Author Crosses Continents And Spans Cultures

By Dennis Lythgoe

Deseret News, UT
Feb 25 2007

A uniquely cosmopolitan writer, Elif Shafak is a phenomenon.

She was born in Strasbourg, France, spent her teen years in Madrid,
and then moved to Istanbul, the city she loves most.

In the United States, she has lived in Massachusetts, Michigan and
Arizona. She has written six novels and one collection of short
stories – and she is only 36.

"Writing is my passion. It is the way I breathe. It is the way I
connect with life," said Shafak during a phone interview from New
York City. Today, she lives six months in Istanbul and six months in
Tucson – where she is a faculty member at the University of Arizona.

She would be publicizing her new book, "The Bastard of Istanbul" –
except she is in mourning for 40 days to commemorate the loss of her
good friend and fellow author, Hrant Dink, who was assassinated in
Istanbul on Jan. 19.

"I’m so shaken right now that I can’t write," said Shafak.

Dink, a prominent Turkish-Armenian who had promoted an honest
interpretation of Turkish history regarding the Armenian massacre
of 1915, was charged by the Turkish government with "insulting
Turkishness," but he got a suspended sentence.

Shafak doesn’t want to discuss the precarious position of yet another
literary friend, Orhan Pamuk, whose European tour was recently canceled
under pressure from the Turkish government. Pamuk and Shafak were each
charged with "insulting Turkishness" for discussing the massacre,
in which numerous Armenians were allegedly killed by the Ottoman
Turks and their Kurdish allies during World War I.

Fortunately, both were acquitted. Shafak gave birth in Arizona
three days before the trial – meaning she did not appear in court in
Istanbul. The controversy is connected with the debate over whether
Turkey should be admitted to the European Union, a move Shafak favors –
but which old-time Turks oppose.

The EU considers the 1915 massacre to be tantamount to genocide.

Shafak has written a novel, but she calls it "a multilayered book
depicting the common history between Armenians and Turks. What happened
in 1915 is part of that. I tried to tell the story of Armenian and
Turkish mothers and grandmothers."

As a result, she writes about "cuisine, recipes, folk tales, lullabies
and songs."

Even though many of her fellow Turks think the past is "over" and
therefore feel they should concentrate on the future, Shafak thinks
that "memory is a responsibility. If we are too much stuck in the
past, there is a problem with traditions. We need a mixture of memory
and forgetfulness."

The characters in the novel are almost all women – representing a
Turkish family and an Armenian-American one. The girls have only
one brother, and he lives in Tucson. The men in the families tend
to die young, leaving the women to fend for themselves and assert an
independent spirit.

The novel is filled with sparkling and funny dialogue that deftly
carries the story and defines the relationship of each woman to
the others. But some of it is also very sad, reflecting the loss of
loved ones.

The basis of the story is reflected in Shafak’s own life. Her father
left when she was very young, so "it was just me and my mother. Books
became the best thing in my life. We moved a lot. I was a nomad –
I still am. The world of my imagination was more pleasant than my
real life."

No wonder Shafak has always been fascinated by "the juxtaposition of
humor and sadness."

Her book was released a year ago in Turkey and quickly sold 120,000
copies, impressive for that country, where the numbers of intellectuals
are few.

Although she travels a great deal, Shafak is most loyal to her Turkish
home, Istanbul. "I’m deeply attached to the city. I’ve been assaulted
by critics for having no roots. There is a metaphor in the Quran –
a tree called the Tuba has its roots up in the air. That’s my model. I
feel attached to different cultures."

When Shafak sees cultures and prejudices on all sides, it makes
her sad. She opposes "sweeping generalities" by anyone about any
culture. She thinks of herself as a "good listener – I feel like a
sponge when people tell their stories."

She wrote her first four novels in Turkish – but her last novel, "The
Saint of Incipient Insanities," set in Boston – and her current one
were both written in English. (Considered "a betrayal" by some Turks.)
She enjoys writing in English but finds it more difficult.

"It’s not my mother tongue, but I like to commute between languages.

It’s stimulating. I’m fascinated with language."

She speaks Turkish, English and Spanish. Her Turkish "embodies old
words that were kicked out of our language" – but she thinks they
still belong. "I like English, too – it’s the language of precision.
Turkish, for me, is more emotional."

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