Elif Shafak is one of the most prominent writers in Turkey with her impressive catalogue of fiction illustrating a complex, conflicting and troubled country, and her novel Three Daughters of Eve has brought this to the Western world.
Shafak's writing is beautiful and hearing her speak on stage is no different. Most of the British audience are unlikely to know about Turkey's troubled history and politics in any great detail and Shafak outlines this in an incredibly engaging and accessible way, telling us that it is a country of amnesia, and forgotten history. While we perceive Istanbul as being steeped in history and culture Shafak claims that much of this has removed from awareness and that the Turkish have lost their curiosity to explore its rich legacies.
She sees contemporary Turkey as a country which is badly polarised, bitterly politicised and that ultimately in this kind of environment there can be no winners. I, among many others in the audience, was completely unaware of Turkey's recent referendum which has overhauled the traditional democratic system to replace it with an exectutive Presidency and Presidential system. This may sound fairly standard, as we know many countries have this system, however Shafak is clearly concerned claiming that the ballot box alone is not enough to constitute democracy, and the lack of free media, independent academia, women's rights etc in Turkey is troubling. For Shafak these issues need to be debated, and she believes they are being debated, in homes and coffee shops, but she wants to see them talked about in the public sphere.
In this respect her latest book is right up to the mark, exploring religion and feminism in the settings of both Istanbul and Oxford. She quotes Doris Lessing who claimed 'literature is analysis after the event' but for Shafak she believes it has to be during the event. She was taught by women's rights movements that the personal is the political and she makes this the feature of her book, with Peri's childhood home becoming a microcosm of Turkish society.
The book is very concerned with belonging and the importance of this in modern society and how we identify ourselves is evident in contempory identity politics, but for Shafak we don't have to be just one thing, we have concentric circles of belonging - as she points out she is Turkish, with Middle Eastern ties, but having been born in France and lived in Europe she is also European, and having lived here for 8 years she is also a Londoner.
Shafak has paid the price for her writing having been put on trial in Istanbul for one of her novels, which makes her deeply concerned about the nationalism which informs the tight censorship laws. Concerning religious belief, which is of great importance in Turkey she thinks there is danger in both absolute faith and complete atheism, preferring instead somewhere in between where we constantly question our positions and assumptions.
Her book deals with all of these issues and more, as well as being a thrilling read and hearing her explain a wider context around her life and the culture which has influenced the book was absolutely fascinating!