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The Dilemma About Elif Shafak: Beyond Commonplaces?

By Leila Ferrari, MA Turkish Studies

On last Friday rainy evening, Oxford welcomed the notorious Turkish writer Elif Shafak in Lady Margate Hall Theatre, where she was interviewed by British journalist Alan Ruisberg.

At the centre of her works, there are often women, minorities and members of the LGBT community, especially from Middle Eastern societies. As a writer, she is committed to giving a voice to the outcasts of our society. She is equally well versed in identity, political and social issues that shape our views and define us as human beings. 

 “With Turkey undergoing significant political changes in recent times, threats to freedom of speech have become real. Journalists and writers are running a major risk by working in their profession.”

Born in Strasbourg, she spent her early childhood with both her parents in a vivid multicultural environment at a time when students always had the word “revolution” on their tongues. Yet, prior to starting primary school, she relocated to Turkey with her mother after her parents‘ divorce. There she had to adapt to life in a country she did not know before and to a rather conservative and patriarchal environment. Yet, her nomadism did not end there as she kept travelling and, once an adult, moved to Istanbul, subsequently to the U.S., then back to Istanbul and finally to London, where she acquired the British nationality.

Writing was what kept everything together, it was that constant in this nomadic life of hers. Yet, novels are also that free space that allows humans to seek that intellectual exchange and emotional intelligence that they need. She sees the novel as “one of the few democratic spaces that we have left, a space that brings together the mind and the heart.”

With Turkey undergoing significant political changes in recent times, threats to freedom of speech have become real. Journalists and writers are running a major risk by working in their profession. The Turkish novelist experienced how dangerous it can be to express certain thoughts as she was put on trial for insulting Turkishness in 2006. Her novel “The Bastard of Istanbul” tackles the Armenian genocide that Turkey until this day denies. The writer expressed her concerns as she described Turkish society as being inflicted by “collective amnesia”. Istanbul may be full of historical places, but nobody would know what happened there or why a street would have a certain name. That is why, in her latest novel, “10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in This Strange World”, Elif Shafak told the story of a prostitute killed and subsequently buried by the authorities in the Cemetery of the Companionless. This place is where outcasts, those despised and forgotten by society, are buried.

Whether she has faith for improvement in her country is not easy to understand: “I am pessimistic by nature, I’m Turkish! I always joke that the level of pessimism increases starting from south of the Danube and, by the time you reach Romania, the level of pessimism is higher than in northern Europe. Our societies are pessimistic”. Yet, she says it is important for the intellect to be a pessimist, but the mind must remain an optimist. Does this somehow make her more optimistic than she thinks she is?

The author herself has a complex identity, so crosscutting identities are crucial to her work. In fact, “vertical identities lead to clashes because they’re not overlapping”. There should be more intersectionalities between the so-called vertical identities, traditionally accepted by society (for example, heterosexual, Christian, white in America) and horizontal identities (Black, Asian, gay, autistic or whatever opposes to the vertical identity), often considered as flaws. However, though she seems to be against categorisations and to advocates for more open-mindedness, Elif Shafak often uses common prejudicial Western imageries about the Middle East for her stories further nurturing the reader’s ideas of what they already imagine about living in Turkey as a woman, a sex worker, LGBT, or a member of an ethnic minority. 

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