Shafak with David Roche at London Book Fair
London - James Campbell
At the 2013 London Book Fair (LBF), award-winning novelist and writer Elif Shafak, was kind enough to find time to speak to Arabstoday. The annual festival has in recent years adopted a market focus country. The focus serves to promote cultural and business links within the literary world, and this year’s event shone the light on Turkey.
Naturally, being one of the most widely read modern Turkish authors; Shafak was chosen as one of this year’s authors of note. Between signings and speeches, Shafak spoke to Arabstoday on the state of the Turkish literary landscape.
How important is the LBF in dismantling cultural boundaries and promoting Turkish literature?
“I think it’s a vital platform. We always talk about cross cultural exchanges and dialogue, but when you come to think of it, how many venues are there around the world where this is really actualised? To me what the LBF is achieving is really very precious. As we’re speaking about literature, we’re also taking about a nation state, westernisation, secularism, democracy, Islam. Lots of issues can be debated freely, and to me that kind of exchange is really important.”
You’ve said that a community of like-minded people can be quite dangerous in promoting secularism; do you think that events like this help to resolve that?
“I think as human beings all of us need to get out of our mental ghettos. By that what I mean is we tend to become friends with people who think like us, we tend to work with people who are like us, and we become resentful towards people who are different from us. In countries were democracy is not mature the resentment and bitterness becomes deeper and darker. Turkey has been polarised for a very long time, and I think it is time to overcome this polarisation. I sincerely believe that if we’re going to learn anything in this life, we’re going to learn it from people who are different from us, not from people who are exactly like us. There’s no creativity in listening to the echo of your own voice and that’s why cosmopolitan culture and cosmopolitan encounters are important. This is where dynamism lies.”
Turkey is considered a paragon of modern Islamism. Do you feel literary freedom exists in Turkey, or is it repressive?
“It’s a question that has two sides. Turkey is such a complicated, multi-layered country; it really cannot be reduced to one box very easily. It is a democracy, but it is not a mature democracy. And in my experience it is always hard to change people’s perceptions. We have this tendency to see people who think differently as enemies or as people who are betraying the nation, people should be able to talk critically, we don’t have to agree. You should be able to respond to words with words, not by bringing people to court or putting them in prison. For me freedom of expression, freedom of speech and freedom of press are crucial for any true democracy, and in that sense there have been amazingly positive developments in my country. But we have a long way to go.”
The pianist Fazel Say was recently sentenced for sending “anti-Turkish” tweets. Is he a victim of these restrictions?
We all heard the news and it came as a shock to be honest, nobody was expecting this. I’m very sad for my country. Fazil got a suspended jail sentence, but he cannot speak against the state for five years. You may agree or disagree with him, and as an individual you can express that, but to sue someone because of his words, because of a tweet is something I cannot accept. I think that there should be complete freedom of expression. Unfortunately in my country the artists, writers and journalists are prosecuted, and I find that very sad and I’m very critical of that.”
Even for works of fiction is seems.
“I had that experience in 2006 and it was quite surreal because I believe that for the first time the words of a fictional character have been plucked out of the novel and used against the author. It was claimed that I was insulting Turkishness. What we need is a new constitution, a much more democratic egalitarian constitution. The problem is the constitution that we have right now dates back to 1980. It’s a legacy of the military take over. We need a much better and much more democratic constitution.”
Yesterday, author Muge Iplikci claimed women often self-censor. Do you feel the need to self-censor your work?
“I think self censorship is a serious topic and we should talk openly about it. But it’s not only about political issues; it’s also about sexual issues. As a woman writer how freely can you write about sexuality? How freely can you write about sexual taboos? I think in countries that are very patriarchal it’s much more difficult to change gender taboos and sexual taboos than political taboos.”
Mehmet Yashin, the Turkish poet, said Turkish writers suffer from a stigma of having all their work politicised and not valued on artistic merit. It seems that Turkish literature is not measured with Europe but against Europe as a separate state.
Does this affect your output?
Identity is a colossal issue for us, where do we belong, are we eastern are we western? We grew up discussing these issues. I don’t think any Turkish novelist can completely stay away from politics. I come from women’s movements; I have a lot of respect for women’s movements. And one of the things it taught me was that politics are not restricted to political parties. Politics are in our daily lives, so in that sense there are politics in my work, but the guiding force is always literature, always the desire to tell a good story, always imagination. Of course there can be politics but we should never over politicise.
It think it’s similar to Britain in that we’ve both got ghosts of an empire and it’s how we deal with it in our own separate ways, but now we’re coming together at multinational literature at events like this.
Its very interesting to me, I can’t help but compare the British example and the Turkish example. As you said we’re both come from overseas old ancient empires but the way each country established their nation state was very different. The experiences are different, in the case of turkey we grew up with this fear that we were surrounded by enemies and the fear of loosing territory. And fear is a very dangerous thing, it creates more fear throughout the generations, and this is what is changing in turkey and I think it’s important for a true democracy to understand that. You are not a monolithic entity where everyone is alike because that was the attitude at the beginning, but now people are saying you are Kurdish, you’re Armenian, you’re Jewish and together we can build a coexisting identity. This is the phase that Turkey has arrived at now.
Do you think this will be a sign of things to come in Turkish literature?
Even at the times when the country was much more authoritarian, Turkish literature has been dynamic, multicultural and heterogeneous, but what is interesting, and this is one of the major challenges for all of us, not only for Turkey, is can we think of our identities in different terms? I’m a Turkish writer, and at the same time I’m a world citizen. Can we have multiple belongings? We will find more common ground, if we can stop thinking of identity as something frozen and exclusive. I’m interested in belonging more than identity.