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Elif Şafak, Turkey's most-read woman novelist

Elif Şafak, Turkey's most-read woman novelist
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Elif Şafak is Turkey’s most popular female writer. She has also gained fame abroad, not only for her literary accomplishments but also because of the lawsuit brought against her in Turkey because, in one of her novels she refers to the mass killings of Armenians in 1915; that is in The Bastard of Istanbul. The suit was dropped. Euronews met up with Şafak in Lyon, France, where she was attending a book festival. We asked her about her impressions of Europe, her writing and culture.

euronews: Elif Şafak, welcome to euronews.

Elif Şafak: Thank you.

euronews: Why are you so in favour of European Union membership for Turkey?

Elif Şafak: Europe needs Turkey, too. We all face the same dilemma. What kind of world, what kind of future do we all want? Europe has to ask itself this question too. Do we want to live in a world where everybody looks like each other, thinks in the same way and dresses in the same way? Or do we believe in the energy and synergy that people from different backgrounds and cultures may create in coming together around common values, while also accepting the differences? In this regard I believe Turkey may contribute a great deal to Europe, with its very dynamic and young population and its very rich culture.

euronews: What will both sides gain from such a coming together?

Elif Şafak: If you talked to a politician, you would probably get different answers. The language of politics is different. ‘We’ and ‘they’, ‘I’ and ‘other’ are the main players in politics. Politicians always create and need an ‘other’. But writers and artists can not. There is no ‘other’ for me. As a writer, I must be able to build bridges between myself and others. No culture can prosper by isolating itself from others. Different entities must be able to come together and create something beautiful together for cultures to increase their prosperity.

euronews: Do you think Turkey is culturally ready for that sort of coming together with the West?

Elif Şafak: Certainly. Turkey is a European country. But of course this doesn’t mean it’s like Norway, for instance. Turkey is a country of great synthesis. It has colours from its Ottoman, İslamic and eastern past. But at the same time it’s a country which western culture has enriched. This is a great synthesis in itself. I believe that the polarization which took place after 9/11 did not do the world any good. There has been so much talk about the so-called differences between us and others, İslam and western democracy. There are people who believe in ‘the clash of civilizations’. But there is no such thing. The meeting of cultures is a far bigger reality. The spirit of our time tells us so.

euronews: What do you think of those who see Europe as a Christian club?

Elif Şafak: There are various tendencies in Europe itself. Europe does not have only one voice. And besides that it has a very large Muslim population within it. It keeps taking in immigrants, which shows it is cosmopolitan. That is why I believe Europe has the power to digest all these differences. We should not disregard this point. I don’t think that a Europe of only one colour and one voice will do any good to Europeans.

euronews: We have been witnessing a political transformation in Turkey. As a writer, do you also see a transformation of outlook?

Elif Şafak: There is an incredible dynamism in Turkey. Writing and reading novels is the writer’s job. Most readers of novels in Turkey are women. They are the ones who keep the literature world in Turkey alive. Europe is not all that aware of this dynamism, and I find it very ironic that we do not
know each other well enough, even though we are so close geographically, and so interrelated. How well do the Germans know the Turks or the French? How well do we know them? We should be able to move beyond cliches.

euronews: What’s the role of literature in this?

Elif Şafak: I believe that literature should take no sides. It should not alienate masses but make them meet. That’s why I say the mission of a writer is not to push people aside but to build bridges. This is especially so in story telling. Stories are so universal and human that they require no visa or passport; they travel constantly around the world. Because empathy is the essence of story telling.

euronews: Your latest novel, ‘The Forty Rules of Love’, which tells a love story in the light of Sufism, has been a big success both in Turkey and abroad. Why? Do you think people are hungry for this kind of love that goes hand in hand with spirituality?

Elif Şafak: We try to understand what comes next, after this life. We try to make sense of life, death and love, and the coming together of lovers. They are universal issues. Sufism is well-known but not as well as it should be. I tried to approach the concept of love from different angles. I looked at it a bit from the East and a bit from the West. I looked at it in today’s world and I went back to the thirteenth century. I tried to look at love in both its material and spiritual dimensions. I tried to make them all meet in the novel.

euronews: You once said ‘East and West are illusional concepts we created in our minds’. Meaning what, exactly?

Elif Şafak: If you perceive the world just as a political map, you can draw boundaries very easily. But if we perceive the world from a humanistic and
cultural viewpoint, how can we draw boundaries?Everything is so connected! We should see this. everybody’s stories are interrelated, especially after 9/11. Our fates became interrelated. Unhappiness in Pakistan affects happiness in Canada. A financial crisis in America depresses people in Russia or China. We are living in world where everything lives in everything else’s embrace. This has
always been so, but we have just realized it.

euronews: You write your novels both in Turkish and English. Are you the same Elif Safak in both languages or do you change when you change language?

Elif Şafak: I write in English because I like travelling between languages, cultures and cities. When I write in English, my mindset is mathematical. But I have an emotional connection with my writing in Turkish. When changing languages we enter the labyrinths of other languages. We start talking with the rules, with the melody of the new language. I mean that we are not master of the language; it is the language that shapes US, our imagination and our mindset. So, yes, one does change when the language one is using changes. Thinking, daydreaming and even dreaming in more than one language contribute to who we are. We live in an age of constant mobility, of nomadism. That is the reality of our time.

euronews: Elif Şafak, thank you.
Elif Şafak: I thank you,too. 09.25