A relaxed, polyglot crowd jammed into Looking Glass Books in Edinburgh yesterday evening for Istanbul Review Night, celebrating the fourth issue of the Edinburgh-based literary magazine with an appearance by one of Turkey’s bestselling novelists, the charismatic Elif Shafak.
Sipping fizz and nibbling Turkish delight, those of us not already in the know learned that Istanbul Review was founded in 2011 by Miriam Johnson and Hande Zapsu Watt, a lecturer in English literature at Edinburgh University. Their mission is to “bring together writers, critics and those influential people from other walks of life whose lives have been changed by literature and who in turn change the world. The journal exists to bridge gaps, to cross borders and to be a platform for world literature.”
Watt is Turkish, and the biannual journal was named in honour of a city that has been the “capital of three empires, the centre for travellers and trade” and connected East and West for centuries. Contributors and interviewees have included Shafak, Paulo Coelho, Sir Terry Pratchett, Banana Yoshimoto, Lin Anderson, Simon Sebag-Montefiore and Julia Donaldson. Watt told me that the upcoming fifth issue – Royal Mile – will include work by Australian novelist Christos Tsiolkas.
One of my acquaintances in the room suggested that I listen carefully. Shafak, he said, is always extremely careful when asked about the situation in Turkey, tactful and cautious in her remarks. My impression was that in Shafak, Turkey has a brilliant cultural ambassador – albeit one who doesn’t toe the party line.
She is also one of Turkey’s most lauded authors, the recipient of the Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres and the Maria Grazia Cutuli Award, and has featured on longlists for the Orange Prize and the IMPAC Dublin Award. She writes fiction and nonfiction, and commentary for The Guardian and other papers.
Standing on a table in order to be seen, Shafak read from The Forty Rules of Love. The story within this story is set in the 13th century, and describes the poet and mystic Rumi’s transformative love for Shams of Tabriz, love that inspired Rumi – until then a scholar and cleric – to write the Masnavi. From this Mevlevi Sufism emerged. Shafak still doesn’t understand why, but since her early twenties she’s been fascinated by Sufism, despite being “a nihilist, an anarchist, a feminist – any ‘ist’ there was”.
Closing the book, she invited us to ask anything at all, be it about her work, about culture, gender, or – with a laugh to acknowledge current events – about Turkey.
“Storyland is my home.”
The first question asked how she related to Rumi, from a female perspective? Shafak replied that mystical traditions have always had more room for gender equality, since they speak about becoming a better person, not a better man. And mystical traditions are always affected by the country in which they flourish. She wishes we would focus more on the similarities between mystic traditions – Jewish, Taoist, Islamist, Christian – and less on their differences, for there are no rigid boundaries between them.
The next question asked her to reflect on Turkey’s place in the Islamic world, one which she acknowledged was unique. In Turkey, she said, the process modernisation, of secularism, is carried out in the private space, the female space. And since Turkey was never colonised, there is not the same anti-Western feeling there.
Nevertheless she is very concerned, for politics dominates everything in Turkey, and politics is a man’s world, even though that’s not the case in other areas of Turkish life. She’s concerned that the system is becoming more conservative, sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic. There is too much anger and masculine rhetoric, she said, yet outside of politics life is much more dynamic.
Turkey is an old culture with a young population, and they are amnesiac. But time has a different flow there – the country constantly changing, and this is a cause for optimism.
“We need more men reading fiction and more women writing”
Had she suffered any backlash as a female writer? She laughed, and said that in Turkey you are first perceived as a woman and then as a writer, though that is not the case for men. A recent review began: “Let’s see what our daughter has written,” though the male reviewer and Shafak are the same age.
The result, she said, is that Turkish women are desperate to age as fast as they can in order to gain the most respect, for older women are perceived as de-feminised and de-sexualised. In her many public appearances, Shafak is always vigilant about presentation, taking inventory of her clothing and how much makeup she wears.
Shafak’s comments always end on a positive note. It is important, she said, to remember that women read, and they make the men around them read books. In Turkey a book is not a personal item. It is a collective item. It is passed around, and you might find it annotated in different colours by all its readers. “We need more men reading fiction and more women writing,” she concluded.
Finally, someone asked whether she was the author of statements or stories? Her reply was emphatic: “Stories! Storyland is my home. I am not apolitical, though it is not my guide.”
The Istanbul Review can be ordered online and is also avalable from Looking Glass Books, as are Shafak’s books.