Elif Shafak: using literature as a means to defend human rights | Global Media Forum | DW | 05.05.2021
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Elif Shafak: using literature as a means to defend human rights

Elif Shafak defends human rights, shares insights into her experience with depression and advocates a different media environment. The award-winning novelist will also participate in this year's Global Media Forum.

As journalists, we usually examine events and current affairs that take place around the world only as observers - sometimes perhaps as analysts or interpreters, if a situation lends itself to our respective areas of expertise. But we largely remain outside the conversation, staying true to the core values of our trade: Objectivity, fairness and impartiality.

Elif Shafak is not a journalist but rather a recognized, award-winning author who has penned 18 books in the last 25 years. Her approach to understanding the world is almost the exact opposite of a journalist's experience.

The 49-year-old British-Turkish novelist explores various themes that have challenged and defined her personal journey in life through her novels, where she places her protagonists right at the heart of the action. And that action usually deals with her reckoning with the conflicts and turmoil that have defined her life as much as they have moved generations of people from Turkey — a country which for decades has sought to balance its place in the world between tradition and progress.

As a speaker at the DW Global Media Forum 2021, Shafak introduces an interdisciplinary dimension that may challenge the media bubbles many of us journalists are used to. But if there's one thing that Shafak does well, it is to burst those bubbles — and then catch you with open arms with the eloquent words she puts on paper.

Lending a voice to the voiceless

As a person, Elif Shafak will strike you as one of the most peaceful individuals you ever might encounter, but one who will fight for a better future in her native Turkey —  and beyond — with great passion and dedication. She's gentle rebel with a cause, if you will.

But in her writing, she moves away from that tranquility and that centered peace, seeking to lend "a voice to the voiceless" and tell the stories of those who are pushed all the way to "the periphery, trying to see: who are the ones who are forgotten, silenced and forsaken today?

"What literature tries to do is to re-humanize people who have been dehumanized … I'm of course interested in stories, but I'm equally interested in silences — people who have been silenced. People whose voices we never hear. That's a big part of my work."

Author Elif Shafak at a stage presentation in 2017

Shafak will participate at the DW Global Media Forum as a panelist

Those silences that come to the forefront in her writing may refer to women who suffer abuse at the hands of their spouses, or they may address the issue of defending members of the LGBTQ+ community around the globe.

In some of her works, they lend a fresh framework to minorities in Turkey, whose stories have been all but silenced by successive governments for decades now, or they may even echo the silences the author herself has suffered within.

"When you hear someone else's story, you realize first of all that you are not alone. And this is incredibly important: to understand that we're not alone. And secondly we realize: it does not go on forever. It is a season. And after that season, there are other seasons in our lives."

Read more: Author Elif Shafak: 'What happens in Turkey has repercussions beyond'

Information, knowledge and wisdom: a balancing act

Shafak says that it's incredibly important to talk about our mental health and the "emotional turbulence" we might face in life, reminding her audiences that "silences are dangerous." Her honest approach to talking about depression, and her sharing her own experiences in that department, in particular with regards to postpartum depression, are welcome at a time when people around the world are experiencing dark times amid the effects of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

But beyond the clinical types of depression, which she highlights in her novel Black Milk, she also advocates passionately that everyone should practice much more self-care in general in an age, where information is spreading at the speed of light. In 2017, she was named as one of the twelve people that will "give you a much needed lift of the heart" by Politico as she continues to provide a compass to navigate the complex times we live in.

Sertan Sanderson

DW's Sertan Sanderson interviewed Shafak for the DW Global Media Forum 2021

In her pursuit to help people make sense of all the noise in the world, Elif Shafak especially focuses on how, in her view, non-stop 24-hour news reports increasingly cloud our minds to the things that should really matter to us.

In her most recent publication, How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division, she tries to establish a balance between people staying informed about current affairs while not allowing for news and world events to penetrate too deeply into our lives — a view that certainly is likely to raise an eyebrow or two among journalists, when she joins a panel on diversity in media on June 15 at the DW Global Media Forum.

Her advice is to reflect on what we truly want to pay attention to, and to examine whether paying attention to every last news report out there is truly serving our individual purposes in life.

"If from time to time you're feeling anxious, if you're feeling angry, if you're feeling frustrated and disappointed, it means that you're following what's happening in the world. … But the thing is that anger in the long-run can be quite corrosive, or anxiety in the long-run can be quite damaging.

"[We have to] recognize these emotions. But how do we turn them into something positive? We have to make a distinction between information, knowledge and wisdom. We're living in a world in which we have way too much information, less knowledge, and very little wisdom in this world. We have to change that ratio."

Honing your inner garden

Elif Shafak's recommendation for embarking on that journey to a life that is guided by insights and not by aimless noise and information comes back full-circle to literature: "We need to slow down. We need to spend less time getting our information from social media. We need to get back to books.

"I think we each need an inner garden to retreat into for as long as we can every day to balance ourselves. Because when we're surrounded by other people, we're affected by their energy. If all my friends are biased against a certain identity — whether it's a sexual identity, ethnic identity or cultural identity — that bias will also start to affect me. We don't realize this. So when we go to an inner garden with a book in our hands, something else opens up in our psyche."

The novelist's philosophy sounds simple and powerful, but does not always make her friends. While Elif Shafak is known for the occasional bit of controversy, her interview with DW also attracted criticism among those who regard her as a defector of sorts — as someone who has not pledged unquestioning loyalty to Turkey. 

Watch video 01:19

Elif Shafak about Asterix and Thomas Mann

Freedom of speech: The cornerstone of literature

On various social media platforms, people have accused the author of "selling out" or of not being a true supporter of Turkey, as she recognizes the human right of all minorities to be heard — especially in the divisive political atmosphere created by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In more sinister circles that appear to spin conspiracy narratives, some have even said that she is part of the so-called "New World Order" — a term that is often conflated with the "Illuminati" conspiracy theory.

"People have said, 'She's writing about Armenians, so she secretly must be Armenian. She's writing about Jews, so she must be a Jew.' We live in a world that does not celebrate or understand multiplicity, and we're constantly being reduced down to narrow identities — or just threats of identities. I want to be able to celebrate multiplicity. For me, one way of doing that is literature. Because when you tell people's stories, when you listen to people's stories, it becomes easier to empathize, and understand, and realize: there is no 'other.'"

Read more: Elif Shafak tells writers how to support democracy in Turkey and the world

But Elif Shafak is clearly not in the business of writing challenging, introspective literature that focuses on themes that foster pluralism in order to make friends. In fact, she is known for speaking her mind in a way that only few Turkish intellectuals dare to nowadays.

"Coming from a country like Turkey, I do know that words can be heavy because of something you say in an interview. Because of something you write in a book you can be put on trial, you can be demonized, you can be attacked and targeted on social media and media [in general]. So, we have to forget all of that and only be truthful to the story that is in our hearts and in our minds, and stay in that zone."

And remaining truthful to herself, her work, her desire to celebrate pluralism and progress in an age where global disruptions create ever-growing divisions, is what Elif Shafak does best — through literature: "For me, literature is a transcendental experience — in the sense that I want to go beyond that identity that was given to me by birth. We're all born into a certain nationality, maybe region, maybe class, maybe religion. Literature is a way of going beyond that box, and trying to see the world through the eyes of another person.

"And without freedom of speech, we cannot have a chance for imagination, for literature, for thinking and progress."

Watch video 12:23

GMF talk: Can Dündar's hopeful message for press freedom in Turkey