TOAST Magazine

A Life Less Ordinary

ARTS & CULTURE

Elif Shafak is an award-winning novelist and the most widely read female writer in Turkey. We spoke to her about her path into writing and the places it has taken her.

Can you tell us about the role books played in your life?

All children think they come from normal families until, one day, some realise that they don’t. My upbringing was unusual. I didn’t grow up in a stable, nuclear family. I was born in France to Turkish parents. When I was still a toddler, my parents’ marriage ended. My father stayed in Strasbourg and my mother took a train back to Turkey. Instead of the bohemian, academic environment of Strasbourg, I found myself in a very conservative and traditional neighbourhood of Ankara.

This was where my Grandma lived. In this new place we were outsiders; I knew that right away. Yet Grandma was an extraordinary woman. She raised me. I stayed with her until I was ten years old. During this time my mother went back to college, graduated with high honours and became a diplomat. My mother’s career took us to Madrid, a very different setting.

When I look back I realise I was an awkward, lonely child, a hopeless introvert, shy and withdrawn. I was a stranger in my own motherland, never feeling exactly at home anywhere. Books were my best friends. Inside each novel I found a universe far more colourful and real than the one in which I lived. Books kept me sane. Whenever I longed for an alternative world where endless possibilities of beauty and freedom would open up, I sought refuge in stories.

How did reading lead you to writing?

My emotional need for books preceded my desire and determination to become a professional writer. I started writing at the age of eight, so I was very young. Not because I wanted to become a novelist one day. I didn’t even know such a thing was possible; there were no novelists around me. I started writing because I thought “real life” was boring, and Storyland was where I wanted to be and where I felt at home.

I did not have support or guidance in this path. But I had independence. And this was something that many Turkish girls who were my age mostly lacked. So I cherished that independence.

What has life as a writer been like?

It has not been easy. It has been a big journey full of struggles. Being a Turkish novelist is like being kissed on one cheek while being slapped on the other. On the one hand, in countries like Turkey, books matter, stories matter, perhaps even more than those countries that enjoy freedom of speech. Stories are shared by word-of-mouth. People keep reading despite the odds. So that is incredibly heartwarming.

On the other hand, because there is no freedom of speech, and no proper democracy, writers are always vilified, attacked by the media and social media, put on trial, arrested, exiled…

After the publication of my novel The Bastard of Istanbul, I was put on trial in Turkey for “insulting Turkishness”. No one knew what that meant. But as a writer, if you question the official history, and care about minorities, which is exactly what I did, you are automatically accused of “insulting Turkishness”.

My novel tells the story of a Turkish and Armenian-American family. It talks about memory and amnesia. I was prosecuted for using the term ‘Armenian genocide’. My Turkish lawyer had to defend my Armenian fictional characters in the courtroom. It was quite Kafkaesque.

The whole thing was a strange, almost surreal experience. I had to live with a bodyguard. There were nationalist groups on the streets spitting at my books, burning my pictures and EU flags side by side.

Can you describe the path of your life?

I think of myself as a nomad—spiritually, intellectually, physically. I believe life is an ongoing journey, continually twisting and turning.

Over the years I have lived in more than 15 cities. Every journey and each new place taught me something new. I am an Istanbulite, and very attached to Istanbul. But I am also connected to the Aegean Sea, the Balkans, the Mediterranean. There are so many elements in my soul from the Middle East, and they come with me. I am a European by birth, the values that I uphold. I am a Londoner and I am a British citizen. And I’d like to think of myself as a global soul, a world citizen. I know the world we are living in at the moment attacks this multiplicity. But we must defend it. We all share the same planet. Instead of having a single identity, I’d rather have multiple belongings. And I think we must remain as students all our lives, never really graduating, always learning.

We photographed Elif at the London Library. Photography by Roo Lewis. 

You can listen to our podcast with Elif, discussing identity, belonging and the course of her life, here.

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