Elif Shafak, the most widely read novelist in Turkey, was in advocatory mood at Oxford Literary Festival last Saturday. Lamenting the demise of the kind of oral tradition former generations once
extolled in Turkey, she illustrated some of the ways in which language in a written culture can be used to address barriers. Above all, and in whatever form, ‘we need stories’, she
The curiously nomadic Dr. Shafak was born to Turkish parents, raised by her mother (a diplomat) and grandmother, and only acquired English after moving from her birthplace in Strasbourg to Madrid
as a child. Today she speaks with such acuity in English about so many topics (she’s a political scientist by training) that it’s hard to believe she still feels her mind running faster
than her tongue. But that gap, she explained, has always fed her inspiration.
Many of her books are written in English. Many are written in Turkish. ‘Once a story comes she comes (because I do think that a story is a ‘she’) with her own language; I respect
that’, she said. Certain things, such as satire and humour, work better in English, a more ‘cerebral’ language; Turkish is more ‘emotional’ and better for expressing
sorrow. While her vocabulary in Turkish oscillates between the everyday and the forgotten ‘the language has become homogenized, but I like using a very mixed vocabulary’, her books in
English, such as The Forty Rules of Love often
display a heavily westernized diction. She recalled at the Festival her grandmother’s passion for the oral tradition, and her mother’s for written culture. Reading Shafak in Turkish and
in English presumably evinces something of that polarity.
Turkish society, she said, is particularly polarized when it comes to receiving writers. Far more than in the UK, authors in Turkey are popular personalities, except for female writers, who are
generally only respected once they mature in age. Most fiction writers in Turkey are men, their readers women. When a female reader loves a book, Shafak explained, she will give it to her aunt, who
will give it to her niece; whole families flock to book signings in Turkey. The only drawback amidst all this, she said, is that the autonomy of art is not recognised.
And Shafak should know. In 2006 she was taken to court on the charge of flouting the infamous Article 301 of the
Turkish criminal code — ‘insulting Turkishness’ — through the words of a fictional character in her novel "http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Bastard-Istanbul-Elif-Shafak/dp/0141031697/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1333362543&sr=1-2">The Bastard of Istanbul. ‘What does that
mean?’ She remains incredulous to this day. ‘That article is still there, and should be abolished.’
Her new novel, Honour, from which she read an extract, continues to disassemble the difficulties of
integrating these languages and cultures. Raising sons in Turkey, she suggests, is often to their ruin. Raising sons of half Turkish, half Kurdish descent in 1970s Hackney poses its own, but often
For all the differences between Turkish and British reactions to stories, Shafak believes fervently that fiction, and the characters of fiction, are important because ‘the individual is the
mirror image of the universe’. As difficult, if even entirely desirable, as it may be to bridge the gap between the cultures which receive her novels, she at least provides, with some verve,
the opportunity for the universe to be the mirror image of her literature and the languages which create it.
Honour by Elif Shafak will be published this Thursday by Viking.