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Commitment Now - Interview


Our Book of the Month is The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak


In this lyrical novel, acclaimed Turkish author Elif Shafak unfolds two tantalizing parallel narratives - one contemporary, and the other set in the thirteenth century!


In this lyrical, exuberant follow-up to her 2007 novel, The Bastard of Istanbul, acclaimed Turkish author Elif Shafak unfolds two tantalizing parallel narratives- one contemporary and the other set in the thirteenth century, when Rumi encountered his spiritual mentor, the whirling dervish known as Shams of Tabriz-that together incarnate the poet’s timeless message of love.

Ella Rubenstein is forty years old and unhappily married when she takes a job as a reader for a literary agent. Her first assignment is to read and report on Sweet Blasphemy, a novel written by a man named Aziz Zahara. Ella is mesmerized by his tale of Shams´s search for Rumi and the dervish´s role in transforming the successful but unhappy cleric into a committed mystic, passionate poet, and advocate of love. She is also taken with Shams´s lessons, or rules, that offer insight into an ancient philosophy based on the unity of all people and religions, and the presence of love in each and every one of us. As she reads on, she realizes that Rumi´s story mirrors her own and that Zahara-like Shams-has come to set her free.

CommitmentNow.com:  This book jumps early between 21st Century America and the 13th Century Islamic World; between a modern middle-aged love story and the historic friendship of the Sufi Mystic Shams of Tabriz and the poet Rumi.  You were able to connect there two disparate places and times in a way that feels natural.  How was it for you to jump between there two points in time?


Elif Shafak:  As I was writing the novel, I saw many similarities between 13th Anatolia and the age we live in. At the first glance, one is a very traditional setting, and the other, a post-industrial one. But when we take a deeper look, both are shaped by cultural clashes, conflicts between and within religions, and perhaps a constant fear of the Other. I pursued these similarities and continuities. So in a strange way it felt natural to me as well, to go back and forth between the two centuries.  Also, as a novelist, it excites me to see how in every contemporary story there is at least one link to the past –even when that past goes way beyond. I like to explore that link and show how the past is hidden in the present. 


CommitmentNow.com:  The Forty Rules of Love contains a lot of information about Sufism.  What interested you in this topic?


Elif:  I became interested in Sufism when I was a student in college. But if you ask me “why?” I don’t think I can answer that. To this day it is a big puzzle to me why I was attracted to the subject because the truth is at the time I had nothing to do with religious philosophy or spirituality. I was leftist, nihilist, feminist, anarcho-pacifist,…. I was someone who wanted to change the world, not someone who wanted to “read” the world. However, I began reading Rumi and Ibn Arabi from scholars such as Annemarie Schimmel, Idris Shah, and many others. Intellectually it was a huge magnetic appeal for me. The more I read the thirstier I became. Over the years my interest in Sufism never diminished, although it took on new forms. I guess at the beginning it was my “mind” that guided me but in time it became a matter of “heart.”


CommitmentNow.com:  You are from Turkey and are the most widely read female author in that country and  The Forty Rules of Love was Turkey’s best-selling novel in the shortest time!  Were you surprised by the success of this novel?


Elif:  I wasn’t expecting this much success, and I was surprised and thankful too. I must say, however, that over the years I have developed a beautiful bond with my readers. So I already had a wide readership in my country. Nevertheless, when The Forty Rules of Love came out there was something additional, almost mystical. What was most surprising for me was to see the diversity of the readers. People of all sorts of backgrounds have read this novel in Turkey. Old and young, men and women, liberals and conservatives…. Some are religious, some spiritual, and some are agnostics or atheists…. And yet all these people with very different views have found something in the novel that spoke directly to their hearts. This matters a lot to me. In my country people can polarize easily. I was happy to see that those who normally would not talk to each other on the street were reading and enjoying the same book. I believe that art, especially the art of storytelling, is about building connections.


CommitmentNow.com:  The Forty Rules of Love contains detailed information about 13th century Islamic society and Sufism, and the mystic poet Rumi.  How much research went into the book?


Elif:  I have been reading about Rumi intensely for the last fifteen years but it was Shams who sparked my interest in him, really. When I started doing research about Shams I basically fell in love with him. It sometimes happens to researchers, academics, and writers. We fall in love with the topic. That was years ago. I wrote my first novel when I was 24 years old and that book was awarded the Great Rumi Prize in Turkey. I was also interested in how similar were the things said by Indian mystics, Jewish mystics, Christian mystics and Muslims mystics. So my reading has been very eclectic, heterogeneous. When I started writing this novel, I did an extra research both on Shams and Rumi, and 13th century. This went on for about a year and then I put all books aside, and started to write with what came from within. After that point there was no more research.


CommitmentNow.com: You wrote The Forty Rules of Love in English and then translated it yourself into your native Turkish!  Was this difficult?


Elif:  I wrote my last three novels in English first. I did the same with The Forty Rules of Love. It was then translated by a very good translator into Turkish and I very much appreciate his work. But then I took the translated text, and in a way, I rewrote it so that it would have my rhythm, melody, and energy. In this way I wrote the novel twice, in English and Turkish. It is an insane amount of work, really. But for someone who loves language as much as I do, it is also a joy. I find it intellectually and spiritually stimulating to find and refind my literary voice in different languages and cultures. I like to commute between languages. My connection to Turkish is very deep and emotional. My connection to English is also deep and more cerebral. I find myself connected to each in a different way, and it is basically the journey between languages that excites me most.


CommitmentNow.com:  Where can we learn more about you and your writing?


Elif:  It might be helpful to visit the website www.elifshafak.com (or www.elifsafak.com.tr). There are numerous interviews, reviews, excerpts, and a lot of information here that might be of interest.


To purchase The Forty Rules of Love, click here.





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