Elif Shafak revealed this week her selection of 10 exciting women writers in the UK, for the first International Literature Showcase of 2019, a collaboration between the National Centre for Writing and British Council and supported by Arts Council England.
On the podcast this week we have Elif is in conversation with Bidisha, the journalist and broadcaster, discussing topics as wide-ranging as the #MeToo movement, identity politics, the importance of libraries and why inequality is still not talked about nearly enough. Listen to the podcast below, or scroll down for the full transcript.
Full interview transcript
Bidisha: I’m Bidisha, I’m a journalist and broadcaster and a trustee of the Booker Prize Foundation. I’m in conversation with Elif Shafak, the internationally best-selling novelist and commentator. She’s chosen 10 writers of great range and distinction, representing just some of the variety of form, voice, approach and interest to be found in contemporary writing by women. Of course, we aim to avoid generalisations and there are as many bodies of work as there are artists to create them, but we’re going to try over the next 40 minutes or so to tease out what makes contemporary literature by these writers so thrilling and still so necessary.
First of all – welcome, Elif Shafak.
Elif: Thank you.
Bidisha: We’re here at the London Book Fair, and deals and panels are going on around us as we speak. We’re also meeting at a time of great political and cultural change. What would you like to hear being celebrated across the industry and in the conversations around you?
Elif: I fully agree. I think it’s a time of great political turbulence. I dare say emotional turbulence as well. There’s a lot of anxiety, almost an existential angst – uncertainty, there’s a lot of resentment, bitterness and anger everywhere in the world. East and West. In the past we used to think – well, many people use to think – that some parts of the world were solid, safe, steady, and that the Western world in general was in no need of talking about human rights, and democracy, freedom of speech, because we were ‘beyond’ that threshold. That was the general approach. And so other parts of the world were regarded as a ‘liquid’ lands, such as the country where I’m from, Turkey.
it’s very important not to be divided into information ghettos, into cultural tribes
But I think particularly after 2016 that dualistic perception of the world has been shattered and now we know that we’re all living in liquid times, as the philosopher-thinker Sigmund Bauman had warned us years ago. So to me it’s very important to understand what is the role of storytelling at a time like this? How can storytellers heal, mend, and help us to overcome this duality’s polarisations that are opening up everywhere and I don’t think are doing us any good. I am worried that once societies become bitterly polarised they lose they cultural co-existence, and then the language of hatred and hostility and antagonism becomes bolder.
So to me, literature is an antidote to that, and that’s why I’m very excited that we have such a diverse range of women writers and poets speaking up at a time like this.
Bidisha: You’ve talked about the power of literature to anchor us at these liquid times. And I have to say, I think you have to edit a collection of essays called Liquid Times – it would be really necessary! I wondered also if literature at a time like this can somehow give a voice to the voiceless or uncover those voices and stories and themes which have been erased or belittled or pushed to the edges.
Elif: Absolutely. And I think one of the major problems in the world of culture and arts as well is that it is too centralised in certain cities, certain places. Most of our debates are taking place in London. London is wonderful in its diversity and it’s a very special city but we have to go beyond London and it worries me that this gap between the countryside and the urban centres is widening. Not only in England, not only in the UK, but all across Europe. And that is affecting politics as well, so it’s very important not to be divided into information ghettos, into cultural tribes.
I find that very worrying. And the writers and poets we have on our list are people who bridge those gaps. They write from very diverse backgrounds. To me that’s very exciting.
Bidisha: I want to know a little bit about your take on the role of sex and gender within literature, because you have an astonishing success to your name. I know you’re very modest about it but you also have lots of years of experience, so you’ve seen the way the industry has changed. You’ve seen the way debates around women and writing have changed. Do you think that writers who are women are still subject to double standards, or certain expectations, or pushed into particular niches.
Elif: It is such an important issue for me. I was raised by a single mother, a working mother, in a very patriarchal society and it left a big impact on me; observing my mother’s struggles, my grandmother’s struggles. And I’m a big believer in the sisterhood. I think it’s incredibly important for us to encourage the kind of women’s movement that goes hand in hand with the LGBT movement and awareness, and also brings on board women of very, very diverse backgrounds – whether it’s ethnic backgrounds, class backgrounds. So it shouldn’t just be one type of conversation.
I wish I could say that the literary world is just beyond these concerns but it is not. And maybe on the surface it looks very progressive, very liberal-minded, very open-minded, but when you scratch the surface underneath you will see the gender patterns and it’s quite difficult to fight back against these because often times there’s nothing written down, there’s nothing concrete. It’s much more diffused, it’s much more internalised and that’s why it’s more difficult to fight back against – and yet we must.
It’s very clear to me, I look at the number of women who are being reviewed on mainstream media publications and I look at male writers: there’s a huge gap there. The way we talk about, particularly young women’s work, I think it’s much harder for women when they’re younger. Maybe it’s relatively easier for us as we get older, but we shouldn’t have to go beyond that, right?
So I’ve seen of course a much more stark version of this kind of patriarchy in Turkey, in a country where things are harder for women writers, journalists, poets. Because where I come from a male novelist is primarily a novelist. Nobody talks about his gender. But a woman novelist is primarily female, in the eyes of the society of the literary world. And then secondarily, she’s regarded as a novelist. So you will be constantly belittled, looked down upon, people will try to remind you of your ‘limits’, and it’s very important for us not to let them pull us down.
Bidisha: It’s very interesting what you say, because of course as we’re talking there are three grand halls at London Book Fair around us, and there are women everywhere. But as I was saying to a colleague earlier today, I call it the Harem Model of male domination, so 99% of the workforce is women, and then there’s a guy at the top saying “But I love women! Look how many work for me!”
And I also wonder when all of these big book advance deals are being cut around us, is there a gender pay gap? But of course that’s impossible to find out, simply because this industry doesn’t hang together like that.
Elif: Absolutely. It’s very difficult to understand, because we don’t have that kind of transparency and it can be quite confusing, because at the first glance the publishing industry is full of women. There are some many women everywhere at all levels – except, as you move upwards, decision making, you see less and less women. But there’s something much more indirect that I find very important as a writer: if you happen to be a woman, if you happen to come from the non-Western part of the world I think there’s an identity politics that’s imposed on you.
This happens all the time. So if you happen to be, let’s say an Afghan woman novelist, you have to write about Afghan women and you have to write about the sad stories of Afghan women.
Bidisha: Suffering. Patriarchy.
Elif: I don’t like how identity politics limits us. We never expect an Afghan writer to write sci-fi, you know? Or more avant garde experimental fiction. We want so-called realistic fiction, whatever that means. So the way we attribute a function to fiction, especially when it comes to women or women of colour or women of minority backgrounds, that is also something we need to address and talk about.
Bidisha: Can we also maybe talk about trivialisation? Is there a sense that what women write about – particularly if it’s about women’s lives – either it has to be “my father chained me to a radiator and whipped me for seven years and I was an ISIS child bride” or whatever it is; or it’s considered domestic, or ‘small’, or not interesting and somehow not universal.
Elif: We try. I mean, in general I think there’s – and it comes from all sides – women writers are pigeonholed very easily in so many boxes. And we need to fight back against this. I am worried about all kinds of tribalism and to me there are so many writers and poets that I’ve learned so much from all throughout my life – people like James Baldwin, or Audre Lorde – they left a huge impact on me. You know, I come from Turkey and maybe at first glance we might have seemed to have left very different lives, and yet to me they are so familiar. Their voices resonate so deeply with me.
Someone like Audre Lorde, she would say “look at me, I’m a women, I’m a mother, I’m a poet, I’m a lesbian, I’m a thinker, I’m this and that and I’m many more things, but you might not be able to see at first glance. I have that multiplicity inside.”
I am worried that we lost the emphasis on multiplicity, because of today’s identity politics, because of tribalism, and we should not let that guide the world of literature and the world of art, because it should be the exact opposite. We should find a way beyond tribes and identity politics.
the core of #MeToo is incredibly beautiful and important
Bidisha: Can we talk a little about the current #MeToo testimonial movement, which I’m really amazed and exhilarated to see? It’s simply about survivors and witnesses standing up and saying “this is my truth, this is what happened.” It shows a great bravery but it also has a narrative dimension to it. It’s about telling one’s story, and of course not every novelist or writer should have to cut open their veins and write their story in blood. But I wanted to know if you thought writers today are tackling topics which used to be considered taboo, or too difficult for fiction, or too traumatic, but are actually doing something really interesting and artistic with it?
Elif: Yeah. I find the #MeToo movement incredibly important and it saddens me to see, just in two months, we started asking ourselves “oh, did we go too far?” You have centuries of patriarchy all around the world and I haven’t seen many people asking “have we gone too far with patriarchy?”
Immediately we start doubting ourselves. Immediately we start questioning ourselves. When I saw this, of course there are flaws in the #MeToo movement which we should be aware of, but the core is incredibly beautiful and important. When I hear a woman’s story I am encourage, empowered, to tell me own story, you know?
And also we have to deal particularly in different parts of the world. We have to deal with this notion of shame. This weird concept of ‘honour’ which is being imposed on us. And all of that makes it very difficult for women to speak up, so I do respect the #MeToo movement and its core very much. We need to carry on and I think you’re very right – this is the power of women, but it’s also the power of stories coming together. That’s what is so interesting about the movement.
these are writers who write with their heart, with their mind
As a storyteller, of course I’m very interested in stories, but I’m equally interested in silence. I realised over the years that I’m always drawn to those subjects that we can’t always talk about – whether it’s political taboos, sexual taboos or cultural taboos – and there’s a desire in me to say why is it like that? Can we please talk about this now, because we haven’t done so? When I say this, it’s important for writers not to try to preach; not to try to teach. It’s not up to a writer to try to give answers – we don’t know the answers ourselves either!
But I think it’s important for writers to ask questions. Difficult questions about difficult issues. And then you always leave the answers to the readers, because every reader has their own personal journey and their own answers. But the questions should be asked.
So the novel in a way is an open space, where we can have a diversity of voices heard and where we can ask difficult questions.
Bidisha: Looking at the writers you’ve chosen, I’m very wary of saying “this is what women and writing are like now!” But you’re a voracious reader, so I trust you for having done a survey in your mind. I know there are many more writers who would have been on the list were it not for the fact you only had 10 slots.
So when you look at contemporary writing by women in the UK, what kind of literary landscape do you see in general? Are there certain types of writing which compel you?
Elif: I felt very privileged when I was asked to choose these authors, poets. But at the same time it was very hard for me, because I really wish I had a list of a thousand names, a hundred names at least! It can certainly never do justice. But for me it was essential to understand that culture doesn’t only happen in London, in certain neighborhoods in our city.
How can I understand the conversation from a broader angle? What are the major fractures today? And I think one of those fractures today is the divide between the countryside and the urban space. We have to find ways to bridge that gap, so that was important to me.
Listen to these women. Read these women
Diversity was also incredibly important. To have a diverse selection of writers, in terms of their backgrounds, but the forms they deal with, they experiment with, the subjects they write about, the questions they raise – it’s incredibly multi-layered in that sense, the list.
So, of course every list is incomplete but it is a list which I think tells us: Listen to these women. Read these women. And at a time like this, at a time of uncertainty, division, and hostility, these are writers who write with their heart, with their mind. They have a lot of hutzpah, and I find the questions they raise incredibly central to our times.
Bidisha: I wondered also about the inequalities or the challenges which are specific to artists who are women. Not in terms of pay necessarily, but I think it was Sarah Hall who wrote an essay saying “I’m a single mother, and in the last two years I’ve had to say ‘no’ to wonderful trips abroad and opportunities to travel and do a residency, because there is the toll that being a single mother takes.” That you have to pay for childcare – you might not want to be away from your child for two weeks, and you can’t if they’re small anyway. And that might cost more than the opportunity is offering them.
And I was wondering how important it is to support artists who are women in creating a body of work. Not just that one novel that’s really phenomenal.
You have to have flexibility for women writers who have young children
Elif: I think it’s so important and and what she says resonates with me deeply. Sometimes in this industry you can come across women as well who might be very indifferent; not necessarily supportive. I remember once, many years ago, I was invited to a writer’s residency and my children were very small at the time and I was not able to stay there for three months. When I expressed this to the people who were running the residency programme there was no support whatsoever. Just saying “well, can’t you arrange childcare?”
Bidisha: For three months?
Elif: For three months. You don’t do that. You have to have flexibility for women writers who have young children, especially for single mothers. They should be able to go and come back. You have to help them. Support them. But people don’t think about it that way, and I find that very troubling.
For me, empowering other women and not only women but minorities as well, is incredibly important. Understanding that everyone has their own personal stories, their circumstances. We should be able to talk about these things without feeling uncomfortable and without being made uncomfortable.
Bidisha: I do want to make a stand for women’s success as writers. Because actually, if you look at not only who is critically acclaimed but also who sells, I do think that women writers really dominate the marketplace – both as writers and readers. I wonder if you feel that is the case when you take a more international look?
Elif: It’s quite interesting. The country where I come from, in my observation it’s a similar situation in many other countries. In a country like Turkey, where there is no freedom of speech, and obviously where the publishing industry is badly bruised, if novels survive it is thanks to readers. And most of those readers are women. Most fiction readers are women, and they do not only read a book and then put it on a shelf – they share books. So in countries like Turkey a book is never a personal item. That word of mouth, when you send your copy to your aunt and your aunt sends it to her neighbour – on so many occasions when I had a book signing I’ve seen copies of my books signed by different coloured pens because different people have read and underlined different sentences. That is very precious. That is what keeps us going and what makes it very heart-warming, even when the circumstances are against the world of publishing, against freedom of speech and freedom of imagination.
So I think we all owe a big thank you to book clubs, to that bottom-upwards energy that is coming from civil society and the way readers can share words. To me that’s incredibly important.
we have to defend storytelling
Bidisha: What about the big anxiety that so many have at the moment, which is that books themselves as a form of conveying narrative are being supplanted by film and TV, and that one can’t even say the films and TV shows are bade – they’re not! They’re really good and very compelling. It’s almost depressing and I’m on the tube and everyone is looking at their phone, and I look for the one person who is reading a book. Is that just an exceptional moment in the day, it’s not really true, or do we really have to defend ‘the book’?
Elif: I think we have to defend storytelling. The art of storytelling. The format might change sometimes. We shouldn’t be that worried about electronic books, in my opinion. But what is essential, what is universal and what is so ancient is our need for stories and storytelling.
Everything we do in our fast moving society is based on speed. Just keeping up with things, with our schedules, constantly our energy almost seeps outside, outwards, and when we’re in the company of other people we do not find the time to go within and just retreat into that self, that very private, very personal space, that inner garden. We don’t have time for that. But when you’re reading a novel you have to go into that space, and I think that space is very precious and it’s important. Even more so in the age of tribalism, in the age of clashing, collectivistic identities.
I have many readers in Turkey who are very xenophobic. If you ask their opinion about minorities, about Armenians, Jews, Greeks, Kurds, they will tell you lots of negative things because this is what they’ve heard from their own parents. But then they come and they say “I’ve read your book and I love this character!” And the character they’re talking about maybe is a minority, is maybe Greek or Armenian or Jewish. Similarly I have lots of homophobic readers. This is the only narrative they have heard in a society as patriarchal and as sexist as Turkey. But then again, they come and say “oh, why did you make this character suffer?” And maybe that character is transsexual or gay.
So I thought about this. How come people who are less tolerant in the public space – more judgemental, more biased and bigoted – when they are reading a novel, relatively speaking, just a notch, they become more open and ready to understand The Other’s point of view and The Other’s story.
And I don’t think it’s a coincidence. Authoritarianism requires collectivistic energy. You need masses chanting at the same time, synchronised energy, which erases individuality. What stories do is restore individuality, but not a selfish individuality but the kind of individuality which connects us with the rest of humanity.
That is why, I think, in our age we have to defend books, we have to defend storytelling, and we have to defend novels as well because they take a longer time to write, a longer time to read, and we need to slow down. We need to go with them in this fast-moving society that pulls us in all directions at the same time.
it’s usually male novelists of a certain age who are very proud of their perfect schedules
Bidisha: How do you carve out time for your own writing? You’re very, very prolific. You turn out full length novels and countless pieces of commentary and journalism, and you dot this kind of thing which involves at least a half day out in town. How do you go about pursuing your process?
Elif: You know, I struggle, like many women do, whether they’re teaching, they’re cooking, they have a bakery – I think we all struggle and we have to see how that is common. But there is one thing which I learned a lot from reading other women writers’ struggles, such as Toni Morrison, who was a single mother. In one of her essays she talks about carving out space and time for yourself. Whether you do it at night time, or day time, that may change.
You may not have a perfect schedule. I think it’s usually male novelists of a certain age who are very proud of their perfect schedules. You know, they wake up at the same time, they have their breakfast at the same time, they start writing every day at the same time. When you are a mother, when you are a woman writer and you’re doing several things at the same time, you can’t have a perfect schedule. That is fine. That is OK.
And somehow from that multiplicity we will have moments for ourselves. I panicked a lot in the beginning and I went through a postpartum depression, because I didn’t know how to balance motherhood with writing, which can be a very self-centered world and very introverted. But over the years I learned better to balance that.
Bidisha: Let’s now look at your selection for the International Literature Showcase. Taken together, what would you like to say about contemporary British literature, from the names that you’ve selected?
Elif: I think these women are very brave. They talk about issues that are very universal. And I think they should be read all around the world. Their voices should be heard in very different parts of the world, and it’s very important for me to be able to say that they must be translated into many, many more languages.
Bidisha: How important is it also to challenge the traditions of the English literature canon? I mean, I did English literature at university and I think the syllabus had remained unchanged for at least decades if not centuries! And when I talked to my tutors about other things, regardless of what it was – I remember reading a collection of diary entries – and they looked at it like it was an alien object.
Elif: Absolutely. I definitely share your remark. I’ve stayed in academia for long years, teaching in different disciplines and it always bothers me how these syllabuses, the curriculum stays the same year after year. We’re not ready, even when we talk about literature and art, it feels that it should be very dynamic but we make them stagnant, almost frozen in time. There is no doubt that the writers and poets that we are used to reading about are great names, but at the same time we should bring on board people from very diverse backgrounds, dealing with different subjects, experimenting with forms. We need to change our angle, shift our angle all the time, and I don’t think it’s as diversified as it should be.
Also, it pains me that often times English language departments are not in conversation with other departments such as history, such as religious philosophy, such as political science. There are so many overlapping questions that it shouldn’t be that inward looking, it shouldn’t be that narrow. So I believe we need to bring more diversity to this subject, and to me it’s equally important to bring more women’s voices, diverse women’s voices, into the civic space, into the public space.
Bidisha: Looking through your list there were some names that I discovered afresh and then some who I’ve admired for a very long time, and I was waiting for them to have their moment. One of those authors is Bernardine Evaristo. I love the way that she corrects accepted histories. So she looks at Roman London and she finds black history within that, or she flips traditional beauty ideals. What was it about her work that spoke to you?
Elif: What spoke to me primarily was her unflinching ability to ring the periphery into the centre; to give more voice to the silenced, and to say that the story you think you know, can we talk about that story? I’m going to tell you that story from a very different angle, because that story changes depending on who is telling it.
So it is based on a very universal question: who has the right to tell the story? And we should never forget that. It is one of the central quests in world literature. It is what helped me, if I can share a small anecdote: I was a high school student and I read a novel by Ivo Andric, The Bridge on the Drina, and for the first time two peasants in the Balkans were talking about Ottoman history. And I’d never thought about Ottoman history like that! Because in school I’d only learned about one version, the official version of history, and here were two peasants going “wait a minute, we experienced it from a very different angle.”
And that’s what Bernardine Evaristo does for me. She turns it upside-down and helps me to see what I wasn’t able to see before.
Bidisha: Another author that does this but in a very dedicated way, and it has an incredible seriousness of mind is Kapka Kassabova, who manages somehow to tackle the legacy of communism and dictatorship in her work, and also to look at the question of borders. she traces in her book Border, she crosses Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece but again she has that wonderful ability to skew perspective, to stand on that other side and look back. It seems like her work is incredibly important for these times.
Elif: I think her work is very important. I see how as a nomad, as an intellectual nomad, maybe a spiritual nomad. I’m intrigued by the fact that Bulgarian is her mother-tongue and she writes in English. Turkish is my mother-tongue but I write in English, so it speaks to me. I was really intrigued by her work from day one, but it’s primarily the way she crosses borders – all kinds of borders, national borders, ethnic borders, political borders, that I find very, very important.
Bidisha: Is there a way in which novelists and artists can somehow tackle these often extremely inflammatory issues, in a way that actually doesn’t inflame? It educates, it has probity, so it gives you something that the headlines don’t give you?
Elif: I think that is very true. And at the end of the day, the language that politics uses and the language found in storytelling is completely different. because in politics there has to be an ‘us’, there has to be a ‘them’, and the basic assumption that somehow ‘us’ is better than ‘them’. But for a writer there is no ‘us’, there is no ‘them, and there is no ‘other’. The ‘other’ is me, the other is my brother, my sister. We start from a completely different point and we need the language of storytelling. We need a much more nuanced language that goes beyond these imaginary tribes that are being imposed on us.
Bidisha: There’s another name here which immediately caught my attention, because I know this woman, Patience Agbabi, as a performance poet, because I’ve seen her on stage so many times. I looked into her body of work and she’s really prolific, but she also really stands up for other black, British writers. I wondered if that was part of it for you, that she’s really an advocate for an entire history of British writing?
Elif: I think she’s an advocate for, clearly, equality, dignity, and at the same time sisterhood. To me that was really important. And at the same time I see Patience Agbabi as someone who bridges many worlds: oral culture, written culture. There is an amazingly rich oral culture that sometimes in these literary circles we forget, or we neglect. She doesn’t do that. And at the same time, the way she weaves literature and performance. The way she embodies the power of words, whether it’s written word or spoken word, she carries that magic with her, and she tours constantly. She’s a nomad in that regard.
Bidisha: In a way she’s been around for a long time, but she actually has a very youthful, millennial mindset. For example, earlier today at the London Book Fair we were doing an event all about poetry and it’s the norm for emergent voices within poetry to have a live element, to tour, to build networks. They don’t care so much about having a volume published by a legacy publisher. It seems that Patience Agbabi is a pioneer of that, long before it was fashionable.
Elif: I think she started long before, when nobody saw it that way. I don’t know if she’d agree with this, but almost as if she has a mission to spread the word, to spread the magic, without necessarily owning it. There’s a modesty there as well, there’s a power but also modesty. The way I see her, maybe it’s always in-between. In-between forms, in-between different worlds, and, I think, in-between them might be a very long space but at the same time it’s a perfect place for art, for creativity and storytelling.
Bidisha: Now we have a journey into history. Charlotte Higgins is a multi-hyphenate. She’s a cultural critic and a journalist, but also a historian and her book Under Another Sky looks into Roman-British history and uncovers all kinds of unexpected stories, so it was a real surprise to me when I read it.
Elif: Absolutely. I think she’s very unique in so many ways. And because she’s so prolific in so many areas, from journalism to history, the depth of her knowledge, the way she weaves all these subjects, spoke to me. I think we need more women intellectuals in public space.
When I say this I’m cautious, because I know the word ‘intellectual’ in the UK is not a favourable word, unlike in France, or in Turkey, or in Russia. But why not? We need women intellectuals! The fact that she brings mythology, history, philosophy, ancient philosophy to her work, but while she’s doing this she’s also very open to new technologies, such as blogging. You know, very different uses, very different forms, to make her voice heard. It’s very interesting to me and I think in many ways she’s very unique.
Bidisha: Why do you think that it is that intellectualism is not valued in the UK?
Elif: This is a very British thing, I must say. People think that if you call someone, or even worse if you call yourself intellectual, that it’s a sign of arrogance. You’re expected to do the exact opposite: you should be making fun of yourself. But then there are moments in time when I think it is important to say “you know, so-and-so dedicated her life to ideas. To books. To reading. To writing. And I celebrate that. I need that.”
I need more women like that. I need more men like that. It doesn’t mean I have to agree with their every opinion. I can challenge, I can disagree, but I respect a life dedicated to books, to thinking, to philosophy. To me, coming from a Turkish background and a country where it’s not easy to be an intellectual, where intellectuals are incarcerated, arrested, detained – but there’s a space for them in that society. So to my Turkish ears, it has a positive connotation. It was one of the things that struck me when I first moved to this country: why does ‘intellectual’ have such a negative connotation, and why do people keep associating it with arrogance? It has nothing to do with that.
Bidisha: I want to take a little bit of a left turn here and take a trip into nature. I was delighted that you selected one of my favourite authors, Sara Maitland, whose short stories I have read for a very long time. She reminds me of a new generation Angela Carter, but in her most recent years she’s known for her meditations on contemplative silence and her great book Gossip from the Forest, which manages to combine nature writing, fairy tale, myth and memoir.
Elif: And that’s what drew me immediately into her work. And I honestly think, again, in more narrow literary circles there are subjects we don’t think about enough and we don’t necessarily include in our discussions. I don’t like those gaps. I don’t share those divisions. I was interested in her work, in her fiction, but also in her lectures, in her thoughts, and I think the questions that she’s asking about mythology, folk tales, folklore, but also about faith – to me it was about faith and doubt, I should say, which was quite interesting.
Bidisha: Do you think that we as a society, given the digital revolution that we’re only at the beginning of, are crying out for a space for contemplation? That at the same time as being addicted to our screens and our phones there’s an equal pull in the opposite direction, towards silence and retreat?
Elif: We are being very much pulled towards speed. We are almost atomised, and it’s quite ironic because imagine: there was so much optimism, not that long ago in fact, how we were all going to become much more connected thanks to digital technologies. It was going to be one big global village, nationalism was going to disappear, religious fundamentalism was going to disappear etcetra. And democracy – it would be the triumph of liberal democracy everywhere, because once you have digital technologies, how can you not adapt liberal democracy?
Bidisha: And we’d all reasonably persuade each other towards a centrist view.
Elif: We’d all be connected, because it would be wonderful. Fast forward to today, a decade later, and it’s the exact opposite. In fact, I find it quite ironic, because even in Silicon Valley, where they say the love diversity, but I look at the people working and only 1% is African Americans. 2% Hispanics. Only 15% women. There isn’t diversity, even inside Silicon Valley, let alone the digital technologies that have been created.
The exact opposite happened, rather than creating a network in which we would all become connected, I am worried that it’s a network which has pushed us into tribes, into information ghettos, made us feel more lonely, uncertain, anxious. And this is worrisome because it’s a golden moment for demagogues. This is how demagogues enter into the picture. They say “are you anxious? I will give you certainty. If you find the world you are living in very complex, I will give you simplicity.”
So we need to be very careful about the dark side of social media, in my opinion.
Bidisha: We turn now to a poet whose real focus is actually about getting into the complexity and the nuance, and staying away from the certainty. Gillian Clarke is a very long-standing writer, she was the National Poet of Wales from 2008 to 2016 and she’s looked into everything from symbolism of ice and water to the history of disease.
Elif: She’s a towering figure. I remember the BBC had introduced her as a living, breathing, gold meadow of poetry and I think that is very true. What drew me to her work primarily was, of course, the depth, the breadth of her work, but also the way she connects the local with the global. You have a voice that cares about the minute details in nature, but at the same time talks about what’s happening in Yugoslavia, or what’s happening in another part of the world where there’s civil conflict, or civil war, and cares about other people’s pain.
That is also quite unique: emphasis on the local and emphasis on the global at the same time. That is why I think we need to read her more extensively in our troubled times.
Bidisha: Do you think poetry is unique in being able to do that, particularly because of its clarity and its brevity, so it can roam all over the map and it doesn’t drag you down.
Elif: I think it’s very true. That’s why we novelists are very jealous of poets. The power of poetry is very special.
Bidisha: We were talking a little bit earlier about the traditional trivialisation of women’s stories and women’s experiences. I do think that’s changing hugely, that we are reinvesting dignity into these stories, and I thought Jessie Greengrass to talk about here because her novel Sight is about when you make a child, what does it mean to create a life but also recreate yourself, as this figure called ‘The Mother’?
Elif: Absolutely. She’s so good at pointing out journeys. We all go through journeys. So the Self is not a given, static thing, particularly for women. So many stages of our lives, throughout pregnancy, motherhood, menopause – many, many stages, and she talks so bravely, beautifully, with such sensitivity about these subjects, about life, death. What does it mean, even, to have a body? I love that about her work and particularly about Sight.
Bidisha: We come now to a novelist whose next novel I’m desperately waiting for. Evie Wyld’s second novel, All the Birds Singing, I remember reviewing it and it’s an excavation of a woman’s traumatic history which is taught to us through memories, but it’s also really muscular writing about the landscape and rural jobs and farming. What is it about her work that spoke to you?
Elif: It was primarily the way she made landscapes talk. I think in her work landscapes are not passive scenery. Just the opposite: they are very much alive, they are very much part of the story, part of the history, and part of untold stories. Coming from Instanbul that spoke to me, because I think Instanbul is also a city with an amazing character that shapes us.
That’s what’s amazing about her work: it shows how landscapes shape us, our perceptions, our awareness, and even the stories that we have not told told to the next generation; it affects our silence. I find her work, across countries, cultures, from Wales to Australia, very very and very powerful.
Bidisha: Do you think women are reclaiming nature writing? Traditionally it was seen as a Victorian, colonial occupation: Man goes forth and conquers the mountain! Any other voice was completely excluded. It seems to me that the tide’s turning a little bit?
Elif: It’s such a brilliant question. When we speak about flaneur, this tradition of the male traveller discovering cities, discovering streets, and telling the stories, there’s always a prototype and I think that’s no longer the case. We need female flaneurs, and not only in our cities but beyond, into the countryside. To be honest, after 2016, after Brexit and the referendum, we need more flaneurs, leaving London, going into different parts of this country, and of the world, and connecting with people, listening to their stories, and sharing your own stories with them.
Bidisha: We need more flaneurs of colour. Not just victims.
Elif: Absolutely. Definitely.
Bidisha: Now we come to urban life. This is a woman I saw at the Edinburgh Book Festival being hilarious and very charismatic: the Scottish author Denise Mina, who writes blazing, gritty, very, very fast-moving crime novels. She’s written many novels which break down into about three series, but I’ve realised that she always has an acute focus on social injustice. In particular class, and inequality.
Elif: I think that’s one of the many things that make her work so unique. I think Denise Mina is very, very clever. Very compassionate. Outspoken. Crime fiction is a very particular genre in which you would expect to find more women, but in fact there aren’t. When I look across the world at the books that are translated, or not yet translated, she has a very unique voice and the fact that she can engage, she can enter into conversations with people of all kinds of backgrounds, without any judgement, without any elitism, I love that about her work. She has researched, talked about, written about very difficult subjects, like mental illness, crime, female criminals.
She doesn’t only write stories that revolve around crime, but she thinks about the causes of that and the causes of inequality. To me that’s very, very powerful.
Bidisha: Do you think class is the remaining, great unspoken in literature, and particularly in maybe England where it’s the elephant in the room? We’re very comfortable talking about gender and misogyny, we’re getting comfortable talking about race. No-one talks about class.
Elif: Yes. It is one of those major glass barriers. It doesn’t seem to be there, but when you get closer it is there. I think in the year 2019, belatedly, we have to make inequality the centre of our debates, the centre of our lectures and talks. We live in a world in which there is a widening inequality. It has social, political, cultural, emotional results and damage. It damages so many lives. It’s just amazing that we don’t talk about it in the literary world, and we don’t write about it enough.
I also have to say that to me it’s very troubling when I look at, for instance, the MPs in this country. Only 3% of them come from blue collar backgrounds. It wasn’t always the case – not that long ago many Labour MPs used to come from trade unions, or towns that had trade unions and that culture. Many Conservative MPs used to come from agricultural communities or more religious communities, and they had a very strong base in the society. More and more MPs started to become similar: similar schools, similar upbringing, educated in similar circles, and the gap between them – people who make the decisions – and the people who are being ruled, is opening up, is widening.
That is very troubling. It diminishes people’s trust in politics, in politicians, and unfortunately people’s trust in democracy. It creates more extremes, because if you don’t trust the system you’ll start looking for extreme alternatives. I’m worried about all of that. We need to talk about unequality for many, many reasons and I don’t think we have written about inequality enough.
Bidisha: This brings me on to the next person you’ve chosen, the Irish writer Lucy Caldwell. She’s very, very prolific in lots of different fields. I noticed that there’s one common thread running through all her work, and that’s talking about the long after-effects of occupation and war and fragile states; social and political division.
Elif: I think she also talks about memory. What do you remember? How do we remember? How do you talk about painful memories? Like many other authors on this list, she’s someone who is prolific in various areas, from short stories to plays and she has a voice in that sense, in the public space. I find that very important.
We must never forgot where nationalism, tribalism, violence can take us. These are dark tunnels that humanity has gone through and we can never take it for granted that it will never happen again. It can happen again. And memory is an important part of our conversation as writers and she does that brilliantly.
libraries are being closed down at a time when it should be the exact opposite
Bidisha: Lucy Caldwell closes out our list. I have just a few more very brief ending questions for you. Of course, we want people to read these authors and love them and cherish them, but is there another level of critical engagement, of getting the authors into the canon, onto the syllabi of universities and schools, of really creating a lasting body of commentary and analysis around their work?
Elif: I think it’s very important to bring them into different syllabi, universities definitely, schools definitely, but at the same time libraries. It makes me very sad to see how libraries are being closed down at a time when it should be the exact opposite. We need more reading, we need more talks, especially in libraries because sometimes people think that these conference halls belong to another group in the society.
Unfortunately, we talked about class, and I sense this. Sometimes people don’t go into these spaces because they think it’s a much more elite space. But libraries aren’t like that. Libraries are open to everyone, embrace everyone. It’s important that we have more and more readings and activities and public discussions in our libraries.
Libraries are open to everyone, they embrace everyone
Bidisha: We have celebrated the work of ten authors from all over the UK and I’m aware that we’ve slightly neglected your own works. As a writer, what’s next for you in 2019?
Elif: I have a new book coming out, a novel, in June, this summer. It’s called 10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World.
Bidisha: That’s very, very enigmatic! Can you say a little bit more about it?
Elif: I’m interested in the stories of outcasts. I think that’s been a central thread in my work. But in so many ways this book feels very special to me, even though it’s not my own history. It’s the story of a woman, of a seeker, of a prostitute in Istanbul who has been brutally killed. Her body is found in a garbage can. After the moment of death, her mind continues to work for another few precious moments – exactly for 10 minutes, 38 seconds. In that time she remembers her life.
Bidisha: I’ve got the chills just hearing about that. I can’t wait.
Finally, the themes that we’ve covered are vast, and I notice that they really echo conversations which are already happening well beyond the literary realm, so these issues crop up in journalism, activism, ecology, politics and psychology. Do they make the argument that literature is as important as it ever was, in its ability to hold such complexity and depth?
Elif: I think together they show us that women ask incredibly important, vital and universal questions. They breathe oxygen into our public space. To me, maybe what’s equally important is that there isn’t one single way of telling a story. There are very different ways. Sometimes you perform it on stage, sometimes you write it in a historical novel. Sometimes it is a play, a theatre play. Sometimes it’s a radio drama. There are very different form open to us, and we can travel across these genres. None of them are superior to the other.
While I was choosing the authors that was maybe one of the statements I wanted to make: there are very different ways of telling a story, but our need for stories is here to stay and in our troubled times we need to hear these voices more than ever before.
Hosted by Simon Jones, writer and Digital Marketing Manager at the National Centre for Writing.
Music by Bennet Maples: sonicfruit.co.uk/