Elif Shafak: “Roots are plural, not singular!”

Nominated for the Booker Prize with her last novel “10 Minutes 38 Seconds”, Elif Shafak touched on the significance of her readers and stated that she does not care criticisms of the elite class. Shafak talked about her authorship on Istanbul – London line, phenomenon of migration and the criticisms directed to her in Turkey.

Interview: Nida Dinçtürk Photos: Ali Köse

The newest novel of Elif Shafak, “10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World” was published in June. The novelist was criticized for including paedophile elements in her novel “The Gaze.” Besides, she was accused of plagiarism in her novels “Honour” and “Architect’s Apprentice.” Last book of the ingenious author “10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World” was shortlisted for one of the world’s most reputable literary awards, the Booker Prize.
According to the recent scientific studies, activity of the human brain continues for a while after death. This period may last 10 minutes 38 seconds at most. The theme of the novel is based on this subject. Shafak focuses on 10 minutes 38 seconds following the death of a sex worker named Tequila Leyla who lives in Istanbul. The novel is enhanced with several elements such as last moments of Leyla, late political history of Turkey, women and LGBTI+ rights, urban memory, family, friendship, migration and alterity which are nourished from each other and constitute almost the whole shoot of life in Turkey.

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World
Your novel “10 Minutes 38 Seconds” has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. How do you feel?
I’m blissful. I’m honoured by being nominated for such a substantial literary award as a Turkish novelist. Authorship requires isolation from social environment, therefore seeing that my readers like me after publishing of this book, my story affected their hearts and minds, and it is felt by them as well… This is always invaluable for me. It has been 25 years since the publishing of my first novel. Being nominated for the Booker Prize in the 25th year of my career is a fantastic gift.

I’M VERY FAMILIAR WITH STAYING IN LIMBO
10 Minutes 38 Seconds is a multi-level book. For me, the first salient point is that it is a narrative of “those who belong to nowhere.” Namely, to the city, own body, life… What made you pursue those people?
I think minorities have always become an essential part of my literature. Ethnical, cultural and sexual minorities. All the time, I’ve cared for the stories of rejected and marginalized people as well as the deleted stories, in other words out history. Both in the past and today. That’s why I listened to my heart and preferred telling the story of the individuals pulled off the road, rather than the ones in the centre. My life has a primary influence on this. Secondly, my character affects. I’ve felt marginalized so many times since my childhood! I was born abroad. I came to Ankara from Strasburg. I was raised by two women: my mother and my grandmother. I never grew in an ordinary family environment. For example, I recognized my father and my step brothers from his second marriage too late. I was twenty something. Later, I went abroad to have education. I was the only Turk there. I felt marginalized again. I returned, but continued to feel like an isolated stranger. Hence I’m very familiar with listening out the stories of others. I don’t act superficially. Having no sense of belonging, trying to hold on, staying in limbo… Therefore names and subjects of my books aren’t coincidence. I’ve usually experienced being in limbo and failing at holding on. I’m quite familiar with those feelings.

To talk about my literature, I’ve always defended the rights of women, sexual minorities, human and children as well as freedom of speech. All the time, I’ve tried to tell the stories of others from their aspect. For this reason, being exposed to such severe criticisms hurts me significantly.

“MY LITERATURE HAS A CONNECTION WITH ISTANBUL”
You’ve been in London for a while. You define here as your home. On the other hand, I know your attachment for Turkey. To which place do you feel you belong? Do you feel you stay in limbo?
According to me, people may belong to more than one place. I’ve always objected to a single identity, especially the policy of being reduced to a single identity, so I was criticized for being rootless. I think roots are already plural, not singular. Namely, you’re nourished by many places. Even, I always relish the metaphor of compass: My literature has a connection with İstanbul like the fixed foot of a compass. However, the other foot of the compass can draw a huge circle and stroll around the world. Literature can be both local and universal. I believe in this principle from the heart. I approach to nationalism, tribalism and collective identities quite critically. I think limbo where you’re alone is the ideal location for art. You stay not only deep inside in everything, but also out of everything a little bit. Perhaps, this is loneliness for the artist, but it’s the right point.

BRAIN DRAIN OF TURKEY GAINS MOMENTUM
Migration is another influential element in “10 Minutes 38 Seconds.” You had focused on the twinges of migration in “Honour.” Nevertheless, there’s a remarkable white-collar migration other than migration of workers, in Turkey today because of some reasons such as education, working, sexual orientation and sexual identity. What do you think about this issue?
I attach utmost importance to this question. There’s a significant migration wave from Turkey. This issue needs to be analysed and searched. Brain drain is the other side of the coin. It’s a great loss for a country. Brain drain has gained momentum as Turkey began to lose democracy and hope for democracy. An article regarding this subject was recently published in the New York Times. Brain drain of Turkey particularly within the last three years paints a picture as if our country has undergone a great civil war or substantial tragedies. On the other side, more people recognize different cultures, learn various languages and express themselves. Perhaps, they adopt the identity of global citizen. This is the promising aspect of brain drain. It’s very interesting to witness that the people who won’t share even a bread easily are in solidarity abroad with the sense of homesickness and even exile. I see that the solidarity networks strengthen as the diversity and migration reasons of Turkish citizens abroad increase. We may call it diaspora. This is a pro, but ultimately, I wish Turkey gains its democracy soon. Brain drain is directly associated with it. Momentum of brain drain shows the abundance of people feeling unwelcome in their country.

But you may get more reactions if you’re a novelist and woman and begin to question different ideas. In particular, elite class, including cultural and political elites may react considerably.

I MIND THE INSPIRATION AND SINCERE ENERGY OF THE READER
In Turkey, you’re not only liked, but also criticized for your literature, statements and political stance. What are the reasons?
Turkey is already such a place! Unfortunately, almost everyone has to deal with negativities! But you may get more reactions if you’re a novelist and woman and begin to question different ideas. In particular, elite class, including cultural and political elites may react considerably. I’m very familiar with this issue as well. On the other hand, our country has very nice and inseparable readers of literature. I think readers are generally treated unfairly, because they don’t clamour, they don’t write opinion columns in newspapers, they don’t talk on TV and they are pretty intimate. The readers of literature in Turkey share a book only if they like it. Otherwise, they don’t read no matter what they say. I always mind the inspiration and sincere energy of the reader. Obviously, I didn’t give weight to reactions of elite class. According to me, you can’t find place in public sphere as a women if you sink into the destructive criticisms too much. Besides, I’m aware of that the way of criticizing a female novelist is never the same with the way of criticizing a male novelist. You’re always underestimated and disdained if you’re a woman, so it’s more challenging for female journalists, academicians, politicians and authors in a patriarchal country like Turkey. All in all, I do the work I enjoy. Therefore I don’t care who wrote about me and what they said, so much. Several columnists In Turkey may criticize a book which they didn’t read, hence considering the criticisms of such people isn’t logical. I only listen to my readers. Those who criticize my novels sincerely are always most welcome.
You concentrate on women’s rights very intensely in this book. Do you think Turkey has really made progress in women’s rights?
I don’t think so. On the contrary, I think Turkey has regressed about this issue and this isn’t a coincidence. The narrative ends in 1990. I wanted to remind the terrible discussion made in that period. How dare lawmakers suggest remission for raping prostitutes at that time? They received a significant reaction of society. Women were in more solidarity. However, we lost that such unity today. I’d like to call attention to this issue. Women disintegrated further as the politics in Turkey got ill-tempered and become patriarchal. Despite having different opinions and perspectives, we own common points. We can solve the sexual abuse problem jointly if it affects all of us. The women in the countries like Turkey are obliged to show solidarity beyond politics. Nevertheless, we can’t achieve this. Thus, only patriarchal minds win.

One of the characters I cared most in this novel is a transvestite, Nalan. You know Pride March is banned in Turkey for a while. In contrary, the Pride March in London has witnessed record attendance this year. How do you feel about this adversity?
Here, the Major provides great support to this event as well. According to me, support of a Muslim major in such an organization is crucial. Huge banners are unfurled here every year. They send promotive messages to supporters of the Pride March in İstanbul which couldn’t be held. This is invaluable for me. I can’t understand why some people are treated like a second-class citizen for their sexual identities, ethnical identities or any reason… Hence I believe in LGBTI rights sincerely and advocate and support them. I think this is an issue to be discussed emphatically.
After the book named “Zümrüt Apartment” caused indignation, your novel “The Gaze” was criticized severely for containing statements associated with paedophilia.
It’s not easy for a novelist in Turkey to question the political taboos. Furthermore, writing about sexuality is challenging, particularly for female authors. The recent hysteria in our country majorly (95% of it) consists of the messages spread by bots and trolls. In other words, they are not the reactions of readers. First, we should separate them. Literature embraces troublesome topics. Unfortunately, sexual discrimination, sexual violence and kid brides in Turkey are the facts of our lives. In my opinion, politicians should primarily change the patriarchal laws if they’re intimate. First, the judges who made bold to speak about the skirt length of female lawyers at courts should be questioned. Moreover, they need to open women’s shelter for the women and children subjected to violence. In contrast, women’s shelters are closed. Instead of messing with the statements of authors, many serious problems should be addressed. Disingenuity is at the highest level. To talk about my literature, I’ve always defended the rights of women, sexual minorities, human and children as well as freedom of speech. All the time, I’ve tried to tell the stories of others from their aspect. For this reason, being exposed to such severe criticisms hurts me significantly.

Literature embraces troublesome topics. Unfortunately, sexual discrimination, sexual violence and child marriages in Turkey are the facts of our lives. In my opinion, politicians should primarily change the patriarchal laws if they’re intimate.

“THE COUNTRIES LACK OF DEMOCRACY LOSE THEIR SENSE OF HUMOUR”
I’ve felt that you included more humorous expressions in this novel, compared to the former ones. I read the part about cemetery chucklingly even though it’s a quite sorrowful scene. Did you write in this way knowingly? And why?
In fact, I believe in a dialectic wholeheartedly. I adore humour and set a premium on it. I’ll come to the same point, but I think the countries exposed to authoritarianism lose their sense of humour. Humour is a kind of resistance. Humour is oxygen and opens a breathing space for us. I show utmost respect to humour and regard it as an art branch. I place special emphasis on a dialectic for authors as well: I enjoy touching on the tragic subjects with humour. I enjoy capturing the melancholy in humour as well. May be, such dialectic is included in all novels I wrote, with different intensities. You’re right, my last novel contains more remarkable, bolder and more assertive humour. By the way, I don’t mean patronizing, sneering and condescending humour here. I mention humour which is compassionate, so I exist in my humour as well. I may laugh at myself, but kindly. According to me, that compassion should always accompany with humour.

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