by Andrew Finkel

It’s hard not to run into Elif Shafak, these days. Her novels pop up on best seller lists in Turkey, and the Economist magazine recently heralded her the up-and-coming rival to the country’s “other” internationally acclaimed writer, Orhan Pamuk. Her opinions are sought out by the Turkish newspapers, chapters of her academic writing circulate the internet among earnest user groups, and her name is bandied with equal casualness in Oxford seminars and Istanbul dinner-parties. It was a surprise, nonetheless, to bump into a life-size, black and white cut-out of the author the other day on an Istanbul shopping street, a bit of iconography more usually reserved for the Fuji Film Woman or representations of Harry Potter.

The cardboard effigy, looking inappropriately intense, was a prop from an art installation cleverly recycled by some enterprising bookseller to promote her latest book, The Saint of Incipient Insanities. This, in topsy-turvy Shafak fashion is not a novel by a Turk translated into English but an English-language novel with a protagonist who is a Turkish expatriate in Boston which has been translated back into her native Turkish. Even in her rare moments of being two-dimensional, Elif Shafak preserves a penchant to confuse.

The fictional worlds she creates are populated by people of not so much incipient as fully-charged uncertainty. Her characters spend their time popping out of categories. They change their country, their name, their politics, their sex, and in one of her earlier novels, even their century. Nothing is quite as solid as it appears to be. “I learned from early on to handle many identities,” the real Elif Shafak says, and as if to drive the point home she later says that Shafak isn’t actually her name but one which she has adopted since there seemed no point identifying with a father who deserted the nest than the mother who did the hard work of bring her up.

Turkey is still a society, she says, in which “a girl is very much her daughter’s father” so being the off-spring of someone who simply wasn’t there, helped define her seeming lack of definition. She was born in Strasbourg, and spent part of her formative years in Madrid at an international school while her mother worked at the Turkish embassy. She was aware even as a young child that she was not a conventional diplomatic brat, but the child of a single, working mother—in those days and in that milieu, an unconventional family unit which incited some discomfort among the other embassy wives, or in the case of the unhappy ones, a touch of envy. She even now refuses all contact with her father, but latterly she has come to know her brothers and to realise the vilified missing parent of her imagination is someone whom they care for and love.

“You have to move beyond categories of good and bad. People are multi-layered and you can’t judge them by blocks and association,” she said. It seems a simple enough observation but Elif Shafak worries that Turkish society is becoming less and less interested in its own past and less accepting of its own complexity. She sees people drifting into isolated groups where membership is based on conformity and outward appearances rather than curiosity and substance. It is a current against which she swims both through her fiction but also social commentary and academic analysis. The Saint of Incipient Insanities, reaches its denouement in Istanbul and it is clearly a city and a way of life to which she is constantly drawn. At the same time she feels compelled to keep moving, if only to avoid being filed and classified by a public not so much interested in what she has to say but to learn whose side she is on.

“I sent myself into exile,” she said, and her current port of call is a tenure track job at the University of Arizona. The novel in English, the replacement of the diacritic in Safak with the h of Shafak, she gets accused of pandering to a foreign audience by those she leaves behind. But in America she feels she also is being judged and packaged in others’ imagination as a “Middle Eastern woman’s writer”. Her demand not to be pigeon-holed does not mean she insists that she believes in nothing or is part of a generation that believes “anything goes”. She is political, part of the left and is clearly motivated by faith in a god who commands through love rather than rules through obedience and fear.

It is in one of the Oxford seminars that the literary critic Nuket Esen praises Shafak’s writing as a reclamation of the novel by Turkish women. The previous heyday was the 1980s when paradoxically marital law gave space to women writers like Pinar Kür or Latife Tekin who in the previous politically charged decade were welcomed into public life albeit just to make the tea. “Women were able to write their own stories, about their marriages and divorces, how they connected to one another,” concurs Elif Shafak.

Now Turkey is in another flux of change, one which promises to undermine the authority of the old elite. In the The Flea Palace – a novel translated this time from Turkish into English by Michigan sociologist Muge Gocek – she visits the different lives who inhabit the flats of aging Istanbul apartment block. Shafak has become the voice not of a 1980s Turkey in search of who it really is, but of a new generation trying to cope with the realisation it may never really find out.

She sees herself estranged from a literary establishment which in its heart still has a mission to lead the masses to the promised land of modernity. She sees herself as not just migrating from country to country, city to city but language to language, even in her native Turkish she believes she plays to the vocabularies of different cultures which many of her contemporaries just don’t hear. “Why are you going there?” her friends asked about her first novel, Pinhan, about faith and mysticism which has it central character a revered hermaphrodite at the centre of a Sufi order.

It may seem a perverse compliment, but having read her books after I interviewed her is a slightly discomforting experience. Her observations are subtle and diamond-tipped sharp. You wonder if you didn’t reveal more about yourself than you might have gleaned about her. If Shafak incites controversy it may not because she incites envy for being so competently trans-Atlantic but because she sees and writes about things many would prefer left undisturbed. She pronounces the shibboleths correctly but criticises them all the same.

Elif Shafak cites a recent article she wrote for Zaman newspaper where she criticised as irreligious an outwardly pious man who openly disdained to shake a woman’s hand for possessing the same blind intolerance of someone who would refuse to shake the hand of a black person. She was not condemning those who want to live by their beliefs but trying to criticise a show of religion from a religious perspective, from the intentions of the heart of a person who would value their own piety more than the hurt they might cause. The hundreds of emails she received from both sides of a secular and pious divide didn’t see it that way. By contrast, she recounts with some pride being approached at a book signing by an undergraduate girl wearing a headscarf and her very unreligious, urban chic boyfriend. “We met in the pages of your book,” they told her.

There are far odder couples in a house in Boston which is the setting for the Saint of Incipient Insanities. Three housemates, graduate students from Morocco, Turkey and Spain bed and befriend American women who are themselves culturally all at sea in their own country and are even, as they ride out waves of bulimia and compulsive suicide, strangers in their own bodies. If this all sounds dark and brooding, it is not. The book is full of humour and word play and linguistic bravura. Writing in English was liberating, she said. “In Turkish people don’t expect women to be funny.” There is no grand plot but lots of incident, both farcical and sad. In a less formulaic way than in The Flea Palace Shafak turns her attention to each of her cast of characters, gently picks them up, dusts them off, and sets them down again with their mysteries in tact. Imagine an episode of Friends written by Jean Paul Sartre.

The title of the book in Turkish is “Araf” which translated back into English means “purgatory” or “the space in between”. Is this where Elif Shafak sees herself? If so, she is extraordinarily composed for someone who lives on shifting sands. “I know not to take things for granted, to expect change and not to panic, to accept discontinuity, moods and shifts.” And of course has laid down roots far deeper than most. Not yet 35 she has published five novels, scores of articles and finished a doctoral thesis. “My own sense of continuity comes from my writing,” she said.

The Flea Palace is published in English by Marion Boyars, London

The Saint of Incipient Insanities is published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York.  

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