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I'm a storyteller. That's what I do in life -- telling stories, writing novels -- and today I would like to tell you a few stories about the art of storytelling and also some supernatural creatures called the djinni. But before I go there, please allow me to share with you glimpses of my personal story. I will do so with the help of words, of course, but also a geometrical shape, the circle, so throughout my talk, you will come across several circles.
I was born in Strasbourg, France to Turkish parents. Shortly after, my parents got separated, and I came to Turkey with my mom. From then on, I was raised as a single child by a single mother. Now in the early 1970s, in Ankara, that was a bit unusual. Our neighborhood was full of large families, where fathers were the heads of households, so I grew up seeing my mother as a divorcee in a patriarchal environment. In fact, I grew up observing two different kinds of womanhood. On the one hand was my mother, a well-educated, secular, modern, westernized, Turkish woman. On the other hand was my grandmother, who also took care of me and was more spiritual, less educated and definitely less rational. This was a woman who read coffee grounds to see the future and melted lead into mysterious shapes to fend off the evil eye.
Many people visited my grandmother, people with severe acne on their faces or warts on their hands. Each time, my grandmother would utter some words in Arabic, take a red apple and stab it with as many rose thorns as the number of warts she wanted to remove. Then one by one, she would encircle these thorns with dark ink. A week later, the patient would come back for a follow-up examination. Now, I'm aware that I should not be saying such things in front of an audience of scholars and scientists, but the truth is, of all the people who visited my grandmother for their skin conditions, I did not see anyone go back unhappy or unhealed. I asked her how she did this. Was it the power of praying? In response she said, "Yes, praying is effective, but also beware of the power of circles."
From her, I learned, amongst many other things, one very precious lesson -- that if you want to destroy something in this life, be it an acne, a blemish or the human soul, all you need to do is to surround it with thick walls. It will dry up inside. Now we all live in some kind of a social and cultural circle. We all do. We're born into a certain family, nation, class. But if we have no connection whatsoever with the worlds beyond the one we take for granted, then we too run the risk of drying up inside. Our imagination might shrink; our hearts might dwindle, and our humanness might wither if we stay for too long inside our cultural cocoons. Our friends, neighbors, colleagues, family -- if all the people in our inner circle resemble us, it means we are surrounded with our mirror image.
Now one other thing women like my grandma do in Turkey is to cover mirrors with velvet or to hang them on the walls with their backs facing out. It's an old Eastern tradition based on the knowledge that it's not healthy for a human being to spend too much time staring at his own reflection. Ironically, [living in] communities of the like-minded is one of the greatest dangers of today's globalized world. And it's happening everywhere, among liberals and conservatives, agnostics and believers, the rich and the poor, East and West alike. We tend to form clusters based on similarity, and then we produce stereotypes about other clusters of people. In my opinion, one way of transcending these cultural ghettos is through the art of storytelling. Stories cannot demolish frontiers, but they can punch holes in our mental walls. And through those holes, we can get a glimpse of the other, and sometimes even like what we see.
I started writing fiction at the age of eight. My mother came home one day with a turquoise notebook and asked me if I'd be interested in keeping a personal journal. In retrospect, I think she was slightly worried about my sanity. I was constantly telling stories at home, which was good, except I told this to imaginary friends around me, which was not so good. I was an introverted child, to the point of communicating with colored crayons and apologizing to objects when I bumped into them, so my mother thought it might do me good to write down my day-to-day experiences and emotions. What she didn't know was that I thought my life was terribly boring, and the last thing I wanted to do was to write about myself. Instead, I began to write about people other than me and things that never really happened. And thus began my life-long passion for writing fiction. So from the very beginning, fiction for me was less of an autobiographical manifestation than a transcendental journey into other lives, other possibilities. And please bear with me: I'll draw a circle and come back to this point.
Now one other thing happened around this same time. My mother became a diplomat. So from this small, superstitious, middle-class neighborhood of my grandmother, I was zoomed into this posh, international school [in Madrid], where I was the only Turk. It was here that I had my first encounter with what I call the "representative foreigner." In our classroom, there were children from all nationalities, yet this diversity did not necessarily lead to a cosmopolitan, egalitarian classroom democracy. Instead, it generated an atmosphere in which each child was seen -- not as an individual on his own, but as the representative of something larger. We were like a miniature United Nations, which was fun, except whenever something negative, with regards to a nation or a religion, took place. The child who represented it was mocked, ridiculed and bullied endlessly. And I should know, because during the time I attended that school, a military takeover happened in my country, a gunman of my nationality nearly killed the Pope, and Turkey got zero points in [the] Eurovision Song Contest. (Laughter)
I skipped school often and dreamed of becoming a sailor during those days. I also had my first taste of cultural stereotypes there. The other children asked me about the movie "Midnight Express," which I had not seen; they inquired how many cigarettes a day I smoked, because they thought all Turks were heavy smokers, and they wondered at what age I would start covering my hair. I came to learn that these were the three main stereotypes about my country: politics, cigarettes and the veil. After Spain, we went to Jordan, Germany and Ankara again. Everywhere I went, I felt like my imagination was the only suitcase I could take with me. Stories gave me a sense of center, continuity and coherence, the three big Cs that I otherwise lacked.
In my mid-twenties, I moved to Istanbul, the city I adore. I lived in a very vibrant, diverse neighborhood where I wrote several of my novels. I was in Istanbul when the earthquake hit in 1999. When I ran out of the building at three in the morning, I saw something that stopped me in my tracks. There was the local grocer there -- a grumpy, old man who didn't sell alcohol and didn't speak to marginals. He was sitting next to a transvestite with a long black wig and mascara running down her cheeks. I watched the man open a pack of cigarettes with trembling hands and offer one to her, and that is the image of the night of the earthquake in my mind today -- a conservative grocer and a crying transvestite smoking together on the sidewalk. In the face of death and destruction, our mundane differences evaporated, and we all became one even if for a few hours. But I've always believed that stories, too, have a similar effect on us. I'm not saying that fiction has the magnitude of an earthquake, but when we are reading a good novel, we leave our small, cozy apartments behind, go out into the night alone and start getting to know people we had never met before and perhaps had even been biased against.
Shortly after, I went to a women's college in Boston, then Michigan. I experienced this, not so much as a geographical shift, as a linguistic one. I started writing fiction in English. I'm not an immigrant, refugee or exile -- they ask me why I do this -- but the commute between languages gives me the chance to recreate myself. I love writing in Turkish, which to me is very poetic and very emotional, and I love writing in English, which to me is very mathematical and cerebral. So I feel connected to each language in a different way. For me, like millions of other people around the world today, English is an acquired language. When you're a latecomer to a language, what happens is you live there with a continuous and perpetual frustration. As latecomers, we always want to say more, you know, crack better jokes, say better things, but we end up saying less because there's a gap between the mind and the tongue. And that gap is very intimidating. But if we manage not to be frightened by it, it's also stimulating. And this is what I discovered in Boston -- that frustration was very stimulating.
At this stage, my grandmother, who had been watching the course of my life with increasing anxiety, started to include in her daily prayers that I urgently get married so that I could settle down once and for all. And because God loves her, I did get married. (Laughter) But instead of settling down, I went to Arizona. And since my husband is in Istanbul, I started commuting between Arizona and Istanbul -- the two places on the surface of earth that couldn't be more different. I guess one part of me has always been a nomad, physically and spiritually. Stories accompany me, keeping my pieces and memories together, like an existential glue.
Yet as much as I love stories, recently, I've also begun to think that they lose their magic if and when a story is seen as more than a story. And this is a subject that I would love to think about together. When my first novel written in English came out in America, I heard an interesting remark from a literary critic. "I liked your book," he said, "but I wish you had written it differently." (Laughter) I asked him what he meant by that. He said, "Well, look at it. There's so many Spanish, American, Hispanic characters in it, but there's only one Turkish character and it's a man." Now the novel took place on a university campus in Boston, so to me, it was normal that there be more international characters in it than Turkish characters, but I understood what my critic was looking for. And I also understood that I would keep disappointing him. He wanted to see the manifestation of my identity. He was looking for a Turkish woman in the book because I happened to be one.
We often talk about how stories change the world, but we should also see how the world of identity politics affects the way stories are being circulated, read and reviewed. Many authors feel this pressure, but non-Western authors feel it more heavily. If you're a woman writer from the Muslim world, like me, then you are expected to write the stories of Muslim women and, preferably, the unhappy stories of unhappy Muslim women. You're expected to write informative, poignant and characteristic stories and leave the experimental and avant-garde to your Western colleagues. What I experienced as a child in that school in Madrid is happening in the literary world today. Writers are not seen as creative individuals on their own, but as the representatives of their respective cultures: a few authors from China, a few from Turkey, a few from Nigeria. We're all thought to have something very distinctive, if not peculiar.
The writer and commuter James Baldwin gave an interview in 1984 in which he was repeatedly asked about his homosexuality. When the interviewer tried to pigeonhole him as a gay writer, Baldwin stopped and said, "But don't you see? There's nothing in me that is not in everybody else, and nothing in everybody else that is not in me." When identity politics tries to put labels on us, it is our freedom of imagination that is in danger. There's a fuzzy category called multicultural literature in which all authors from outside the Western world are lumped together. I never forget my first multicultural reading, in Harvard Square about 10 years ago. We were three writers, one from the Philippines, one Turkish and one Indonesian -- like a joke, you know. (Laughter) And the reason why we were brought together was not because we shared an artistic style or a literary taste. It was only because of our passports. Multicultural writers are expected to tell real stories, not so much the imaginary. A function is attributed to fiction. In this way, not only the writers themselves, but also their fictional characters become the representatives of something larger.
But I must quickly add that this tendency to see a story as more than a story does not solely come from the West. It comes from everywhere. And I experienced this firsthand when I was put on trial in 2005 for the words my fictional characters uttered in a novel. I had intended to write a constructive, multi-layered novel about an Armenian and a Turkish family through the eyes of women. My micro story became a macro issue when I was prosecuted. Some people criticized, others praised me for writing about the Turkish-Armenian conflict. But there were times when I wanted to remind both sides that this was fiction. It was just a story. And when I say, "just a story," I'm not trying to belittle my work. I want to love and celebrate fiction for what it is, not as a means to an end.
Writers are entitled to their political opinions, and there are good political novels out there, but the language of fiction is not the language of daily politics. Chekhov said, "The solution to a problem and the correct way of posing the question are two completely separate things. And only the latter is an artist's responsibility." Identity politics divides us. Fiction connects. One is interested in sweeping generalizations. The other, in nuances. One draws boundaries. The other recognizes no frontiers. Identity politics is made of solid bricks. Fiction is flowing water.
In the Ottoman times, there were itinerant storytellers called "meddah." They would go to coffee houses, where they would tell a story in front of an audience, often improvising. With each new person in the story, the meddah would change his voice, impersonating that character. Everybody could go and listen, you know -- ordinary people, even the sultan, Muslims and non-Muslims. Stories cut across all boundaries, like "The Tales of Nasreddin Hodja," which were very popular throughout the Middle East, North Africa, the Balkans and Asia. Today, stories continue to transcend borders. When Palestinian and Israeli politicians talk, they usually don't listen to each other, but a Palestinian reader still reads a novel by a Jewish author, and vice versa, connecting and empathizing with the narrator. Literature has to take us beyond. If it cannot take us there, it is not good literature.
Books have saved the introverted, timid child that I was -- that I once was. But I'm also aware of the danger of fetishizing them. When the poet and mystic, Rumi, met his spiritual companion, Shams of Tabriz, one of the first things the latter did was to toss Rumi's books into water and watch the letters dissolve. The Sufis say, "Knowledge that takes you not beyond yourself is far worse than ignorance." The problem with today's cultural ghettos is not lack of knowledge -- we know a lot about each other, or so we think -- but knowledge that takes us not beyond ourselves: it makes us elitist, distant and disconnected. There's a metaphor which I love: living like a drawing compass. As you know, one leg of the compass is static, rooted in a place. Meanwhile, the other leg draws a wide circle, constantly moving. Like that, my fiction as well. One part of it is rooted in Istanbul, with strong Turkish roots, but the other part travels the world, connecting to different cultures. In that sense, I like to think of my fiction as both local and universal, both from here and everywhere.
Now those of you who have been to Istanbul have probably seen Topkapi Palace, which was the residence of Ottoman sultans for more than 400 years. In the palace, just outside the quarters of the favorite concubines, there's an area called The Gathering Place of the Djinn. It's between buildings. I'm intrigued by this concept. We usually distrust those areas that fall in between things. We see them as the domain of supernatural creatures like the djinn, who are made of smokeless fire and are the symbol of elusiveness. But my point is perhaps that elusive space is what writers and artists need most. When I write fiction I cherish elusiveness and changeability. I like not knowing what will happen 10 pages later. I like it when my characters surprise me. I might write about a Muslim woman in one novel, and perhaps it will be a very happy story, and in my next book, I might write about a handsome, gay professor in Norway. As long as it comes from our hearts, we can write about anything and everything.
Audre Lorde once said, "The white fathers taught us to say, 'I think, therefore I am.'" She suggested, "I feel, therefore I am free." I think it was a wonderful paradigm shift. And yet, why is it that, in creative writing courses today, the very first thing we teach students is "write what you know"? Perhaps that's not the right way to start at all. Imaginative literature is not necessarily about writing who we are or what we know or what our identity is about. We should teach young people and ourselves to expand our hearts and write what we can feel. We should get out of our cultural ghetto and go visit the next one and the next.
In the end, stories move like whirling dervishes, drawing circles beyond circles. They connect all humanity, regardless of identity politics, and that is the good news. And I would like to finish with an old Sufi poem: "Come, let us be friends for once; let us make life easy on us; let us be lovers and loved ones; the earth shall be left to no one."
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Listening to stories widens the imagination; telling them lets us leap over cultural walls, embrace different experiences, feel what others feel. Elif Shafak builds on this simple idea to argue that fiction can overcome identity politics.
Elif Shafak explicitly defies definition -- her writing blends East and West, feminism and tradition, the local and the global, Sufism and rationalism, creating one of today's most unique voices in literature. Full bio »