Interview - Elif Şafak

I was a very withdrawn and lonely child. I liked the world of books more than the real world. That’s how I started to write, by making journeys into an imaginary world. Even today I still find the ‘world of imagination’ more colorful and real than the so-called ‘real’ world.

“I have a lot of faults, flaws and hang-ups. But rather than exalting those flaws, it’s important to try to improve and correct them.”

Published in both French and English, Elif Şafak’s latest book, Love, in which she describes the emotion in all its aspects, is circumnavigating the world. “Istanbul inspires me,” says Şafak, like a typical writer, who has one foot rooted in place like the point of a compass while the other goes round and round. Just like her stories which are “very local on the one hand, but equally universal on the other.”

Albert Camus said, “A writer writes to be read by the majority. Let us applaud those who claim the opposite, but let us not believe them.” Could we say that Love is a book you wrote for the reader?
Every writer wants to be read. I have to be able to say that sincerely. And of course every writer wants to be read by more people. This too strikes me as completely natural. Writing to please the reader on the other hand is something else. When I write, I focus only on the story. The important thing for me is to love the work I’m doing and to do the work I love. While I was writing Love I was constantly wandering in an imaginary world. I wrote this book with love. I did not write it ‘for the reader’. But of course I wrote it to be read.

You wrote a graduate thesis entitled ‘The Deconstruction of Femininity Along the Cyclical Understanding of Heterodox Dervishes in Islam’. Did that and the intellectual approach you developed in fifteen years of reading bring you slowly but surely to the writing of Love?
I discovered mysticism completely on my own fifteen years ago. It was not a culture I saw around me or that I found in my family. The more I read about it, the more I liked it. My appetite for it increased the more I read. Mysticism was actually there for me as a sub-text in almost all my novels. It was like a shadow that always followed me, sometimes more explicitly, sometimes more implicitly. This time I raised all the curtains. Mysticism is not something you can learn overnight. You have to live it, experience it in your heart. It is a long, difficult and rough road...

This brings us to the subject of faith. In the sense rather of ‘morality’ and ‘spiritualism’...
Faith is a very important issue for me. But what is important for me is not the form but the essence. I believe that essence is universal and one. In my opinion, we all have a need for mysticism. One of the things I like best about mysticism is that it is based on self-criticism. The Sufis criticized themselves, they reformed their souls. If they saw a flaw in one of their members, they would cover it up. This shows tremendous decorum and moral decency. I know these things intellectually, but when it comes to practicing them in my life I of course find it difficult. There is a profound contradiction, for example, between the inflated ego that writing gives a person and the awareness of ‘nothingness’ that mysticism teaches. Writing novels tells me, ‘You wrote this book, you created it.’ Mysticism tells me, ‘You are only the instrument for conveying the story. You did not create it, you were created! You are like pen and paper. The words flow out of you. But you are not their owner...!” Sometimes I experience this contradiction very intensely. But it is through contradictions that we advance in this world.”

You have written nine very different books, because Elif Şafak changes from day to day. ‘The Bastard of Istanbul’, ‘Black Milk’, and ‘Love’ are one thing; Pinhan (The Sufi) and Mahrem (The Gaze) are another. There are even those who believe your language, style and sense of plot have regressed. Was this a conscious choice, or is it something that just happens?
Writing is a continuous journey. I don’t want to cast anchor at only one port, I don’t want to repeat myself. However a story comes to me, that’s how I write it. With my intuition, rather than by consciously inventing a plot. I give myself completely to the work I’m doing. Other doors are opened in my brain, doors that are closed in everyday life. I become totally swept up in the flow of the writing when I write. It’s something that just happens, in other words.

The concept of family is something you became acquainted with midway through your life. Do you like it? Is it good?
I lived like a nomad until I was thirty-five years old. Always carrying my shell around from place to place. I had no concept of a ‘nest’. I thought
I didn’t care about such things. But it seems inside me there was also a woman who loves home life and thinks it’s important. It was very difficult to balance that with my writer’s side. Of course, voices can still conflict inside me. I still withdraw and go away from time to time.

Wanting to withdraw and go away on the one hand, family responsibility on the other... Isn’t that difficult for you?
For a woman writer, familial responsibilities are lovely and enriching as well as difficult at times. I grew up as an only child. I treasured my solitude. Writing in any case is the loneliest of the arts. Sometimes my ‘nomadic and independent’ side conflicts with my ‘domestic and dependent’ side. Writing is a selfish passion. You give yourself completely to your writing. The thing women writers who are mothers most feel a need for is ‘free time’.  To tell you the truth, I was scared to death of this change at first. I suffered from postnatal depression after the birth of my child. I wrote Black Milk. In the book I exposed the dilemma between motherhood and writing. I revealed aspects of myself that were not at all in my interest and I made light of them. It caused me a lot of pain as I wrote. But in the end a candid book emerged. And writing that book balanced me and made me well.

You expressed your dilemmas, your upheavals, and your struggles with yourself in Black Milk. So are you now a very different, much more tranquil Elif Şafak?
Depression gives a person a chance to renew herself, to invent herself all over again. In other words, every bout of depression is at the same time a period of ‘repair and reconstruction’. Black Milk is my only autobiographical work. The only book in which I have opened up and described myself to this extent. I confronted myself frankly, and in the calm that came afterwards I wrote Love.

Could you describe the Grand Bazaar scene in Black Milk for those who have not read the book? I mean the beads, the tea glasses, what you called your ‘Oh, what we won’t do for love!’. That’s the chapter in which a woman who is opposed to marriage proposes to the man she loves. It actually happened to me. I was making fun of myself as I wrote it. By Turkish standards you I’m somebody who married ‘late’. I was regarded as an ‘old maid’. These criteria are only for women of course.How do you combine being a writer who travels with being a hard-working journalist?
Both my husband and I are people who take a rather dim view of the institution of marriage. To be perfectly frank, marriage is a very difficult proposition for types like me who are fond of their independence. Marriage is not easy for two people who are both intense and attached to their independence. Sometimes we put a strain on each other. But Eyüp (Can) and I are both flexible people. He is much more calm and patient than I am. But I’m learning. A good marriage is not something made in a day or a month. You have to work at it every day. It has its own difficulties, its ups and downs. What is important is that the love continue. If there is no love, then the marriage is dead; if there is love, marriage is wonderful. The most important thing is to know how to value each other.