About The Author
Elif Shafak (Elif Şafak in Turkish; author photo by İnci Cabir) is a Turkish writer who was born in Strasbourg and raised in Ankara. She was set on the path to be awriter by her mother who encouraged to keep ajournal from the age of eight. She holds a Masters degree in Gender and Women's Studies and a PhD in Political Science.
She writes in both English and Turkish, blending Western and Eastern traditions of storytelling. She is Turkey's bestselling female writer: The Forty Rules of Love sold over 600,000 copies in Turkey alone.
She has has won numerous literary awards both in Turkey and abroad, including France's prestigious Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. The Flea Palace was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2006 and The Bastard of Istanbul was longlisted for the 2008 Orange Prize. The Forty Rules of Love has been longlisted for the 2012 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Her books have been translated into more than thirty languages and she has over half a million followers on Twitter.
Shafak writes for the major Turkish newspaper, Haberturk, and her writing has been featured in newspapers around the world such as the Guardian, the Wall Street Journal, Die Zeit and the New York Times. She also writes lyrics for a number of rock musicians.
Her dual upbringing by her educated, secular divorced mother and her traditional, religious grandmother has informed much of her writing, particularly The Forty Rules of Love. It is this book which most reflects her interest in Sufism, the mystical aspect of Islam.
Her second book to be written in English, The Bastard of Istanbul, was the bestselling book of 2006 in Turkey but also resulted in charges being brought against her for "insulting Turkishness"; this were later dropped. Words uttered by fictional Armenian characters about the real-life slaughter of over a million Armenians that occurred in the final years of the Ottoman Empire were used to put her on trial under Article 301 of the Turkish penal code.
Her latest novel is Honour, published as Iskender in Turkey, where it has already topped the bestseller lists and provoked much debate. Twin sisters, Pembe and Jamila, are born near the Euphrates in 1945, but their fates are to be very different. Jamila remains in the place where she was born, a valued herbalist, while Pembe emigrates to London with her husband. It is the 1970s and Toprak family find it difficult to settle. Pembe's husband, Adem, is attracted by the allure of gambling, in a world where nobody is quite who he or she claims to be, and falls for a Bulgarian dancer passing herself off a more exotic Russian.
The isolated Pembe eventually embarks on a cautious affair with Elias, a man whose complex ethnic background allows him to be accepting of cultural differences. When their eldest son learns of this, he feel he has no choice but to step into the patriarchal role his father seems to have abandoned and must tackle his mother's shame as tradition demands.
Honour is a remarkable novel that explores the clash between tradition and modernity, the bonds of family and the reality of love and loss. It also provides great insight into the immigrant experience in London and the shocking custom of honour killings.
In this exclusive interview with Foyles, Elif discusses the tumultuous 1970s, the different possibilities afforded by writing in two languages and how the problem of honour killings is more than just an Islamic issue.
Follown Elif on Twitter: @elif_safak
Questions & Answers
Issues raised by the book such as racism in Britain and honour killings are still relevant today. Why did you decide to depict them in the context of the 1970s?
The 1970s was a fascinating decade of change and crisis. I find that combination quite interesting. On the one hand there was a series of deadlocks, in economy, politics, society, culture, as well as internationally. On the other hand, people had not yet lost hope that things could and would change and they would be the major actors in that transformation. I wanted to tell the story against this background. Hope and despair, connections and clashes, individual and society, us and them. I wanted to deal with these dualities, many of which are, of course, still relevant today.
The honour killing at the centre of the book is in response to Pembe's affair with Elias, a man of complex and diverse ethnicity. Is he a symbol of the understanding that can be brought about by a multicultural society?
In Turkish the word Toprak means 'soil, earth'. Such is the surname of the immigrant family in the novel. They are displaced, and yet attached to the past, the idea of a 'homeland', an imaginary soil that awaits them somewhere. Elias, however, is like an airplant, he is a man of multiple belongings, a global soul. It was important to me to explore this existential difference. A difference I too have experienced since my childhood. I like to think of my writing as a drawing compass. One leg of my storytelling, is fixed, deeply rooted in Istanbul, meanwhile the other leg of the compass is peripatetic, drawing wider circles, connected to the world. As such my stories are from somewhere
Observing native London women, Pembe "marvel[s] at how they wore their femininity like a gown". Is the source of her amazement more the nature of their expression or the fact that they can do so without interference from a more patriarchal culture?
Pembe is surprised and shocked by so many things happening in England in 1970s, couples kissing in the streets, women walking around without bras, youngsters drinking in front of pubs, and the way the word 'shame' can be used lightly. I think it is the very fact that women can exist without interference from a controlling male perspective that intrigues her most. She sees this difference and the individual freedom that comes with it, she recognizes it, yearns for it.
It is Pembe's eldest son Iskender who takes on the duty of preserving family honour. Is the violence of his response to Pembe's affair driven by anger at his father's failures?
In strongly patriarchal settings it is not easy to be a woman. However, it is not easy to be a man either, particularly a young man. There is a lot of pressure on male individuals so that they can conform to the given definition of 'ideal masculinity'. Any young man who deviates from this path can be mocked, ridiculed, distanced. Iskender is a bully but he himself is under a lot of pressure. As the eldest son, it is his responsibility to protect the family's honour. And the fact that his father is weak, and basically absent, makes him all the more determined to act as 'the head of the family'.
Ultimately, it is the youngest son, Yunus, who assimilates most seamlessly into western society. Does the time he spends with the local squatters offer him a window into the common humanity of other cultures?
Yunus is the kind of person who can connect with fellow human beings regardless of religion, sex, class, ethnicity or nationality. He is curious, loving, and has an open heart and an open mind. It always intrigues me how children who have grown up in the same family can turn out to be so different. And in this case the two sons are very different. Yunus' encounter with the squatters is important in his formation. He learns a lot from that experience. I believe in this life, if we ever learn anything we learn it from people who are different than us, not similar to us.
There seems to be a fundamental split in the way that the men of the Toprak family can gamble, drink and have affairs, but any stain upon the reputation of its women is seen as irretrievable. Is the inability of any of the women to tackle this simply down to cultural indoctrination?
This gender gap, unfortunately, is too often the case. Men can gamble, lose money, spend the night outside, have affairs, sometimes they leave their homes and come back much later. These things are no secret, they are not approved, of course, it is a shame, but then men are not being stigmatized for such behaviour. When it comes to women, a totally different set of criteria are applied.
After starting out writing in Turkish, your last three books have been written in English. Do you feel this has changed the way you write in any way?
I am a lover of language, of words, simply the alphabet itself. I have been writing in English and Turkish for the last eight years, commuting between languages. It is an enriching, inspiring and challenging experience for a novelist. I have started learning English at the age of 10, so I am a 'latecomer' in this language. Like thousands of people. We dream in more than one language, we experience a constant gap between what the mind wants to say and what the tongue is capable of saying. This is terrifying, but it is also inspiring and rewarding, because then you pay more attention to language, and can never take words for granted. I feel attached to each language in a different way. Some things I find it easier to say in Turkish, some others in English. It is easier to write about sorrow in Turkish. When it comes to humour, irony, satire, I find it much easier in English.
One of your previous books, The Bastard of Istanbul, resulted in charges in Turkey, eventually dismissed, of "insulting Turkishness" because the book tackles the Armenian Genocide. Did this make you wary about how your portrait of Islam might be received by Turkish readers?
I was put on trial for "insulting Turkishness." The sentences uttered in the novel by purely fictional characters were used as evidence. It was a sad, surreal experience. In every novel, I tell a different story. I personally do not think honour killings should be seen as a problem germane to Islam. Not at all. It is not religion per se but people's interpretation of religion. Therefore it is the society, the culture, the traditions that should be questioned. I did not identify the problem with any particular religion, ethnicity or nationality. I wanted to show the complexity of it, as well as the connections. Let us not forget that the problem of patriarchy is a hugely universal problem. Honour killings are an extreme form of oppression, but violence against women and gender discrimination run deep and wide all around the world.