Elif Shafak Interview with Haagsche Courant newspaper by Jan-Hendrik Bakker, January 2005

The interview occurred during the International Literary Conference in Holland where Elif was a panelist, January 21-23, 2005

Elif Shafak1. Your bio and bibliography do suggest a cosmopolitan feeling of life. Am I right?

That’s right. I was born in France and after my parents got separated I came to Turkey with my mom. I was raised by a single mother and I think that fact has left a deep impact on my personality and writing. In a society as patriarchal as Turkey, it was quite a distinct experience not to grow up amidst an extended family but to be raised by a single mom.

When I was around nine-or ten my mom became a diplomat and after that we traveled to Madrid-Spain, Amman-Jordan and Koln-Germany together.
Cosmopolitanism was a condition of my childhood at the beginning, in time, however, it became a personal choice for me. I chose to live a cosmopolitan, almost nomadic life.

2. When you returned to Turkey, was that kind of a home coming? Can you give me some background. What made you leave the country again?

When I came back to Turkey there were two things that I noticed instantly: The very first thing that struck me was my estrangement to the language. Not that I had forgotten the Turkish language or anything but I had been alienated from my mother tongue, alienated enough to start “hearing” it differently, to start hearing its melody, to notice its twists and subtleties. People who never step outside the language they are born into have no reason to fear “losing” their mother tongue. That was not the case with me. I know how it feels to fear what is most basic to you: your mother tongue. I did not have the luxury to take it for granted and in the long run this ‘lack’ helped me to have a richer linguistic background. I started paying more attention to the language. I was curious. I spent so much time studying the history of the Turkish language, studying Ottoman, chasing back old expressions and idioms. I have always been fascinated by language and sometimes it takes a foreigner to notice the things that the natives fail to notice because they are so used to taking everything for granted.

The second thing that happened to me when I came back to Turkey was more existential, a deeper sense of discordance. I realized I was feeling both as a native and a foreigner at the same time. I had become a native-foreigner and ever since then that feeling has perhaps been structurally transformed but has never utterly disappeared.

3. You are quite young and already the author of an impressive oeuvre. Did writing come so naturally?

Writing came at a relatively early age not because I wanted to become a writer or anything but because I was a very lonely child. I almost never saw my father, I never saw my stepbrothers, I did not even know they existed and because of the continuous move from one place to another I could not have long-term friendships. Childhood loneliness went hand in hand with one cultural alienation after another. Books became my refuge I guess. I used to read a lot, first in Turkish then in Spanish and English. I used to find the life depicted in books more real than the “real” life. That is how I started writing fiction. As I moved from one place to another, writing was the only thing that came with me, it was my only luggage.

Writing was the only thing that gave me a sense of continuity. At first I kept diaries. But to tell the truth my life was so boring instead of writing my personal daily life in those diaries, I would rather write the lives of people who did not exist or things that had not really happened. Thus, easily, diaries turned into stories and after that, stories evolved into novels. The only thing that has not changed is the central role that writing plays in my life, its being my basic sense of continuity in a life otherwise marked by ruptures and discontinuities.

4. Your novel The Mirrors of City is about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. By that time Holland received a part of these refugees (among them. Spinoza's parents, as you certainly will know); it is very scarcely mentioned that a lot them also went to the Ottoman empire. Can you explain a bit on the research and the background of this book. And do you agree with me that here again an important part of history Europe and Turkey share?

I completely agree. Unfortunately, these historical bonds and affinities between Europe and Turkey are oftentimes ignored in contemporary political conflicts which thrive upon cultural biases and amnesia on both sides.

It is my interest in Islamic and Jewish mysticism that helped me to write the Mirrors of the City. I harbor an intellectual and perhaps an emotional affinity for the heterodox movements of each and every monotheist religion. I think a heretic/heterodox Christian and a heretic/heterodox Muslim have so much in common. It fascinates me to see how mystics, Gnostics or heretics who have never seen each other, people who have lived in completely different regions and at different historical eras came up with the same conclusions with regards to life and death, self & God.

In Turkey if you are a leftist, secularist intellectual you usually have little, if any, knowledge on religion, religious philosophy or religious history. Turkish leftist intellectuals have generally retained a monolithic understanding of Islam and an allergy towards religion as such. I am one of the very few leftist intellectuals with an interest in religion. I don’t think a novelist can understand and write about the human condition without having an interest in religions and religiosities. This does not mean that I am religious. Not at all. That’s the thing. You do not have to be religious to take religion seriously.

If I have to define myself, I’d say I am an agnostic mystic. I think it is possible to be agnostic and mystic at the same time. But I do take religiosity and its dynamics seriously. Apart from that I particularly feel close to heretical, heterodox, and gnostic movements that have emerged in different cultures at different times be it in the domain of Islam, Christianity or Judaism.

5. You live in the USA. Do you feel an immigrant or outsider, or do you feel committed with American history? How hard was it to do your creative writing directly in English?

It’s a bit ironic but my feeling of being an outsider, a latecomer, and a native-foreigner in Turkey subsided when I came to the USA where I am a foreigner. It is relatively easier to deal with “being a stranger in a strange land” than “being a stranger in your homeland”. Either way I have to deal with a sense of non-belonging and loss wherever I go. I am neither fully in Istanbul nor fully here in the USA. May be there is no such thing as being “fully rooted” for me.
In time I stopped asking myself where I belonged. I realized I belong to many places at the same time. According to the Islamic narrative there is a tree in heaven, which has no roots in the ground and instead has its roots where its branches are supposed to be. That’s how I feel. I have no roots in the ground but my roots are up in the air. It is in this sense that I am connected to both Turkey and the USA.

6. Although you are not Arabic, I guess 9/11 must have influenced the position of a Turkish woman in the USA. Am I mistaken?

Identities and labels have become all the more important in the USA after 9/11. As a writer I feel the weight of this all the time. Here, if you are a “woman writer from the Middle East”, that is a fixed label and then you are expected to write on solely or mainly the problem of being a woman in the Middle East. Oftentimes Americans attribute a label to you and then your identity walks ahead and the quality of your fiction follows behind in their eyes. They try to pigeonhole you in a given category. In America numerous readers and critics attribute a function to fiction, which I find very troublesome. Fiction, in my eyes, requires just the opposite. Fiction, for me is the ability to transcend, to be someone else. To imagine, to lie, to dream, to travel, to transform and let yourself be transformed…
For instance my most recent novel is the story of a Turkish student in the USA but at the very same time it is also the story of a half-Jewish, intellectual, suicidal, bisexual American woman. I do not sell what the market asks from me to sell: stories of veiled woman and how they are oppressed!
One other thing is that unfortunately many Americans don’t know much about the Middle East. Hence they see the region as a monolithic terrain. They draw no distinctions between Turkey and let’s say Saudi Arabia. So I have to struggle against many biases because I come from a Middle Eastern/Muslim country in their eyes.

7. Tell me something, please, on your gender study of Middle East literature. What was and is the role of the female?

I teach courses on Gender Issues in the Middle East, and also on Queer Studies. I also teach a course on The Politics of Memory in the Middle East, the politics of remembering and forgetting. I have an interdisciplinary background in cultural studies, women’s studies and political science. So I usually combine these.
I do not like the title “Islam and woman” at all because it is composed of two big generalizations. Which Islam and which women are we talking about? Whenever Westerners speak about sexuality in the Middle East, unfortunately it is oftentimes the “dark’ side of sexuality that comes to the fore, like honor killings, virginity tests, oppression, rapes… However there is also a very deeply-ingrained tradition of eroticism and pleasure and desire in the Middle East. I think we should be able to discuss the dark side with the bright side simultaneously. Otherwise we cannot grasp the gist of the culture.
I also think feminist scholars and writers need to pay more attention to not only women but also to the position of gay men in the Middle East. In societies where effeminacy is ridiculed and suppressed we cannot understand how patriarchy operates without looking at the position of homosexuals, bisexuals or transsexuals. So I prefer to read patriarchy in the Middle East in a more layered way and with multiple dynamics rather than seeing it as the oppression of men vis-à-vis women.

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