Elif Shafak: The Age Of Despair

The following interview, between Australian novelist and vice president of PEN Center USA, David Francis, and Turkish-British novelist Elif Shafak, has been condensed for length and clarity.

David Francis: There was a line from a poem by Rumi that recently came to me that goes:

Come, come, whoever you are, 
Wanderer, worshiper, a lover of leaving,
Ours is not a caravan of despair.

It’s hard in this day and age not to feel like we’re on a caravan of despair. We were talking earlier about optimism and tribalism. I wonder if you would talk about how we can navigate those poles of nationalism and tribalism, especially given what’s going on in Turkey, the U.K. and the U.S.

Elif Shafak: Well, we Turks like to think Rumi is ours. But if you ask Iranians, they will say, he is our Rumi. And if you ask Afghans — because his family was from Belkh — they will say, no, he’s our Rumi. And that’s the beauty of it. He’s everyone’s Rumi. He belongs to the entire world, and that made him “placeless” and timeless in so many ways, so much so that even after 800 years, we find solace in his words, we find light.

But I hear what you’re saying, and you are right; for many reasons, this feels like the age of despair. I think it is an age in which emotions guide and misguide politics. And also vice versa, in the sense that politics stokes and exploits emotions. So it is the age of anxiety — an existential angst. Suddenly, politics is not only about political divisions and power struggles; it is fundamentally about identity. When so much is stacked up vertically, and we have less and less commonality between “tribes,” the polarization acquires a dangerous nature.

There is a lot of uncertainty in the air. The classic narrative of modernity was based upon constant progress, the conviction that tomorrow would be more advanced than yesterday. And yet here we are, unsure that tomorrow will in any way be better or that our societies will hold together around shared values. The winners of today’s politics will be those who understand and address this collective anxiety.

“The winners of today’s politics will be those who understand and address this collective anxiety.”

There are two things we don’t do well in Turkey. One is irony. We don’t even have an exact translation for it in Turkish. And second, we don’t do optimism. In fact, if you look at the map of Europe and trace the River Danube with your finger, from Germany toward the Black Sea, as your finger moves eastward, the level of optimism drops. So by the time you reach Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey and then the Black Sea, we are not very optimistic cultures.

However, I am a big believer in what the Italian political thinker Antonio Gramsci used to talk about with regard to the pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the heart, optimism of the will. We need both. Intellectual pessimism will keep us awake, aware of the fragility of democracy and the dangers of rising populism, nationalism, authoritarianism and religious fundamentalism. But too much pessimism will also pull us down and make us bitter. We need a healthy dose of optimism as well. And that will come from our fellow human beings. Talk to young people, women, minorities — people who have amazing resilience and can and do think beyond borders. This is a vital moment in time for global solidarity and global sisterhood.

Francis: You’ve talked about the differences between writing in English versus Turkish. Do you think that the language of the heart for you is Turkish and the language of humor and irony is more accessible in English?

Shafak: All my life, I’ve been a bit of a nomad. I started learning English at the age of 10 when I was in Spain. Spanish was my second language. Turkish is my mother tongue. So English for me is an acquired language. And like all immigrants, there is a gap between my mind and my tongue. When I speak English, my mind runs faster than my tongue. As immigrants, we are always aware of the things we cannot express, the absences.

To me, language is a passion. It’s not an instrument. It’s how I exist. People who read my work in Turkish would know that even when I write in my mother tongue primarily, I am always trying to question the boundaries of daily language.

“As immigrants, we are always aware of the things we cannot express, the absences.”

The Ottoman Empire, as you know, was a multiethnic, multilingual, multi-religious entity. As a result, when you look at the Ottoman language, the syntax is Turkish but the vocabulary includes words in Arabic, Persian, Greek…. But so many of those words were taken out as the language was Turkified — “purified.” If you look at an Ottoman dictionary, it is quite thick. A modern Turkish dictionary is almost half the size. A big chunk of the vocabulary has been erased. As a writer, I can say yellow in Turkish and I can say red, but the shades in between, I am not able to express them because they used to come from Persian.

And I have always resisted that — the tendency to erase “old” words or words coming from different ethnic origins. Language must be organic. Let it flow. Let it evolve. This is rather difficult to explain in a polarized country such as Turkey because, as some modernists put it: Why should we be interested in old words in the first place? Whereas for me, there are no old words. There are no new words. There are only words. And we need them all. The wider your vocabulary, and the more layered it is, the wider your imagination, your thinking, your writing. Language shapes everything.  

A nuanced vocabulary is a remarkable strength. We need nuances. When I listen to people speaking English, I love it when they say “chutzpah” or “kismet.” Nobody stops them, saying, “Wait a minute — that’s a Jewish word” or “That’s an Arabic word — let’s take it out.” Nobody says that; both chutzpah and kismet are part of the English language. Over centuries, humans from different cultures have interacted and thus so have our languages and dialects. That’s how I approach this issue — there should be a continuity, an organic diversity.

My earlier novels were all written in Turkish first. Then there came a moment when I switched to writing in English. It wasn’t a rational choice, really. More like an animal instinct. I needed freedom. Another zone of existence, another space, even though it was hard for me because I am an immigrant in English.

That said, I realized over time, if I’m writing about melancholy, sadness and longing, I find it easier to express these things in Turkish, whereas definitely humor and satire and irony are much easier in English. 

Istanbul. (Getty)

Francis: The evolution of language makes me think about the evolution of Turkish history and the tendency perhaps to suffer from some kind of amnesia. You’ve written about Armenians in America, and you’ve written about Kurds. As a contemporary Turkish author, how does that kind of amnesia affect you? 

Shafak: Being a novelist is difficult in a country like Turkey, and being a female novelist is harder. This is a country with a rich history. An old history. But that doesn’t mean we have a solid memory.

For instance, if you walk around Istanbul, you will see lots of historic buildings. If you ask the question — “Who lived in that building? Where did they go?” — there is no answer. All those graveyards — who is buried there? Sometimes, nobody knows. Also, because we changed our alphabet, many people cannot read old tombstones. Even some street names — we don’t know exactly what they mean because some of those words used to come from Persian, Arabic, etc. Our connection with the past is full of ruptures, silences, censorship. We have lost not only our memory but also our curiosity about the past. And that is a dangerous thing. Societies that cannot face their past can easily repeat the darkest chapters of that past, again and again.

“We start to lose not only our memory but also our curiosity about the past.”

When I wrote “The Bastard of Istanbul,” this became a big issue. Article 301 in the Turkish Constitution protects Turkishness against insults, even though it’s unclear what that means. So it’s open to misinterpretation — this draconian, undemocratic article. It had been used against journalists and scholars throughout the years. But never before had it been used against a novelist for a work of fiction. That was very surreal. The words of my Armenian fictional characters were taken out of the book by the prosecutors and used as “evidence” against me in the courtroom, where I faced possible imprisonment.

It’s a book about a Turkish family and an Armenian-American family, and it talks about the Armenian genocide, using the word “genocide.” So my Turkish lawyer had to defend my Armenian fictional characters in the courtroom. In the end, we were all acquitted — me and the fictional characters. It was all Kafkaesque.  

I don’t talk about this much, but after I was acquitted, I lived with a bodyguard for about two years. And that too was surreal. When I wrote the novel, people said, “Oh, she must be a secret Armenian because otherwise, why would she write about this?” And then when I wrote another novel, “Honour,” where two Kurdish women are central, people said, “Oh, she must be a secret Kurd.” Then they said, “She must be a secret Jew.” Because for them, if it is not your identity, why would you be interested in someone else’s story in the first place — why would you even care? I think that is exactly one of the many walls that writers need to bring down. I do care. It doesn’t have to be my identity for me to care about someone else’s story.

“In the end, we were all acquitted — me and the fictional characters. It was all Kafkaesque.”

Francis: You talk about living in the nuance, which I think is a beautiful thing to aspire to as a human and as a writer — between the divides. Would you talk about navigating the world as a Turkish woman, mother and feminist — and being interested in creating a space or living in a space that is not where everyone else is living? 

Shafak: You might disagree with me, but I’m very critical of identity politics. I don’t see it as a progressive force. It might be a good starting point, but it cannot be where we end up. 

I think about identity issues a lot, maybe because I’ve spent my life both in Turkey and abroad, in some kind of between-dom, between belonging and nonbelonging. I had to think about what it means to have an identity. Am I only myself as an individual, or is there a collective entity that I have to associate with all the time?

“Am I only myself as an individual, or is there a collective entity that I have to associate with all the time?”

I lived in Boston for a while, and I would just spend days in Mount Holyoke library, reading and re-reading work from the African-American women’s movement of past generations. Their voices left a big impact on me. Throughout the 1960s and 70s in particular, progressives were aware of the importance of multiplicity. Because these writers were women, they were extremely aware of sexism. Because they were black, they were extremely aware of racism. Because many of them came from disadvantaged backgrounds, they were extremely aware of class distinctions and inequalities. And because many of them came from LGBTQ communities, they knew how homophobia and transphobia worked.

When you read someone like Audre Lorde, she says, “Look at me. I’m black. I’m a woman. I’m a mother. I’m a poet. I’m this. I’m that. And many more things that you might not be able to notice when you look at me. I contain multitudes.” I am worried that we have lost that.

In today’s progressive movement, to a large extent, we want to go back to a tribe and feel safer there because there’s so much uncertainty. We crave the safety of sameness. But that’s not the way forward. We have to fight for multiplicity.

I am an Istanbul-lite. Of course, I’m attached to Istanbul — I love the city — but I’m also attached to the Aegean, the Balkans, the Mediterranean. There are so many elements in my soul that I bring with me from the Middle East. At the same time, by birth and the values I hold, I’m European. Over the years, I’ve become a Londoner, a British citizen. I would like to think of myself as a world citizen and hopefully as a global soul. That doesn’t mean I have no sense of attachment. Being a citizen of the world doesn’t mean you are floating in the air aimlessly. It means you can care about multiple things at the same time.

“It is mostly because of our collective numbness that a small number of evil people can cause huge hurt and pain.”

Francis: In our day-to-day lives, how do you imagine we can most effectively be activists? Is it something about looking after our own internal well-being and spreading that around in a kind of Buddhist, compassionate way? Or is it getting out in the streets?

There is a sort of powerlessness and frustration that I think we’re all experiencing in this day and age. It’s hard to know what to do other than go crazy and watch television. 

Shafak: When we read the writings of people who have survived the worst in human history, such as the Holocaust and civil wars and genocides, almost all of these people say similar things. We ask them: How is it possible that such atrocities can occur? Is it because human beings are intrinsically bad? The survivors tell us that the opposite of goodness is not necessarily wickedness or evil. We tend to think that there is good and there is bad. But what the survivors are telling us is that the opposite of goodness is, in fact, numbness. And it is mostly because of our collective numbness, mostly because of collective indifference, that a small number of evil people can cause huge hurt and pain.

The moment we stop feeling, connecting, empathizing — that’s a dangerous threshold. After that threshold, it doesn’t matter whether it’s 5,000 refugees or 500,000 refugees — numbers don’t mean anything, do they? We don’t register it. It’s happening elsewhere. So that’s one of the questions that I ask myself: How can we challenge numbness?

People like Hannah Arendt are vital. She always talked about becoming engaged citizens, active in our civic space. I’m not necessarily talking about party politics. I’m talking about being political with regards to core values and the fundamentals of democracy, such as human rights, women’s rights, and minority rights — but also the rule of law, separation of powers, freedom of speech, a free and diverse media, independent academia. Our jobs don’t matter much, whether we’re bakers, writers, students. But we do not have the luxury of being apolitical in this age.