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TEDGlobal 2010

Elif Shafak: The politics of fiction

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Listening to stories widens the imagination; telling them lets us leap over cultural walls, embrace different experiences, feel what others feel. Elif Shafak builds on this simple idea to argue that fiction can overcome identity politics.

- Novelist
Elif Shafak explicitly defies definition -- her writing blends East and West, feminism and tradition, the local and the global, Sufism and rationalism, creating one of today's most unique voices in literature. Full bio

I'm a storyteller.
00:15
That's what I do in life -- telling stories,
00:17
writing novels --
00:19
and today I would like to tell you a few stories
00:21
about the art of storytelling
00:23
and also some supernatural creatures
00:25
called the djinni.
00:27
But before I go there, please allow me to share with you
00:29
glimpses of my personal story.
00:32
I will do so with the help of words, of course,
00:34
but also a geometrical shape, the circle,
00:37
so throughout my talk,
00:40
you will come across several circles.
00:42
I was born in Strasbourg, France
00:45
to Turkish parents.
00:48
Shortly after, my parents got separated,
00:50
and I came to Turkey with my mom.
00:52
From then on, I was raised
00:54
as a single child by a single mother.
00:56
Now in the early 1970s, in Ankara,
00:58
that was a bit unusual.
01:00
Our neighborhood was full of large families,
01:02
where fathers were the heads of households,
01:04
so I grew up seeing my mother as a divorcee
01:07
in a patriarchal environment.
01:10
In fact, I grew up observing
01:12
two different kinds of womanhood.
01:14
On the one hand was my mother,
01:16
a well-educated, secular, modern, westernized, Turkish woman.
01:18
On the other hand was my grandmother,
01:21
who also took care of me
01:23
and was more spiritual, less educated
01:25
and definitely less rational.
01:28
This was a woman who read coffee grounds to see the future
01:30
and melted lead into mysterious shapes
01:33
to fend off the evil eye.
01:35
Many people visited my grandmother,
01:38
people with severe acne on their faces
01:40
or warts on their hands.
01:42
Each time, my grandmother would utter some words in Arabic,
01:45
take a red apple and stab it
01:48
with as many rose thorns
01:50
as the number of warts she wanted to remove.
01:52
Then one by one, she would
01:55
encircle these thorns with dark ink.
01:57
A week later, the patient would come back
02:00
for a follow-up examination.
02:02
Now, I'm aware that I should not be saying such things
02:04
in front of an audience of scholars and scientists,
02:07
but the truth is, of all the people
02:10
who visited my grandmother for their skin conditions,
02:12
I did not see anyone go back
02:15
unhappy or unhealed.
02:17
I asked her how she did this. Was it the power of praying?
02:20
In response she said, "Yes, praying is effective,
02:23
but also beware of the power of circles."
02:26
From her, I learned, amongst many other things,
02:29
one very precious lesson --
02:32
that if you want to destroy something in this life,
02:34
be it an acne, a blemish
02:36
or the human soul,
02:38
all you need to do is to surround it with thick walls.
02:40
It will dry up inside.
02:43
Now we all live in some kind of a social and cultural circle.
02:45
We all do.
02:48
We're born into a certain family, nation, class.
02:50
But if we have no connection whatsoever
02:53
with the worlds beyond the one we take for granted,
02:56
then we too run the risk
02:58
of drying up inside.
03:00
Our imagination might shrink;
03:02
our hearts might dwindle,
03:04
and our humanness might wither
03:06
if we stay for too long
03:08
inside our cultural cocoons.
03:10
Our friends, neighbors, colleagues, family --
03:12
if all the people in our inner circle resemble us,
03:15
it means we are surrounded
03:17
with our mirror image.
03:19
Now one other thing women like my grandma do in Turkey
03:21
is to cover mirrors with velvet
03:24
or to hang them on the walls with their backs facing out.
03:26
It's an old Eastern tradition
03:29
based on the knowledge that it's not healthy
03:31
for a human being to spend too much time
03:33
staring at his own reflection.
03:36
Ironically, [living in] communities of the like-minded
03:38
is one of the greatest dangers
03:41
of today's globalized world.
03:43
And it's happening everywhere,
03:45
among liberals and conservatives,
03:47
agnostics and believers, the rich and the poor,
03:49
East and West alike.
03:51
We tend to form clusters
03:53
based on similarity,
03:55
and then we produce stereotypes
03:57
about other clusters of people.
03:59
In my opinion, one way of transcending
04:01
these cultural ghettos
04:03
is through the art of storytelling.
04:05
Stories cannot demolish frontiers,
04:07
but they can punch holes in our mental walls.
04:10
And through those holes, we can get a glimpse of the other,
04:13
and sometimes even like what we see.
04:16
I started writing fiction at the age of eight.
04:19
My mother came home one day with a turquoise notebook
04:22
and asked me if I'd be interested in keeping a personal journal.
04:25
In retrospect, I think she was slightly worried
04:28
about my sanity.
04:30
I was constantly telling stories at home, which was good,
04:32
except I told this to imaginary friends around me,
04:35
which was not so good.
04:37
I was an introverted child,
04:39
to the point of communicating with colored crayons
04:41
and apologizing to objects
04:44
when I bumped into them,
04:46
so my mother thought it might do me good
04:48
to write down my day-to-day experiences
04:50
and emotions.
04:52
What she didn't know was that I thought my life was terribly boring,
04:54
and the last thing I wanted to do
04:57
was to write about myself.
04:59
Instead, I began to write about people other than me
05:01
and things that never really happened.
05:04
And thus began my life-long passion
05:06
for writing fiction.
05:08
So from the very beginning, fiction for me
05:10
was less of an autobiographical manifestation
05:13
than a transcendental journey
05:16
into other lives, other possibilities.
05:18
And please bear with me:
05:20
I'll draw a circle and come back to this point.
05:22
Now one other thing happened around this same time.
05:25
My mother became a diplomat.
05:27
So from this small, superstitious,
05:29
middle-class neighborhood of my grandmother,
05:31
I was zoomed into this
05:34
posh, international school [in Madrid],
05:36
where I was the only Turk.
05:38
It was here that I had my first encounter
05:40
with what I call the "representative foreigner."
05:42
In our classroom, there were children from all nationalities,
05:45
yet this diversity did not necessarily lead
05:48
to a cosmopolitan, egalitarian
05:51
classroom democracy.
05:54
Instead, it generated an atmosphere
05:56
in which each child was seen --
05:58
not as an individual on his own,
06:00
but as the representative of something larger.
06:02
We were like a miniature United Nations, which was fun,
06:05
except whenever something negative,
06:08
with regards to a nation
06:10
or a religion, took place.
06:12
The child who represented it was mocked,
06:14
ridiculed and bullied endlessly.
06:17
And I should know, because during the time I attended that school,
06:20
a military takeover happened in my country,
06:23
a gunman of my nationality nearly killed the Pope,
06:26
and Turkey got zero points in [the] Eurovision Song Contest.
06:29
(Laughter)
06:32
I skipped school often and dreamed of becoming a sailor
06:34
during those days.
06:36
I also had my first taste
06:38
of cultural stereotypes there.
06:40
The other children asked me about the movie
06:42
"Midnight Express," which I had not seen;
06:44
they inquired how many cigarettes a day I smoked,
06:46
because they thought all Turks were heavy smokers,
06:49
and they wondered at what age
06:52
I would start covering my hair.
06:54
I came to learn that these were
06:56
the three main stereotypes about my country:
06:58
politics, cigarettes
07:00
and the veil.
07:02
After Spain, we went to Jordan, Germany
07:04
and Ankara again.
07:06
Everywhere I went, I felt like
07:08
my imagination was the only suitcase
07:10
I could take with me.
07:12
Stories gave me a sense of center,
07:14
continuity and coherence,
07:16
the three big Cs that I otherwise lacked.
07:18
In my mid-twenties, I moved to Istanbul,
07:21
the city I adore.
07:23
I lived in a very vibrant, diverse neighborhood
07:25
where I wrote several of my novels.
07:28
I was in Istanbul when the earthquake hit
07:30
in 1999.
07:32
When I ran out of the building at three in the morning,
07:34
I saw something that stopped me in my tracks.
07:37
There was the local grocer there --
07:40
a grumpy, old man who didn't sell alcohol
07:42
and didn't speak to marginals.
07:44
He was sitting next to a transvestite
07:46
with a long black wig
07:49
and mascara running down her cheeks.
07:51
I watched the man open a pack of cigarettes
07:53
with trembling hands
07:55
and offer one to her,
07:57
and that is the image of the night of the earthquake
07:59
in my mind today --
08:01
a conservative grocer and a crying transvestite
08:03
smoking together on the sidewalk.
08:06
In the face of death and destruction,
08:08
our mundane differences evaporated,
08:11
and we all became one
08:13
even if for a few hours.
08:15
But I've always believed that stories, too, have a similar effect on us.
08:17
I'm not saying that fiction has the magnitude of an earthquake,
08:20
but when we are reading a good novel,
08:23
we leave our small, cozy apartments behind,
08:25
go out into the night alone
08:28
and start getting to know people we had never met before
08:30
and perhaps had even been biased against.
08:33
Shortly after, I went
08:36
to a women's college in Boston, then Michigan.
08:38
I experienced this, not so much as a geographical shift,
08:41
as a linguistic one.
08:44
I started writing fiction in English.
08:46
I'm not an immigrant, refugee or exile --
08:48
they ask me why I do this --
08:50
but the commute between languages
08:52
gives me the chance to recreate myself.
08:54
I love writing in Turkish,
08:57
which to me is very poetic and very emotional,
08:59
and I love writing in English, which to me
09:02
is very mathematical and cerebral.
09:04
So I feel connected to each language in a different way.
09:06
For me, like millions of other people
09:09
around the world today,
09:11
English is an acquired language.
09:13
When you're a latecomer to a language,
09:15
what happens is you live there
09:17
with a continuous
09:20
and perpetual frustration.
09:22
As latecomers, we always want to say more, you know,
09:24
crack better jokes, say better things,
09:26
but we end up saying less
09:29
because there's a gap between the mind and the tongue.
09:31
And that gap is very intimidating.
09:33
But if we manage not to be frightened by it,
09:36
it's also stimulating.
09:38
And this is what I discovered in Boston --
09:40
that frustration was very stimulating.
09:42
At this stage, my grandmother,
09:45
who had been watching the course of my life
09:46
with increasing anxiety,
09:48
started to include in her daily prayers
09:50
that I urgently get married
09:52
so that I could settle down once and for all.
09:54
And because God loves her, I did get married.
09:57
(Laughter)
10:00
But instead of settling down,
10:02
I went to Arizona.
10:04
And since my husband is in Istanbul,
10:06
I started commuting between Arizona and Istanbul --
10:08
the two places on the surface of earth
10:11
that couldn't be more different.
10:13
I guess one part of me has always been a nomad,
10:15
physically and spiritually.
10:18
Stories accompany me,
10:20
keeping my pieces and memories together,
10:22
like an existential glue.
10:24
Yet as much as I love stories,
10:26
recently, I've also begun to think
10:28
that they lose their magic
10:31
if and when a story is seen as more than a story.
10:33
And this is a subject that I would love
10:36
to think about together.
10:38
When my first novel written in English came out in America,
10:40
I heard an interesting remark from a literary critic.
10:43
"I liked your book," he said, "but I wish you had written it differently."
10:46
(Laughter)
10:49
I asked him what he meant by that.
10:53
He said, "Well, look at it. There's so many
10:55
Spanish, American, Hispanic characters in it,
10:57
but there's only one Turkish character and it's a man."
10:59
Now the novel took place on a university campus in Boston,
11:02
so to me, it was normal
11:05
that there be more international characters in it
11:07
than Turkish characters,
11:09
but I understood what my critic was looking for.
11:11
And I also understood that I
11:13
would keep disappointing him.
11:15
He wanted to see the manifestation of my identity.
11:17
He was looking for a Turkish woman in the book
11:20
because I happened to be one.
11:23
We often talk about how stories change the world,
11:25
but we should also see how the world of identity politics
11:28
affects the way stories
11:31
are being circulated,
11:33
read and reviewed.
11:35
Many authors feel this pressure,
11:37
but non-Western authors feel it more heavily.
11:39
If you're a woman writer from the Muslim world, like me,
11:42
then you are expected to write
11:45
the stories of Muslim women
11:47
and, preferably, the unhappy stories
11:49
of unhappy Muslim women.
11:51
You're expected to write
11:53
informative, poignant and characteristic stories
11:55
and leave the experimental and avant-garde
11:58
to your Western colleagues.
12:00
What I experienced as a child in that school in Madrid
12:02
is happening in the literary world today.
12:05
Writers are not seen
12:08
as creative individuals on their own,
12:10
but as the representatives
12:12
of their respective cultures:
12:14
a few authors from China, a few from Turkey,
12:16
a few from Nigeria.
12:19
We're all thought to have something very distinctive,
12:21
if not peculiar.
12:23
The writer and commuter James Baldwin
12:25
gave an interview in 1984
12:28
in which he was repeatedly asked about his homosexuality.
12:30
When the interviewer tried to pigeonhole him
12:33
as a gay writer,
12:35
Baldwin stopped and said,
12:37
"But don't you see? There's nothing in me
12:39
that is not in everybody else,
12:41
and nothing in everybody else
12:43
that is not in me."
12:45
When identity politics tries to put labels on us,
12:47
it is our freedom of imagination that is in danger.
12:50
There's a fuzzy category called
12:53
multicultural literature
12:55
in which all authors from outside the Western world
12:57
are lumped together.
12:59
I never forget my first multicultural reading,
13:01
in Harvard Square about 10 years ago.
13:03
We were three writers, one from the Philippines,
13:06
one Turkish and one Indonesian --
13:09
like a joke, you know.
13:11
(Laughter)
13:13
And the reason why we were brought together
13:15
was not because we shared an artistic style
13:17
or a literary taste.
13:19
It was only because of our passports.
13:21
Multicultural writers are expected to tell real stories,
13:23
not so much the imaginary.
13:26
A function is attributed to fiction.
13:28
In this way, not only the writers themselves,
13:31
but also their fictional characters
13:33
become the representatives of something larger.
13:36
But I must quickly add
13:39
that this tendency to see a story
13:41
as more than a story
13:43
does not solely come from the West.
13:45
It comes from everywhere.
13:47
And I experienced this firsthand
13:49
when I was put on trial in 2005
13:51
for the words my fictional characters uttered in a novel.
13:54
I had intended to write
13:57
a constructive, multi-layered novel
13:59
about an Armenian and a Turkish family
14:02
through the eyes of women.
14:04
My micro story became a macro issue
14:06
when I was prosecuted.
14:09
Some people criticized, others praised me
14:11
for writing about the Turkish-Armenian conflict.
14:13
But there were times when I wanted to remind both sides
14:16
that this was fiction.
14:19
It was just a story.
14:21
And when I say, "just a story,"
14:23
I'm not trying to belittle my work.
14:25
I want to love and celebrate fiction
14:27
for what it is,
14:29
not as a means to an end.
14:31
Writers are entitled to their political opinions,
14:33
and there are good political novels out there,
14:35
but the language of fiction
14:38
is not the language of daily politics.
14:40
Chekhov said,
14:42
"The solution to a problem
14:44
and the correct way of posing the question
14:46
are two completely separate things.
14:48
And only the latter is an artist's responsibility."
14:51
Identity politics divides us. Fiction connects.
14:55
One is interested in sweeping generalizations.
14:58
The other, in nuances.
15:01
One draws boundaries.
15:03
The other recognizes no frontiers.
15:05
Identity politics is made of solid bricks.
15:07
Fiction is flowing water.
15:10
In the Ottoman times, there were itinerant storytellers called "meddah."
15:13
They would go to coffee houses,
15:16
where they would tell a story in front of an audience,
15:18
often improvising.
15:20
With each new person in the story,
15:22
the meddah would change his voice,
15:24
impersonating that character.
15:26
Everybody could go and listen, you know --
15:28
ordinary people, even the sultan, Muslims and non-Muslims.
15:30
Stories cut across all boundaries,
15:33
like "The Tales of Nasreddin Hodja,"
15:36
which were very popular throughout the Middle East,
15:38
North Africa, the Balkans and Asia.
15:40
Today, stories continue
15:43
to transcend borders.
15:45
When Palestinian and Israeli politicians talk,
15:47
they usually don't listen to each other,
15:50
but a Palestinian reader
15:52
still reads a novel by a Jewish author,
15:54
and vice versa, connecting and empathizing
15:56
with the narrator.
15:59
Literature has to take us beyond.
16:01
If it cannot take us there,
16:03
it is not good literature.
16:05
Books have saved the introverted,
16:07
timid child that I was -- that I once was.
16:09
But I'm also aware of the danger
16:12
of fetishizing them.
16:14
When the poet and mystic, Rumi,
16:16
met his spiritual companion, Shams of Tabriz,
16:18
one of the first things the latter did
16:21
was to toss Rumi's books into water
16:23
and watch the letters dissolve.
16:25
The Sufis say, "Knowledge that takes you not beyond yourself
16:27
is far worse than ignorance."
16:31
The problem with today's cultural ghettos
16:34
is not lack of knowledge --
16:36
we know a lot about each other, or so we think --
16:38
but knowledge that takes us not beyond ourselves:
16:41
it makes us elitist,
16:44
distant and disconnected.
16:46
There's a metaphor which I love:
16:48
living like a drawing compass.
16:50
As you know, one leg of the compass is static, rooted in a place.
16:52
Meanwhile, the other leg
16:55
draws a wide circle, constantly moving.
16:57
Like that, my fiction as well.
16:59
One part of it is rooted in Istanbul,
17:01
with strong Turkish roots,
17:03
but the other part travels the world,
17:06
connecting to different cultures.
17:08
In that sense, I like to think of my fiction
17:10
as both local and universal,
17:12
both from here and everywhere.
17:15
Now those of you who have been to Istanbul
17:17
have probably seen Topkapi Palace,
17:19
which was the residence of Ottoman sultans
17:21
for more than 400 years.
17:23
In the palace, just outside the quarters
17:26
of the favorite concubines,
17:28
there's an area called The Gathering Place of the Djinn.
17:30
It's between buildings.
17:33
I'm intrigued by this concept.
17:35
We usually distrust those areas
17:37
that fall in between things.
17:39
We see them as the domain
17:41
of supernatural creatures like the djinn,
17:43
who are made of smokeless fire
17:45
and are the symbol of elusiveness.
17:47
But my point is perhaps
17:49
that elusive space
17:51
is what writers and artists need most.
17:53
When I write fiction
17:56
I cherish elusiveness and changeability.
17:58
I like not knowing what will happen 10 pages later.
18:00
I like it when my characters surprise me.
18:03
I might write about
18:05
a Muslim woman in one novel,
18:07
and perhaps it will be a very happy story,
18:09
and in my next book, I might write
18:11
about a handsome, gay professor in Norway.
18:13
As long as it comes from our hearts,
18:16
we can write about anything and everything.
18:18
Audre Lorde once said,
18:21
"The white fathers taught us to say,
18:23
'I think, therefore I am.'"
18:26
She suggested, "I feel, therefore I am free."
18:28
I think it was a wonderful paradigm shift.
18:31
And yet, why is it that,
18:34
in creative writing courses today,
18:36
the very first thing we teach students is
18:38
"write what you know"?
18:40
Perhaps that's not the right way to start at all.
18:42
Imaginative literature is not necessarily about
18:45
writing who we are or what we know
18:48
or what our identity is about.
18:51
We should teach young people and ourselves
18:54
to expand our hearts
18:56
and write what we can feel.
18:58
We should get out of our cultural ghetto
19:00
and go visit the next one and the next.
19:02
In the end, stories move like whirling dervishes,
19:05
drawing circles beyond circles.
19:08
They connect all humanity,
19:11
regardless of identity politics,
19:13
and that is the good news.
19:15
And I would like to finish with an old Sufi poem:
19:17
"Come, let us be friends for once;
19:19
let us make life easy on us;
19:22
let us be lovers and loved ones;
19:24
the earth shall be left to no one."
19:26
Thank you.
19:29
(Applause)
19:31

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About the speaker:

Elif Shafak - Novelist
Elif Shafak explicitly defies definition -- her writing blends East and West, feminism and tradition, the local and the global, Sufism and rationalism, creating one of today's most unique voices in literature.

Why you should listen

Elif Shafak is the most-read female author in Turkey, where she is as well known for her descriptions of backstreets Istanbul as she is for her global and multicultural perspective. Her writing is at once rooted in her politically feminist education and her deep respect for and knowledge of Sufism and Ottoman culture.

Using these paradoxes, she creates a third way to understand Turkey's intricate history. Shafak's international sensibilities have been shaped by a life spent in a very 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 English, including her most recent novel, The Forty Rules of Love, in which two powerful 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 uncommon political stances have not gone without controversy. At the publication of her novel The Bastard of Istanbul,  which crosses two family histories, one Turkish, the other Armenian, she faced charges for "insulting Turkishness." The case was later dismissed, and Shafak's role in the rare combination of radical and sentimental writer remains uninterrupted. Shafak also writes song lyrics for well-known rock musicians in her country.

More profile about the speaker
Elif Shafak | Speaker | TED.com