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Elif Shafak: 'What happens in Turkey has repercussions'

Sabine Peschel
October 21, 2016

Once charged with "insulting Turkishness," bestselling author Elif Shafak doesn't mince words. She tells DW why Turkey must stay close to the EU and why she is a linguistic "commuter."

Elif Safak in Istanbul
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

DW: In 2008, when Turkey was the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair, you were the star of the delegation. Now you are once again one of the highly honored visitors. Do you feel a difference in the atmosphere?

Elif Shafak: Yes, I do. I do feel a difference in the sense that back then in 2008 there was relatively more optimism about Turkey's democracy, even though there were major problems, too. I think we have been sliding backwards, first gradually, and then very fast. Today we are very demoralized as Turkish writers, poets, journalists, intellectuals. The mood has changed very much - and it got worse.

There has been a huge difference in German-Turkish relations. One of the main points of conflict is that the German parliament decided to call the Armenian genocide by name. The Turkish government, however, protested strongly. Was the German parliament right?

I have shown my approach to this very important subject through my writing over the years. I have given interviews, I have written articles, I have publicly spoken and I have also written a novel, "The Bastard of Istanbul," for which I was put on trial.

Because mentioning the word genocide and because of the critical approach that I had in the book, I was accused of "insulting Turkishness." I was acquitted, but for two years I had to live with bodyguards. So, this is a subject that I have felt strongly about as a writer.

Elif Shafak
Elif Shafak presented her latest book, "Three Daughters of Eve," at the Frankfurt Book FairImage: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Rumpenhorst

My approach is always constructive. I want there to be peace and harmony between Armenians and Turks; I want the future to be better than the past. I think for that, especially Turkish intellectuals bear responsibility. Turkey is a society of collective amnesia.

Memory is a responsibility. We need to talk about both the beauties and the atrocities of the past. Not in order to create more sadness or revenge, but to share peoples' grief in a very humane way. If we Turks can remember, Armenians can forget a little bit.

Why did you begin writing novels in English 15 years ago?

English for me is an acquired language. I started with English at the age of 10. At the time, it was my third language.

You were born in Strasbourg...

Yes, and then I was brought to Turkey, where I was raised by my grandmother at the time. When I was 10 years old we moved to Spain with my mother. I learned Spanish before I learned English. But the English language stayed with me. And I have always commuted in my mind and in my soul between languages. I'm a commuter. Writing in another language gives me an additional freedom, an additional way of thinking. It's a challenge, but I like the challenge.

I realized over the years if I'm writing about humor, irony, satire, I much prefer to do that in English. And if there is sorrow, melancholy, longing, I much prefer to do that in Turkish. Each language has its own strength to me, and I feel connected and attached to both Turkish and English. I dream in more than one language.

In English, the title of your latest novel is "Three Daughters of Eve." The German title is very different, "Der Geruch des Paradieses" (The Scent of Paradise). Did you choose the title yourself?

We chose the title together with my German publishers. I love the German title because it is very poetic. Book titles or covers might change as you move from one country to another. I have always been very flexible about these issues. In English and in Turkish it's called "Three Daughters of Eve" because of the three girls in the story. I call them the Sinner, the Believer and the Confused.

The novel reads like a poetic discussion of Western democratic ideas and Eastern cultural Islam. Do you still have hopes that they could peacefully and successfully coexist in Turkey?

I think it is perfectly possible for a person to be a Muslim and at the same time a democrat. Like it is perfectly possible to be a Christian or a Jew and a democrat. And it is also possible for a country with a Muslim majority to adopt democracy - a pluralistic democracy and liberal democratic values. But that requires work. It requires a sincere dedication to liberal democratic values. And in Turkey we haven't done this. Just the opposite - we have been sliding backwards.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
President Erdogan has extended the state of emergency in Turkey for a second 13-week periodImage: AFP/Getty Images

And that is such a shame, because what happens in Turkey has repercussions beyond Turkey. So I'm sad, but I do have hope, of course, that countries with a Muslim majority can also improve their democracy and that different religious identities can live together in peace. This is possible!

In Turkey, your novel is at the top of the bestseller lists. Who reads your novels?

My readers are so diverse. This has always been the case. I have published 15 books in Turkey. Ten of these are novels. And with each book my readership expanded and became more and more diverse. And this is interesting because Turkey is a very polarized country. People don't share many things together. Art and literature are an important bridge.

There are lots of women from very different backgrounds who read my books: Turks, Kurds, Armenian, Jewish, Alevi women. Culturally and ideologically they come from different backgrounds. So there are feminists, liberals, leftists. But also I have many conservative readers with headscarves, and the fact that people who don't talk to each other are reading the same book is important to me.

Not long, only a few years ago, Turkey seemed optimistic about the future. Now the state of emergency in Turkey has been extended. What does that mean for writers?

For many years now, our democracy has been declining and the writers expressed this a lot. Turkey's democrats feel very lonely, and sometimes we feel very abandoned. Turkey is a very polarized and bitterly politicized country. The coup attempt this summer was horrific. It was very, very wrong.

Now we have a purge and people who have nothing to do with the coup are accused of being coup plotters. The crackdown, especially on journalists, writers, and intellectuals, is very sharp. I have writer friends who are in prison right now.

Only a few years ago Turkey was regarded as a role model that could bridge Europe and the Middle East. This has changed completely. Is there still hope for Turkey and Europe?

This is such an important issue. Years ago, around 2005, there was a golden moment. It seemed almost possible that Turkey was going to become an EU member. And the support inside Turkey for EU membership was around 82 percent. It was amazing - the newspapers, the enthusiasm. It didn't work out. I criticize the Turkish government for failing to fulfill the EU criteria. But I also criticize at the same time populist politicians in Europe for pushing Turkey away. Especially in France they did this.

Now what has happened since 2005? Turkey became more and more isolated, more and more enclosed, more and more authoritarian. Did this help Europe? No. Did this help Turkey's democrats? No. Did this help the region? No. So in the long run it is much better if Turkey is attached to European core values of liberal pluralistic democracy. Turkey must be encouraged in its EU dialogue.

EU and Turkish flags
Shafak says the EU should not have pushed Turkey awayImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Schrader

We can criticize the government, and at the same time encourage the people. I know it's not very realistic right now to talk about EU membership, but we need to keep the hope alive. Otherwise, Turkish nationalists/isolationists will tell young Turkish people, "Look, Europe doesn't care about us, let's turn towards Russia or Pakistan or Saudi Arabia."

There are strong populist tendencies in Germany, I regret to say, and in Hungary and Poland. Can you understand these people who follow these populist leaders?

As writers one of our main issues is empathy. I have to be able to understand why, let's say an ordinary, good-hearted, anxious middle-class American or German or Polish citizen will vote for far-right. I have to understand that. If we cannot understand that, we will lose these people. We need to engage in conversation with them.

Many people have anxieties about the future. Some people have fear - of immigrants, of Islam, of "the other." This is understandable. What is dangerous is when fear guides politics. History is full of examples of this. So let's understand the fear, but not allow the fear to dominate. And for that we have to come up with a better, more radically humanistic narrative that tells people it's okay to have worries. Let's talk about our worries, but find a better solution.

For me diversity is very important. Cosmopolitism is very important. I am worried about the rise of populism, xenophobia, tribalism, and I'm also worried about a new trend of illiberal democracies, of which Turkey is a part. These are democracies that are more authoritarian in their essence. Hungary, Poland, Turkey - one country after another is taking this path. We have to talk about illiberal democracies and the dangers of them.