Elif Shafak: A new novel, a divided Turkey, and woman power

Elif Shafak, author of “Three Daughters of Eve,” speaks at the Free Library on Wednesday, Jan. 31.

Everyone in Elif Shafak’s new novel, Three Daughters of Eve, is conflicted, at cross-purposes, with mixed feelings about Turkey, self, politics, east, west, God. They are microcosms of Turkey itself, a country that is a crossroads. Shafak comes to the Free Library at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday for a free appearance. It’s a powerhouse pairing, with writer Siri Hustvedt and her new collection, A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind.

Born in France into a Turkish family, Shafak, 46, is the ultimate modern cosmopolite. She has lived all over the world (London, for example, where I reached her by phone), including her beloved Istanbul, one of the locales in Three Daughters of Eve. As a novelist and public voice, she has won many awards and is often called the best-known female writer in Turkey. Three Daughters involves Peri Nalbantoğlu, a girl growing up; her polarized Turkish family; university life at Oxford; and momentous questions of identity, gender relations, belief, and the future of Turkey. Gracious, engaging, and passionate, Shafak spoke about her novel, her political anxieties, and why, in the end, everything depends on women.

Much of Three Daughters is set at Oxford, where three young women – free-spirited, Iranian-born Shirin; Muslim Egyptian American Mona; and Peri – become great friends. They dub themselves the Sinner, the Believer, and the Confused. Are these three aspects of your younger self?

We all have times when we have felt like a sinner, a believer, and the confused one. In part, I wanted to focus on the confusions of our time. And it’s no coincidence that the Turkish girl is the confused one. As a nation, we are pretty confused about who we are, our history, our identity. Yet we have no collective memory of the past, just a lot of confusion in culture, history, and politics.

Mensur Nalbantoğlu, Peri’s father, is fascinating. He’s secular, rationalistic, yet he supports authoritarian government – a stance that would surprise rationalists over here. Are there many men like that in Turkey?

I myself have no sympathy with any kind of authoritarianism in Turkey; what we need is a true, pluralistic, functioning democracy. Yet part of me sympathizes with Mensur very much. He’s a sorrowful man. Clearly his marriage is messed up, and his family, and that intensifies his sorrow.  But he loves Peri and sells his car just so his daughter gets the best education.

He’s also a man who cares deeply for his country. I see many secularists in Turkey who are incredibly depressed at the moment. They know things have changed. Once upon a time, Turkey was regarded as a role model in the Muslim world, representing the hope that a majority Muslim culture could coexist with Western values. The collapse of that model was a very bad thing. When Mensur says, “In a democracy, when a man gets drunk, he cries, ‘What happened to my sweetheart?’ Where there is no democracy, when a man gets drunk, he cries, ‘What happened to my sweet country?’ ” That’s the mood in Turkey.

Men like Peri’s father believe in rationality, that society needs to be enlightened by an educated elite, and yet they feel uncomfortable, because they know the country’s history, its long instability. They don’t trust it, and that distrust can lead to a belief in authoritarianism.

Peri attends a glittering Istanbul dinner with some of the elite. At one point, she counts 13 guests there – as in the Last Supper.

At first, I wanted to name this book The Last Supper of the Turkish Bourgeoisie. In a way, it’s the end of something, and Peri knows it. Society has always been conservative, patriarchal, sexist, homophobic, but now it has also become more inward-looking, more distant from Europe. My generation grew up being taught that we were going to be part of Europe; the new generation, they’re hearing a whole different story. There’s a weird nationalism; I find it very alarming. But I should also tell you: The dinner scenes are the most realistic chapters. Everything I observed, I saw and heard first-hand in 2015 and 2016 in Turkey. And I saw this incredibly strong cultural schizophrenia, speaking of terror bombings one moment, then switching back to fashion or designer bags.

Peri keeps what she calls a “God diary.” Did you ever keep one?

Not exactly one like that, but I did keep a diary. I was an only child, raised by a grandmother and a mother. I was talking to myself all the time, and my mother gave me a diary and told me to write down my thoughts. Because my life was boring to me, I started writing about things and people who did not really exist. That’s how I became a writer. The need to write, it was almost like an existential need born out of loneliness.

When you return to Turkey, as you do all the time, what are you seeing these days? And how does it make you feel?

I think Turkey has been sadly sliding backward, first gradually, then with bewildering speed. This should concern women more than men, because when societies slide into ultra-nationalism or chauvinism, they also become more sexist, and women have more to lose than men when societies go backward. Particularly for people who write and think, whose job is to speak their minds, intellectuals, academics, it’s increasingly difficult. Words are very heavy at the moment.

If Turkey is a place where it can be dangerous to be a writer – and you yourself were once put on trial for the crime of “insulting Turkishness” – doesn’t that mean in a strange sense that writing is important? That words matter?

It is quite paradoxical. In countries where you do not have freedom of speech, words matter even more. Stories matter, and they do not evaporate fast. It is true that written culture is male-dominated, but most readers in Turkey are women; women read more than men. Men write and women read (something I’d like to see change). And most women readers, if they like a book, they share it with their best friends, their aunts, their friends in foreign countries. My guess would be that each individual copy of a book will be read by five to six readers. People talk about books in Turkey; word of mouth, how a book is spoken of, matters a lot. This is heartwarming and inspiring for writers – but the dark side is that there is no respect for freedom, for art. You can be sued by the government for writing a novel, or get in trouble for writing a poem, doing an interview. All writers are aware of this, and as a result, there’s widespread self-censorship in Turkey. I feel it in my own writing habits. If I’m writing a nonfiction piece, I think more carefully about my sentences. When I am writing a novel, when I’m inside a novel, it’s a different world. You are in storyland, and I try to stay there as long as I can.

Turkish life, as Three Daughters portrays it, is terribly divided ideologically and politically. It reminded me of my own country. You have said that, in the Middle East at least, women can play a big role in healing these divides.

Massive changes are underway across the world – people are becoming more emotional and divisive everywhere. Friends get angry. Within the same family, politics divides. In Turkey, we have all that to an extreme.

In such an environment, women will play a crucial role. It breaks my heart that we have yet to establish a sisterhood in the Middle East, bringing together women from different backgrounds. We may have differences, but we have so much in common nevertheless. Women are the bearers of cultural memory and continuity. Can we not come together? No women will benefit if women remain so divided. It’s a crucial time in world history: Women’s rights are being threatened, yet women’s roles in our future are becoming so much more important.


Elif Shafak, Three Daughters of Eve, and Siri Hustvedt, A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women

    • 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Jan. 31, Central Library, Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine Street. Free. Information: 215-567-4341, freelibrary.org.