. So a nomadic lifetsyle has been with me ever since my childhood. But that said, such themes are also important for me philosophically, intellectually. A nomad or a commuter is always wandering. Wherever he goes he carries within a sense of estrangement. Paradoxically, he is equally “at home” in different places.
Through such writers as the Marquis de Sade, Charles Baudelaire, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Georges Bataille, the aesthetic representation of evil and the presentation of evil characters has been a frequent current in Western literature. In Turkish literature and in your own works, however, this theme has not been as extensively explored. Would you agree with this, and if so, how would you explain this phenomenon?
Yes, I do agree with this and it is a question that I find very intriguing. There is a difference between Turkish novels and Russian novels in the way we tackle the subject of “evil”. Ahmet Hamdi Tanpýnar offers us valuable insight about the lack of the aesthetic representation of evil in Turkish novels. Is it because we always look for Sheitan outside, instead of looking within? Perhaps this is part of the reason. But there is also a deeply-rooted Sufi philosophy in our culture which tells us to look within. I think in Turkey from the beginning novels have played a crucial role in modernizing and Westernizing society. Many novelists wrote with a “mission” to educate and guide their readers. This created a tradition of “father novelists”. As a result, the characters were placed in the text to give a message. But this did not necessarily help to portray deeper characters with inner conflicts. It is something we all need to think about.
Do you follow literary theory closely, and do you think that the rise of literary theory over the last halfcentury has influenced literary production in that time? If you do see literary theory as having an influence on literary production, do you think that this influence is descriptive or prescriptive in nature?
I do follow literary theory with interest, though not as closely as I used to when I was teaching at university. Literary theory has an indirect influence on literary production but one that is very valuable. It changes the “eye” that sees, the way we tend to read texts and subtexts. I like to read the works of Mikhail Bakhtin, Terry Eagleton, Richard Rorty, Gayatri Spivak, Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, Elaine Showalter, and others. I find it important and I think in Turkey it happens to be one of the things we writers are so much in need of. We need more literary theory.
How would you describe the state of literary criticism in Turkey today, and, as a writer whose works are among the most written about and critically evaluated, what if any effects does this criticism have on your writing?
In Turkey we can easily confuse “criticism” with “denunciation”. To criticize someone doesn’t have to mean to reject or abash someone. In fact, one criticizes what one values. We easily forget this simple rule. Some of the criticisms are well-based, well-intentioned, and I do listen to them all the time and I learn from my critics. But there are some others that are made solely for the sake of criticizing, and they focus on the personality of the writer rather than the book, the artifact, and I do not pay much attention to those because nothing constructive comes out of it.
You have made numerous contributions to a variety of newspapers. How has this affected your relationship with your audience? Has it had any effect on your fiction writing?
I have been writing as a columnist for several years now. I wrote for different newspapers and magazines and the experience has been an enriching one for me. We novelists tend to live in our own cocoon most of the time. To work as an academic or to write as a columnist has helped me to get out of that cocoon many times. You need to keep an eye on what is going on around the world, update your knowledge, keep nourishing your intellect; in short, not lose your curiosity. I think the moment writers lose their curiosity, I mean basic and simple curiosity towards life, their imagination also starts shrinking.
What role do you think institutions such as the publishing house and literary agents have on the production and consumption of literature? Do you believe such institutions have a direct influence on literary trends today?
In today’s world they do have an impact in both the production and the consumption of literary work. It wasn’t like this a century ago, but today literary agents and publishers are definitely among the active actors in this stage. I have always learned a lot from my editors and translators, and I find their role extremely important. The novel is the loneliest form of art. That is how it is and yet we owe a lot to our editors and translators. To find the right agent is sometimes a matter of luck. For writers all around the world it is not easy to have your work published and represented by a good agent. All these things are a constant struggle for every writer.
In a novel such as The Saint of Incipient Insanities, music is an important recurring element. How do you see the relationship between literature and music? What about the relationship between literature and other arts, such as painting, sculpture, or cinema? Have such arts had any influence on your work?
Music is my passion and so is cinema. I find both areas very attractive for a novelist. When I write I always write with a rhythm and melody. I do not like silence, I have to confess. So there is usually music playing when I am working. I like the transfer of energy and spirit that music generates. The same with the art of cinema. I think novelists can contribute greatly to cinema and in turn also learn a lot from this fascinating art. I also think novelists are jealous of the power of cinema, which I certainly am. In general, I like interdisciplinary art. When different disciplines of art come together, fascinating works are created, and I am open to learning from other disciplines.
You have stated that you no longer consider your first work, the short story collection Kem Gözlere Anadolu, as being a part of your corpus. Since that work, you have concentrated primarily on novels. How did you decide to make this transition from writing short stories to writing novels? What is your personal experience of writing in these two genres? Do you continue to write short stories?
I find this interesting because the novel as a genre is in many ways the “opposite” of my personality. I am someone who has little patience in life, who is more intuitive and emotional and does little planning ahead. The novel in many ways requires patience, planning, rationality, having a construct, etc. But perhaps because of this contradictory connection the novel balances me and I feel very much at home in its terrain.
Many theorists have underlined the influence of the advent of printing, or what we might call the “Gutenberg revolution”, on the emergence of the novel as a new literary genre. What effects do you think the “Internet revolution” might have on literature in the future? Do you anticipate that new forms or genres of literature will emerge as a result?
I think the Internet is like the moon. It has a bright side and a dark side. And the age we live in will show us both sides. There is no point in denying the importance of the Internet. It is an irreversible process and a fascinating medium indeed. The way it has made knowledge a commodity everyone can benefit from, like air or water, is simply amazing. On the other hand there is also a lot of xenophobia, hate speech, misinformation, and all that on the Internet. It all depends on how we, humanity as a whole, will learn to deal with the two sides of the moon.
Do you think the concept of “world literature” is a useful one? If not, why not? If so, what do you see the place of your works, and of Turkish literature in general, in this cosmopolitan conception as being?
World literature is a term that in theory refers to literature from all around the world. Yet in reality “world literature” usually means “non-Western” literature. I mean a novelist from Africa or Korea is placed under this label, but not so much a writer from New York or Chicago. What worries me is there is a tendency to pigeonhole writers according to their national or religious identities. If you are a woman writer from Algeria, you are almost automatically expected to write about the problems of being a woman in Algeria. Whereas writers from more industrialized societies can experiment with forms and subjects more freely, writers from other parts of the world are expected to represent their societies. This I find very misleading. Are new and experimental forms of art and literature a “luxury item” solely or mostly experienced by artists and writers from developed democracies? It shouldn’t be like that.
What writers, contemporary or otherwise, do you see as most closely related to you and your work? What writers or works have most influenced you?
I feel closely related to many writers and philosophers. Sometimes in style, sometimes in spirit, and sometimes for no reason at all. Some of these writers are contemporary and some from the past. I can tell you right away how much I love Gabriel García Márquez, Lev Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevski, Joyce Carol Oates, Edgar Allan Poe, Honoré de Balzac, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpýnar, Sevgi Soysal, Oðuz Atay, Ýhsan Oktay Anar, Iris Murdoch… They all have influenced me at different stages of my life. But I honestly think a literary critic could answer this question much better than I ever can. Because a scholar can much better and more objectively analyze the similarities and dissimilarities.
What current writers do you follow? What are you reading at the moment?
At the moment I am reading Ghazali and Shaykh Galip. I am also reading Boris Akunin and enjoying his writing very much.
What effect, if any, has being a mother had on your writing?
To be a woman novelist and a mother is like juggling many balls in the air, trying not to lose the balance. When I am writing a novel I work intensely, so it is rather difficult for me to learn not to lose this balance. After the birth of my first child, I suffered from a long depression. I didn’t know how to harmonize motherhood and writing. In time, I learned better. I wrote about that experience in my previous book Black Milk, which is my only autobiographical work. Writing about depression helped me to renew myself. This will sound strange, but if I hadn’t gone through that depression and hit the bottom, it might have taken me longer to achieve inner harmony and therefore, it might have taken me longer to write Aþk.
How would you broadly characterize your development as a writer from the beginning to today? What other short- or long-term writing projects do you currently have in mind?
Writing is my existential glue, it holds my pieces together and gives me a sense of continuity and a centre in life. In time, I have learned to appreciate better the old and universal art of storytelling and see myself as part of that tradition. Sufism has also taught me a lot. I have to say I have two contradictory sides. On the one hand the “ego” that comes with being a novelist is there. So I feel like I “create” stories. On the other hand I feel like a pen, and in that sense I am no “creator” at all. I feel like an instrument or a bridge connected to somewhere. Stories come to me, they choose me, I do not choose them. So in time writing has acquired a more mystical dimension for me. But one thing that hasn’t changed is my love and need for this art.
Thank you so much for these wonderful questions, which helped me to think and rethink so many subjects that are dear to my heart, thank you…
Elif Þafak Special Issue, Journal of Turkish Literature, Issue 6, 2009
Bilkent University Center for Turkish Literature