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Elif Shafak

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 a writer by her mother who encouraged her to keep a journal from the age of eight. She holds a Masters degree in Gender and Women's Studies and a PhD in Political Science. Elif lives in London.

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 has sold just under a million copies in Turkey alone.

She 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 was longlisted for the 2012 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Her books have been translated into 48 languages and she has over 1.7 million followers on Twitter.

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. She is a public speaker, a women's and LGBT rights activist and a commentator.

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'; these were later dropped.

Honour, published as Iskender in Turkey, topped the bestseller lists and provoked much debate. It 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.

Elif's new novel, Three Daughters of Eve, now available in paperback, is set across Istanbul and Oxford, from the 1980s to the present day and is a sweeping tale of faith and friendship, tradition and modernity, love and an unexpected betrayal. Below, exclusively for Foyles, Jonathan Ruppin talked to Elif about the 'dance of faith and doubt', how we are descending into an age in which populism speaks louder than cosmopolitanism and why confusion is precious.  

Underneath that is Jonathan's earlier interview about Honour in which 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.

Follow Elif on Twitter: @elif_safak




Questions & Answers

Cover of Three Daughters of EveInterview with Elif about Three Daughters of Eve

Peri has a fascination with words: 'She held them in her palms like eggs about to hatch, their tiny hearts beating against her skin, full of life.' Does this mirror your own relationship with language?

I think you are absolutely right. Peri's relationship with language mirrors my own. I was a lonely child, an introvert and I had this curious habit of playing with letters for hours instead of playing with toys. At that early age I was fascinated by the alphabet — the fact that we can create thousands and thousands of words with only a limited number of letters seemed magical to me. It still does. I guess I never saw language as a tool or an instrument. It was rather a continent, a vast space I retreated into. For the last 15 years I have been writing my novels in English first. Then each novel is translated into Turkish by a professional translator and I take the translated manuscript and rewrite it. It is a bit insane, to be honest. It is a lot of work. I do it because I love language. Languages, plural. If there is sorrow, melancholy, longing in the story I find it much easier to express it in Turkish. When there is humour, black humour, irony, satire, I find it much easier to convey that in English. 


At times of great crisis, some sort of a guiding spirit, in the guise of a baby surrounded by mist, appears to Peri. Does this idea come from any particular belief system?

I am not a believer and I do not adhere to any belief system. In truth, I do not like the way religions — all religions — divide humanity into categories of 'us' and 'them'. But I am someone who happens to be very interested in God — the possibility of God. But I must emphasize that I am interested in Faith and Doubt together. Side by side. So I neither share the unequivocal certainty of religious people nor the unequivocal certainty of atheists. I think faith is an important subject. In fact, it is so important that it cannot be left to the religious. I like to read, think and write about these issues — but from a completely secular, humanist, agnostic and spiritual angle. I guess what I like most is the dance of faith and doubt. Faith without doubt is pure dogma and dogmas are dangerous. Doubt without faith is intellectual dullness. As human beings we need both a dose of faith and a dose of doubt. Simultaneously. I write about dualities because I long for a new approach that debunks the dualistic way of thinking. 


Your portrait of Istanbul today is full of dichotomies: authoritarian and liberal, religious and secular, Eastern and Western, rich and poor. Is it two cities living side-by-side or do these opposites ever meet?

There is no Istanbul. There are Istanbuls —- plural, coexisting, clashing. A city of mesmerizing conflicts. It abounds with dichotamies —- political, religious, social, cultural, emotional dualities. There were also overlaps between the sides. There were. Not any more. My concern is that the overlaps are melting away; the few people who tried to build bridges between different sides are exhausted, forsaken and defeated because the entire country has become deeply antagonistic. Turkey has become an increasingly polarized and bitterly politicized country. There is a sad erosion of the culture of coexistence, a loss of shared values. Turkey’s political elite have been stoking up these divisions deliberately because it served their interests to do so; politicians in power benefited from pitting half of the country against the other half. They alienated half of the society as if those who do not vote for them are not 'the real people'. 'Democracy' cannot and should not be confused with 'majoritarianism'. They are two completely different things. Turkey is a heartbreaking example of what happens when a country's ruling elite confuses democracy with majoritarianism. 


Peri stands out for her vacillation on matters of faith: her two friends at Oxford, Mona and Shirin, leave her again caught between the poles of belief and atheism, just as she was with her parents back in Istanbul. Do you feel we are drawn to certainty, on religion and other issues, because it is an easier state than one of open-mindedness?

The three girls in Oxford —- Shirin, Mona and Peri —- each have a different relationship to faith and identity. They jokingly call themselves The Sinner, The Believer, The Confused. The novel mostly focuses on the journey of the Confused. In some ways, confusion is precious. But we don't generally see it this way. Nor does Peri. 

Certainty is a much easier state of being, at least in the short run. Simplifying things is practical. Ours is an age of non-stop information flow — there is too much information, too little wisdom, too much ambiguity; we live in a liquid world where everything happens too fast and there is barely any time to stop and analyse. Many people feel threatened by the complexity of the age. They feel more comfortable when they shut themselves in their own cultural ghettoes; they tend to assume that they will be 'safer' if they are surrounded by 'sameness', but this is an illusion. They stay in their 'tribes' and delegate things to so-called 'strong leaders'. I am very critical of this tendency to expect 'Father-politicians', 'Baba leaders' to solve the pressing problems of the times; it is a sign of a society infantilizing itself when voters put their Baba Leader on a pedestal only to become scared of him at the end. East and West there are worrying political undercurrents. We are descending into an age in which populism speaks louder than cosmopolitanism; simplistic and jingoistic messages are in vogue. As citizens we must resist this anti-intellectual, anti-truth and essentially anti-pluralistic movement, which could easily to take us all back down into one of the darkest alleys in world history. 


What happened when Peri was a student at Oxford leaves her, in the present day, seemingly to have abandoned her exploration of the balance between knowledge and understanding – the Sufi mystic Rumi's 'Two Kinds of Intelligence'. Has adulthood forced to her to prioritise practical considerations over existential ones? Is metaphysics an indulgence of youth?

Youth means curiosity. It is the ability to ask questions... the refusal to be satisfied with humdrum answers. People start ageing not when they surpass a certain age threshold. They start getting old when they stop asking questions. And a writer's job, I believe, is to keep asking questions. We must raise difficult questions about difficult subjects, including social, political and sexual taboos. But it is not a writer's job to try to give the answers. I don't like it when writers try to teach or preach. Our job is to ask while the answers should be left to the readers. 


When asked by Professor Azur to say why they have joined his seminar on God, almost every student defines her reply in terms of religion. Does the contemporary clash between religion and secularism prevent public consideration of the nature of the divine? 

East and West we have become so obsessed with religion and politics that we rarely talk about God in a philosophical way any more. I have followed dozens of academic debates on both sides of the Atlantic in which one religious scholar is pitted against one atheist scholar and nobody really listens to the other and the entire conversation is dualistic, antagonistic. I find the pattern intellectually boring, repetitive, unexciting. The challenge is to create secular spaces to talk about faith and doubt and diversity. How do we expand the boundaries of our language so as to be able to converse with people who come from completely different traditions? How do we get out of our echo chambers and bridge cognitive and cultural gaps, these are the main challenges. The possibility of God was a question that so many mystics, philosophers, scholars and poets asked for centuries, among them there were many agnostics and secularists. There were many 'mystics' who were essentially 'misfits'. 


Recent political events have suggested that opinion on many topics is becoming ever more polarised and that extremism is on the rise. What role do you feel writers of fiction can play in shaping more understanding and discourse?

We writers from wobbly and wounded semi-democracies or non-democracies, such as Turkey, Pakistan and Nigeria, never had the luxury of being apolitical. Nowadays more and more Western authors are feeling the same urgency. In a world where extremist populist demagogues shape politics and foreign policies, so much is at stake. 

Whether some people like it or not, after decades of accelerated globalization, we are all deeply interconnected, all of us. Our stories, our destinies are interwoven. We are world citizens as well as citizens of a particular nation. What happens in one part of the globe affects the life of someone else miles and cultures away. It is one of the biggest and saddest paradoxes of our times that despite (and also because of) globalization and internationalism, the ghosts of nationalism and isolationism made a strong comeback. It feels like we have learned nothing from history. And memory is a responsibility at times of collective amnesia.





Cover of HonourInterview with Elif Shafak about her earlier novel, Honour

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
and everywhere.

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.



Available Titles By This Author

Three Daughters of Eve
Elif Shafak
The Architect's Apprentice
Elif Shafak
The Bastard of Istanbul
Elif Shafak
The Forty Rules of Love
Elif Shafak
The Flea Palace
Elif Shafak
The Gaze
Elif Shafak
Elif Shafak

Past Events for this Author

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