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 ‘the
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