Wanting all the Words: Elif Shafak in conversation with Emma Graham-Harrison ( A Guardian Live Event)

6th August 2020

UPDATE 11/08/20:  Guardian Live have made the interview available here.

(This is a long post but I didn’t want to lose any of what Elif Shafak said.  Make yourself a cup of tea & settle in.)

EGH introduced Elif Shafak – Novelist, Essayist and Public Intellectual – saying that her writing garners much attention, not all of it positive: the authorities in her native Turkey would be happier if she stopped writing altogether. She has been tried in the past for insulting Turkishness and more recently for obscenity, because she writes about sexual violence.  EGH said that the level of official fear is testament to the power of ES’s work. They are here (online, to be exact) principally to discuss her Booker prize shortlisted novel 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World (Penguin).


EGH said that, given the themes addressed in the novel – which include the brutal murder of a sex worker, people-trafficking, the Yazidis and the Armenian genocide, she expected the novel to be bleak but despite all of that she found it moving and uplifting, a testament to a life lived honestly. She asked if ES had intended it to be like that and asked her to talk about how the novel evolved.

ES: Istanbul itself inspired her to write this way. It is a city where everything is mixed; joy, pain, sorrow… very dynamic and restless, moving all the time. ‘Humour is our oxygen.’ She is interested in how sorrow talks to humour, especially in places where freedoms have been lost. She’s also interested in death, which is not easy to talk about.


EGH: There have been warnings for a long time of the dangers of tribalism, an increase in right wing factions, the emergence of extremists – ES’s novels are prescient. Is this intentional? Did the novel come from her political writing? Or holistically, from beliefs and values?

ES: Her writing is not autobiographical, she is more interested in trying to transcend the self that was given to her at birth, trying to think herself into the shoes of another person: ‘Cognitive flexibility is important.’  If you are seen as different, she said, in the eyes of authority or of the majority for whatever reason (race, class, gender, sexuality), your life will be difficult. She wanted to give voice to people on the periphery, on the margins of society. Her perception of the world shows that many people are pushed out to those margins. Literature needs to pay more attention to silences.


EGH: How did medical research influence the novel?

ES: She was struck by medical research  which shows that after the heart stops beating, the human mind is still active and can continue for roughly ten minutes. If long-term memory is the last to shut down, what do the dead remember? This question gave her the whole structure of the novel. A second strong influence was a little-known graveyard in Istanbul, the Cemetery of the Companionless. Unlike other cemeteries in Istanbul, there are no tombstones, flowers or people to be seen there; this is where society’s undesirables and outcasts are buried. Graves are only marked by wooden posts with numbers, no names. People buried there include LGBTQ people, suicides, abandoned babies, sex workers and drowned refugees. ES’s instinct was to try to reverse that anonymity, to try to rehumanise those dead.

When ES lived in Istanbul, she lived on a cosmopolitan street (the Street of the Cauldron Makers) that had seen waves of different kinds of people move through it over time. It was populated by ethnic minorities until they left because they felt unsafe, then sexual minorities, who moved on for similar reasons, then feminists, bohemian artists and so on, each wave leaving a few people behind so that now the street has a culturally mixed population. She was there for the earthquake and describes how an ultra-conservative, habitually taciturn, grocer opened a pack of cigarettes and gave one to the transgender neighbour he never spoke to. The next day he was back to normal.  Just for that one night they were all united by their fear of death.


EGH asked about the shift from writing in Turkish to writing in English. ‘Language is part of your art; it’s not like journalism where you have to be factual. What caused the shift and do you think you’ll change back?’

ES: this is an important question, she thinks about it all the time. She quotes Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet who says that language is his homeland.  It is possible to dream in other languages, she said, calling herself an immigrant to English, a condition where the mind runs faster than the tongue. It’s frustrating but can be motivating too; it gives a kind of cognitive distance. To see a painting better, we don’t step closer but step back.

She doesn’t translate her own work from English to Turkish, but when the professional translator has finished she will change some of the vocabulary. Her readers know and expect that she will use old vocabulary, which is a mixture of other dialects. She loves the way that English absorbs and accommodates foreign words like chutzpah. In Turkey, language is being narrowed and restricted as 45% of ‘old’ (mostly Persian) words have been deleted from the modern Turkish dictionary, making it a far slimmer volume than the substantial Ottoman dictionaries of the past.  If you are seen as modern and progressive, you are not expected to engage with this rich older vocabulary but, she points out, without it, she can say ‘red’ and ‘yellow’ in Turkish, but not have a word for any of the shades and tones that lie between them. ‘I want all the words,’ she says.  We need nuance. She’d rather expand her vocabulary than limit it.


EGH spoke about the recent black and white photo campaign protesting femicide in Turkey.

ES: Authoritarianism is on the rise and it’s no coincidence that the patriarchy is being reinforced.  There is alarming discussion of a proposed change in the law that will give rapists lighter sentences if they marry their victims. This reveals that the judiciary are thinking about an abstract idea of honour rather than the experience of women and girls who have been assaulted. Violence against women is increasing. Domestic violence has increased 1400%.  One in three marriages involve underage brides. The Government is trying to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention which protects the rights of women, children and sexual minorities. This is why Turkish women are protesting on the streets.  There are similar trends in Poland and Hungary. Demagogues attack women’s rights.


Q & A:

EGH reads a question from a member of the audience about how intentional the use of the image of a hooded falcon was in the novel, was ES making a political point?

ES: ‘I like it when writers ask questions; I don’t like books that preach. I like to raise questions about difficult issues, to open spaces where we can talk democratically. I’m critical of certainty.’  She went on to say that faith without doubt is dangerous.  Although not, religious herself, she  points out that atheism can be dogmatic too. She doesn’t like the ways in which religion can divide humanity into us and them, but she’s interested in individual spiritual journeys. ‘Who am I to judge someone else’s journey?’ she asks.  In general, religion is a subject that the left have not been able to talk about.


Question: as a writer of colour, the questioner wants to know how to balance writing minorities?

ES: resists labels of any kind. She doesn’t like identity politics in literature, we shouldn’t confine writers to specific subjects.  In the 1960s and 70s African American feminists such as Audre Lord were hugely influential in the way they brought multiplicity to such questions, able to look at all the selves inside one person. Those were progressive movements working to end sexism and racism – especially those LGBTQ individuals who knew all the levels and nuances of power.

Literature is not about identity.  Not just study and research but honesty is needed. Literature is about transcending all those boundaries. It’s a work of the heart – if you feel it inside, she advised the questioner, go for it. What matters is how the story touches your heart.


Question: (really three questions) Which books inspire you? What are you reading now? What’s on your bookshelf?

ES has been judging the George Orwell prize so she’s been reading a lot of non-fiction. She’s been enjoying it but as a novelist, her primary love is fiction. When people (usually men) say they don’t read fiction, she wonders how they divide their reading. Fiction is about life. She doesn’t know anyone who doesn’t need empathy or emotional connection. We have got so many things wrong (about our world today) partly because we are all atomised, we don’t connect the dots. It’s interesting when we look beyond our own fields and interests – she enjoys reading about neuroscience, for instance; she likes to read beyond what she already knows.


Question: You are a passionate advocate for minority rights, How important is creativity in the fight for inclusion?

ES: The Nazis didn’t start with the gas chambers. Oppression starts with words. Feminism showed us that politics is personal. Wherever power is (being abused), it can be resisted through telling stories. It starts with dehumanising the Other. We must rehumanise through the transformative power of storytelling.


Question: What can Turkish women outside Turkey do to support women who are still there?

ES: It’s important to keep global sisterhood and solidarity alive. Patriarchy does not mean that women are weak. Many are raising their voices and we should support them however we can, via social media, asking questions, writing letters to governments.  The worst we can do is give in to numbness. It’s important not to be disconnected.  When you gain a step forward there is always a backlash. We must keep talking, moving forward together.


A Question about negative responses to her work.

ES: ‘I’ve learned to make a clear distinction between the elite (including the cultural elite) and the people.’  It’s the people who matter. In Turkey if a reader likes a book they share it with their sisters, mothers, friends … she sees it at signings, where passages of her books have been underlined in different colour pens, by different hands. Word of mouth is important. From the elite you get a lot of nastiness nut she has heartwarming conversations with readers.


EGH: In authoritarian circumstances literature becomes more important.

ES: It is one of our last democratic spaces. Where people are divided maybe storytelling is one of the last places where we come together. In Turkey many people are xenophobic – they are taught to be this way in schools … but at readings, someone xenophobic might say they loved x – who may be Armenian or Greek – or someone who is homophobic will say, I cried when y was hurt. People are less judgemental when they are reading. We go inside, away from the energies of populism, fascism, synchronised chanting etc.


EGH: Are you hopeful?

ES: I can’t be optimistic, it’s not in my DNA.  There is a joke that goes: if you look at a map and trace the Danube from Germany to the Black Sea, you can see the level of optimism drop along the way.

Gramsci talks about a pessimism of the intellect which keeps us alert – BUT: we also need optimism of the will and mind.  Look at Beirut, you can see the resilience of people there. Their courage can teach us. We need connections that go beyond borders.


EGH: You have a book coming out soon …

ES: A booklet: How to Stay Sane in a World of Division. It’s a manifesto, a rallying cry for hopefulness. It looks at all the questions and emotions we deal with now.

She’s also working on a novel.


UPDATE 11/08/20:  Guardian Live have made the interview available here.

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2 Responses to Wanting all the Words: Elif Shafak in conversation with Emma Graham-Harrison ( A Guardian Live Event)

  1. Sheila Barrett says:

    Enjoyed hearing her at a Dalkey Book Festival a few years ago and hope she will be back soon.

    • Lia Mills says:

      Thanks, Sheila. She is such a fantastic speaker. I met her once and she said she loves Dalkey. I’ve heard her at the DBF too and it’s pretty obvious that Dalkey loves her, judging by the size of the crowd and the warmth of their response. I think she got a standing ovation the first time she was here?

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