A Conversation with Elif Şafak

Turkish novelist Elif Şafak (pictured below) ties her diversity of experiences and her background into her storytelling. Writing in both Turkish and English, Şafak’s writing is rich with history: her last novel, The Bastard of Istanbul, received several glowing reviews. Her latest novel, The Forty Rules of Love, tells the tale of a discontent 40-year-old Jewish woman, weaving her story in with that of Rumi and his relationship with Shams of Tabriz, his spiritual mentor. I had the opportunity to ask her a few questions relating to her work and her latest release.

Elif Şafak. Photo by Muammer Yanmaz.

Sara for MMW: Could you tell us a bit about your background, and what role that plays in your work?

Elif Şafak: I was raised by a single mother. I was born in France and I have spent part of my childhood in Spain. I have also lived in Boston, Michigan, and Arizona. Although I have been commuting between cultures and cities, I love Istanbul dearly. I write fiction in both Turkish and English. I see myself as first and foremost a storyteller. I like weaving the oral traditions of storytelling in the East with the literary traditions in the West. Multiculturalism plays an important role in my writing.

MMW: Does The Forty Rules of Love continue any themes explored in your past work?

EŞ: This is my ninth book in Turkish. Here in Turkey, I have many readers who know very well the wide range of my work. In the English world, not all of my previous books have been translated yet. I guess with each and every book I delve into, a new ocean of uncharted waters. I am not someone who likes to repeat herself. Every book has been different in terms of style, energy, and content.

For me, writing fiction is an endless inner journey. I change with each and every book. That said, I have been interested in Sufism for more than sixteen years now. At the beginning, it was an intellectual curiosity—in time, it became a deeper emotional connection. First it was my “mind” that guided me, after a while it was my heart.

MMW: I feel that authors attach different aspects of themselves to their characters. Does Ella represent a certain time in your life? What does she mean to you?

EŞ: Not really. Writing fiction, for me, is not necessarily writing about myself or my past. Frankly, I am not that interested in myself. What I find much more intriguing is to be someone else. When I am writing fiction, I stop being myself, I travel into other people’s psyches. This is why I believe “empathy” is a central notion in the art of storytelling. You put yourself in the shoes of another person and look at the world through his or her eyes. It is this ontological experience that excites me more than writing about myself. That is why my fiction is not autobiographical. The only personal narrative I have written so far is Black Milk, which is a book on motherhood, writing, postpartum depression, and the conflicts of the creative mind. This book will come out in the U.S. next year.

MMW: In researching Rumi, what do you find his attitude was in regard to women, and do you feel that this is something that may be missing from Muslim men today?

EŞ: In Sufism, in general, the ultimate aim is to become İnsan-ı Kâmil, a supreme human being. The Sufi masters never said “supreme manhood”—they talked about being human without gender discrimination. The one who has attained Oneness with the universe can be both male and female. Sufism is open to women as much as to men. It defies all sorts of discrimination, based on race, gender or class. We are all equal, we all carry within us elements of beauty and we are deeply interconnected.

In Rumi’s writing, womanhood is celebrated as the manifestation of sublime creativity, like in Rilke’s poems. Rumi’s approach invites us to question all kinds of stereotypes and biases. I think as Muslim women and men, we need to be better connected today with this egalitarian, universalistic approach and the path of Love.

MMW: What inspired your interest in writing about Rumi’s friendship with Shams in juxtaposition to Ella’s own life?

EŞ: When starting this novel, I did not want to tell a purely historical or abstract story. I did not want to depict Sufism as a theory that belongs to the past. What I was more interested in was how to connect the past to the present, “here” to “there.” I am interested in seeing and showing how Rumi’s voice echoes in our lives today, after so many centuries and across different cultures. This is the charm and mystery of Rumi. No other Islamic philosopher or poet has had such a magical effect on the lives of thousands of people from all religions and cultures. So I wanted to write about these connections. There are people today who cannot find the place of Konya (where Rumi lived) on a map, they don’t know anything about the 13th century, but when they hear Rumi’s name there is a sparkle in their eyes. They know Rumi. Their hearts knows Rumi. It is this spiritual connection and the sparkle that I wanted to write about.

MMW: I really like the fact that you are using a Jewish character in an account of such a profound part of Islamic history. Was this intentionally meant to evoke discussion about attitudes towards Jews on the part of Muslims (and vice versa)?

EŞ: I guess in almost all of my novels I like to bring together characters from very different backgrounds and see the energy that comes out of that. I believe in the beauty and richness of cosmopolitan culture. In this world if we are going to learn anything, we will learn it from people who are not exactly like us, from “foreigners.” So a Jewish woman has something to learn from a Muslim mystic and a Muslim mystic has something to learn from a Jewish mother, and so on. I don’t believe in living in “mental ghettos” and I find it worrisome that, especially after 9/11, we tend to shun heterogeneity and the Other.

MMW: I feel that many of our readers are interested in fiction, especially from the multicultural stance. How would you recommend that they begin considering a path in writing?

EŞ: I think writing fiction is a lifetime passion. It is more than a profession. Yoı can write day and night. There is an element of insanity in it, too, in the sense that you sometimes write despite yourself. It is not a rational, logical, calculated path.

For people who feel this passion deep in their hearts, there is only one way to go: to write. The more we write, the better we learn to write. I believe in talent, but more than that, I believe in effort and work. So my only little advice will be to keep writing, no matter what others say, just write, just follow your heart…


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