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