The Turkish Novelist Elif Shafak Wants You to Read More Women

Credit…Jillian Tamaki

“Read women writers, women journalists, women poets, women academics,” says Shafak, whose novel “10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World” was a finalist for the 2019 Booker Prize. “And when I say women, I mean women of all ethnic and cultural backgrounds.”

What books are on your nightstand?

It varies all the time, but usually I have one book of fiction and one nonfiction by my bed at the same time. I like to switch back and forth, I like it when they talk to each other. And then there is always a copy of Walter Benjamin’s “The Arcades Project” within reach. A marvelous and unfinished book that you can read in a nonlinear way — start in the middle, go backward, draw circles. There is nothing like reading Walter Benjamin before going to sleep. You will have the most vivid dreams.

What’s the last great book you read?

“The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” by Shoshana Zuboff. This is a remarkable, well-researched, empirically informed and important book. For a long time the internet was perceived and presented as a neutral but also progressive platform that would nurture democracy, interconnectedness and egalitarianism. But the reality is completely different. Zuboff shows how surveillance capitalism undermines and, ultimately, destroys not only free will and autonomy but also the fundamentals of democracy. It’s clear that this is an age in which we all need to become more involved citizens, and be aware of the dark side of digital technologies. We definitely need regulatory democratic institutions. But first of all we need to understand the gravity and the complexity of the problem and for that, this is the right book.

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

The Armenian feminist, novelist and intellectual Zabel Yesayan was a writer with a brilliant mind and a woman far ahead of her time. “In the Ruins” is a heart-rending cry, an important chronicle. A very important read.

Then there are remarkable authors who are well-known in their motherlands but still not translated well enough around the world. One brilliant example is Natalia Ginzburg.

Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?

I admire authors who take risks, both in form and in content. I respect writers who dare to swim against the current, who refuse to fit in or write the same way, year after year. There are so many novelists, poets and journalists I respect deeply and I really don’t care whether someone is well established or a debut author. Each has its own challenges.

What books would you recommend to somebody who wants to understand present-day Turkey?

I’d definitely say read more women. Read women writers, women journalists, women poets, women academics. And when I say women, I mean women of all ethnic and cultural backgrounds: Turkish, Kurdish, Armenian, Jewish, Greek. Turkey is a country of collective amnesia. Read those writers who bear witness to the silences and to the silenced.

Who are your favorite Turkish writers? Are there any who aren’t as widely known as they should be, whom you’d recommend in particular?

“A Millennium of Turkish Literature,” by Talat Halman, is a wonderful and beautifully written book, so that’s a great place to start. Reading Nazim Hikmet is essential to understand not only how oppression works but also how strong is the struggle for freedom. Sabahattin Ali’s “Madonna in a Fur Coat” was released in English a few years ago, and it’s brilliant.

What do you read when you’re working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid while writing?

Before I start a novel I do extensive research and I basically try to read everything I can find on the subject. I have spent long years in academia, and maybe that has given me a sense of discipline, which I normally lack. So depending on what I am planning to write, I read a lot and I think a lot. This could be anything: from Sephardic history to Ottoman architecture, from rare birds to lives of sex workers in Istanbul. Then, when I start writing the novel, I avoid reading novels, and I only read poetry for a while. Especially Walt Whitman, W. B. Yeats, Khalil Gibran, Anna Akhmatova and Rumi. I also love Maya Angelou and I must say Audre Lorde has a special place in my heart.

Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?

Every novel that I have read has brought me closer to another human being, I believe. There are only very, very few books that I wish had never ever been written. One is “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” It’s full of dangerous lies and it paved the way for the Holocaust. Another horrible book is “The Hammer of Witches,” published in the 15th century. Hundreds of thousands of innocent people, mostly women, have been accused of witchcraft because of this nonsense, and killed, imprisoned or tortured. “The Camp of the Saints,” which is now widely read by the far right and its orators, is also full of hatred, racism and xenophobia.

What moves you most in a work of literature?

The voice, primarily. Both the art and the craft of storytelling. I love the waltz of the heart and the mind. The pessimism of the mind and the optimism of the heart, as Gramsci would say.

What genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?

I read everything and anything that speaks to me: political philosophy, neuroscience, cultural history. I also read graphic novels, comic books, cookbooks. Whatever interests me in that moment in time, I sit down and read it. I have no regard for so-called “highbrow literature” versus “lowbrow literature.” Never understood those distinctions. I have only one golden rule: I try to read as widely as possible, so rather than staying in the same mental comfort zone year after year, I like to travel across disciplines and genres and cultures.

Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?

Orlando is my all-time fictional hero/heroine. I also love the fact that Virginia Woolf calls that book “a biography.” As for a favorite antihero, Jay Gatsby, of course. “The Great Gatsby” is a remarkable book that needs to be revisited time and again.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

I was a lonely child, a solitary child, raised by two women — my mother and grandmother. Because I thought life was terribly boring, I became a good reader at an early age. I was born in France. After a while, my parents separated; my father stayed in Strasbourg and my mother brought me to Ankara. So at a very young age I had to migrate. Then I was raised in a conservative, patriarchal neighborhood where I felt I didn’t belong. For me, Storyland was far more real. Books helped me to dig tunnels of escape, tunnels leading to freedom.

If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?

“Orlando,” by Virginia Woolf. Until I read this novel, early on, I didn’t know you could write with such freedom and chutzpah. If I may cheat a bit, I’d also add, Rumi’s “Mathnawi.” One from the West, one from the East, and they both transcend East-West.

Have you ever changed your opinion of a book based on information about the author, or anything else?

Not really. Maybe because I am a hopeless introvert and when I read a book, especially if it’s a novel, I forget about the author. Who she is or who he is, I don’t care. It is the story that I am interested in.

If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? And what would you want to know?

I would love to meet Spinoza. His mind is fascinating. It would have been amazing to talk to James Baldwin too. I get very emotional when I read his work or hear his voice. Then, definitely, Shams of Tabriz. The three of them together, that would be wonderful!

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

When I put a book down, it’s usually something to do with me, maybe my mind is too occupied. There are titles I couldn’t make much progress the first time but then, after a couple of weeks, when I tried again, I utterly loved. Example: “The Luminaries,” by Eleanor Catton.

Do books serve a moral function, in your view? How so?

If you happen to be an author from a wounded democracy — like Turkey, Venezuela, Pakistan, Egypt, Brazil: The list is so long and it’s getting longer — you do not have the luxury of being apolitical. You cannot say, I am not going to talk about what’s happening outside the window, when so much is happening out there. Even writing about gender and sexuality can be a political act of resistance in these countries. That said, I think the art of storytelling needs to ask questions rather than try to give answers. I don’t like it when novelists try to teach or preach. Our job is to bring the periphery to the center, make the invisible more visible, create open and democratic spaces wherein the story can flow freely.

Whom would you want to write your life story?

An author with a good and nuanced understanding of various cultures. Someone who is a true citizen of humanity, rather than a member of an artificial tribe.

What books do you find yourself returning to again and again?

Hannah Arendt, first and foremost. I go back to her a lot. Her voice is so important, and sadly, increasingly relevant in our times. I also love reading and rereading Czeslaw Milosz. Then there is Cioran. We Turks don’t do optimism. There are two things we don’t do well: optimism and irony. The Romanian philosopher Cioran might be too depressing for some Western readers, but for those of us coming from the Balkans, Anatolia, the Middle East, it’s the voice of sanity.

What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?

I really don’t know. If there is a book that I am embarrassed not to have read yet, I usually go and read it. Also, it’s not embarrassing — there are so many books, we just have to keep reading, that’s what matters.

What do you plan to read next?

I am halfway through Robert Macfarlane’s “Underland: A Deep Time Journey,” and it’s beautiful.