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Storytelling Without Rules

Istanbul--Award-winning author Elif Shafak.
Istanbul--Award-winning author Elif Shafak.
Elif Shafak is an award-winning Turkish novelist, who writes in both English and Turkish. She has published 13 books, including “The Bastard of Istanbul,” “The Forty Rules of Love,” “Honour,” and her nonfiction memoir “Black Milk,” an account of her struggle with post-partum depression. Her work transcends cultures and spans continents, emphasizing the voice of the “other,” be it women, immigrants, sexual minorities, or different faiths. Shafak spoke with Farishta Jalalzai of RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan about the power of storytelling.

RFE/RL: What are your golden rules for being a successful storyteller?

Shafak: Honestly, I don’t think there are recipes or formulas, but one thing I cherish is the heart, the emotions. In creative writing classes we say “write what you know,” but this is not a rule I believe in. I believe you should write what you feel. It doesn’t have to be your knowledge, rationality, or logic, but your heart. That way, we can write about any and everything as long as we feel a connection. This is the beauty of art. It’s a transcendental experience.

That said, I also believe there is not a single story that can capture the entire human experience in a few pages. What’s important is to keep the plurality of voices.

As we move back in history, the same regime and the same culture can be experienced differently by different individuals. For example, the book I’ve just finished takes place in the 16th-century Ottoman Empire. An Armenian or a Jew living in that setting would have a different experience than someone from the ruling elite. A prostitute would have a different experience than a woman in the palace harem.

We need to understand the multiplicity of experience and never allow anyone to reduce any period of human history into one single narrative, because this is what official history does to us. Nationalist histories reduce the multiplicity to one single narrative and they say “this is the fact.”

RFE/RL: You are both a mother and a successful writer. Why doesn't the conventional argument, that a woman cannot be both a good mother and have a successful career, apply to you?

Shafak: I did not find this balance between writing and motherhood very easy at the beginning, mostly because I’ve (had) a very nomadic life, living out of a suitcase, moving from one country to another.

I was always very independent – perhaps self-centered in a way – and a freethinking individual. The thought that I have to be more settled frightened me in the beginning.

After the birth of our first child, I experienced post-partum depression that went on for about eight months. My book “Black Milk” explains that experience. That depression taught me a lot. I was able to face my own fears and anxieties.

Depressions are golden opportunities, although it is difficult when we’re going through them, (it gives) us an amazing opportunity to reconstruct ourselves, and that’s what I did. I looked inside and found six different Elifs. There was one who enjoyed motherhood very much, and I had always belittled the side of myself that was more feminine. Throughout my adult life, the most important thing was to be intellectual, it was about books, it was about writing.

RFE/RL: How do you fight the stereotype of the Turkish woman, which you’ve said you often encounter in the West?

Shafak: The stereotypes are so deeply rooted that people take them for granted. Particularly we women coming from Muslim countries experience stereotypes. But stereotypes are mutual.

There are big stereotypes within the Muslim world vis-à-vis Western culture. When I travel throughout the Middle East I hear so many women say that Western women have no family values and they are reduced to their sexual identity, and I ask “How do you know? How many Western friends do you have?”

Similarly, when I travel in the United States I hear women say “Poor Muslim women, they have no rights.” And again I ask, “How do you know?” We women have many stereotypes about each other, and that’s dangerous.

RFE/RL: How do these cultural expectations affect women’s writing?

Shafak: The world of art and literature and culture is expected to be very progressive and open-minded, but this is not necessarily so. Especially when you are a female writer coming from a country like Afghanistan or Pakistan, that doesn’t have a well-established democracy or where there is a lot of strife or conflict, then the expectation is that you should tell the stories of unhappy Muslim women. There are no limits in the world of imagination. You can write these types of stories, but maybe your next story can be science fiction or fantasy.

RFE/RL: Your work has been criticized because you take on Armenian and Turkish politics. How do you answer your critics?

Shafak: I get criticism all the time from people on all sides because I don’t like the duality and polarization in my country and I try to move beyond that polarity. But I also have readers from all sides. There are liberals, leftists, conservatives. I have readers wearing head scarves and readers wearing miniskirts. I cherish that diversity.

Unfortunately, in my country everything has become polarized. We have become divided into mental ghettos. And I think the role of arts and literature is not to divide but to unite. I’m interested in the connections, not the divisions.

I think every human individual is composed of different voices. We always talk about democracy as an external regime, but there should also be democracy within the individual. What kind of a regime do we have inside us? Is it an absolutist monarchy? Is it a dictatorial regime, or is it a pluralistic democracy?

The way the individual constructs himself or herself influences the way they interact with others. From childhood we learn to fear the other, especially in Turkey, where we have internalized the ideology of sameness. We grew up thinking that sameness meant strength. Just the opposite is true--diversity is strength.

It’s the differences that create a synergy. That is where creativity, philosophy, and democracy ultimately flourish. Literature and storytelling are very important because they teach us to empathize with others, to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. That’s what stories do to us.

RFE/RL: You were fortunate to be born in Turkey, which is a diverse society and has contributed to the freedoms of women writers. What about women who are living in countries where they are repressed?

We in Turkey are the grandchildren of a multiethnic, multilingual, multi-religious empire. One of the trademarks of the Ottoman Empire was its diversity. It was more cosmopolitan, at least in Istanbul.

But I don’t think we appreciate that diversity in Turkey. We’ve carved out an ideology of sameness, which I am very critical of, because I think we as a culture have lost a lot. A culture cannot be judged by looking at the way the majority lives. You have to look at the way the minorities live--cultural minorities, but also sexual minorities. How are they being treated? In that sense I think Turkey has a long way to go and we are not a mature democracy.

But it’s a country of contrasts. We have many women who are active and vocal, but at the same time we have honor killings, child brides, incest--all taboos we find very difficult to talk about and therefore should be talking about.

I have huge respect for women all around the world suffering because of extremely enclosed patriarchal cultures. But I think patriarchy makes men unhappy as well. I think young men find it very difficult to keep up with the definition of masculinity that is imposed on them.

Women must understand the role of mothers in raising those sons as privileged, and we need to be self-critical of how we treat our sons. We raise the sons as the sultans of the family--girls are raised to help set the table, clean, work, but our sons don’t even have to get their own glass of water. Patriarchy is complex, and to change it we must also embrace the men who are also oppressed by it.

RFE/RL: How do you see yourself in five years? Could you be the next Nobel Prize winner from Turkey?

Shafak: I love telling stories. Reading, writing, keeping the imagination alive. This is the life for me. Of course, all writers would like to have a connection with their readers and be successful in that regard. I wouldn’t believe a writer who said the opposite. But my main motive is the art of storytelling. That’s my main love.