Elif Shafak refuses to choose

February 2005 -

The Turkish author Elif Shafak (1971) refuses to choose between East and West. In her essay that looks at Turkey as the country on the threshold between East and West, she maintains that this is just what the artist should do - stand right on the threshold. She presented her essay 'The Gathering-place of the Djinni' recently at the tenth Winternachten festival of international literature at The Hague.

'As a writer who happens to be a woman, and one who is attached to both Islamic and Jewish and Christian heterodox, heretical mysticism, I reject using the rationalised, disenchanted, centralised and 'turkified' modern language put in front of me. [...] The fact that my writing is replete with both old and new words and Sufi expressions, has led to it being extensively criticised by the conventional cultural elite, but I refuse to choose,' says Shafak.

Shafak made her debut in 1994 with her collection of short stories Kem gözelere Anadolu, and so far has published five novels. She wrote her most recent novel, The Saint of Incipient Insanities (2004), in English. A number of Turkish critics attacked this book, asking whether she should now be considered part of Turkish or English literature. It's a question that Shafak dismisses out of hand: 'Literature thrives upon the desire to transcend and move far beyond our boundaries, be it in terms of national, ethnic, religious or sometimes gender identities.'

Themes such as the search for your roots, alienation, spirituality and superstition run like leitmotivs through Shafak's books. The Saint of Incipient Insanities is about a group of Spanish, Moroccan and Turkish students living together in a house in Boston. 'What I was trying to do was to write about life as a foreigner, but as I was writing I gradually discovered that this American character, a woman and an intellectual, was dominating the story: a woman who doesn't feel at home in her own country,' explains Shafak.

Shafak was born in France but grew up in Spain. Eventually she moved to Turkey, where she studied at secondary school and university. For almost two years now she has been living in the United States. She teaches Turkish and Women's Studies at the University of Arizona.