Elif Shafak Interview – Penguin

1. What triggered you to write a novel based around an honour killing?

I am always interested in gender and women’s issues. Perhaps it is partly because I myself have been raised by a single mother ,a divorcee. That was unusual in Ankara in the early 1970s. I grew up watching the families around me, both intrigued and puzzled by them. Most of these extended families were also quite patriarchal. While writing this novel I wanted to take a closer look at a family, particularly at mother-son relationship. Too often mothers raise their sons as the Sultans in the family. I wanted to understand how that works, question it too, but without judging. Patriarchal cultures tend to make women unhappy. But I don’t think it is easy to be a man, especially a young man in such societies either. I am interested in the ways in which masculinity is constructed and in how women, as mothers and wives, take an active role in this.

2. Who is your favourite character in Honour? Were they also the easiest to write?

I don’t see it like that. For me writing fiction is essentially about imagination. Imagining you are someone else, putting yourself in the shoes of another person. I love not being myself. When I write I stop being Elif, I impersonate each and every character I write about. I write with a critical eye but also with compassion and love. So all my fictional characters are dear to me, even the ones who might seem unpleasant or negative at the first glance.

3. Family relationships are central to this novel. What is it that draws you to this subject time and time again?

There is a chapter in the novel about how this boy, Iskender discovers the complexity of love. It is a subject that mesmerizes me. I wanted to focus on how we hurt most, knowingly or unknowingly, the ones we love the most. The mother in the novel adores her son but also forces him to behave “like a man”, she limits his freedom, his individuality. The son loves his mother but when she has an extramarital affair he decides to punish her, ending up committing a terrible crime. Love is often complicated. Families often too messy, East and West. And that’s where I wrote this story, at the crossroads of East and West.

4. Your books have been translated into more than 30 languages. What do you think makes your novels so international?

I like to think of my writing as a drawing compass. One leg is based in a particular location, which is Istanbul. My fiction is attached to lots of things in Turkey, its oral culture, its cuisine, its women. But the other leg in the meantime draws circles, traveling around the world, connecting with different cultures. This combination of “local” and “universal” is something that I greatly cherish. For me literature goes beyond national, religious and ethnic boundaries. I am interested in the human individual. In my mind and heart I travel across centuries and cultures. Connections matter to me.

5. You split your time between London and Istanbul. What draws you to these two cities in particular?

Their energy, their stories. They are both very old cities and yet their energy is surprisingly young. They are both at the crossroads of cultures, languages. Istanbul is teeming with untold stories and so is London. However Istanbul has lost an important part of its cosmopolitan culture in the previous century. I think it was a huge loss. When I think of London and Istanbul together, there are things in common and then there are things that are very different. In Turkey novelists are seen as public figures, they are expected to be public intellectuals. In England this is not exactly the case. The written word is treated differently in both places. In Turkey words, stories are taken more seriously perhaps and they have a bigger impact, which can be inspiring, and yet there isn’t the same level of freedom of speech and democracy, which makes the life of a writer quite hard.

6. You write in both English and Turkish, which is quite unusual. How do you feel about writing in two languages?

I did not grow up bilingual. I started learning English at the age of ten. Since then English has never abandoned me. I have always loved thinking, writing, reading in this language. It is a continent for me, really. Not an island, not an oasis but an entire continent. I travel from one language to the other, just like I commute between cities and cultures. I am always somewhat displaced, always a nomad. It is a self-imposed exile. The truth is I feel connected to each language in a different way. It is like loving two people at the same time. I think that’s possible. English for me is more cerebral, Turkish is more emotional. I find it easier to write about sorrow in Turkish. Humour, irony and satire, I find these easier in English. Each language has its own rhythm, labyrinth. What really, truly fascinates me is commuting between languages and the freedom and the possibility of change that comes with it.

7. What are you working on now?

These days I am working on myself. There is a story I am planning to write but I am not ready for it, not yet. So I am working on myself to meet the novel that is in my heart already.


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One thought on “Elif Shafak Interview – Penguin

  1. Claire 'Word by Word' April 18, 2012 / 3:38 pm

    I love her work, thank you for this wonderful insight into her latest. Such a pleasure to read.


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