Talking With: Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak is an outspoken Turkish author, columnist, speaker and academic. Her writing blends East and West, feminism and tradition, and the local and the global, creating one of today’s most unique voices in literature. Shafak spoke from London with VOA’s Dilshad Aliyarli about art and politics in Turkey, the power of literature, the need for tolerance and coexistence, and the responsibilities of writers in society.

The following are excerpts from their conversation.

Dilshad Aliyarli: In your novels, you talk about specifically Turkish social issues and also universal themes like coexistence and love. How do you mix the two elements, the local and the universal?

Elif Shafak: It partly comes from my own background, the way I have lived my life, [which] so far has been quite nomadic. I feel very attached to the city of Istanbul. I love Istanbul dearly, but at the same time I am a nomad in spirit — you know, I commute between cultures and cities, and languages as well. I write in English and Turkish. So, basically, I am half in London, half in Istanbul, and I think my work, my writing, respects that multiculturalism.

DA: For years, Turkey was seen as a successful combination of Islam and Western democracy. The anti-government protests of the past two years came as a great surprise. How have these events changed the country? What are the lessons of what happened in Turkey?

ES: Turkey is a very polarized country. In the past, we had people trying to bridge [the divide] and we had liberal intellectuals who were trying to understand several sides at the same time. That is no more the case. What we are really lacking is not the form of democracy but the culture of democracy. And by that I mean respect to people who think differently, who live differently. What worries me most is this ideology of sameness. Whoever has power in Turkey wants more power, and believes in an ideology of sameness, wants to create, wants to be surrounded by people who are very much similar. But sameness is very unproductive. Sameness is not conducive to art or philosophy or creativity or democracy.

DA: Do you believe that Turks will find a common language and demonstrate readiness to embrace differences among themselves?

ES: Turkey is an amazingly dynamic country, very fast moving, quite energetic and future-oriented, which enable the society to move forward quite fast. And it has a very large youth population, let’s not forget that. And the youth, they are not segregated, they are not isolated. Many of them are connected globally. On the other hand, I think we are a society of amnesia. That’s dangerous, because then you can keep on repeating the same mistakes over and over if you don’t draw those lessons from history. I think historical consciousness, awareness is an important element for a mature democracy for any society. Self-criticism is such an important element. There is a tendency in Turkey today, especially on the part of some politicians like if you criticize things they make it sound as if you don’t like your country. You can be quite critical and love your culture, your people, your land, at same time be very-very critical, critical-minded. That doesn’t mean you are betraying anything.

DA: The state has all the power in Turkey, you said in one of your articles. How much is the government able to control culture and media?

ES: Turkey comes from a strong state tradition. I think it was the same way in the Ottoman Empire, and it is the same way in today’s Turkey. And by that I mean in a mature democracy, normally you would protect individuals and minorities from the excessive power of the state. Whereas, in Turkey, it’s just the opposite. It is always that the state does have priority and that is protected vis-à-vis individuals, vis-à-vis minorities. It shouldn’t be like that. As if the state is fragile, and it is not. It is very, very strong and dominant in Turkey.

DA: You have written about issues affecting women — domestic violence, honor killings, abortion, and women’s rights. How should these issues be addressed?

ES: I don’t think they have been adequately addressed at all. Because when I look at the way how media covers these stories, it is always the picture of the women that are on the forefront. As if we have to focus on the women. What they are wearing, why they were covering their hair… I don’t want to focus on the victim. I want to focus on the perpetrator. We don’t concentrate on the stories of the men who commit these crimes, but, instead, it is always the women who have been discussed, judged, and elaborated. Starting from that point — the attitude of the media, the way our politicians talk about these issues every now and then — one leading politician in Turkey comes forward and talks about whether women should laugh or not in public spaces, or the president, Mr. Erdogan, talks about how many children woman should have.

I also believe Turkey is a very homophobic society. I don’t define feminism as a system in which men oppress women full step. Not at all like that. Even though we know that is not easy for the young woman in a patriarchal society, I think we must also remember that it is not easy for the young man either. So there is a lot pressure on the shoulders of young men. And unfortunately women play a very important role in the construction of masculinity. We raise our sons like sultans in the family. We women, we mothers treat our sons differently than our daughters. Starting from the family, there is still much to question.

DA: You believe that literature unites, while politics is based on divisions. What is the power of fiction? How can books change us?

ES: Books change us; stories change us. First of all, stories help us to understand the “other.” Stories help us to put ourselves in the shoes of another person. I have many readers in Turkey who are perhaps biased toward this identity or that group. But when they read fiction, they can associate with a fictional character. They can even love that fictional character. Somehow the mental boundaries that we have in our daily life evaporate when we are reading a story that draws us in. Inside storyland there is a bigger space for humanism. There is bigger space for empathy.

DA: What is the role and responsibilities of writers in society? How much should writers be involved in political discussions? Where are the boundaries between art and politics?

ES: It is a question that matters to me immensely. And I don’t think there is an easy answer. Being a storyteller means being interested in the human condition, in human stories. That’s why we can’t be apolitical as writers, particularly writers coming from troubled lands and wobbly democracies like Pakistan, Egypt, Turkey and many other places. Because we try to understand the past, the present, the injustices, the sorrows, and lots of other things. So there has to be some politics, naturally. However, I make a very clear distinction here: politics cannot guide us. If politics start to guide a writer, then fiction suffers. So, for me, my primary guide is always and always my imagination.

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