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Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak on writing compassionate stories through hard times

The British-Turkish author of How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division discusses her works, defying stereotypes around minorities, and writing through a pandemic

When 10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in this Strange World begins, the protagonist’s heart has stopped beating. Tequila Leila, an Istanbul sex worker, has been dumped in a rubbish heap, but her mind’s still ticking. Elif Shafak’s Booker Prize-nominated novel traces the final moments of Leila’s consciousness, collapsing any binary notions of existence from the very beginning. “People thought you changed into a corpse the instant you exhaled your last breath. But things were not clear-cut like that,” writes Shafak, referencing a phenomena in neuroscience that shows after the moment of death, the mind remains conscious for up to ten minutes. “Just as there were countless shades between jet black and brilliant white, so there were multiple stages of this thing called ‘eternal rest.’ If a border existed between the Realm of Life and the Realm of Afterlife, Leila decided, it must be as permeable as sandstone.”

In a world that’s seemingly hellbent on dualities, Shafak offers a much-needed alternative. The British-Turkish writer, who was born in Strasborg and lives in London, is known for her multilayered portrayals of those on the edges of society, whether that’s the Armenian genocide in her bestselling book The Bastard of Istanbul, “honour killings” in her novel Honour, or the cruel effects of Turkey’s intolerant attitudes towards women and LGBTQ+ people in 10 Minutes and 38 Seconds – out last month in its paperback edition. These stories, while dark, are dealt with humanity, and even humour. “The story of Istanbul can only be told through the combination of sorrow and compassionate humour,” she tells me when we speak over Zoom. “I’m very interested in people who've been silenced and, in that sense, I think there’s common threads in my work, even though each and every book has been different, that's a persistent desire in my work to bring the periphery to the centre,” she explains.

Shafak wrote her latest book, How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division, over lockdown. It was released earlier this month, building on these themes of Otherism – pertinent, in an era of migration, the rise of the right, and pandemic. Part polemic, part political commentary, Shafak dissects the anger and anxieties of contemporary society, focusing on the polarisation of modern political and cultural debate, and the reluctance of all sides to listen to the other. Drawing on recent events from coronavirus, to the refugee crisis, and the murder of George Floyd, she puts current movements into a broader context of power, wealth, technology, and mental health. She argues that collective narcissism is what underpins groupthink: “The less that people from different backgrounds can communicate and empathise with each other, the smaller our appreciation of our common humanity, the less egalitarian and inclusive our shared spaces, the more satisfied the demagogue,” she writes.

With social media, we create ideological echo chambers that discourage us from engaging with theories and arguments that are not in line with our own. “I want to question binary oppositions and find a more nuanced approach, rather than these clashing certainties,” she explains to me. To define someone by what they represent in a wider social context, Shafak argues, transfixes us as objects devoid of possibilities, whereas fiction allows us to transcend the tight bind of person-other, man-woman, gay-straight – all dualities that seek only to dehumanise us. “Identity politics divides us; fiction connects,” she puts it succinctly in her 2010 TED Talk, ‘The Politics of Fiction’.

“We are all emotional creatures as human beings. When we connect, we connect through emotions, and we connect through stories, and what we remember, we remember through stories” – Elif Shafak

In 10 Minutes and 38 Seconds, each minute that passes is distinguished by a sense memory: the weight of the salt with which the midwife at Leila’s birth covered her infant body; the smell of bubbling lemon, sugar, and water on the stove of Leila’s conservative family home in Van; the taste of pistachio baklava and dark cardamom coffee, which Leila drank during her breaks at the brothel. Often, these sensory triggers give way to tender vignettes of her early life in the house of well-to-do tailor Haroun, who’s been waiting a long time for offspring from his two wives, or the grand opening of the Bosphorus Bridge, which a grown-up Leila witnesses alongside a sea of proud Istanbulites. These vibrant snapshots tumble amorphously into one another, the structure mimicking memory, interweaving flavour-rich moments and settings, on which we meet friends, her fellow outcasts and “undesirables”: a Lebanese woman with dwarfism, a trans woman, a Somalian immigrant, an Anatolian villager, and a German-Turkish communist artist are among those described as her “water family” (who can “occupy a bigger space than all your kin combined,” she writes). It’s through these stories that Shafak helps us walk in the shoes of those whose experiences don’t match our own.

“We are all emotional creatures as human beings. When we connect, we connect through emotions, and we connect through stories, and what we remember, we remember through stories,” Shafak says. “Unless I know someone’s story, I can easily pigeon hole them. But once you know different stories about different groups, it becomes more difficult to make generalisations – especially for minorities.”

With her efforts to champion minority stories, it’s a great source of irony that Shafak – whose name is often uttered alongside Orhan Pamuk’s as being one of the most esteemed living Turkish writers – has raised the ire of anti-intellectual, anti-feminist nationalists, who began a crackdown on fiction writers tackling challenging subjects, from child abuse to sexual violence. In 2006, she was out on trial for “insulting Turkishness”, after acknowledging the Armenian genocide in her second novel, The Bastard of Istanbul, but the case was dismissed. Last year, Turkish prosecutors launched an investigation of her novels going back 20 years. Among her alleged crimes was ‘obscene depictions of sexual abuse’. It’s for reasons such as this that Shafak described the feeling of being a Turkish novelist as “being slapped on one cheek and kissed on the other”.

“One of the most difficult subjects for us is domestic violence and femicides. Also incest rape, child rights – these are not easy subjects but we can’t pretend they’re not happening,” she says of the growing tensions surrounding women and children’s rights in Turkey. In the last ten years, gender-based violence has increased by 1,400 per cent, while 205 women have been killed in Turkey so far this year. “It’s heartbreaking that this was the country that was the first signatory to the Istanbul Convention (the groundbreaking human rights treaty), which is the best international standard we have to defend the rights of victims of sexual violence.” The Istanbul Convention is currently under threat in Turkey, as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s conservative Justice and Development party (AKP) tries to reverse the legislation, claiming it threatens ‘family values’ and promotes ‘LGBTQ+ lifestyles’.

“There’s a backlash against women’s rights and minority rights,” says Shafak, who, beyond her fiction work, writes expansively on the socio-political issues facing Turkey, and speaks passionately about human rights online. “This was always a patriarchal country, it was always a sexist country, but there was a moment it felt like we were making progress. When that moment is lost, you realise that you’re sliding backwards as a bewildering speed, and that’s very worrying.”

“In Turkey, we have seen an increase in ultra nationalism, religiosity, Islamism, and authoritarianism. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that whenever wherever we see an increase in these things, we will see an increase in sexism. We see an increase in domestic violence, and we will see an increase in homophobia and transphobia, because they always go hand-in-hand.”

In How to Stay Sane, Shafak draws parallels to right-wing happenings across the world; Poland has launched sinister attacks on its LGBTQ+ communities, while in Hungary, neo-Nazi crowds organise demonstrations to expel the Roma communities, and the UK sees surges in hate crimes. Police brutality against Black people is an ongoing problem in America, while in Brazil and India, a dangerous form of dogmatism is bubbling at the surface. Still, you get the impression that these clashing ideologies, though not bound to one particular place, cut deepest, personally, in Istanbul.

“There are many citizens around the world today who have a hard time recognising their countries, walking like strangers in their own homelands” – Elif Shafak

Shafak hasn’t returned to Istanbul in three years, and remains in self-imposed exile for her own safety. “There’s no doubt that I feel very attached to Istanbul and I miss the city,” she begins. “Of course, you feel a bit suffocated from time to time as a woman and writer. But I love it so passionately, though I know she – and I definitely think it’s a she-city – isn’t easy.”

She describes a rift between how a place makes you feel, which is necessarily bound up with memories and stories, and the changing ideologies that affect them. “There are many citizens around the world today who have a hard time recognising their countries, walking like strangers in their own homelands,” she writes in How To Stay Sane, while discussing the limits of language in accounting for those who’ve been displaced from their motherlands, either physically or emotionally. It’s this rupture between spirit and state that results in a loss of self; a feeling of limbo.

This idea reaches its apex in 10 Minutes and 38 Seconds, where Shafak highlights the clashes that have come to define modern Turkish identity. “Istanbul was an illusion. A magician’s trick gone wrong… Istanbul was a dream that existed solely in the minds of hashish eaters. In truth, there was no Istanbul. There were multiple Istanbuls – struggling, competing, clashing, each perceiving that, in the end, only one could survive,” she writes, referencing the socio-political grey area of devout religion and secularism, European and Middle Eastern, masculine and feminine, coloniser and colonised, that makes the city, and Turkish identity as a whole, so ambiguous. Similarly, there are hundreds of thousands of people experiencing this same rootlessness, whether it’s refugees being physically displaced from their home countries, or rising hate crimes towards trans people, which puts them at risk, further pushing them into the peripheries.

There’s a common complaint among secular Turks that the government’s kneejerk reaction towards practically anything is to build a mosque or a shopping mall. Sometimes, it’s said as a half-joke, accompanied with rolling eyes and a deep sigh. But, symbolically, it’s representative of a deeper problem – namely, the Turkish state’s selective erasure of its own past, or what Shafak refers to as “collective amnesia”. When asked her thoughts on the recent conversion of Istanbul’s Hagia Sofia into a mosque, she responds: “These monuments outlast human beings, they live longer,” she says. “They do not belong to one single generation, one single culture, or one single group of politicians or governments, you know, they belong to humanity, they have a huge history behind them.”

We see this across the world; it manifests as a shirking of social responsibilities, a reluctance to acknowledge the past. As I write this, the files on Grenfell have been “lost forever”, which will only bolster the UK government’s apathy and inaction, while the Trump administration’s handling of Black Lives Matter reads as aggressive denial. In contrast, Shafak’s writings are an embodiment of radical remembrance; with existential fervour, they pull together the past and future to bring forth a fully realised present that feels all the more urgent.

How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division (Profile) and 10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World (Viking) are out now