3. Elif Shafak : Author

I didn’t know anything about Elif Shafak until I a few months ago when I was listening to one of the Radio 4 book programmes in my car.  I switched on in the middle of an interview and heard the interviewer explaining that Shafak , who is of Turkish parentage, writes her books in English; has them translated into Turkish and then back again.  Shafak explained that Turkish is her emotional language and English is her intellectual language.  She also described her childhood with her intellectual, modern,  single-parent mother (a diplomat) and her grandmother, who took care of her,  who was a healer, mystical, religious and spiritual.

I was very interested in her background and this psychological split (including reading recently  that that she had been born left-handed but changed to being right-handed by her grandmother when she went to school – something I share with her). I have often wondered about the effect upon a child in moving between two different cultures and dealing with two different languages at the same time and this is something I have already written about regarding Jack Kerouac.

Unusually for me I didn’t explore further, but the interview obviously stayed in my mind because it came back to me when I was at the William Klein/Daido Moriyama Exhibition at Tate Modern in January). Keith and I were discussing Daido Moriyama:  how we might understand his photography: whether there is a language of photography and what is the effect of this language on the way a photographer views and conveys his/her world. I’ll write more on this in a future blog post when I review the Exhibition.

I did more research on Elif Shafak in the following week; looked at her website; found an excellent TED talk (also on YouTube) and bought one of her novels. She was born in 1971 in Strasbourg, France, of Turkish parents philosopher Nuri Bilgin and Sfak Atayman.  Her parents separated when she was a year old and her mother became a diplomat.  Shafak has lived in many countries and currently I understand, divides her time between Istanbul and London .  She attended the Middle East Technical University in Turkey and, from there, has a Master’s degree in Gender and Women’s studies and a PhD in Political science. Her Master’s thesis was on Islam, women, and mysticism (Islam, Mysticism and the Circular Understanding of Time).  She has published 12 books, eight of them novels) and her non-fiction  essays  have been collected together in three books – Med-Cezir (2005), Firarperest (2010) and Şemspare (2012). In 2007 she was arraigned for trial in Turkey (charges subsequently dropped) for the crime of  ‘insulting Turkishness’ for approaching the question of whether there are possibilities for reconciliation in some of the darker episodes of Turkey’s history are acknowledged and absorbed.

Her official website  has information on her fiction writing plus articles, reviews and interviews.  In her TED talk, Shafak describes her background and talks of the role that story telling has placed in her life. She says that, being both female and Turkish, people expect her to be writing about women in veils and Islam and refers to the way in which we can stay inside cultural ‘cocoons’ (reminiscent of Edward Said’s views on ‘Orientalism’). Her belief is that storytelling can puncture holes in these cocoons and she likes to think that her fiction is both local and universal. Shafak also talks about linguistic shifts – mathematical and cerebral when writing in English and emotional when writing in Turkish and the way in which stories keep her ‘pieces’ and memories together. She likens her imagination to being her only suitcase when she was travelling with her mother. You can watch it on TED here or watch it now

I find Elif Shafak very interesting for a variety of reasons – her ideas on the way in which cultural stereotypes can be broken down by universal stories; her belief that writing can change things; the way in which she paints pictures with her words.   I think that much of what she writes and says can be applied to photography.  I want to think more on the language of photography –  how an image can transcend cultural boundaries and how it acts on both emotional and intellectual levels.

26th March 2013





9 thoughts on “3. Elif Shafak : Author

  1. You’re certainly wandering the most Byzantine corridors of art to find meaning for yourself and your work, this time I don’t think I’ll follow you down this byway though it’s a bit too way off piste for me.

  2. It is very interesting, I have studied Turkish and it is a language that function in a totally different way than English or indo-european languages. The grammar of Turkish, is very clear, very simple. This is raw language, and I loved seeing the word through it, it is very close to your instinct, your physical presence in the world.
    It makes you organic.
    It changes everything.
    For example, lots of the vocabulary comes from your situation as a man on a horse as at first Turkish was the language of nomadic people living in the actual Mongolia, on horse most of the time
    I experience a gap between thinking in french and thinking in English, but nothing compare from the bridge between french and Turkish.
    It must be really rich to explore this artistically as she does…

    I am exactly like you, I find inspiration everywhere, as the raw material of photography to me is stories in the same proportion as light…

    • Thanks Stephanie. I actually thought of you because I remember you writing(on Flickr maybe?) about reading everything in English re photography rather than French. Turkish sounds an intriguing language and I find Elif Shafak so interesting in the way she thinks, writes and talks. I love your last sentence.

  3. Fascinating Catherine, thanks very much for this. I’d like if I may to embellish. Her early life she says was in Ankara – which is almost as far from Istanbul as, she says Istanbul, is from Arizona in many respects and especially in the early ’70’s. Ankara is another of those places I’ve spent a lot of time in – it is where METU is. Ankara is the gateway for Eastern Turks who migrate towards the west, towards Istanbul. Istanbul has always been a melting pot, so when she talks about how her grandmother is part of the older world and her mother a part of the newer world, she is talking about a very wide gulf, which of course would inform her identity, the identity she wants to deny to some extent. Whereas Ankara also by comparison is a cocoon, elevated on a plateau at about 3000 feet without very good connections to the outside world in the early ’70’s – which was, and indeed by western standards still is, a very patriarchal society. I remember the court case in Turkey, it was a huge deal and would be again, many artists in Turkey have fallen foul to the accusations, the French Government recently fell foul by declaring the conflict between Turkey and Armenia genocide.
    I also remember the interview on the radio, about how she comprehends things differently depending on which language she decides to think in, how she can develop narrative through linguistical gymnastics that I can only wonder at. But at the heart of her lecture her central point about how important it is to develop ideas from undiscovered or uncharted places must be so much more interesting for her, a writer with many identities to draw on.
    Thanks for sharing. I think I recognise the New Theatre in Oxford as the venue for the talk.

    • Thanks for adding more information John from your personal experience of Ankara. Re the ‘genocide’ – I remember a very large book that my grandfather had describing what happened there. I think I must have been about 9 years old when I read it – it was so graphic as well and must have been the first time that I read about the things that people can do to each other.
      I keep thinking of all the ways in which Elif Shafak’s experiences have added to the richness of her thoughts and words.

  4. Yet another path to follow and you have sent my mind off on more tangents. Thanks. Shafak is not an author with whom I am familiar but one worth exploring. I note that you make comment on Edward Said whose work I have found engrossing so, Shafa, here I come.

    • Pleased you find her interesting Norma. We can share notes on our reading – ‘Honour’ arrived in the post for me this morning. I have read Edward Said (at last) he certainly hammers the point home regarding ‘orientalism’. A friend of mine went to the memorial lecture in London the other week and I want to go next year.

  5. Interesting Catherine. I really like the way you are exploring ways of developing your photography through reaching out for other influences.

    I found the talk very stimulating but also a little irritating. For example she says that Identity politics divides us whereas fiction connects. Well this certainly could be the case but in my experience most fiction also uses stereotypes of race, gender, age etc etc….so I think it is more the case that good fiction (and good photography for that matter) has the potential (indeed the responsibility ) of challenging prevailing ideologies.

    Her reference to Chekhov’s remark that the solution to a problem and the correct way of posing a question are two different things and that only the latter is the artists responsibility (I paraphrase) really interested me. For me this goes to the heart of what the artist/photographer should be doing – asking the correct questions about what is happening around us.

    For my own portraiture work I have been thinking a lot about what is the ‘correct’ question I should be asking. I know for example that I get very irritated by the idealised and ‘unreal’ representation of people in advertising, celebrity portraiture and even in High Street portrait studios (such as Venture). I’m irritated because I believe its having all sorts of adverse effects on society – not least of which is that young kids see these ‘perfect’ people are normal and themselves as inadequate. So I think that my ‘correct’ question is related to this issue, but I need to spell it out more clearly. For my final assignment for Understanding Visual Culture course I’m in the process of writing an essay called ‘Reality and the Photographic Portrait’. I hope this will help me clarify my thinking.

    Another interesting proposition that Shafak made was that about people ‘distrusting area which fall in between things’. This is so true….When people can’t pigeonhole something they fear it….more food for thought here.

    The question of ‘a language of photography’ is worthy of much more discussion. It is a problematic area. An ‘auteur’ photographer may use his/her prescribed language to convey his/her intentions but how it is interpreted depends on many things – when it is viewed (it could be years later), where it is viewed (gallery, book, advertising image etc), who is the viewer and what cultural, emotional and experiential baggage they bring with them….lots of food for thought.

    Apologise for my ramblings, clearly this was a very stimulating post. Well done Catherine.

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