Deeply poignant and relevant to current global discussions of ultra-nationalism and freedom of speech, Elif Shafak’s talk was an auspicious launch for Oxford Writers’ House. Shafak has written fifteen historical fiction novels, many of which have won awards or become bestsellers in her native Turkey. On the large canvas of the novel, she has addressed micro-realities and macro-issues such as gender equality and the treatment of minorities. In the short time she had for her talk, a mere forty minutes, and in the Q&A session that followed, she managed to eloquently discuss her background, her writing, and the political environment of today’s divided world.
As a result of the ongoing struggle for freedom of speech in Turkey, Shafak spoke passionately about her own encounters with authorities. In 2006, her novel The Bastard of Istanbul was the first work of fiction to be put on trial through Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code for being “anti-Turkish.” As she recounted this, Shafak questioned the idea that there is a Turkish identity — or any national identity — at all. A common thread through Shafak’s talk was her fear of the increasing tribalism throughout the world. As someone who was born in France and lived in Turkey, Spain, the United States, and the United Kingdom, Shafak regards identity to be “as inherently fluid as water.” Although she feels a spiritual connection with Istanbul, she thinks of herself as a drawing compass, with one arm centred on Istanbul and the other constantly moving around it: she is both from somewhere and everywhere at the same time.
Articulate and emotional, Shafak’s discussion of the rise of xenophobia was especially relevant considering the anti-immigration rhetoric of the Brexit campaign and Donald Trump. In the past years, Turkey has lost some of its diversity, and Shafak viewed this as a loss of something utterly precious. In one of her more emotional statements, Shafak said that ‘we don’t have the luxury of being apolitical and ignoring what’s happening when what is happening matters.’
Despite persecution by her own government, Shafak does not see her work as political, but as telling the truth. This is contradictory to her later statement that there is politics in everything, but perhaps the inherent meaning behind her belief in the apolitical novel is that Shafak does not set out to make her novels political. Instead, readers make them political through the ways in which they respond to them. Although Shafak was later acquitted of all charges, she had to have a bodyguard for two years over fears of an attack, and the trial over her apparently political novel was an emotionally exhausting experience. This experience has made Shafak a proponent of free speech even when that speech is uncomfortable, because disagreement should only lead to more discussion.
One of the most definitive aspects of Shafak’s talk was her stress on the importance of words, and conversely, on the importance of silence. Silence can communicate as much as sounds if one pays attention, and much of Shafak’s work is derived from hearing beyond the silences of minorities and giving voice to them. She continuously stressed that words matter, and that they can make people more open-minded. Stories are a kind of energy, which, whether positive or negative, is contagious. As a result, Shafak feels her responsibility to speak up and to create positive energy in the world.
In the Q&A session at the end, Shafak was asked whether her writing was autobiographical. ‘No,’ she replied, ‘I find liberation in not being myself and in having no boundaries.’ Ultimately, Shafak’s response is emblematic of both her worldview and her career. From a philosophical perspective, Shafak sees no national or religious boundaries. From the perspective of her personal history, Shafak has broken every conservative boundary by becoming a bestselling female author and addressing issues that would otherwise go ignored.