Best-selling Turkish novelist Elif Shafak spoke to the British Council's Ted Hodgkinson about how her global perspective has influenced her hugely successful fiction, ahead of a live-streamed discussion in Manchester on Wednesday 19 November, on how travel inspires new writing. This livestream is no longer available.
Istanbul plays a central role in your writing, from your debut to your latest novel, The Architect’s Apprentice. It is a city that defies easy categorisation, but is often the site of convergences between East and West. Is it this cosmopolitanism and melding of cultures that continuously draws you back?
Istanbul inspires, energises and suffocates me simultaneously. Strangely, it’s both old and young, East and West, modern and traditional. You put everything that sounds like a ‘cliché’ inside this cauldron called Istanbul, cook it for centuries, and the outcome is something that defies all clichés. It is full of vibrant energy and mesmerising contradictions.
For creative-minded people, Istanbul is a treasure. It’s full of stories waiting to be told, truths waiting to be uncovered. Yet at the same time, it’s a city of amnesia. People are constantly trying to erase the past, but the past resists. In Turkey, we have failed to understand the value of cosmopolitanism, coexistence and diversity. By losing these, we have lost a lot. Now it’s time to rebuild, from the ashes. But I am afraid many people are inclined to repeat the mistakes of the past, again and again.
You’ve also described Istanbul as a ‘she-city’. What gender do you think London, where you live part of the year, is?
Istanbul is a she-city, even though her femininity is constantly being threatened and suppressed. But she resists, just like the past does. As for London, London is hermaphrodite. It has a strong male side, blended with memory, identity, and zest; and it has a deep female side, blended with style, magnetism, and renewal. It’s fascinating that it can be both. I like that!
You write about the language of buildings in your latest book. Can architecture provide us with a narrative about a city’s past lives?
In 'The Architect’s Apprentice', there’s a line that says, 'Istanbul is a city of easy forgettings'. Things are written in water over there, except the works of Sinan [the 16th century Ottoman architect], which are written in stone. Architecture tells us so much about a city, a culture, a people. It tells us about our self-perception and what we want to leave to future generations. One of the truths I wanted to expose was the close connection between imperial architecture and warfare. Often the money for major constructions came from war booty. For instance, the building of the Selimiye Mosque in the Ottoman Empire was helped by the invasion of Cyprus. Not only money, but human labour too. Hundreds of galley slaves worked on construction sites. In Turkey, we rarely talk about these things.
You speak several languages and are at home writing in both Turkish and English. Does being able to switch between the two mean you can both explore a linguistic culture intimately, and also view it from an objective distance?
I love language. I love alphabets. The fact that you can build infinite meanings with a limited number of letters is, to me, still like magic. As I commute between Turkish and English I pay attention to words that cannot be translated directly. I think about not only words and meanings, but also absences and gaps. Strangely, over the years I have come to understand that sometimes distance brings you closer, stepping out of something helps you to see that thing better. Writing in English does not pull me away from Turkey; just the opposite, it brings me closer.
Every new language is an additional zone of existence. This is the century of people who dream in more than one language. If we can dream in more than one language, if our brain is perfectly comfortable with this multiplicity, then that means we can write in more than one language too, if we so wish.
When you’re writing, are there things which are better expressed in Turkish than English, and vice versa?
There are, oddly. Sorrow, melancholy, lament… these are easier to express in Turkish. Humour, irony, satire, paradox… much easier to express in English. Each language is equipped differently. On the other hand, we have removed hundreds and hundreds of words from the Turkish language in the name of 'linguistic purification'. Words coming from Arabic and Persian have been purged. I am very critical of this linguistic cleansing and I use both old and new words in Turkish. It’s a political statement. But it’s also a declaration of my love for words. All words, regardless of their ethnic or national origin.
You’ve travelled extensively, and lived in the US and now the UK. Do you increasingly feel as if you write from a global perspective?
I believe it’s possible to have multiple, flowing belongings, instead of a singular, solid identity. I am an Istanbulite, for instance, and I am also a Londoner. I am from the Mediterranean, the Middle East, the Balkans, Asia Minor, and from Europe. Inside my soul reside stories from the East and stories from the West, and I don’t know exactly where the boundary lies. I feel attached to cultures, cities, peoples, always plural. There is a strong local element in my novels, and at the same time, a strong global element. To me these things are not mutually exclusive. They can co-exist.
How does travel and experiencing new contexts and cultures feed your writing?
In this life, I have learned so much from books and from travelling. I am the child of a Turkish diplomat who worked in the 1980s when the Armenian terrorist organisation ASALA was targeting and murdering Turkish diplomats. I grew up suspecting, distrusting Armenians, seeing them as the dark 'Other'.
In time, with the help of books, research, and travelling, I started to ask questions. These helped me transcend my mental box and my own stereotypes. I visited Armenian oral archives in Canada, I visited dozens of Armenian-American families in San Francisco, Boston, Michigan, Paris, and of course, Istanbul and Ankara. I listened, I learned, and my mind and my heart expanded. I wrote The Bastard of Istanbul with this feeling. I was put on trial for 'insulting Turkishness and siding with Armenians'. But those who sued me didn’t understand that I was siding with truth, memory, responsibility, and ultimately, love and humanism.
In your novel The Forty Rules of Love a Jewish-American woman has a transformative encounter with the Sufi poetry of Rumi. Which authors have taken you on the greatest journeys?
My reading lists have always been eclectic. Because I am a curious person, you know. If a book appeals to me, I don’t care whether it is fiction or non-fiction, highbrow or lowbrow. I don’t believe in these categories. Books are books and they save us from our own limits. Of course, my biggest passion is the genre of the novel, but I also love reading books about political philosophy, spirituality, Sufism, the history of science, neuroscience and linguistics. So all of these are blended constantly inside my mind.
In that novel, a feisty publisher asks: 'Isn't connecting people to distant lands and cultures one of the strengths of good literature?' Do you share this view?
Yes, I do. Literature should take us beyond ourselves, beyond our comfort zones and mental ghettoes, catapult us so far and so forcefully that when we come back we should not be the same person any more.
Is there a place you haven’t written about which you’d like to set a future novel in?
There are several, actually. Both historical and contemporary. I’ll tell you one of them for instance: Japan.
Watch Elif Shafak discuss how travel inspires new writing with Forward Prize-winning poet Kei Miller at our Writers Return event in Manchester, which will also be live-streamed on Wednesday November 19. This livestream is no longer available.