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On Bruises, Beauties, and Makeup: An Interview with Elif Shafak

By Khatchig Mouradian

Editor, Aztag Daily Newspaper

Beirut, Lebanon

Says Elif Shafak in this interview, “‘The bruises and the make-up’ is a metaphor I use in order to better depict Turkish modernists’ obsession with ‘our image in the eyes of the Western world.’ The elite likes to prove to the Westerners how Westernized, modernized we Turks are. Yet when it comes to critically reading the past, the same elite is indifferent, if not ignorant.”

It is this indifference and ignorance that Shafak, whom “The Economist” considers to be “well set to challenge Mr. (Orhan) Pamuk as Turkey’s foremost contemporary novelist,” tries to confront. She does not believe in deceitful “outward appearances” and suggests that Turkey wash away the makeup “to see both the beauties and the bruises underneath.”

Elif Shafak was born in Strasbourg, France in 1971. After spending her teenage years in Spain, she returned to Turkey. She graduated with a degree in International Relations from the Middle East Technical University in Ankara. She earned her PhD in 2004 from the Department of Political Science of the same University. She has taught at Bilgi University, Istanbul and at the University of Michigan. Currently, she is an Assistant Professor in the Near Eastern Studies Department at the University of Arizona.

She has published five novels: “Pinhan” (1997), “Sehrin Aynalari” (1999), “Mahrem” (2000), “Bit Palas” (2002), and “The Saint of Incipient Insanities” (2004), her first novel in English.

Although some people in Turkey consider those who attempt to wash the Turkish Republic’s makeup “backstabbers”, it is intellectuals like Elif Shafak who will usher the country to confront its past and face the future.

Khatchig Mouradian – Heraclitus says, “Nothing endures but change”. As a person with “incessant itineraries” who sees life “as a perpetual journey where there is neither a final destination, nor the desire to find one”, and as a writer whose heroes are often prone to metamorphosis, how do you explain your commitment to change?

Elif Shafak – At birth we are all born into a certain identity -be it in terms of religion, nationality, gender, etc. Our name is given to us, and so is our habitat, and sometimes even our worldview. The question is the following: living the life we are to live, are we going to die in the same bay, in the same identity? My answer to this question is negative. I am intrigued by metamorphosis. I am not a settler. If anything, I guess I am a nomad. This kind of nomadism was not my choice at the beginning, but then it became something I deliberately, consciously chose.

I was born in France, raised by a single mother, I saw two utterly different grandmothers with two utterly different understandings of Islam, traveled back and forth between different cities and countries, each time the setting changed profoundly, the ground beneath my feet was always subject to change and life a series of sudden ruptures… I spent my childhood in Spain, and traveled back and forth between Amman-Jordan, Cologne-Germany, Ankara, and then Istanbul… Then Boston, Michigan, Arizona… I now live in two places at the same time: Arizona on the one hand and Istanbul on the other hand. The only continuity that existed in my life, the only luggage that came with me everywhere I went was my writing, was fiction.

Transformation and transcendence are at the heart of my fiction.

I think fiction and Sufi thought share something deep in common. For both of them transformation and transcendence play a pivotal role. Fiction, for me, is not the ability to tell your own story to others, but the ability to make others’ stories yours and your story others’.

I have roots but I am not rooted. According to the Islamic narrative, there lives a tree in the skies above. Its name is Tuba. This tree is turned upside down and thus has its roots up in the air. Sometimes I think my fiction is a continuous quest for the Tuba tree.

K.M. – Unlike the roots of the Tuba tree in heaven, our earthly roots can be struck by shame and pain, which is why we, human beings, might want to keep them under the soil. We might take pride in our roots but we rarely reveal them entirely. Can fiction bear fruits of transformation, transcendence, and, yes, tuba (beatitude)? Does it make readers less rooted, less uprooted, and more open to their own stories and the stories of others?

E.S. – The clash between representing a particular identity and questioning the very essence of identity politics is one that intrigues me deeply. I am a bit torn in between because I am a nomad but I am a political nomad.

Then there is another dilemma: those who seek to be pastless, memory-free, in other words the future-oriented and then those for whom the past determines the basic parameters, in other words the past-oriented. I do not believe this is an easy dilemma that can be overcome by solely reasoning. Today’s international politics does not like ambiguity. Politics does not like ambivalence.

Yet the universe of art, the world of fiction necessitates ambiguities, flexibilities. It has to be fluid. Only then, fiction can bear the fruits of transformation and transcendence. You need to be uprooted in order to feel empathy, if not a rapport, with others’ stories, at least until the book is over you need to step outside your zone of existence.

In the USA, for instance, there is a tendency to attribute a function to fiction, as if every book has to have a function. Likewise, if you happen to be “Middle Eastern woman writer” then you are expected to be writing on “women in the Middle East”. Your identity walks ahead of the quality of your fiction, which I find very troublesome. In fact, I find this all-encompassing expectation highly detrimental for fiction. Fiction for me is not telling my own story but the ability not to be myself.

At the same time, I should say I am not propagating a fiction devoid of political considerations. To the opposite, the relation between aesthetics and politics is of deep interest to me.

“Politics and aesthetics” is not an easy marriage but as a Turkish novelist, I do not believe I have the luxury to be apolitical in this world. Therefore, fluidity or flexibility does not mean being apolitical; to the opposite it entails a political choice and the proclivity for empathy.

K.M.- In one of your opinion articles, you say: “While it might be true that many Westerners have to take a closer look at Turkey’s remarkable achievements and unusual history in searching for an answer to the vital question of how compatible Islam is with Western democracy, many Turks, in return, have to start washing the make-up on their face and start admitting the bruises left in their history”. Can you speak about those bruises?

E.S.-“The bruises and the make-up” is a metaphor I use in order to better depict Turkish modernists’ obsession with “our image in the eyes of the Western world.” The elite likes to prove the Westerners how Westernized, modernized we Turks are. Yet when it comes to critically reading the past, the same elite is indifferent, if not ignorant.

Turkey’s modernization went hand in hand with the transformation from a multiethnic, multilingual, multifaith empire to a supposedly homogeneous Turkish nation-state. This process is replete with traumas, losses, and painful memories many of which have been somehow erased from our collective memory.

Our family lines, if you trace it back to centuries, might be most probably multiethnic but ethnicity is a source of suspicion if you choose to talk about it in the public arena. You can be whoever you are in the privacy of your house, but in the public domain, you should just be a Turk. This distinction between private sphere and public sphere is of great interest to me.

In the past, this society was ethnically so heterogeneous but right after 1923 we have gotten used to acting and thinking as if we were now a homogenous whole. The interesting thing about Turkish nationalism is that it relies very much on words, rather than on blood or genes or race, as some other types of nationalism do in other countries.

For Turkish nationalism, you can be a Kurd, an Armenian, a Serbian… all the same, as long as you utter the words: How happy is the one who calls himself a Turk! This is a very interesting feature of Turkish national identity. What you say, what you do, in other words always the outer appearance is essential.

It is this concern with the “outward appearance” that I find quite troublesome. Instead, I suggest washing this make-up off to see both the beauties and the bruises underneath, both the beauties and the atrocities of the past. There are stains and scars left from the transition from a multiethnic empire to a supposedly monolithic nation-state. The loss of the cosmopolitan heritage and multiethnic structure is a cultural, social, economic, political and a big moral loss for Turkey and for the next generations growing up without the knowledge of this loss.

K.M.-Is it to regain part of the knowledge of this loss that you are “planning a project on “Women’s Oral Histories vis-à-vis Collective Amnesia: The Narratives of Armenian & Turkish & Greek Grandmothers”?

Why do citizens of the Turkish Republic in the 21st century “need to listen to the suppressed memories of the Turkish grandmother” regarding “the atrocities…Turks have committed against Armenians” a century ago in the Ottoman Empire, for example?

E.S.-The whole debate on the Turkish-Armenian past is deeply politicized and polarized today. It is also obsessed with written documents and archives. However, I think oral culture is just as much valuable. As a storyteller, it is those stories that I am primarily interested in. The stories old women in Turkey still remember. In many families today there are old women who remember the atrocities committed against the Armenians in the past, I think it is especially valuable to bring out that accumulation of knowledge. This is another source of knowledge.

It is not only the atrocities of the past but also the beauties of the past that we can discover in this vein because many of these old women had Armenian neighbors, friends; they have memories. The Armenian Question is the battle of memory against amnesia and I believe we need the memories of the grandmothers more than anything, because they are not as politicized or polarized as historians or politicians are today.

K.M.- In reference to the cancellation of a conference in Istanbul challenging the state’s thesis on the “Armenian issue”, you say in an article entitled “So, Did I Stab the Nation in the Back?”, “If our perceptive politicians had not intervened at the last minute, I would have failed to stop myself from uttering very damaging statements.”

Your presentation was going to be on the Armenian writer Zabel Yeseyan. Would you now give a summary of this “very damaging” and “backstabbing” paper you were going to present?

E.S. – My presentation at the Conference in Istanbul was going to be on Zabel Yeseyan. I am fascinated by her life and work, and I think it is a pity that today Turkish intellectuals do not know anything about her. Likewise, we know almost nothing about the Armenian intellectuals of the late Ottoman era.

More significantly perhaps is the question: why was the Turkish governmental elite so much disturbed by the writing of the Armenian intellectuals? Why did they want to suppress their voices? Why were poets, novelists, journalists deemed to be dangerous? How and why was writing thought to be dangerous? These are the questions I was planning to raise at the conference.

Today in Turkey not many people know that before the deportation begun, a list of around 240 Armenian intellectuals was concocted by the government; a list of dangerous minds! Dangerous pens! Among them were many artists and writers. It was this list that the state wanted to suppress and silence. Zabel Yeseyan seems to be the only woman in the list.

It is an old tactic of power and dominion. If you want to control and constrain a minority population, you first and foremost control and constrain its brainpower, its intellectuals, its thinking minds. The Ottoman elite seems to have taken this step.

If we can understand the list of Armenian intellectuals of 1915, I hope, we Turkish intellectuals of 2005 can better understand, recognize and mourn the injustice done against the Armenian minority, and the power dynamics behind this historical process.

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