JLF2022: Elif Shafak Says Writers Have To Ask Political Questions, But The Answer Has To Be Left For Readers

On the first day of the iconic Jaipur Literature Festival, one of the major highlights of the 29-session-long day was Turkish author Elif Shafak in conversation with Nandini Nair. The Booker shortlisted author, in an engaging conversation, talked about her latest work The Island of Missing Trees, and the place for politics, tradition and human values in the world of storytelling.

The author stressed on the importance of the novel in its ability to remind people of the world and its complexities. “You do not have the luxury of being non-political in today’s world,” Shafak said, adding, “When so much is happening outside the window, you cannot turn your eye away from it. At least about core issues – human rights, women’s rights, LGBT! Rights, rule of law, loss of media freedom – we cannot be silent.”

She added that in times like these, when one writes about these issues, politics of the world inadvertently seeps in. “I am a feminist, I have learnt so many things from feminist movements from past generation. One of the central things is that we need to redefine politics. Wherever there is a power imbalance, there is politics in that. In that times, the personal is also political. For instance, you can be writing about sexuality or gender discrimination. That automatically becomes political. Novelists who are writing about the bigger canvas, they cannot be apolitical,” she said.

Shafak says merely talking about political parties is an arid way of looking at the larger scheme of things. “I do not mean that politics is my guide. I do not like party politics. What I am saying is writers have to ask political questions, but the answer has to be left for the readers,” she explained.

The writer discussed her upbringing at length and explained how that played an important role in making her who she is. Raised in what she described as a “typical, traditional, patriarchal Turkish family”, it left a deep impression on her.

“I was born in France to Turkish parents. My parents got separated afterwards and my father stayed in France and got married in France. I grew up without seeing him for a very long time. I met my half-brothers in my mid-20s. So, there was something broken there. In the meantime I was raised by two very strong women. The neighborhood was very religious and inward looking. So I didn’t feel like we fit in at all. But grandma’s house was very different and matriarchal,” she recollected.

On being asked about the regard for superstition in her latest work, Shafak said it does form the bedrock for many families. “Of course, we always need to focus on knowledge and information and wisdom. My house was full of folktales and certain superstitions about spiritual elements of life which people might call irrational. I liked that I felt connected to that. But my point was, sometimes the intellectual world looks down upon oral culture. I don’t like that. There are some stories that are transferred from one generation to the next. We do not need to agree. We can try to understand where it comes from. Sometimes superstition comes from our deepest fears,” said the writer.

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