As The Forty Rules of Love goes to paperback, the author talks about the power of fiction.
Interview with author Elif Shafak
Elif Shafak is explaining the genesis of her latest novel, The Forty Rules of Love. As with so much that can be said about her literary career - now encompassing 10 books, and vast success in her native Turkey - the story winds its way back to one of her favourite topics, the poet Rumi.
"With The Forty Rules of Love, I wanted to write a love story," says Shafak. "But I wanted a love story with a spiritual dimension.
"For me, that took me to Rumi. And from Rumi, I went to Shams of Tabriz. That's how the story took shape."
Shams was the 13th-century Persian Sufi scholar now remembered for the transformative role he played in Rumi's life. Forty Rules delves into his encounter with Rumi in the Anatolian city of Konya in 1244, the deep, transcendental friendship that ensued and the lasting effect on Rumi, who was inspired by the wisdom of Shams - and eventual separation from him - to write his masterpiece, The Masnavi. All this comes, though, via another narrative: that of Ella, a contemporary, dissatisfied housewife in New England who takes a part-time job as a reader for a small publishing company. The first manuscript that Ella is given tells the story - which we read along with her - of Shams and Rumi, and soon she finds herself engaged in a heartfelt email correspondence with the author. The novel progresses via short chapters that jump between the 21st and 13th centuries.
Upon hardback publication last year, Forty Rules catapulted the 39-year-old Shafak to international recognition and 550,000 copies sold. Now Shafak is easily the best-known contemporary Turkish novelist, after the all-conquering Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk. She seems tireless: a columnist for Turkish newspapers, including Zaman, she contributes to The Economist and The New York Times, speaks regularly at conferences and literary festivals, and has published 10 books in 12 years.
"I respect people who say that they write because they have a personal story to share with the world," says Shafak. "But that was never my starting point: I'm not interested in my own story, I'm interested in not being myself. When writing a novel I can be anyone, I can go to any place, any time: that is mesmerising to me."
Shafak's fiction has always been informed by weighty concerns, but that hasn't prevented long-standing mainstream success in Turkey, now spreading - via Forty Rules - to Europe and the US. Still, her literary career has not been one of unimpeded ascent. In 2006 in Turkey, she was charged with "insulting Turkishness" under article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, when a character in her 2006 novel The Bastard of Istanbul referred to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in 1915 as a "genocide". A panel of judges quickly acquitted Shafak; she would have faced a jail sentence of up to three years if found guilty.
"Turkey is such a complex country; it defies generalisations," she said. "But I can say that our society today is so young and future-orientated and open to change. There is an on-going debate about Turkish identities, and the nature of our civil society."
As you'd expect, though, Shafak resists the idea - often foisted on her - that her work is representative of Turkey in any straightforward way.
"There is this pressure to somehow be a spokesperson, to be representative. I feel it constantly," says Shafak. "It's particularly acute if you are from a non-western country, and you're a woman. Some critics in the West expect that if you're a woman from a Muslim country, then you should write stories about Muslim women; of course, by that they mean some kinds of stories, about some kinds of Muslim women. It bothers me that we have come to ascribe this function to fiction, so that we want to be able to say it is representative of a certain group of people. That is the opposite of what fiction is about, which is the transcending of identity in that limited way. It's about feeling, not identity."
Given the current state of the book industry, that is an apposite position. Over the past two decades, literary fiction in the UK and US has been dominated by fashionable "multicultural writing" that pretends to help us understand other cultures, but that at its worst only helps to reinforce old preconceptions. When people say, for example, that Turkey is the "gateway between East and West", isn't there usually implied in that an entire, essentially inaccurate conception of what is "Eastern"?
"Unfortunately, there are a lot of sweeping generalisations produced on many sides," says Shafak. "There is a cliched view in the West that Muslim societies are behind the times, static and unchanging, and that Muslim and western societies are mutually incompatible. None of this is true. Muslim societies are evolving constantly, just as are other societies.
"Some people in the West wanted to say that people in the Middle East had no democratic impulse, that they weren't ready for freedom and human rights. Well, the Arab Spring has profoundly challenged all those cliches."
But if bad fiction is so often part of the problem, Shafak says that good fiction can be an important part of the answer. It's via fiction that we can all, however briefly, transcend ourselves, and connect with those who are different; just as Ella does in The Forty Rules of Love.
"Stories can play such an important role. They can bring us into contact with all sorts of people, both real and imagined. I want a discourse that is inclusive, that is about bringing people of different backgrounds together around shared values.
"If we're going to learn anything in this world, we're not going to learn it from people who are exactly the same as us. We're going to learn it from people who are different."