Elif Shafak

[Author]

“The beginning of anger is beautiful.”
Things Elif Shafak loves:
Keeping an eye on what’s happening in her country
Ambiguity
Words
History, philosophy, the waltz of loneliness and love

I first met Elif Shafak in 2000, at the dawn of her literary career, whose success few could have predicted at the time. It was my second year at Bilgi, a liberal-arts university in Istanbul where she worked as a lecturer. Although she was a familiar face for students, Shafak was little known beyond the borders of the university. She was an ethereal presence in the university corridors, and it was her silence that defined Shafak more than anything else. Nowadays her voice has international reach; back then she was more of a listener. I used to see her at the cafeteria, where she drank a cup of Turkish coffee after classes. Fellow academics and students would talk to her. She would often be on the receiving end, observing the conversation as if from a distance.

One day in September 2001 I went to Shafak’s office in order to register for the Romantic poetry course. It was taught by a professor she was assisting. After taking note of my name and student number, she said there was a problem with the computer system, but she would make sure I got a place in the class. (I did.) Before leaving the room, I recognized how small it seemed when compared to the size and ambition of its inhabitant. She seemed out of place in an academic setting.

Shafak’s third novel, The Gaze, became a favorite among critics when it was published, in 1999. Her tale about an overweight woman and her lover, a dwarf, questioned the moralistic gaze of Turkish society. Her 2002 book, The Flea Palace, read like a book by Georges Perec: it chronicled the lives of an apartment’s inhabitants in a cosmopolitan neighborhood of Istanbul.

In Arabic, elif is the first letter of the alphabet. In Turkish, şafak means “dawn.” When Shafak began to use the Anglicized version of her surname and started writing books in English, some Turkish readers were offended. But overall hers had been one of the most successful Turkish literary careers in recent times, perhaps surpassed only by the Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk.

I met Shafak in a fancy restaurant in Istanbul’s Bebek neighborhood thirteen years after our initial encounter at the university. The restaurant was adjacent to the apartment where the great German philologist Erich Auerbach lived during his exile, in the 1930s and ’40s, and wrote his masterpiece, Mimesis. Her schedule was very busy, but we spoke for nearly two hours. She carefully listened to my questions before answering them with her trademark energy.

—Kaya Genç

I. ACADEMIC LIFE AND MICRO-HISTORY

THE BELIEVER: Your first book of stories came out in 1994. You were twenty-two. What was your idea of a writer’s life back then?

ELIF SHAFAK: All I wanted was to write and to keep on writing. While writing my first novel, Pinhan, I felt as if a story was boiling inside my head. I just needed to bring it out. I was more focused on my writing than on what it meant to be a published author in Turkey. Writing had been a continuous activity for me. It was the only existential glue that kept my pieces together. I found questions about authorship rather confusing. One should avoid them for as long as possible.

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Kaya Genç is a novelist and essayist from Istanbul. L’Avventura (Macera), his first novel, was published in 2008. He is currently working on his first English-language novel. His work has appeared in the Paris Review Daily, the Guardian, the Financial Times, and on the London Review of Books blog, among other places. He blogs at kayagenc.net and tweets at @kayagenc.

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