Elif Shafak: Turkey’s versatile writer

Elif Shafak
Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak has always been a controversial writer in Turkey: Some critics and readers will refer to her as a potential Nobel Laureate – the second one Turkey would have after Orhan Pamuk. Others accuse her of political opportunism, shameless self-promotion and mediocrity in literature.

Three Daughters of Eve

Yet, her latest book, “The Three Daughters of Eve” continues to be one of the hottest summer reads in 2017. So what makes a book, which rotates around a lesson titled “God” in Oxford and has no love scenes, hot this summer?

It certainly is not the intro on the Turkish book jacket, a true cliché: “Şirin, Mona and Peri: Sinner, Believer and Confused. How can these three women, so different, come together? Be friends? Or even sisters? … A charismatic man, a scandal and a love that was interrupted… to be revived years later.”

Fortunately, the book is much more interesting and rich than what the jacket promises: Peri, whose name means “fairy” in Turkey, is not much of an angel. She is, rather, an amazed witness of a paradoxical world, where her father believes in the brotherhood of workers without questioning it, just like her mother’s blind faith in God and imams. Of Peri’s two brothers, the kind and pensive one is arrested in the middle of the night for possession of a gun he had hidden among his sister’s toys; the brutal one forces his young bride to take a virginity test.

“The confusion you see in the book is the confusion in Turkey,” Elif Shafak told Hürriyet in an interview. “This book is what I have gathered in me throughout the years, our internal paradoxes, our breaking points… Turkey is a country of unrealized potentials. How we are wasting our country, our people!”

To any Turkish middle-class woman many of the scenes are eerily familiar: the insecurity you feel in your expensive car when the traffic jam brings you face to face with street children; the repetitive and boring dinner conversations; the decoration clichés. In one memorable chapter, Peri, who had finally metamorphosed from a questioning girl to an unquestioning middle-class housewife, snaps at a dinner party to the self-important conversation that is a mix of opportunism, misogyny and fascism. When a bunch of self-important men explain that a liberal democracy in Turkey is just a dream, Peri shoots back: “So are you saying that countries, like middle-aged housewives, should give up their dreams and settle for (the little) they have?” Which of us have not sat at a dinner that resembles a joke, where a CEO, a journalist and an architect did not talk condescendingly that “Western-style democracy being too much of a luxury for Turkey” and that the vote of uneducated people counted less?

The current Istanbul is described not only through dinners in houses where paintings on the walls are real but women’s bags are costly fakes; but the dangerous back-streets, where glue-sniffling vagabonds are willing to kill for a handbag; and the working-class neighborhoods where loving in-laws can turn to enemies when “honor” or “the bride’s virginity” is at stake.

But the heart of the story lies in the forgotten Oxford years of the Turkish girl, where her confusion on God, caused by a mother with blind faith and a father in total mockery of anything spiritual, is further enforced by her two best friends: the witty and scandalous Şirin and the deadly-earnest Mona. And of course, the professor who gave the lesson titled “God” –  an interesting workshop where the charismatic Prof Azur pushed, punished and challenged his students with the airs of Zeus and Sartre combined.

No, I will not spoil the end – but will just let you know that one girls kisses, the other one knows and one does not tell – whereas she should have. The rest is your reading.

Elif Shafak’s great talent lies in taking clichés (the middle-aged housewife in “Forty Rules of Love” or the large Turkish family in “the Bastard of Istanbul”) and leading them to strange twists that somehow un-clichés them.  “I like my characters to surprise me,” she said in a Ted Talk, titled “the politics of fiction.”

In the same TEDx speech, Shafak complained that she felt, as a Muslim woman, she was expected to write the stories of Muslim women and, preferably, the unhappy stories of unhappy Muslim women.  It seems that she did meet the expectations after all.

“It was a book that was very difficult to write – the fact that I was tackling Turkey, faith, and God, made me sleepless at nights and in panic attacks during the day,” Shafak said of  her book. But the result is a book easy to read. Its post-effect, reflecting on the question of faith and knowledge, is another question.

Bibliographic Information:

‘Three Daughters of Eve’

Publisher: Viking

Publication Date: 2017

384 pages

ISBN: 978-1632869951

Elif Shafak is an award-winning novelist and the most widely read female writer in Turkey. She is also a political commentator and an inspirational public speaker. She writes in both Turkish and English, and has published 15 books, 10 of which are novels, including the bestselling The Bastard of Istanbul and The Architect’s Apprentice. Her books have been translated into 47 languages.  Follow Elif Shafak on Twitter at @Elif_Safak.

Nazlan Ertan is Al-Monitor’s culture editor. She is a Turkish blogger, journalist and editor who has worked in Ankara, Paris and Brussels for various Turkish and international publications, including the Hurriyet Daily News, CNN Turk and BBC Turkish Service. She served as culture and audiovisual manager for the European Union delegation to Turkey, director of the EU Information Centre in Ankara and director of communication, culture and information in Turkey’s Ministry for European Affairs. You can follow Nazlan Ertan at @nazlane1, www.nazlanertan.com and on Facebook/ Nazlan Ertan.

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