Elif Shafak: Voice of a New Turkey

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For me, writing fiction is not necessarily telling your own story. It’s just the opposite, in fact. It is the ability to be somene else, to transcend the self, and in that regard it’s very close to mysticism; it’s a mystical experience.

Elif Shafak
Turkish writer Elif Shafak.

Turkish writer Elif Shafak. [Fatmanur / Flickr]

The novelist Elif Shafak has taken her brave, vulnerable, fascinating place — not entirely unlike Orhan Pamuk’s — among the compelling voices of the “new Turkey.”

Her new book, The Bastard of Istanbul, is a hugely beguiling, broad, tasty sweep of the Turkish terrain — (yes, stuffed green peppers come through as virtual characters in the novel bursting with nuts, garlic, rice and spices). The cast embraces nationalists and cosmopolitans, matriarchs and teenagers, innocents and nihilists, and of course Armenians, too, in Turkey, on the Internet and in the American West.

It is the penetration of Armenian points of view — for example, “… all my family tree has been Something Somethingian, and I am the grandchild of genocide survivors who lost all their relatives at the hands of Turkish butchers in 1915” — that got Elif Shafak criminally charged (before Pamuk was) with “anti-Turkishness.”

So she has become a cause as well as a chronicler — both roles bound up now in the drama of Turkey on the path to Europe, the Pope’s visit to Istanbul and most recently the fateful assassination of the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink.

Elif Shafak is not shy about the headline issues, but she is bolder still about the underlying issues of personal and collective memory, violence, the close cousinship of cultures and people. She calls herself one of Turkey’s “very few leftist intellectuals with an interest in religion,” and a feminist scholar who wants the world to look past the tropes of “Islam and women” to traditions of eroticism, pleasure and desire alongside the layered dynamics of oppressive patriarchy.

Shafak will help us peel back the layers of identity and politics in today’s Turkey. What shall we ask her?

Extra Credit Reading

Linguistic Cleansing, New Perspectives Quarterly, Summer, 2005: “Sometimes people take their mother tongue for granted. Just the sheer fact that it is your mother tongue doesn’t mean you know it or you profess it.”

Top novelist acquitted in Turkey, BBC News, September 21, 2006: “Ms Shafak said by telephone that she was extremely relieved her trial was over. But she expressed concerns that there would be other similar cases in the future as long as Article 301 ‘is out there’.”

Elif Shafak, Writers on Trial, Washington Post, September 24, 2006: “I pointed out that my novel was full of characters with many opinions. It was impossible to judge an author simply by plucking one or two characters out of a book and saying that they represented what I believe, as the nationalists had done. It would be like judging Dostoyevsky to be a criminal because one of the characters in his books commits a crime.”

Elif Shafak, Pamuk’s Nobel is a family affair, The Guardian, October 20, 2006: “No wonder then that a novelist is always more than a novelist in Turkey. He is, first and foremost, a public figure. Novelists are the ‘babas, the fathers of their readers. They are loved and hated, looked up to and looked down upon. This is a society which is writer-oriented, not writing-oriented.”

Elif Shafak, The return of the ghetto: coming soon to a country near you, Turkish Daily News, January 13, 2007: “While the immigrant is after this invisible armor, middle classes in Europe flee heterogeneity and multiculturalism as if they were fleeing a plague. Cosmopolitanism is a swear word for hardliners on all sides. Nobody wants to really, fully blend together.”

Rebecca Jane, Book Review of The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak; Viking 2007; 357 pages, Flash Fiction, February 1, 2007: “But it was Shafak’s candid discussion of sexuality in the Middle East that provoked my interest in reading her fiction. Her comments ranged from Ottoman Empire books on sexuality to the Sufi mystical tradition of Islam that is very much open to discussions of eroticism.”


When you look at Turkey’s history, it’s a very special country. It’s a very rich country. We are the children of a multiethnic multilingual empire, and strategically, when you look at Turkey’s position, its culture, its history, it’s very heavy, very loaded. So in that sense Turkey is not Denmark. It’s a country that is firmly rooted to the West, in my opinion. And yet at the same time, it’s not European in the sense Denmark is European, in the sense Belgium is, and perhaps it doesn’t have to be, because it’s a country of hybridities, synthesis, mixtures.

Elif Shafak


The orthodox path, for instance mainstream Islam, has been more closed to women, and in that sense, can be more male-dominated. But that’s not the case at all with Islamic mysticism. It fascinates me to see the plurality, the openness of that realm. The Sufis claim that there are as many paths leading to God as the number of hearts beating for him, so Sufism cannot be reduced to one single interpretation. There are different paths, different means, and women have been much more free to operate in that plurality.

Elif Shafak


In the West I often have this feeling that I am labeled as “Muslim Woman Writer,” or a woman writer coming from the Muslim world, from the Middle East. And once you’re pigeonholed like that, once you’re labeled like that, people almost always expect you to produce accordingly. So you’re expected to tell the stories of women in Muslim societies, and if possible, to talk about how they’re being oppressed. That’s what people want to hear, but that’s not fiction, that’s not imagination, that’s not literature.

Elif Shafak


I’m fascinated with New York City, and I think, interestingly, New York and Istanbul are soulmates. I think New York has much more in common with Istanbul than with Michigan or Arizona, or with other cities in America. This tendency to find safe haven in almost sterile bubbles, the spaces of the like-minded, is something that worries me, and I think it has increased after 9/11.

Elif Shafak


Istanbul is a city that’s very dear to me, and I’m deeply in love with that city. It’s not an easy city. If you want to live a nice and quiet and tidy life, that’s not your city. She’s difficult, very difficult. And yet at the same time she’s a constant, continuous source of motivation for me. Istanbul is a mixture of opposite forces, and she forces you to challenge yourself, to rethink your basic presumptions.

Elif Shafak


I think there is amazing social transformation, political and cultural transformation, in Turkey, and in a very positive direction. And this might sound controversial, but sometimes Western journalists ask me: why are all these trials taking place? Is this a sign that the country is going backwards? And my opinion is no, it’s just the opposite. Precisely because the country has been opening up, taking lots of steps, making lots of reforms, that these things are happening, because they should be seen as a backlash.

Elif Shafak

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