We at the Oxford Writers’ House are thrilled to welcome Elif Shafak to the Oxford Union on Monday evening (17 October) for our official launch, where she will be speaking about the place of writing in a world of increasing political turmoil and unrest.
Elif Shafak has published 15 books, many of which have won awards in her native Turkey, and around the world. Her writing, characterised by a blend of Eastern and Western traditions of storytelling, gives voice to frequently marginalized groups including women, minorities, subcultures, and immigrants. In the process, her work highlights important questions of history, philosophy, mysticism, multiculturalism, and gender equality.
The language of fiction is not the language of daily politics ... while identity politics divides us, fiction connects.
In 2005-6, Shafak was put on trial for her novel The Bastard of Istanbul, under the infamous Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, for the charge of ‘insulting Turkishness’. Despite this, and the thorny, highly politicized themes she tackles in her work, she hardly considers herself a political writer. She has memorably lamented the fact that Eastern writers are expected to write ‘real stories’ about the world they live in, while Western writers are seemingly spared that burden. ‘The language of fiction is not the language of daily politics’, she asserts; while ‘identity politics divides us, fiction connects’.
Her latest novel in English, The Architect’s Apprentice (2014), deals poignantly with this idea. Jahan, the protagonist, becomes an apprentice to the Sultan’s architect, Sinan, who teaches him the importance of harmony and balance, and considering each part in relation to the whole. As Anita Sethi writes in The Guardian, ‘Shafak excellently explores metaphorical bridge-building … between classes and cultures. This edifying, emotionally forceful novel shows how hate and envy destroy, and how love might build the world anew’. In Shafak’s other novels, such as Honour (2012), her characters’ stories transcend borders: from a Kurdish village to cosmopolitan London.
My fiction is cosmopolitan and multicultural. Therefore my writing is both local and universal.
Good fiction, Shafak argues in an interview with Foyles, has to take us ‘beyond ourselves’:
I like to think of my writing as a compass. One leg of this compass is solidly based in Istanbul and the culture I grew up with […] The other leg of the compass, however, draws a wide circle and travels the whole wide world. My fiction is cosmopolitan and multicultural. Therefore my writing is both local and universal.
Later this month, Shafak’s new novel, Havva'nın Üç Kızı – translated into English as Three Daughters of Eve – will be released in the UK by Penguin. The tale is set in Istanbul and Oxford from the 1980s to the present day, and features three women, Shirin, Peri and Mona, who grapple with questions of identity, Islam, and femininity. In Shafak’s own words, the novel aims to explore an ‘underlying confusion in Turkey with regard to “identity”’, in which ideas of ‘faith’ and ‘religion’ are too often conflated. ‘In life we need faith, but we also need doubt. To doubt our truths, to question ourselves, to be open to learning new things. Faith and doubt together equally. I find it hard to talk about such things in a society that has lost so many nuances’.
In life we need faith, but we also need doubt...I find it hard to talk about such things in a society that has lost so many nuances.
In times such as ours, the questions Shafak raises are all the more important, and voices like hers all the more resonant. We hope you’ll join us on Monday for what promises to be a powerful and inspiring evening at the Oxford Union.