Elif Şafak writes both in Turkish and in English. Her works have been translated into more than 20 languages. In an interview with “Southeast Europe: People and Culture,” Şafak (38) speaks about her latest novel Aşk, which is the Turkish word for love.
“The word ‘Love’ does not need any adjective or noun to describe itself," says prolific Turkish author Elif Şafak (often spelled Shafak) in her new novel Aşk (Love). “Love is worlds in its own... you are either in the middle, the center, or you’re outside yearning for it...”
With her new novel Şafak takes the readers on a long journey in quest of love, commutes between different countries, cities, time, and people from all walks of life to discuss love with its divine and human aspects.
Aşk is a novel within a novel, a story within a story. With her masterfully created and contrasting characters, such as the 13th century poet, theologian and mystic Rumi, the wandering mystic Shams-i Tabrizi, the 21st Century Jewish-American housewife Ella Rubenstein and the Scottish writer and mystic Aziz Z. Zahara, Şafak directs the readers to look into their own lives. While questioning the difference between being religious and believing, the author also invites the readers to discover love, which is in the core of belief.
‘WRITING IS AN EXISTENTIAL BOND’
How and when did you first begin writing?
ŞAFAK: I began writing when I was a child. I used to write short stories in the diaries I kept during primary school years. I had a very lonely, introvert childhood and youth. The only colourful things in my life were novels. Writing was like a shelter to me and I always escaped into the world of books. This is how my love for writing began. It’s is an existential bond. My desire to become a writer came later on, in my 20’s.
How were your works to date perceived by Turkish and foreign literary circles?
ŞAFAK: I have received good and constructive reactions from literature readers, and I continue to do so. However, at times I hear rough criticism from elitist circles. But still, positive criticism dominates. I’m nurtured with my readers’ thoughts and comments. And I put great importance on meeting with readers from all around the globe.
‘NOMADIC LIFE IS GOOD FOR ART, BUT HARD FOR AN ARTIST’
You were born in France, educated in Spain. How have different cultures influenced your writing?
ŞAFAK: I’ve lived in different cities through all my life. Mobility and nomadic life is a part of my personality and writing. I’m nurtured by this. However, from time to time it can be wearisome. Nomadic life is good for art, but tough for the artist.
You said that Turkish is a more “sentimental” and English is a more "mathematical” language. Why did you choose to write “A?k” in English? What are the elements that inspire you in Turkish and English?
ŞAFAK: Each language has a labyrinth in its own. I love to discover these labyrinths. English is an extremely mathematical language where my mind is up front. Turkish on the other hand is a very “emotional” language where my heart is up front. Intellect and heart, English and Turkish, mathematics and poetry, this is how I build up my novels. They are nourished with contrasts!
After you completed your latest novel in English you rewrote the already translated Turkish version. This must have been quite a tiring process...
ŞAFAK: Absolutely. I wrote this novel twice, in English and in Turkish. It tool me twice as much effort and time. I worked together with an excellent translator, however. There is a great effort behind this novel. But it can be done if you like playing with language and have a special interest in language.
You invite readers on a mystical and magical journey into different cultures, people and times. There is the story of Shams-i Tabrizi and Rumi, a leper, beggar and a prostitute in the 13th century, and that of the Jewish-American Ella Rubinstein who finds her way out of the labyrinths of her unhappy marriage through a book called “Love Sharia”.
ŞAFAK: I have longed to write a novel like Aşk for a long time but I had to reach a certain level of maturity in order to actually write it. This novel went through many stages. I wanted to discuss “love” with its divine and human dimensions. West and East, past and present...
In your previous novels you have reflected your interest in Sufism in many different ways. However, “Sufism” is now right in the center of your new book “A?k.” When did your become in Sufism and how did it affect you?
ŞAFAK: My interest in Sufism began 15 years ago. At that time it was more of an intellectual interest. I wrote my thesis on “Bektashi and Mevlevi thought.” I have always loved to think and write about these matters. Later on, I became engaged with Sufism wholeheartedly.
Why did you choose to create a “female” character with an “American-Jewish” origin and had her become engaged with "Sufism”?
ŞAFAK: I know many women like Ella. Not only in the West, there are a lot more women like that in Turkey. At first sight, Ella is a Jewish woman living in Boston. She feels trapped. Maybe women in Burdur, Istanbul and Izmir know this feeling too. When you lift these apparent differences you realise that the stories beneath are similar and global. We can build empathy with each other with these similarities. There are many people that are imprisoned in an unhappy marriage and they don’t make any effort to find a way out or to transform themselves and just live their lives the way they are.
Do you believe that many women tend to hide in their kitchen in order not to confess their unhappiness to themselves and others?
ŞAFAK: Yes. Kitchens are shelters. Women know how to hide their unhappiness from themselves very well. On the other hand, I believe the human creature is multi-faceted. It is one of the basic principles of Sufism. Humans are the mirror of the universe. Whatever happens in the immense universe is present in us at a micro level. Even the most unhappy woman can experience an enormous transformation.
ELIF ŞAFAK: AT A GLANCE
Elif Şafak is an award-winning Turkish author who has published books in Turkish and in English. She was born in Strasbourg, France and has spent her teenage years in Spain. She graduated from the Department of International Relations of Middle East Technical University in Turkey and has a Master degree in Gender and Women Studies. Şafak, who is an established and outspoken author, columnist and academic, published nine books to date including “Pinhan” (The Sufi, Mevlana Prize, 1998), “Sehrin Aynalari” (Mirrors of the City), “Mahrem” (The Gaze, which earned her the Union of Turkish Writers’Prize in 2000), “Med-Cezir,” “Bit Palas” (The Flea Palace), “The Saint of Incipient Insanities” (Araf), “The Bastard of Istanbul” (Baba ve Pic, 2006 Bestseller), and “Siyah Süt” (Black Milk). Şafak’s ninth book “Ask” (Love) will be published by Viking /Penguin and is currently published in Turkish by the publishing house Dogan Kitap in Istanbul.