Features » Literature


"I like being several people"

A interview with the multi-facetted Turkish author Elif Shafak

Berliner Zeitung: You are professor of gender studies in the USA. Why do you write novels?

Elif Shafak: It gives me the chance to clone myself. All my readers who know me and also many of those who don't know me at all will suspect that there's a lot of me in Gail, the protagonist of my new novel "The Saint of Incipient Insanities". But I'm also in Ömer and in Abed and Piyu as well. Even the most subsidiary characters have a lot in common with me. Otherwise I wouldn't have been able to write about them. There's a relationship between me all my characters in all of my texts – a sort of spiritual connection.

What is that?

It's hard to put into words. The important thing is that the people in my novels do not follow me; I follow them. They come alive and grow as they are written. Sentence for sentence. There are two types of novelists: the ones who write from above and the ones who write from inside. If you write from above, first of you work out the plot, then the characters and then on through every sentence to every word. You know exactly what each character symbolises, what it stands for. You stand over the text like a puppet master.

And the second way of writing?

It comes from inside. You start off with no characters, you have a few seeds, shadows, ghosts. Little by little they start to take form, almost without the author noticing. When I started "The Saint of Incipient Insanities" for example, I had no idea that Gail would become the central character. She pushed her way to the foreground. I had no choice but to give way to her pressure. Gail has her own will. She is dominant. I don't like controlling the text. It can be risky, because sometimes I have no idea where it's all leading. But the words, the sentences, they create the story and the characters. That's the power of language. Lots of Turkish writers don't understand this. They think like politicians, like the majority of people. And they believe they have power over language. But in reality language controls us, our vision, our imagination. I give myself over to language and its power. I follow it. That's my experience. I write from inside. I don't see language as an instrument which I can use for my own ends. I write a sentence, because the previous sentence demands it.

Your dissertation is about women and mysticism. What interests you about the subject?

Turkey is a very polarized country. On the one side is the secular Left. It has no interest in the past, in Islam, not to mention Islamic mysticism. It has absolutely no interest - I'm caricaturing a little - in history. The Left is utterly fixated on the future, on progress. It doesn't look back. The people who are interested in history, in the Ottoman empire, are mostly conservative. They long for a return to a glorified past. Their viewpoint is not critical, either of the past or of themselves. A third option is rare in Turkey .

Is there no one you can discuss this with in Turkey?

It's difficult. People on the left don't want anything to do with the past, and anyone who's interested in the past doesn't want to hear any critical questions. That's why I'm so fascinated by people like Walter Benjamin, Theodor W. Adorno and critical theory. These were Jewish intellectuals, agnostics, Marxists, socialists. But this didn't prevent them from being interested in Jewish mysticism, and part of their writing is in keeping with this tradition. This connection fascinates me. I'm a left-wing intellectual, but I'm also interested in Islamic tradition, and particularly in heterodoxy and mysticism. That's another reason why I like being in Berlin. This is where Benjamin's "Berlin Childhood" took place. I don't know Berlin. I got to know a little bit about it, at least the old Berlin of the past, through Benjamin's eyes.

Are you in Berlin for the first time?


But you lived in Cologne for a while.

No. My mother lived in Cologne for a few years. But I'd already gone to university by that time. I went to visit her a few times. When I was ten, my mother became a diplomat. She divorced my father and started a life of her own. At the beginning of the 70s in Turkey, this was no mean feat. I didn't see my father again until I was eighteen.

He never visited you?


He must have been the mystery of your childhood?

If your father is dead then it's no problem. You can tell your friends, your classmates and their parents, "My father is dead". But when he's still alive and you only get a postcard from him every now and then, talk to him every now and then on the phone, then he grows. He doesn't exactly become important, but his absence increases. I cried for my father, hated him, and pushed him aside. One after the other. His name might be in my passport but I don't use it. My books are not published in his name. Shafak, my writer's name is my mother's first name. It means something like break of dawn. And it's the first letter of the alphabet.

So you see, names are important for me. And you can see why. I also like the old Jewish tradition of changing your name when you change your life. I like the idea that when you move to a new country and change your language, that your name changes too. It's pronounced differently, shortened. Your new friends shape it to suit their language. There are people that complain when their name is pronounced differently. I like it when that happens. I have the feeling of reproducing myself. I like being many people.

You grew up alone with your mother?

Yes. We moved around a lot. As a child I lived in Madrid and Amman. I also spent a lot of time with my grandmothers in Turkey. One of them believed in ghosts and djinnis. The other one was less religious, but her God was the all-powerful, the God of men. Her religion was based on fear. The God of the other grandmother was one that loved me, teased me and cuddled me. My family also had pictures of Atatürk on every wall – in the living room, in the kitchen, in the bedroom. Atatürk everywhere. My mother's father was a leading officer in the army, an ardent Turkish nationalist, a moderniser. That all went hand in hand. So there were always breaks in my life. I learned very early on that nothing is secure in life, not even the ground under your feet. The one thing that accompanied me everywhere were my books and my writing. I started early. Writing is the only continuity in my life.

So you don't have any childhood friends?

Of course I do. I have lots of friends, all round the world. That's the wonderful thing about it. I've been a nomad since I was a child and I still am. I love Istanbul. The city is important for me. I don't just think of it as the background to my life and writing, but as a person. Istanbul greets me when I wake up in the morning. But I don't only live there; I also live six months of the year in the USA in Tucson, Arizona. It doesn't make things easy for my friends and it's painful for me too. But it's the only way I can live. Not that I don't have roots. I have very strong roots, but they don't go into the earth. They are air roots.

Are you always looking for new roots?

At the University of Tucson there are people from all over the world. They come from Iran, India, Japan, everywhere. The majority of them make a very strict division between their past and their present lives. They were Iranians, Japanese. Now they are Americans. It's different with me. I don't stop being Turkish when I'm in the USA, and I'm also an American when I'm in Istanbul. I don't want to have to decide. Especially not between East and West. These are completely illusionary concepts. I love things that are multicultural, multilingual. I like to be able to combine things that are remote from each other.

People resting securely in their culture have a feeling of security. They are identical to themselves. They know where they belong. They have a feeling of continuity. I don't have this security. I feel this lack but I also feel the obligation to make a decision is an impossible demand. At least for the time being. I might change some day. But since I can think, I have seen things this way, and this perception of the world and my position in it is the basis for my life and my writing.

You don't like things to be written in stone.

It's true. That's a reason I don't like modern Turkish either. The destruction of the Ottoman empire did not only signal the nationalisation of Turkey and the introduction of the Latin alphabet, but also the Turkification of the Turkish language. The Arabic words, the Persian words were replaced with Turkish words. It happened overnight. Under orders. It was a raid. The vocabulary shrivelled. In old Turkish there were dozens of words for colours. Today there are perhaps eight. It annoys me. I use the old words again. When, for example, I need a certain dark orange, I don't just write orange because it's the only word left in Turkey today, but I use the old, banished, forgotten word for exactly the nuance I want. I won't accept that it should be dead forever. I love to use the old words which the Kemalists banned from our language. This is enough to raise their heckles. They accuse me of undermining the great project of modern Turkey. Just because I use words from Islamic mysticism and Sufism, for example.

So my language disturbs the nationalists, the progressives. The conservatives approve of my using the old words, but my themes upset them. They don't like it when homosexuality and transsexuality play important roles. They don't like it when traditional roles of the sexes are questioned or swapped around. I aggravate both sides. Neither of them support me. Which is a good thing because Turkey and its culture are far too polarised. Everything is viewed as either old or new. They live on two separate islands. The secularists have their island and peer out mistrustfully at everyone else. It's the same with the Islamists. I don't want to live on an island. I refuse to. I like it when I see heavily veiled women at my readings next to ones in short skirts. They all read my books and some of them leave their islands to come to my readings. That's wonderful. When you mix the two sides together you end up with friends on both.

Do you also use new Turkish words in the way that youth language, for example, imports English ones?

Every word you take from a language, leaves behind it a void that wants to be filled. Then you go to English, French, German. In Turkey regulation amnesia is the order of the day. Everything that took place before the republic has been forgotten. If you ask people today about the street names, or about the graves in the graveyards, nobody can explain what they see. It's not just words that have gone missing and large parts of the language, but also cultural curiosity. That's very dangerous for a country, for a society.

Were they lost or were they killed?

They were not killed, in the way you would kill someone with a knife. The people internalise this condition. They live in a street whose name means nothing to them. They would just never consider looking it up in a dictionary or a lexicon. Today nobody is being forced to forget, but they forget. They've got used to forgetting. That's how the system works.

You are a cosmopolitan that can't free herself from Turkish history?

A true cosmopolitan is far more interested in cultures and their history than a nationalist. It needs a foreigner's eye, an outside viewpoint to see things the local people no longer see. They are so used to them that they overlook them. If you go to Istanbul, you'll see things there that no Istanbulite sees. You'll notice smells, noises and sounds that the Istanbulites would never notice. If you're too emerged in something you're no longer aware of it. I like this dilemma, of being insider and outsider at the same time. It's good to move around. To go away and come back. It's difficult because you have to learn to accept that you don't know about everything, that you have to learn. It's a humiliating experience. But I like it. I like being a commuter.

I love Istanbul. I know the city well. I scrutinise it. I read a lot about it. But I never forget that I didn't come to the city until quite late on. If only because Istanbul won't allow me to forget. The Turkish intelligentsia is different. It's completely focussed on Istanbul. Not even on Istanbul as a whole but on certain districts: where their family comes from, where they spent their childhood, where they got married, where they live and work. They all went to the same university, meet in the same cafes and restaurants. They have the same friends and enemies. The Turkish intelligentsia is geographically immobile. This is dangerous.

You say that the the modernisation of Turkey took place through a series of drastic breaks. Would EU entry be a break that would fracture the country?

I am all for Turkey's entry into the EU. It would be a blessing for Turkey. But it would also be a blessing for Europe. People believe in East and West. They believe that the two can never meet. They believe in the clash of cultures. They believe that democracy and Islam are contradictory. These are dangerous convictions. If they can be broken down then it's a good thing for Turkey and Europe.

Turkey's modernisation goes back a hundred, two hundred years. It's not something that's taken place in the last twenty years. The problem is that the modernisation was a Westernisation imposed from above. The state always played a central role. I wish the state would play a smaller role. The role of civilian society has to be strengthened. The public arena is changing. It already plays a much larger role that it did a few years ago. This development should be encouraged. The army can no longer have the authority it's had in Turkey for decades, even centuries. This is all happening at the moment. Turkish society is changing rapidly. This is giving rise to new problems. That's only normal. I have no fear. But one thing I do fear everywhere in the world is nationalism. That's the danger; not Christianity or Islam.

Why would the Turkish EU entry be a blessing for Europe?

There are people who are fascinated by their reflection. They only want to see themselves everywhere. They want to be surrounded by people who have the same name, the same culture, the same religion, the same language. These sort of people like to live in enclaves, in protectorates. If they are Muslims, obsessed by their reflection, they want to be surrounded by Muslims. If they are Germans, they want to be surrounded by Germans. The pattern is always identical.

Where is it easier to live as a cosmopolitan, in Tucson, Arizona or Istanbul?

These are two completely different worlds. I travel to New York a lot. That's where my publisher is, my proof-reader, my agent, those are my American literary contacts. New York and Istanbul are closer than Tucson and Istanbul. I just seem to like living in cosmopolitan cities.

Don't all people, irrespective of whether or not they grew up in a foreign culture, feel foreign at a certain age? Don't all people have to create themselves?

Everybody has the same problems but not everybody has the same answers. I've seen surveys from Germany and the Netherlands which show that Turkish children think it's completely normal to have Dutch and German friends. But when they get older, they only have Turkish friends. The live almost exclusively in Turkish surroundings, on their Turkish island. Haven't you noticed this? I think it's fascinating. Why do people change so much? Why do adult Turkish women have to – of course they don't have to - marry Turkish men? How does this happen? What happens to their German childhood friends. These are the sort of questions I find interesting. I worry about these developments and the problems that accompany them. Of course we all have problems finding ourselves. That's part of being human. But why do we always fall into nationalist traps? I find it fascinating.

Do you believe in God?

Yes I believe in God. Yes.

Is God interested in you?

Oh yes, she's very interested in me. I am spiritual but not religious. I'm interested in the magic of the world – I'm a writer. How can you write without that? It's more of a Spinozan understanding of God and the world, a cyclical understanding, in which everything appears once and God is the name given to it all. What interests me about religions are people with heterodox beliefs and that they're so similar. People who not only never met but also never heard of each other, who lived thousands of kilometres and hundreds of years apart, but who essentially have the same thing to say about their history with God. They were all persecuted by their religions and cast aside.

And this God is interested in you?

It's not a God that is outside me. It's in me. I am a part of her, or him.

Then you're a goddess?

No, I'm not that. But we are all parts of God. Everything is a part of God. We are all part of this one essence. That's a very interesting way of thinking. Cyclical thinking has very radical implications. Just look at how it was hounded by all orthodoxies throughout the centuries. The worst thing for orthodoxy was that mystics were also Muslims. They read the same book. But they interpreted it differently. That was intolerable.

But people with heterodox beliefs were not always poor and persecuted. They also enjoyed being heterodox. They liked to contradict.

Oh yes. Being anti-authoritarian is fun and it's also good.

Does that go for writing too? Do you have any role models?

No. I have no role models. I don't like role models. Bertolt Brecht wrote "unglücklich das Land, das Helden nötig hat" (unhappy the country that needs heroes). I don't like heroes. I don't want to look up to anyone. I don't want to walk in anyone's footsteps. But of course there are lots of people who have inspired me and continue to do so. But I've never put anyone on a pedestal.

You'd rather push things off pedestals?

Turkey put Atatürk on a pedestal. It was forbidden to question or criticise him. The transformation of the entire Turkish society is presented solely as his achievement. Instead of looking at the historical process and his role in it, people act as if he created Turkey and not the other way round. Destruction is creative. These seeming opposites belong together. I'm interested in how they permeate each other. I like the dialectic of death and life. I've always been interested in seemingly contradictory opposites and their destruction. This interest is basically what drives my writing.

Is this just an intellectual interest or one you live as well?

I live it. That's the problem. The novel played such a central role in Turkey's modernisation, becoming a nation, that it's traditionally seen as a sort of art of societal engineering. That's a very intellectual view of the novel. The Turkish author is therefore primarily a father-author. In other words an author who stands over his text, his characters, the book, the reader. I don't like this tradition. For me, writing is a highly irrational passion. I put it into the high-brow genre of the novel which in Turkey stands for secularisation, for the demystification of the world.

You talk very rationally about it.

I'm a university professor. I like being one. I need it as well, to some extent. To keep things in balance. Authors are very powerful people. As long as they're writing, they can pull all the strings. They create people and kill them off. Sitting at their desks they play God. At the university, I'm not God. I have to prepare seminars. I have to learn. I have to learn what other people have written, what they're saying and what they stand for. I have to communicate all this to the students as much as I have to communicate my own thoughts. It does me good. I have to read. But when once you've started reading, you can never stop. The more you read, the less you know. But that's precisely what's important for me. That too is a lesson in humility. After the egotism of the all-knowing, all-powerful author. We all need to have something else, to keep a balance. Carpenters need it, gardeners, and writers too. Writers have to continually step out of the self-centred world of their fictions. Otherwise they get totally engulfed and don't even notice it.

Do you do that?

There are two phases in my work. In one I write my novel. Then I'm obsessed and not normal. But when the novel 's ready, I switch over to the other person. I become interested again in the world around me, in family and friends. And I start to do things other than writing. I live in this pendular rhythm. There are authors who do things completely differently. They write like bureaucrats, five hours a day, eight pages day after day. They are disciplined. It doesn't matter if it rains or snows, or if the sun is shining, or what's happening in the outside world of friends or family. It doesn't matter if they're in a good mood or bad, if they're healthy or sick. I'm not like this at all.

You recover from writing novels at the university?

It's all about shifting paradigms. Not always doing the same thing. Changing rhythm. It's good for mind, body and soul. The most important thing is not to get too comfortable with yourself and your work. This feeling of security is the greatest danger for novelists. In the end they really believe they're the centre of the universe.

There is a German proverb which says: God knows everything. The German professor always knows better. But you see your professorship as an exercise in humility.

You can acquire knowledge and apply it to become powerful and remain powerful. But has that ever made anybody happy? I certainly don't see it like that. Perhaps it's because I enter a seminar after leaving my writer's desk where I'm God.


The article originally appeared in German in the Berliner Zeitung on July 2, 2005.

Elif Shafak was born 1971 in Strasbourg and grew up in Spain and Turkey. She studied political science, sociology and philosophy. She has published four novels and is considered Turkey's most important female novelist. Since 2002 she has been Professor of Gender Studies at the University of Tucson, Arizona.

Arno Widmann was born in 1948 and studied philosophy in Frankfurt with Theodor W. Adorno. A founder and editor-in-chief of the tageszeitung, he has also worked as senior editor of the German Vogue and arts editor of Die Zeit. Today he runs the opinion pages of the Berliner Zeitung. He has translated Umberto Eco, Curzio Malaparte and Victor Serge into German. His literary debut came with his 2002 novel "Sprenger".

lp. - let's talk european