Telling Stories, Opening Circles

Encounter with Elif Shafak


In an interview (that I can’t find any more) Elif Shafak finally concludes that she is „just Elif“. Born in Strasbourg into a Turkish family, raised in Ankara, Madrid and Amman, she graduated in political science and gender studies. Having led “a very nomadic life”[1] as a feminist scholar and writer before becoming a mother, she is now an author of several bestselling novels that mirror what she calls “the multiplicity of experience”. Nevertheless she is still often confronted with certain expectations and prejudices: „…When you are a female writer coming from a country like (Turkey) …, then the expectation is that you should tell the stories of unhappy Muslim women.”

In her novel “Honour” (2012) she tells the story of Iskender who, in 1978 in London, at the age of sixteen intends to kill his mother Pembe, in fact kills her twin sister, the midwife Jamila who, for the first time, has come for a visit from rural Kurdistan. Indeed, some of the main characters in this novel are Muslim women. However, they are not simply unhappy but, like any other human being, “composed of different voices”. It’s not that the author who shares many traits with the main character’s sister wants us to belittle or even justify the young man’s deed. However, following the life stories of his Kurdish mother and Turkish father, she opens up the reader’s mind for the complexity of a globalizing culture that produces enormous scopes for creative lifestyles as well as the entanglement of contradictory sets of values that can result in mental overload and tragic outbursts of violence. Indeed, Iskender’s parents Adem and Pembe who migrated from Istanbul to London in 1970 failed to lead what they thought to be a normal family life, Adem falling in love with a Bulgarian striptease dancer and into gambling addiction, the abandoned Pembe seeking comfort in a relationship with a multiethnic intellectual cook. Iskender, influenced by a conservative uncle and the fundamentalist teachings of his peer group thinks, as the oldest son, to be responsible for his broken family’s honor. Having been raised – and spoiled – as his mother’s “little sultan” he is deeply disappointed by her infidelity that, for her, seems to be a shy and doubting, yet exhilarating step into freedom. So, finally Iskender does what he thinks to be his duty: restore the family’s honor by (supposedly) ending the morally “fallen” mother’s life.

In 1978, I myself discovered feminism and became a feminist. Using Elif Shafak’s metaphor of “circles”[2] that surround us – circles that are being reinforced by identity politics and can be opened or “pierced” by good fiction – I realize that feminism opened the circle of my German middle class youth to another form of perceiving the world: On the one hand it was an extremely liberating experience to suddenly find myself outside the culture of adored “great men” – from Plato to Jesus to Marx to Derrida – that I had, for years, believed to be “my own”. On the other hand, since the sudden awareness of being not only excluded but also devalued by “my” culture was also a deep personal offense, feminism soon became a closed circle itself. To be sure, it was often a practical necessity to exclude men from our feminist meetings as in order to be able to reconstruct the world from our perspective as “the other” we had to minimize male „know-all“ interference. However, our shared feminist principle not to be interested in the oppressor’s experience any more soon turned into a rigid dogma. Admitting what Elif Shafak frankly concedes, namely that “patriarchy makes men unhappy as well“, was, for many years, a no-go for feminists, including me.

It’s not abstract theory or identity politics but good stories that, according to Elif Shafak, can break up the circles in which we are again and again – and sometimes with good practical reasons – locked up. While she herself obtained a doctorate with an “Analysis of Turkish Modernity Through Discourses of Masculinities” her passion has always been to be a storyteller. Telling, for example, Iskender’s and his family’s story brings her and her readers back in touch with the complexity of contemporary masculinities. Understanding his confusion and finally his violence does not mean to exculpate or approve patriarchal behavior. Yet, by involving the reader into the intricate network of cultural and individual relationships, the story reopens the circle of dogmatic finger-pointing that has spread in many feminist circles, rendering progress and mutuality nearly impossible. While it’s still important to insist on human rights for all women and denounce gender injustice female freedom actually begins when a woman dares to be more than the representative of an oppressed group: when, for example, a Turkish feminist recognizes herself as “just Elif”.


[1] The following quotes are taken from an interview in „Radio Free Europe“.