Speaking to Shafak it is immediately clear why she is so admired. She possesses a passion and eloquence that is contagious, and a sincere desire to change the world through her writings. She is also a true global citizen. Having lived in more cities than we can count, across three different continents, she’s formed a central belief that nations, governments and individuals must unite in order to prosper. In this regard there is a lot of work to be done both in her homeland and elsewhere. But Shafak remains optimistic when she sees readers from all faiths and political beliefs sharing a love of her transformative work.
You’ve talked a lot about the benefits of travel, but a lot of ordinary people don’t have the opportunity to travel, and so they’re limited to the discourse of their immediate surroundings and their identity politics. How do you confront this issue in your work?
I come from Turkey, a country that is quite tribal in many ways. What I mean by that is usually people live in their own islands, cultural ghettos, and echo chambers. As a writer I always wanted to transcend that. In a society as collective as Turkey there’s very little room for individuality, so I always wanted to encourage that too. In my writing I deliberately try to give more words to minorities. Sexual, cultural, and ethnic minorities, whoever might be the ‘other’. I want to hear that person’s voice. I want to bring the periphery to the centre and give more voice to those who have been suppressed or silenced. This is a constant effort in all of my books.
How do you respond to so much global upheaval geo politically right now?
I think we are going through turbulent times, both East and West. We’re a liquid world where everything is changing fast and there’s a lot of ambiguity. This ambiguity creates anxiety, and anxiety creates fear, and fear sometimes creates more rigidity in politics. We need more emotional intelligence. We can’t fight against populist demagogues with only facts and statistics, with reason and logic. There has to be something else, and that’s emotional intelligence.
What do you mean by emotional intelligence?
Emotional intelligence is not the opposite of rational intelligence. That artificial difference between heart and mind is completely imaginary. Emotional intelligence is a juxtaposition of emotions and rationality together. We need to talk about anxiety, fears, expectations, hopes, frustrations. It’s okay to have all of these feelings, and together we can find a better way forward than the way suggested to us by all of these populist demagogues. Sadly, coming from Turkey taught me a lot because it has very sad lessons for many countries across the world. It was in Turkey that a government came to power by using the means of democracy, and once they consolidated their power they started to suppress all other voices. It’s in Turkey that we can see how fragile democracy is, and how societies can go backwards so fast that you can’t even analyse it. The rights that you take for granted can be taken away from you. It’s a heart-breaking story of increasing authoritarianism and nationalism.
"We should not make the mistake of confusing a government with its people."
Elif Shafak on the future of Turkey
Do you think that you’re viewed as a threat, especially as a woman with a strong voice in a society where many women are not given voices?
There’s no doubt that Turkey is a very patriarchal, very sexist, and homophobic society. In countries like ours things might seem open minded but when you scratch the surface it’s the same old patriarchy underneath. You could say the same of everywhere but especially in countries like Turkey, in these countries gender is a big criteria but also age. Until a women gets old in the eyes of society she won’t be respected. I’ve learned this the hard way. When you are regarded as old you are defeminised and desexualised. There’s an interesting contrast there because patriarchal societies are matriarchal in the house. We always respect the grandmother but never younger women. So for a women writer and journalist to be respected is a difficult thing. It’s a long struggle. You will constantly be looked down upon. There is a lot of discrimination, some of it subtle, some of it more obvious, but this is a fact.
When I watch you speak in debates you’re incredibly calm and logical. Often when women speak in public about something they’re passionate about they’re seen as aggressive, but you seem to possess a water-like calmness even when discussing heavy topics. How do you maintain that?
Well I’ve been in these settings so many times, in debates with male speakers who are full of anger. People think that by speaking louder than anyone else they will be right and they will win. I find that approach problematic and very wrong. In my new book there’s a sentence, “if you’re not willing to change your opinion you should not enter into a conversation.” Every conversation means – I’m here and these are my thoughts, but I’m ready to listen to you, I’m ready to change. I believe there is transformation at the heart of true conversation. It’s important to be fluid and that doesn’t mean that you don’t have a core. That core should be strong but it should also be open and receptive. Writers need to be good listeners, but we all need to be good listeners. When I talk and write, I like to confront very heavy subjects through calmness.
Elif Shafak speaking at the World Economic Forum
How does listening play a role in your writing and your advocacy work?
I love to listen to people. I travel a lot and wherever I go I like to listen to two things, what people are saying but also how they are saying what they are saying. What kind of energy and emotions they’re speaking with. I always believe that how you express yourself makes a huge difference. At the end of the day all writers write about similar subjects. We have a few topics and they’re love, heartbreak, family, memory. The difference is how we write about those topics. It’s always style that separates one individual from another. As people who believe in democracy we are going through very challenging times and how we choose to convey our messages are just as important as the messages themselves.
What does the word ‘fear’ mean to you, and how do you deal with it in your work and life?
I think there are a lot of attempts to suppress fear, which doesn’t help. Whatever you suppress will come back to you. There’s a lot to fear today, and a lot to be worried about. People worry about their children not finding jobs, people have fears about immigrants, and about the economy going down the drain. It would be a big mistake to look down upon these people and say they’re crazy for having these fears. That’s something that the liberal elite have done, both in Britain and America. This is not the right way forward. We have to understand that it’s okay to be afraid from time to time. Let’s talk about our fears openly but let’s not be guided by fear. That’s where I draw the line. My reading of history has taught me that when countries are guided by fear they have made the worst mistakes. We have to first of all understand that people can have different emotions but find a better response to those emotions.
You gave a TED talk called ‘The Politics of Fiction’ about the power of fiction, and how it can shift a narrative and bring people together. We interviewed the environmentalist Tim Smit recently and he said, “Humans are capable of amazing acts of redemption if you can get the story right.” But stories can also be very dangerous can’t they?
What you’re saying is so important. Today politics as we know it is changing, and stories can be employed to create more tribalism and unfortunately more fundamentalism of all kinds. I see this all the time in the Middle East especially. Some of these stories are real and some of them are fabricated, but one particular story can be picked and used to create a stereotype of the West. The same thing is done in Europe by far right groups to demonise Muslims. So it can be dangerous.
"People think that by speaking louder than anyone else they will be right and they will win."
Elif Shafak on male agression
Turkey is a country that was built on words. So were many countries, including America, and words can be as nefarious as they can be positive. So do we just avoid words all together?
No of course we don’t. Words are beautiful and magical. It all depends how you use words. I think language guides us most of the time. Language is not like an instrument we can use and then put aside, it’s a labyrinth into which you enter, and you have to respect its rhythm and its own pace. For me it’s magical that with a limited number of letters you can create infinite words. But we have to understand that words can be manipulated by demagogues. Unfortunately we’re living in a time when facts are not as important as rhetoric, so the biggest challenge for people like us is, how do we deal with the power of baseless, factless rhetoric that nationalists are using?
You were put on trial for your words and for stories that weren’t even real. Tell us about that.
Yeah that was a very surreal experience because I was put on trial under article 301 for writing a novel about Armenian genocide. I wrote about the past, memory, amnesia, mostly through the eyes of women. When the book came out I experienced two things. There was so much positive feedback from the readers, and at the same time horrible negative reactions from the elite accusing me of betraying the nation.
Who was supportive of you during that time?
Readers. I’m not going to say ordinary readers because no one is ordinary, but I mean they were not famous people. They supported me. They read the book, shared the book, and it became a bestseller.
Do you think the controversy surrounding the book helped its success?
Yes and no. It might have helped people become curious but that’s not going to make them love the book. There’s something very sincere and direct when we talk about a reader’s connection with a book. I’ve always been a reader’s writer more than a writer for the elite. When a reader likes a book they share the book. A women will send it to her aunt, and the aunt will send it to her son, and he shares it with his friend, so the same book travels from one person to the next, and one copy can be read by five or six people. People share the stories they love and that’s very heart-warming for a writer.
At the same time my lawyer had to defend my fictional Armenian characters in court because the words of these fictional characters were plucked from the text and used as evidence that I was insulting Turkishness.
A protestor reacts in front of a poster of Turkish novelist Elif Shafak during a demonstration
Tell us about the current political climate in Turkey and how you view its failings.
I think one of the biggest mistakes governments like Turkey’s make is to confuse majoritarianism with democracy. They think if you get the majority in the ballot box you are entitled to do whatever you want and call it a democracy. That’s not a democracy, that’s majoritarianism. It’s the dominance of the majority over the rest of society. For a proper democracy to exist you need other things such as a free independent media, free independent academia, women’s rights, LGBT rights, with all these factors together you can have a democracy. So what we have in Turkey cannot be called a democracy. All these rights are at best ignored, and at worst suppressed.
Something that has been written about you is that you are “seen by many in Turkey as a foreigner, a member of the global elite, and your writing is entirely at odds with Islamist Turkey.” Would you agree with that description of yourself?
In my own motherland I always felt like an insider outsider. What I mean by that is I’m enough of an insider to understand and love the culture, connect with the people, appreciate its beauties and its richness, and at the same time enough of an outsider to have the cognitive distance to see things from a different angle. That is a very lonely position to be in, but I think that kind of loneliness is the right thing for a writer. You have to be alone. You shouldn’t belong to any collective identity. The interesting thing is that because I have insisted on this position for many years I have readers from all kinds of backgrounds. I have readers who are liberals, leftists, democrats, but I also have readers who are conservatives, women who wear head scarves, Kurds, Armenians, Jews, priests, and minorities. So people who do not necessarily break bread together all read the same book, and that matters to me. The diversity of my readers is very precious.
While you were growing up you spent a lot of your time living away from Turkey. Did that play a big part in your own sense of being an outsider?
Yes, my story is a little bit complicated. I was born in France and came to Turkey with my mother, went to Spain and came back again, there was a time in Jordan, and Germany, then finally I came to Istanbul because I fell in love with the city. I lived for many years in Istanbul and I went to school there. I went through the national education and came out very critical of nationalism, so it didn’t convert me. In fact it did just the opposite.
I also went to international schools abroad so that gave me the chance to compare the kind of education I was receiving in Turkey and the kind of education I was seeing elsewhere. Travelling and seeing other cities and cultures, these things were my major teachers in life. My writing and even my personality benefitted a lot from those travels.
"I also have readers... who do not necessarily break bread together but all read the same book."
Elif Shafak on breaking boundaries
How has your writing benefitted from your travels?
I never saw writing fiction as an autobiographical endeavour necessarily. From the very beginning I thought my life was very boring and what interested me much more than telling my story was to become someone else, then someone else again, and to look at the same story from a different angle, to look at history from the point of view of those who were never allowed to write about history. That how it began. For me writing fiction is a very transcendental journey. I love becoming the other to the point where there is no other anymore. I love it when people from completely different backgrounds come together. That’s where the biggest potential for creativity, and philosophy, and art and democracy lies. In my work I like to bring together people from different backgrounds and challenge those mental and cultural walls, not to mention religious and gender walls as well.
70 percent of Turkey’s population is under 35 years old. What do you see for the future of a country with such a young population? Do you feel personally that you have a strong responsibility to educate?
I think that Turkey is a very important country and what happens there has repercussions beyond it. Over the years I have met so many readers from Pakistan, Lebanon, Kuwait, Jordan, who come to me and say, “We used to look at Turkey as a role model and now we’re very sad.” Because for a while Turkey seemed to be the symbol of a possibility; the possibility that a majority Muslim country could adopt Western democracy, and secularism, and create a harmonious outcome. That possibility is being threatened now. However it’s a complicated country and we should not make the mistake of confusing a government with its people. Turkey as a society is far more colourful and complicated than the AKP government. Unfortunately it’s a very politically polarised country, and I don’t think that’s healthy. As you said there’s a big chunk of the population that is so young and I’m very worried that these people don’t have the opportunity to travel. It makes such a big difference if you are able to go abroad, if you are able to fall in love with someone who comes from a different place with a different religion. We must encourage people to interact. Isolation is very dangerous and I’m worried that some populist politicians in Europe don’t understand that. If they distant Turkey from Europe it will only stir the interests of isolationists in Turkey. Let us not isolate Turkey, let us encourage Turkey’s civil society and especially Turkey’s young people to be globally integrated.
You have sold millions of books and won many awards. Is this how you always imagined success?
I think humans are very anxious creatures and we’re never completely happy. I always focus on the book I’m yet to write. I’ve just started writing my next one.
What is that process like for you?
It’s a process that has a lot of pain, and suffering, and anguish. It doesn’t matter if it’s your first book or tenth book, you go through the same process again and again and there are lots of ups and downs. But there’s no other way for me to breathe. I do it without knowing why I am doing it. Since I was a child stories have kept me sane. I do it because I love it and I feel connected to something stronger than my limited self.
Do you learn things about yourself in the course of writing a book?
Absolutely. That’s the beauty of it. By the time you finish a book you are not the same person anymore. Books change their writers as well as their readers. You discover something new about yourself, but that comes hand in hand with the discovery of other people. Our stories are interconnected and therefore our destinies are interconnected.
It comes back to the thing we started off talking about which is empathy and emotional intelligence. I think everyone is terrified of change, but I hope that when people read your books it can change the way they think.
You’re right, people are so afraid of change. Human beings are creatures of habit, they think that what they’re used to is always better than everything else, but the beauty of art is that it can change people without preaching. I have many readers in Turkey who are honestly quite xenophobic and when you talk to them they all have awful biases against Jews, Armenians, Greeks, Christians, but they come to me and tell me that they love this character, and the character they’re talking about is maybe Greek or Armenian or Jewish. When they are reading that book they can relate to that character. The same thing happens with homophobia. I’ve thought about why this happens and my answer is that when we are alone we are more tolerant, and a bit more ready to connect with other people’s stories. When we are in the company of friends or family, in crowds, we become less tolerant.
Once you know the story of someone it’s much more difficult to detach yourself from them. My view is that the subject of faith is too important to leave to the religious. Patriotism is too important to leave to the nationalists. Emotions are too important to leave to populists. As people coming from liberal circles we need to reclaim these subjects.
All three of these people taught me how to capture and cultivate my own individual creative voice regardless of the pressure coming from around me.