Can Stories Overcome Identity Politics?

Oct 11, 2013
Originally published on May 8, 2015 8:17 am

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode Identities.

About Elif Shafak's TEDTalk

Novelist Elif Shafak describes how fiction has allowed her to explore many different lives, to jump over cultural walls, and how it may have the power to overcome identity politics.

About Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak is the most-read female author in Turkey, where she is known both for her descriptions of Istanbul's backstreets and her global upbringing. Her writing is at once rooted in her feminist perspective and her deep knowledge of Sufism and Ottoman culture. Shafak creates a third way to understand Turkey's intricate history.

Her international sensibilities have been shaped by a life spent in a diverse range of cities, including Ankara, Cologne, Madrid, Amman and Boston. She has written novels in Turkish — such as her first work, Pinhan ("The Sufi") — as well as in English, including her most recent novel, The Forty Rules of Love, in which two parallel narratives take the reader from contemporary Boston to thirteenth-century Konya, where the Sufi poet Rumi encountered his spiritual mentor, the whirling dervish known as Shams.

Her unconventional political views have not gone without controversy. When she published her novel, The Bastard of Istanbul — about two family histories, one Turkish, the other Armenian — she faced charges for "insulting Turkishness." The case was later dismissed. Shafak also writes lyrics for Turkish rock bands.

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So what happens when identity becomes a kind of a mental prison? Can you tell me - just list the places where you have lived?

ELIF SHAFAK: I was born in Strasburg in France. Afterwards, my parents got separated and I came to Turkey to Ankara. After that, we lived in Amman, Jordan, in Cologne, Germany, back to Ankara...

RAZ: This is Elif Shafak. She's a novelist who writes in Turkish and English.

SHAFAK: In my early 20s, I came to Istanbul because I thought the city called me. After many years in Istanbul, I came to Boston, Michigan, Arizona. Right now, I'm commuting between London and Istanbul.

RAZ: Wow. If someone were to say to you, what's your identity or your identities, what would you say?

SHAFAK: It's a question that I try to avoid, to be honest, because I'm not very happy with the word identity, at least the way it's being used. We always talk about identity - we fight for identity, sometimes we kill for identity, but why is that? Why can't we talk about belongings - multiple belongings.

RAZ: Which is just what Elif Shafak does on the TED stage.


SHAFAK: I was raised as a single child by a single mother. Now in the early 1970s, in Ankara, that was a bit unusual. Our neighborhood was full of large families where fathers were the heads of households. So I grew up seeing my mother as a divorcee in a patriarchal environment. In fact, I grew up observing two different kinds of womanhood. On the one hand was my mother, a well-educated, secular, modern, westernized, Turkish woman. On the other hand was my grandmother, who also took care of me and was more spiritual, less educated, and definitely less rational. This was a woman who read coffee grounds to see the future and melted lead into mysterious shapes to fend off the evil eye. Many people visited my grandmother - people with severe acne on their faces or warts on their hands. Each time, my grandmother would utter some words in Arabic, take a red apple and stab it with as many rose thorns as the number of warts she wanted to remove. Then one by one, she would encircle these thorns with dark ink.

A week later, the patient would come back for a follow-up examination. Now I'm aware that I should not be saying such things in front of an audience of scholars and scientists, but the truth is, of all the people who visited my grandmother for their skin conditions, I did not see anyone go back unhappy or unhealed. From her, I learned - amongst many other things - one very precious lesson - that if you want to destroy something in this life, be it acne, a blemish or the human soul, all you need to do is to surround it with thick walls. It will dry up inside. Now we all live in some kind of a social and cultural circle. We're born into a certain family, nation, class. But if we have no connection whatsoever with the worlds beyond the one we take for granted, then we too run the risk of drying up inside.

RAZ: You know, I love that idea. That, you know, we can actually become encircled by our identity, like, that it can be so stifling that something inside of us can die.

SHAFAK: Absolutely. It can reduce us and maybe we won't be aware of this because we think it's natural, because we think it's the way things should be. Just to give an example, I mean, my generation, we grew up with lots of fears - the fear of the other, the fear of our neighbors. We thought we were surrounded by enemies, you know, the Greeks, the Bulgarians, the Serbians, the Arabs, the Russians. And then, when you take a step back, how dangerous that fear is because it prevents you from really connecting to other people.

And when you can't connect to other people, the more fear you have. It's a vicious circle. And identity is a big question for us Turks because we're always debating this, you know - who are we? Are we part of Europe? Are we part of Middle East? Are we Eastern? Are we Western? Are we a threshold country? Is there such a thing? Is it possible? So it's a huge dilemma.


SHAFAK: My mother became a diplomat. So from this small, superstitious, middle-class neighborhood of my grandmother, I was zoomed into this posh, international school where I was the only Turk. We were like a mini United Nations, which was fun, except whenever something negative, with regards to a nation or religion, took place, the child who represented it was mocked. I also had my first taste of cultural stereotypes there. The other children asked me about the movie "Midnight Express," which I had not seen. They inquired how many cigarettes a day I smoked because they thought all Turks were heavy smokers. And they wondered at what age I would start covering my hair. I came to learn that these were the three main stereotypes about my country - politics, cigarettes, and a veil. When my first novel written in English came out in America, I heard an interesting remark from a literary critic.

I liked your book, he said, but I wish you had written it differently. I asked him what he meant by that. He said, well, look at it. There's so many Spanish, American, Hispanic characters in it, but there's only one Turkish character and it's a man. Now the novel took place on a university campus in Boston, so to me, it was normal that there be more international characters in it than Turkish characters, but I understood what my critic was looking for. He wanted to see the manifestation of my identity. He was looking for a Turkish woman in the book because I happen to be one. What I experienced as a child in that school in Madrid is happening in the literary world today. Writers are not seen as creative individuals on their own, but as the representatives of their respective cultures.

RAZ: In a moment, why Elif Shafak is actually two different writers depending on which language she chooses. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz and you're listing to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.


RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And our program this week is about identities. It's a word that novelist Elif Shafak - who is Turkish by birth and culture - it's a word that she does not like.


SHAFAK: We often talk about how stories change the world, but we should also see how the world of identity politics affects the way stories are being circulated, read and revealed. Many authors feel this pressure, but non-western authors feel it more heavily. If you're woman writer from the Muslim world, like me, then you are expected to write the stories of Muslim women and preferably the unhappy stories of unhappy Muslim women. You're expected to write informative, poignant and characteristic stories, and leave the experimental and avant-garde to your Western colleagues.

RAZ: Did that surprise you that people wanted you to write from one narrow voice?

SHAFAK: It did surprise me at the time. I mean, but it doesn't only come from the, you know, Western world or Western literary market. I also hear lots of similar comments from Turkish people. For instance, with all the good intentions they say, you know, you should represent Turkish women. That not all Muslims women are like this or like that. So they want to attribute a function to me this time, which I find very dangerous. If a writer believes in such missions, such roles, then, you know, literature becomes something else. I can't represent anything other than myself because I believe our imagination is bigger than our identity.

RAZ: I mean, there are things, though, about identity that are also magical, right? Like your grandmother's mysticism or a sidewalk or a street corner in Istanbul, or a tradition you grew up with.

SHAFAK: Yes. And I think it's very beautiful that we feel connected, you know, to the places we grew up in so, you know, that cultural belonging is something that I have a positive feeling towards. Cultural belongings are more fluid, they're made of water, you know, and they can flow in different directions. But when we start saying, are you one of us? Are you one of them? Then the nature of the talk changes.


SHAFAK: In my mid-20s, I moved to Istanbul - the city I adore. I lived in a very vibrant, diverse neighborhood where I wrote several of my novels. I was in Istanbul when the earthquake hit in 1999. When I ran out of the building at three in the morning, I saw something that stopped me in my tracks. There was the local grocer there, a grumpy old man who didn't sell alcohol and didn't speak to marginals. He was sitting next to a transvestite with black - long black wig and mascara running down her cheeks. I watched the man open a pack of cigarettes with trembling hands and offer one to her. And that is the image of the night of earthquake in my mind today.

A conservative grocery and a crying transvestite smoking together on the sidewalk. On the face of death and destruction, our mundane differences evaporated and we all became one, even if for a few hours. But I've always believed that stories do have a similar effect on us. I'm not saying that fiction has the magnitude of an earthquake, but when we are reading a good novel, we leave our small, cozy apartments behind, go out into the night alone and start getting to know people we had never met before and perhaps had even been biased against.

RAZ: I love that way of looking at a novel 'cause it's so true. And, I mean, you write in Turkish and in English. And I wonder whether you almost become a different person depending on the language you're writing in.

SHAFAK: That's a beautiful question. It's a very difficult question, in a way. But I think you're right in the sense that maybe the best position for a writer - at least, again, for myself - is what I call as the threshold or the "inbetween-dom," the limbo. You know, you're an insider and, at the same time, you're an outsider. There's a very, very ambivalent, thin area there that I cherish. When you're too much inside something, you can't see it, you know, the proportions change. But when you're too much disconnected from something, you can't see it either. And I realize, maybe writing in English helps me situate myself. It gives me a certain distance, if you will, but not too much of a distance.


SHAFAK: Perhaps that elusive mid-space is what writers and artists need most. In the end, stories move like whirling dervishes, drawing circles beyond circles. They connect all humanity, regardless of identity politics and that is the good news. And I would like to finish with an old Sufi poem. "Come, let us be friends for once. Let us make life easy on us. Let us be lovers and loved ones. The Earth shall be left to no one." Thank you.


RAZ: Elif Shafak. She's a writer based in London. You can hear her entire talk at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.