On 21 February, award-winning novelist, Elif Shafak, visited the great lecture room of the Professor Stuart Hall Building to read her new novel, Three Daughters of Eve.
The Three Daughters of Eve is a compelling tale of Peri and her struggle between parents, a rebellious yet charismatic professor and the enticement of religion and secularism in old friendships. The story takes places in Istanbul, 2016, as Peri makes her way to a dinner party with her teenage daughter Deniz. After a sudden attempted rape and robbery, Peri is lead to examine her youthful past in Oxford while jolted forward through the evening to come. Shafak takes us on a spiritual journey in cracks where West and East meet, presenting us with a new outlook on love, faith and life.
Writing in both Turkish and English, Shafak has published 15 books, including The Bastard of Istanbul and The Forty Rules of Love, translated into more than forty languages. It comes to no surprise that the prominent author is also a political commentator and inspiration public speaker. Shafak was also 2017 Goldsmiths Prize judge anointed by the Goldsmiths Writers’ Centre.
But the evening did not linger only on the topic of her new novel. In conversation with Adam-Mars Jones, chair of judges for the 2018 Goldsmiths Prize, Shafak went onto feverishly talk about identity, philosophy and the Internet.
Has your fiction changed in response to the sense of speeding up political change, have you taken a different approach?
As writers, we have to make a decision between questions and answers. Our job is the ask the right questions, our job is to ask difficult questions about difficult issues, about taboos, silences, the things we can’t talk about and to try to open up spaces in our work. But our job is not to teach something, not to preach, not to try to give the answers – I really don’t like that at all, that kind of arrogance I find really off-putting…Every reader reads a book with his or her own gaze. The reader is not passive; the reader creates the story together. I think a writer’s job is to chase silences, to ask questions, to write a story, but never to try and give the answers. Some people love [my work], some people are quite puzzled and that’s an experience I’ve always had. As a Turkish writer, I think you get used to being kissed on one check and slapped on the other – at the same time.
You mention Sufaism, is that a part of your background?
No, I grew up in a strict and secular environment. But I think there is an enormous debate there that we can engage in. You don’t have to be religious in order to discuss religious philosophy. What I observe is people who are very sure of the ground beneath their feet and of their own interpretation of religion, they want to get rid of doubt and people who are very sure of their atheism want to get rid of faith whereas I think as human beings we need dialects of faith and doubt. What I find closer to my heart is agnosticism that questions and understands the charm of faith, but the importance of doubt because faith without doubt is a dogma and dogmas are incredibly dangerous. On the other hand, I think in our lives there is room for faith and faith is not necessarily a religious concept. When you start writing a novel, it’s an act of faith. You don’t know what you’re doing, sink or swim, but you do it anyhow! You move to a different country, you have no clue why you’re doing it: it’s an act of faith. You fall in love with someone, you don’t know if that person is going to make you happy: love is an act of faith. So, there are secular acts of faith in our lives. I mean, we should get back the word ‘faith’ from extremely religious people, get back to word ‘patriotism’ from extremely nationalistic people… there are concepts that I think we need to think about.
I’m very struck by different types of families in your writing, biological and families of sympathy, and I just wondered whether writing like this has changed the way you think about those types of families?
Maybe it all boils down to the notion of belonging: where do we belong? Maybe because of my childhood, but also everything I’ve read, every story I’ve written brought me to this point where I think we really are made of water. Our main element is water; why then reduce ourselves to a solid, exclusive identity? Identity politics that distinguishes between ‘us and them’, it bothers me. I come from a country that has lost it’s cosmopolitism and I think by losing that, we lost a lot – and I’m not talking about the financial lost, something else in our conscious. So there is a part of me that longs for that diversity, it doesn’t matter your blood family, but some people are not born like that, they find their own families. Maybe that is why I was drawn to philosophy and mystical philosophy because I think what it shows us is this notion of connection, I am connected to everyone and everything and life is a circle, there is no hierarchy. That type of embracing ancient philosophy has something to say to us in the modern world.
Would it make your life any different you had a father figure in your life?
I’m sure a lack of the father figure and raised by two women left a big impact, but I’m sure also and this is something I realised in hindsight, I thin I also felt like the forgotten child because my father had two other children and to them, he was a very good father. It took me a long time to understand that this was a good intellectual, a good father, but there is no such thing as absolute ‘good’. We might be amazing in so many fields, but then might fail in completely other areas of our lives. But because I feel my father failed in parenthood vis-a-vis me doesn’t mean he failed in parenthood vis-a-vis his sons. But the reason why I mention this personal story is because I want to connect it to literature, maybe in the long-run, it made me more aware of ‘the other’: of the forgotten, of people how feel silenced, suppressed, pushed to the periphery. Maybe this is one of the reasons why in my work minorities play an important role. I’m interested in ‘the other’ because I felt like ‘the other’ myself several things throughout my life.
What do you think about the affects of technology?
Such an important subject! Many people were worried about e-books and how technology is going to affect the art of storytelling. I’m not worried about that, I think the format will change, but our need for storytelling is quite universal. Maybe in a fast moving world, it will be even bigger: the need for that inner space. We are constantly in the company of other people, which sounds wonderful, but at times also erases our individuality. I have many readers in Turkey who are openly xenophobic, if you ask their opinion in a public space, they’ll tell you all kinds of things, but then they come and say, ‘I read your book, this is the character I loved the most’ and that character is Greek or Jewish or Armenian…I thought: how does this happen?
When we read, we retrieve into that inner space, we are alone and we are not affected by the energies of other people. Fascism is a collective disease, you need masses, people chanting in unison – it affects all of us – if our friends make fun of someone, we start making fun of that person. When I’m alone, I’m less ready to do that, I’m more ready to connect to that person. So I cherish that inner space that the novel demands. What I am worried about is the blurring of the line between fact and fiction, maybe it’s ironic that a storyteller is saying this, but this whole thing of ‘alternative facts’, ‘fake news’ and how we are losing our trust in media, this is quite worrisome. So, that side of technology: how misinformation can spread so quickly, slander, hate-speech that spreads so quickly, we all need to be aware of that. We can’t abandon the Internet, we know there’s a very good side, an egalitarian that connects us, but we are beginning to see much better the darkness of the Internet as well and it is our responsibility to keep an eye on that.
Words, Anna Megan McNutt
Image, Mike Willis/Getty Images