Elif Şafak takes a swing at Turkish bourgeoisie in latest novel
Pelin Öz – ISTANBULWorld-renowned Turkish author Elif Şafak tells the story of three girls - one sinner, one believer and one agnostic -- in her latest novel “The Three Daughters of Eve.”
“This is the story of a woman’s quest for love, faith, God, identity, happiness. It is a very contemporary book that deals with some of the major issues of our time. There is also a sharp criticism of Turkish society and bourgeoisie,” Şafak told the Hürriyet Daily News in an exclusive interview.
The main character of the novel, Nazperi Nalbantoğlu - or “Peri” as her loved ones call her – is a “good person” in the eyes of her family and friends. In the book you ask “Is it possible to be good all the time?” So, is it?
There is no such thing as absolute goodness. But it is easy to assume that we are always nice and good people. That’s an illusion. In truth, we all have our weaknesses and follies. It’s impossible to try to erase all our negative sides. It’s crucial to be aware of them. “Know yourself,” is a good motto. And a universal one.
Peri’s story can be read as the story of Turkey. What kind of story is it?
The central character is called Peri. She is the youngest child of the Nalbantoğlus. Her father is a staunch Kemalist, a secularist, a kind, sensitive man who wholeheartedly supports his daughter’s education and enlightenment. Her mother is the opposite. Selma Hanım is a rigid woman and she is very religious. There is a constant tension in the same house, under the same roof. No doubt, Peri is her father’s daughter. She is not in the middle. She is not trying to stay at equal distance to both sides. She adores her father. But she also tries to connect with her mother and she has lots of questions with regard to identity, faith, God, gender. Her uncertainty - if not bewilderment — echoes the underlying confusion in Turkey with regard to “identity.” That’s what we Turks do best: Confusion.
In Turkey we have lost so many nuances. We don’t think in a nuanced way anymore. People easily confuse “faith” with “religion,” for instance. But faith does not need to be about religion. Not at all. Writing a book, falling in love, or moving to a new city are all acts of faith. In life we need faith, but we also need doubt. To doubt our truths, to question ourselves, to be open to learning new things. Faith and doubt together equally. I find it hard to talk about such things in a society that has lost so many nuances.
Would it have been difficult for you to write this book if you were living permanently in Turkey?
Words are heavy in Turkey. Every journalist, every writer, every poet, every academic knows this. Because of words we can we sued overnight, put on trial, demonized in newspapers, attacked on social media. It’s becoming more and more difficult to write and speak critically in Turkey. There is a climate of intimidation and paranoia. Whoever says anything critical is instantly labelled a “betrayer” or “a pawn of Western powers.” There is also widespread self-censorship, which is a difficult subject. How many people among the literati would acknowledge self-censorship? But of course it exists.
What would you say to those who might say the subject of your book is rather ordinary?
This is the story of a woman’s quest for love, faith, God, identity, happiness. It is a very contemporary book, one that deals with some of the major issues of our time. There is also a sharp criticism of Turkish society and the bourgeoisie. One of the chapters is called “The Last Supper of the Turkish Bourgeoisie.” I could not have written this novel earlier in my life because it kind of accumulated inside me. To be honest, I might not have felt as free and open and critical if I had written it in Turkish first. I wrote it in English.
Peri is raised in a family divided by identities and faith. Do we know families like this?
Over the years I have met and observed many Turkish families that are exactly like Peri’s family. Clashing ideologies, opposing worldviews under the same roof. Both clashing and coexisting. A Kemalist uncle, an AKP-supporting cousin, etc. In all our families there are nationalists, liberals, leftists and conservatives. But today society has become too polarized. We are divided into mental ghettoes. I find this very unhealthy. Both Islamists and ultranationalists share the same mentality of intolerance, which is summarized in this slogan: “Love it or leave.” They say critical-minded people should abandon this country. That’s awful. What Turkey needs is to develop a culture of coexistence that celebrates diversity.
Have you ever questioned why God allows so much injustice?
Of course I have. Last year I was invited to give a sermon at Manchester Cathedral. Every year they invite an author to talk about “faith and God.” It makes no difference whatsoever whether the author is a Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, atheist or agnostic. All are welcome. Among the audience there were people from all backgrounds. I loved it and felt honored to give a talk on “the never-ending waltz of faith and doubt.”
Your main character says at one point that “God is a Lego set.” If so, how have you built it in your mind?
I’m not a religious person. In fact, I don’t like the way organized religions divide humanity into categories of “us” versus “them.” I’m not interested in religion. I’m interested in God. To me questions are more important than answers. I’m not claiming to have found the answers. I just happen to love asking questions. That’s what the novel as a genre does well: To ask difficult questions and to reflect the multiplicity of voices and interpretations; to give more voice to the silenced and to the forsaken.
Why in the book do you liken “mint sugar” to fascism?
If fascism had a flavor it would be a kind of sharp menthol. Sterile purity. Absolute uniformity. That’s what totalitarian regimes long for: Compulsory sameness. Purity imposed from above. That’s why they are so dangerous.
The terrorist attack on June 28 at Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport shook Turkey once again. Paris, Brussels, Ankara, Istanbul, Baghdad… What’s going on?
The Istanbul Airport attack was a horrific act of cruelty and hatred. Innocent people were murdered brutally. I am deeply shaken, sad. As world citizens we must stand in solidarity against all kinds of terrorism and chauvinism. There is nothing more dangerous in this world than a religious fanatic who thinks he can read the mind of God; who thinks that he and only he is the favorite of God. Paris, Brussels, Ankara, Orlando, Istanbul… Extremists benefit from isolationism, hatred, cultural clichés and cognitive gaps. We must cultivate humanism against extremism, empathy against hatred, and build bridges over those cultural and cognitive gaps. Extremism wants to reduce us to a single, static identity. We must defend multiple belongings and emphasize our common humanity.
We citizens have been reacting on social media. We write a couple of messages and then go back to our normal lives. What’s happening to us?
Turkey is a society of collective amnesia. We have no sense of continuity, no proper memory. It has always been like this. Our connection with the past has always been full of ruptures. But in recent years something else happened. Political tension and extreme polarization have made things even worse. Time gallops at full speed in Turkey. Every day something new happens. Scandals that would be talked about for months and months in any other country are forgotten in only a few days in Turkey. When there is a tragedy, we grieve and we talk, but then the next week we cry about something else. It is as if there is no time to contemplate and analyze. As a result we are becoming increasingly numb. Indifferent. Intimidated. I find that not only sad but also dangerous.
You live in London. Are you concerned about Turkey’s situation when looking from abroad?
The perception of Turkey in the West has changed enormously in recent years. And not in a positive way. That is not surprising because Turkey’s democracy has been sliding backward very fast. Years ago this country was seen as a beacon of hope. That no longer is the case. One of the biggest mistakes of the political elite was to confuse democracy with majoritarianism. But democracy is much more than a ballot box. It requires a true separation of powers, the rule of law, freedom of speech, a free and diverse media, women’s rights, LGBT rights. If you don’t have any of these then you only have majoritarianism, not a proper democracy.