Elif Shafak- A well known Turkish writer

Elif Shafak was born in Strasbourg, France, in 1971. She is an award-winning novelist and the most widely read woman writer in Turkey. Critics have named her as "one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary Turkish and world literature". Her books have been translated into more than thirty languages and she was awarded the honorary distinction of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters.

Shafak has published twelve books, eight of which are novels. She writes fiction in both Turkish and English. Shafak blends Western and Eastern traditions of storytelling, bringing out the myriad stories of women, minorities, immigrants, subcultures, youth and global souls. Her work draws on diverse cultures and literary traditions, as well as deep interest in history, philosophy, Sufism, oral culture, and cultural politics. Shafak's writing breaks down categories, clichés, and cultural ghettoes. She also has a keen eye for black humor.

Shafak's first novel, Pinhan (The Mystic) was awarded the "Rumi Prize" in 1998, which is given to the best work in mystical literature in Turkey. Her second novel, Şehrin Aynaları (Mirrors of the City), brings together Jewish and Islamic mysticism against a historical setting in the 17th century Mediterranean. Shafak greatly increased her readership with her novel Mahrem (The Gaze), which earned her the "Best Novel-Turkish Writers' Union Prize" in 2000. Her next novel, Bit Palas (The Flea Palace), has been a bestseller in Turkey and was shortlisted for the Independent Best Fiction Award.

Shafak' wrote her next novel in English. The Saint of Incipient Insanities was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Her second novel written in English is The Bastard of Istanbul, which was the bestselling book of 2006 in Turkey and was longlisted for the Orange prize. The novel, which tells the story of an Armenian and a Turkish family through the eyes of women, brought Shafak under prosecution but the charges were ultimately dismissed.

Following the birth of her daughter in 2006 she suffered from post-natal depression, an experience she addressed in her first autobiographical book, Black Milk. In this book Shafak explored the beauties and difficulties of being a writer and a mother. The book was received with great interest and acclaim by critics and readers alike, being an instant bestseller.

Shafak's next novel focused on Love and love –East & West, past & present, spiritual & mundane, all in the light of Rumi and Shams of Tabriz. The Forty Rules of Love sold more than 600 000 copies, becoming an all time best-seller in Turkey and in France awarded with the Prix ALEF - Mention Spéciale Littérature Etrangère. It is also nominated for 2012 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

Her latest novel, Iskender (Honour), has topped the best-seller lists and has been acclaimed by both critics and readers of various ages and backgrounds. The novel has opened up a vivid debate in Turkey about family, love, freedom, redemption and the construct of masculinity. It is nominated for 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize.

In addition to writing fiction, Shafak is also a political scientist, having graduated from the program in International Relations at Middle East Technical University. She holds a Masters degree in Gender and Women's Studies and a Ph.D. in Political Science. Her thesis on "Islamic Mysticism and the Circular Understanding of Time" was awarded by the Social Scientists Institute. Today Shafak continues to write for Haberturk, a major newspaper in Turkey, as well as several international daily & weekly publications, including The Guardian website. She has been featured in major newspapers and periodicals, including the Washington Times, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, The Economist and The Guardian.

Her nonfiction covers a wide range of topics, including belonging, identity, gender, mental ghettoes, daily life politics, multicultural literature and the art of coexistence. These essays have been collected in three books, Med-Cezir (2005), Firarperest (2010),Şemspare (2012)

She also writes lyrics for rock musicians in her country.

She lives with her husband and two children and divides her time between Istanbul and London.

AWARDS and SPECIAL RECOGNITION

  Honor, Long listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize, 2012
     
  The Forty Rules of Love, Nominated (long listed) for International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, 2012
     
  Prix ALEF - Mention Spéciale Littérature Etrangère, Soufi, mon amour (Phébus), 2011
     
  Marka 2010 Award, Turkey
     
  Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et Lettres,
France 2010
     
  Ambassador of Culture Action Europe Campaign, 2010
     
  Special Envoy, EU-Turkey Cultural Bridges Programme, 2010
     
  Turkish Journalists and Writers Foundation
"The Art of Coexistence Award - 2009"
     
  International Rising Talent, Women's Forum, Deauville, France, 2009
     
  The Bastard of Istanbul, Long listed for Orange Prize for Fiction, London 2008
     
  The Gaze, Long listed for Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, United Kingdom 2007
     
  Maria Grazia Cutuli Award - International Journalism Prize, Italy 2006
     
  The Flea Palace, Short listed for Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, United Kingdom 2005
     
  The Gaze, Union of Turkish Writers' Best Novel Prize, 2000
     
  Pinhan, The Great Rumi Award, Turkey 1998


QUOTATIONS

About the author:

 I like to think of my writing as a compass. One leg of this compass is solidly based in Istanbul and the culture I grew up with. In this sense my fiction has solid roots. The other leg of the compass, however, draws a wide circle and travels the whole wide world. My fiction is cosmopolitan and multicultural. Therefore my writing is both local and universal.

 In my novels I travel endlessly in time and space. Through the art of storytelling we connect to one another. At the core of literature is the notion of empathy and the desire to build connections. It is all about connections...

 I can write everywhere and anywhere. I wrote some of my novels at international airports, on trains, in small hotels... Any place could be a workplace for me: restaurants, cafes, train stations, dormitories... Everywhere except a neat and tidy, sterile and silent bureau. That is the only place I cannot write in.

 They ask me why there are so many djinnis or supernatural forces in my novels. Because there is magic in life, that is why.

 I like to combine the Western techniques of the genre of the novel with Eastern traditions of storytelling. I also like to combine written culture with women's oral culture. This culture is not sufficiently reflected in written culture, which is dominated by men. I like incorporating women's voices into my fiction.

 Humor is an important element for me. But the kind of humor that I like has compassion, intelligence and softness. It is a kind of humor that does not look down upon the readers. I write with love, and my characters have so many layers and conflicts. I do not judge them. It's important to have a « horizontal » relation with them: I do not situate myself above them or above the text. I'm not trying to control them, as if they were puppets. I'm on an equal level with them, as well as with my readers.

 Just like love, literature shows us the connections. We live in a world in which the unhappiness of someone in Pakistan can affect the life of someone in Canada. In this world nobody lives in a vacuum. The sorrow of one person can sadden the entire humanity. The happiness of one person can contribute to the joy of all. Literature and art help us to feel connected with the universe.

 My writing thrives upon journeys. I commute between different cultures and cities, and believe in the power of literature to transcend all sorts of mental ghettoes and boundaries -be it national, religious, class or gender boundaries. The ancient art of storytelling brings us together and bridges the gap between "us" and "them".

London Book Fair: Elif Shafak on Turkey's progress

With Turkey the focus of this year's London Book Fair, Elif Shafak says her country is starting to find its voice

Elif Shafak, Turkish writer living in England
Elif Shafak says Turkey has an amazing ability to reinvent itself in a short period of time. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Guardian

As a Turkish woman writer in England there are two questions about my country that I hear often: are women equal to men and are words free? Two different subjects that receive the same answer: "Yes and no, concurrently."

Turkey is a country of mesmerising contrasts, colours and conflicts. It's a running joke for us to liken our progress and modernity to the Mehter – the Ottoman military band that once inspired western classical composers, such as Mozart. The band's march consisted of two steps forwards, one step backwards. Thus we proceed in Turkey when it comes to basic freedoms and human rights.

The country is going through a historical transformation. The conflict with the Kurdish separatists, which killed more than 40,000 people and traumatised many more, is being resolved. Until recently, this would have been a dream. Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan and the AK Party have taken considerable political risks to authorise negotiations with the jailed Kurdish leader Abduallah Öcalan. They have been aided by the fact that, increasingly, more people on both sides are tired of violence and antagonism.

For way too long, Turkish ultra-nationalism and Kurdish ultra-nationalism have fed off each other, keeping the country in a vicious circle and spreading fear, bigotry and xenophobia. Turkish official ideology has systematically denied the existence of Kurds and the Kurdish language. That is no longer the case. Books, magazines, publications on "The Kurdish Question" fill the shelves. Whereas in the past it was unthinkable to question the army as an institution, that, too, has changed. The army has been confined to military and strategic matters, as it should be in any true democracy.

Nonetheless, other things are slow to change. Meeting with PEN international delegation president, Abdullah Gül, he expressed concerns about the obstacles to freedom of speech – the trials, and in some cases the incarceration, of writers, journalists and publishers. "These developments sadden me," he said. Article 301 of the Turkish penal code, which punishes anyone who "insults Turkishness" with up to three years in prison, has been noticeably restricted in practice, though not abolished. It is not as easy as it used to be to press charges against a writer or journalist for their words since it now requires the approval of the minister of justice. However, the law hovers above our heads like the sword of Damocles. Some citizens feel "insulted" at the slightest critical remark about the state, government or our ancestors. Prosecutors take their applications seriously, and the vagueness of the law only deepens the problem.

A similar broadness can be observed in the anti‑terror laws. The distinction between those who resort to terrorism and those whose only "sin" is to speak their minds is not fully recognised. Ragip Zarakolu, the founder of a publishing house famed for supporting minority issues and a Nobel peace prize nominee, spent six months in prison last year. Social media is also fraught with danger. The composer and pianist Fazil Say appeared in court on charges of blasphemy and insulting religious values because of a tweet he sent.

Obscenity trials are another hurdle for writers and artists. The Turkish publication of Chuck Palahniuk's novel Snuff – rendered Death Porn in Turkish – saw both its translator and publisher in courtThe publication of a translation of The Soft Machine by William Burroughs was accused of obscenity, but the trial was postponed.

Just recently a complaint has been filed against two intellectuals – Robert Koptas, the editor of the Armenian newspaper Agos, whose previous editor Hrant Dink was assassinated, and Ümit Kivanç, leftist-liberal journalist – because one citizen complained that the words they uttered on TV were "insulting", adding "clearly they must be Armenians".

There is a growing concern that the press is not as diverse as it used to be and that alternative voices are heard less and less. Self-censorship is a subject we rarely discuss, although clearly we have to: last month Hasan Cemal, a veteran journalist and critical thinker, left his newspaper, Milliyet.

Even if the majority of the cases do end in acquittal, the judicial process is too lengthy. Writers, journalists, translators and publishers are no strangers to prosecutors' offices. And then they have to suffer attacks from extremist newspapers. One major hurdle is the old laws, many of which date back to the 1980 military coup d'etat. We urgently need a new, egalitarian, pluralistic, and more democratic constitution. Only this can help Turkey to move up in the World Press Freedom Index where it is ranked 154th out of 179 countries.

Yet at the same time countless books and magazines are published on subjects that until recently were taboo. Minority rights, the army, domestic violence, homophobia – publications and discussions follow one another. Turkey has an amazing ability to reinvent itself in a surprisingly short time. Of one thing we can be certain: young and dynamic, perched delicately on the threshold of east and west, Turkey's civil society is anything but silent.

• Turkey is the market focus of this year's London Book Fair, 15-17 April, Earls Court, London SW5.

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