Release Date

November 10th, 2021

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Elif Shafak, one of our generation’s most compelling writers, reveals how she balances anxiety and activism with the life of an artist. Estranged from Turkey and now living in London, Elif shares how she deals with displacement. Both children of the Middle East, Elif and Zainab discuss what they learned from their female elders about sisterhood, kindness, and empowering the next generation.

“We live in an age in which there’s way too much information, but very little knowledge and even less wisdom.”

INSPIRATION

TRANSCRIPT

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Redefined is hosted by me, Zainab Salbi, and brought to you by FindCenter, a search engine for your soul. Part library, part temple, FindCenter presents a world of wisdom, organized. Check it out today at www.findcenter.com. And please subscribe to Redefined for free on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

What’s most important about life? What is the essence of life? Is it what we do? How much we earn? How many social media followers we have? Or is it: Do we live our lives in kindness to ourselves and to others? Do we live our lives in love to ourselves and to others? In nearly losing my life, I was confronted with these questions, and it led me to the conversations that make up Redefined, about how we draw our inner maps and the pursuit of meaningful personal change.

My guest this time is bestselling author Elif Shafak, a woman born of two worlds. Elif is one of the most formidable and insightful writers of our time. Her TikToks have brought her both praise and criticism, and her novels The Forty Rules of Love and The Bastard of Istanbul have made her a household name. I just finished her latest work, The Island of Missing Trees, and her recent essay collection, How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division, and found her writings, as always, to be essential. These books cut across boundaries and binaries. The worlds she creates are layered and nuanced. They challenge us all to see things more thoroughly, more completely, and more compassionately. Please join me for this unique discussion as we explore division and unity, sweetness and strength, displacement and belonging. I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did. Join me.

How are you doing?

Elif Shafak:

Oh it’s so good to see you, Zainab.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

It’s so good seeing you. So good seeing you. I’ve been really immersing myself, especially in your last two books, How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division, and the one I really couldn’t take down at all, The Island of Missing Trees. They’re profound. I can’t wait to go back to the book every time I have to stop reading. And as I was reading it, I thought of the word sohbet. It’s an Arabic word, it’s a Turkish word as well. For me, sohbet is like a soul friendship, a friendship with someone where you’re resonating with what they are saying, and they’re different, they’re somewhere else, but they are resonating with their message. And I call people like you, or me even, “people of the bridge.” We are neither here nor there. There is no complete belonging in one place, or one idea, or one identity. How does it feel to live on the bridge?

Elif Shafak:

What an amazing—what a beautiful question. And may I also say I have so much love and respect for your work and your voice. So, this is very special to me, and I think at the root of sohbet, this conversation, there’s [maḥabba? Arabic 00:03:49], the way I see it. There’s love. There’s a sense of kindred spirits. So I’m so happy that we’re starting with this feeling of bridges, connections, but also perhaps an in between them, which has a double edge, because on the one hand you do feel connected to multiple places, and there’s an enrichment to that. But also, I think there’s a sense of maybe melancholy. You’re at home in many places, but also you’re a little bit more nomadic, at least intellectually or spiritually, sometimes physically too. But at the same time, I’m someone who deeply, passionately believes in multiple belongings, and I think we live in a world that does not allow us to bring out our own multitudes.

When I look at myself, of course I’m an Istanbulite, and I think my love for the city is very visible in my work. It keeps coming with me. But I also feel attached to the Balkans. I have elements in my soul from the Middle East that I will always carry with me. I want to think that I’m a citizen of the world. So multiple, multiple belongings, and I think literature, art, is the best way to bring out that multiplicity.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

And you do it. And you say, actually, in your book How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division, is that: “Do not be afraid of complexity. Be afraid of people who promise an easy shortcut to simplicity.” I find it interesting because you keep on pushing the complexity aspect, and pushing the multiple identities, and you keep on getting attacked for it. And I don’t know if the attack [is] only from Turkey, because you’re as critical of some Western beliefs as well. But I didn’t see attack there, but you are critical of the stereotype and the cornering and the simplification of identity that also comes from the West. But you keep at it. You’re someone who went on trial, let’s say, for insulting the very notion of Turkish identity for your book The Bastard of Istanbul, on the one hand. And you’re someone who created the social uproar in Turkey for your last TED Talk, I believe it was 2017, for diversity and reasons including talking about your sexuality.

And yet, you keep on pushing. You’re relentless in saying, “I’m going to keep on going.” What keeps you going? What holds you?

Elif Shafak:

In my daily life, I’m a very anxious person. I have a lot of self-doubt. So there’s a difference between, I think, the dynamics of daily life, the emotions that we all struggle with—confusion, anger, anxiety. I think this is the age of pessimism. And all of that affects authors as well. We’re not immune to any of that. However, when I’m in the middle of a novel, I feel so free. I really love the art of storytelling, and that is the only place where I can bring out all my multiplicity, and I think it is not a coincidence that the novel in particular is one of our last remaining democratic spaces, where we can still hear a diversity of opinions, empathize with people whom we thought as our other, connect both emotionally and intellectually, and maybe shift our cognitive perspective angle a little bit.

So I do believe in the power of stories. I love the art of storytelling. That said, it’s not easy to be a writer in Turkey. It’s a heavy experience. And I’m going to take a step further and I’m going to claim it’s even heavier to be a woman writer, because of course obviously on the one hand, as a writer you have to deal with the lack of freedom of speech, the lack of democracy, all of which makes it very, very difficult because anything you say might offend the authorities. But also when you are a woman, and when you’re a feminist, and if you question gender stereotypes, gender violence, those issues are not easy, either. So, you might be writing about sexuality, you might be talking about gender discrimination, and you can still offend some people. There’s no end to that. It’s not an easy climate. It’s not an easy environment for authors.

It’s a bit surreal, too, because a work of fiction can be put on trial, and suddenly you can see fictional characters, in a way, being sued because the words of fictional characters are taken out of the book. That’s what happened with The Bastard of Istanbul, because this is a book that talks about memory, amnesia, and it talks about the Armenian genocide, which is still a very big taboo in Turkey. It’s a subject that we find very difficult to talk about in Turkey. But because the words of fictional characters were used as evidence in the courtroom, my Turkish lawyer had to defend my Armenian fictional characters, and that madness went on for about a year. There were also nationalist groups on the streets burning EU flags, spitting at my pictures.

So it was quite upsetting, but at the end of that year, I was acquitted and the fictional characters were acquitted with me. So, it can be quite surreal as well, being a novelist in Turkey.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

But how do you deal with it, Elif? Because as someone from the Middle East myself, I’m from Iraq, and there’s a special place in my heart, of course, for my homeland, and my culture and my people. And yet, when I’m criticized there and called all kinds of names for being a feminist, and a women’s rights activist, I would lie to you if I told you it didn’t hurt me. It hurt me. It scared me. It hurt me. It broke my heart a million times, and broke my family’s heart. Here I am going with love, and dedication, and you are my people. And then it’s just like, pff! [emphatic exhale], attacks, you know? How do you deal with that, just on a personal level? How do you reconcile that love and that pain?

Elif Shafak:

Yes, and as you said, I mean the easier thing would be to turn your back and walk away, but what you’re doing, Zainab, is quite the opposite. You care about the people. You care about equality, justice, and you care about empowering the disempowered. So you keep going back, you keep connecting. You choose the hard path, and it’s not easy when we are criticized in this way in our own lands, in our own motherlands, I should say. There’s an emotional hurt there that I’m not going to deny either. And it scars you. So, I think I have these mixed feelings. On the one hand, when I think about the people in Turkey, especially women, especially youth, young people, especially minorities, I really feel more hopeful. And there are amazing people whose voices we never hear perhaps in Western media, but they are there. And they believe in a proper democracy, and their very existence is very important.

But on the other hand, when I look at politics in Turkey, and politicians in Turkey, I feel very depressed. I am also aware of the fact that this is a very conservative society, and there is misogyny. There is internalized misogyny. There is internalized sexism, and there’s internalized homophobia. So none of these are easy issues, and the moment you talk critically, you can easily be labeled as a traitor, as the other. It’s a very mixed feeling. You get both hatred, but also you get love. And perhaps paradoxically, in places where there is no proper democracy or freedom of speech, stories matter even more. And in Turkey, it’s always heartwarming for me to see. A book is not a personal item. Even when a reader likes a book, she doesn’t put it back on the bookshelf. She passes it on. The neighbor reads it, and the neighbor sends it to her son, and her aunt reads it, and someone else reads it.

So I have seen in my book signings books that have been underlined by different colored pens because five or six different people have read the same copy. So that kind of word of mouth, that kind of sharing of stories, is very, very beautiful and important, and that gives me hope. But as you said, when I look at the politics, and the way art and creativity is treated, it’s heartbreaking.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

But how do you deal with that heartbreak? So you’re saying the youth keeps you going, basically. I mean, do you have friends that you go to? Do you have a value, a belief? I ask because there are times in which I was asked to stop talking, by my own family in my case, and I had to go into that a paradigm of, “Okay, do I stop talking to keep peace? Or do I continue to talk and I will risk losing a lot?” I will risk the attacks. They are a violation of your soul, if you may. And it’s always what kept me going, is that “if I stop, I will die.” My soul will die, so I rather keep talking and handle the attack, rather than stop and die slowly in my silence. How do you handle that? What’s your process of saying, “I will keep going”?

Elif Shafak:

I want to speak up about issues that I genuinely care about, whether it’s women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, democracy, pluralism. There has to be an emotional connection between who we are and what we do. I love the art of storytelling, and when I retreat into a novel, I try to forget the so-called real world, because if I start worrying about what people are going to say, how they’re going to receive my next novel, I can’t write. I’ll feel paralyzed. So I try to just not think about any of that, and I don’t have a single reader in mind because I do know that every reader will bring their own gaze into the story. To me it’s fascinating, couples who have been married for forty-five years, they read the same book. But they don’t read it in the same way. Very dear friends, they read the same book. One of them loves it, the other one not so much. Why? Because everyone comes with their own gaze, with their own story into a novel. I love that openness.

But I think my job as a storyteller is to ask questions, not necessarily try to give answers, but to ask questions, including difficult questions about difficult issues, and create an open space where a diversity of opinions can be heard. Doing that makes me happy. I also try to keep in mind that . . . you sharing with me your story, I’m sharing mine, and then we realize actually we are not alone. We women need to keep talking about all of this. There was a UN report recently, which was carried out across multiple countries, that shows, especially in the last years, the abuse that women in the public space have been receiving has escalated.

So whether you are a woman politician, or a journalist, or a novelist, or a filmmaker, a very, very worrying amount of abuse, including sexist abuse, will be piled on you. We need to understand that we have to change digital spaces. None of this is okay, but also we need to understand that we are not alone in this. And I think that, too, helps.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Absolutely. And for me, your friendship, Elif, is where . . . Even though we don’t see each other that often, I really do feel I’m not alone in this. It’s been years since we’ve seen each other, but you do that for me, and your novels do that for me, and I really appreciate it.

Talking about women, I want to talk about our grandmothers, your grandmother and mine. Because you talk a lot about your grandmother, and how she raised you particularly. You were born in France, and then you went to Turkey as a youngster with a single mother who was then raised by your grandmother as your mother went and finished her education. And the reason I mention your grandmother is for many reasons. One is telling her daughter, your mother, that she needs to go and get [an] education and stand on her feet for a better future for you, and she needs to do the same for you, right?

And then the second reason is that you also talk about a grandmother who was a spiritual person, who was wise, who, as I read and hear about your own description of her, the religion, Islam, that she embodied was kindness, and spiritual, and not imposing. And maybe I’m projecting, by the way, because that’s how my grandmother was, right? She was a very spiritual woman, and on her own she never imposed anything on us. And she actually was a storyteller, so she would tell these stories for hours and hours and hours that impacted me profoundly. And the same thing with her daughters, right? She made sure that all of her daughters go to college so they can have a better life. My grandmother was married at thirteen, so she made sure that all of her kids go to college. And then the daughters made sure all their daughters, including myself, push them even further. And in my case, my mom pushed me out of the country. She’s like, “Go, so you can become who you are.”

And the reason I say our grandmothers is because that spirituality and kindness and wisdom, it feels . . . has, I would hate to say eradicated, but maybe shrank in the region. And it was taken over by much more dogma, rigidity, and very black-and-white aspects of religion and tradition and all of that. And so in hindsight, my grandmother died many years ago, and sometimes when I remember her, and I remember her often, I was like, “Thank God she’s dead.” Not to see what has happened, the degradation of . . . forget the religion being a religion, but the degradation of a beauty and a culture and a value that really has, in my opinion, been diluted to a great extent. What do you think of when you think of her grandmother, and how would she feel about today?

Elif Shafak:

I think there are lots of things in common between our grandmothers. And to me it’s fascinating that my grandmother, she was not a very well-educated woman because she had been denied appropriate education just because she was a girl. She was taken out of school, and she was someone who wholeheartedly believed in women’s education, in girls’ education. And she held this opinion that if you give more to the next generation, and then if only they could give more to the very next generation, the world would be a better place. I am a big believer in sisterhood, in women empowering each other. I think it means nothing if we have a few, let’s say, successful or well-known—whatever, I don’t like those terms either—but women in one field, and then in business, and then in politics, a few there, a few here. That means nothing unless we empower each other, and realize that we can only make proper change if we include all women.

And also we are aware of these class distinctions, racial discrimination, ethnic, regional, digital divisions. So it has to be more intersectional. As a feminist, I believe in the kind of women’s movement that opens up conversations, and does not retreat into tribes. But many of that, I think, came to me from my own upbringing. The very fact that I was raised by these two women. I grew up without seeing my father—he stayed in France, he got married again—and as you said my mother brought me to Turkey, and I was brought up by these two women who were completely different personalities, and yet they supported each other. And I realized when women support each other, the impact of that goes beyond generations.

I’ve also learned from my grandmother . . . I’m someone who has dedicated her life to books and knowledge and intellectual creativity, but I learned from her that there are different paths to wisdom, and there are many people who maybe don’t have a diploma and they’re so wise. And there are many people who have a diploma and they are so ignorant. So you can’t just associate knowledge or wisdom with just a piece of paper. She made me think more carefully about the distinction between information, knowledge, and wisdom. But coming back to what you said, which is so important, we’ve lost that sense of humor, to a large extent, in the region, to be able to make fun, lightness, the pleasures, joke, about authority and rigidity. But the kind of compassionate humor, not the kind of humor that looks down upon.

My grandmother was also funny. These are women who were oral storytellers, they transferred an accumulation of knowledge from one generation to another. But they would also make fun of all those rigidities and dogmas, which I think is a good thing. It’s a healthy thing. Faith without doubt is a dogma, and dogmas are very, very dangerous. So let faith and doubt talk to each other. Let them challenge each other. Let them dance together. But in a nutshell, I think what I’m trying to say is there cannot be proper social progress if women are not included equally in the public space, and in the decision-making processes. If you exclude half of the population, if you exclude minorities, how is that society ever going to change? So it is very important that sometimes people say, “Okay, let’s achieve democracy first, and then we will solve women’s rights.” There’s no such thing. You can’t postpone minority rights, or women’s rights, and without them they cannot be real progress.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

That’s very true. I mean, many nationalistic movements, and liberation movements even, sacrifice women’s rights. And they said, “Well stop for a side, we need to build the nation first and then we’ll revisit you.” And it has proven over and over and over to have failed. And that we cannot compromise that anymore. And as a matter of fact, I really believe that this century, the twenty-first century, needs to be the feminine century. If it’s not, then we have our humanity at stake. And I mean feminine century as in bringing our feminine values, your grandmother’s values, my grandmother’s values, my mother, myself, all of that into how we operate into the world. And because what[’s] at stake really is our own humanity, because of the crisis we have created on Earth. I’m assuming your grandmother has passed away, I assume. Yeah? What did she leave you in terms of feminine values? What are the things that she instilled on you to keep on going as you are a mother now?

Elif Shafak:

She was a very kind person. She had genuine compassion in her heart. I think I experienced these two sides. On the one hand, I felt unloved as I was growing up because I knew my father was a really good father to his other children, but I felt like I was the forgotten child. But I also experienced the very opposite, and I felt very much loved, dearly loved, by my grandmother and mother. So two opposites I experienced growing up. And it was thanks to her, mostly. Because she was incredibly compassionate, but also nonjudgmental. She did not judge people. And interestingly, she did not like to gossip. People would come to her house . . . So many people would come to our house at the time because my grandmother was a bit of a healer, and she also maybe taught me about the power of words, because in all those superstitions—I mean there was magic in her house—there’s an emphasis on the power of the spoken word, which is quite interesting, or the written word.

And many things stayed with me. This was a time in Turkey when there was a lot of political conflicts—1970s, late 1970s, I’m talking about. There would be violence on the streets. But inside the house, there was magic. So I remember sitting by the window and thinking about these two worlds, the conflicts in the streets, and the magic and stories within my grandmother’s house. And maybe to this day, my work, my books, try to bridge both the reality as I see it, but also understand oral culture. I’ve never looked down upon that world, and as much as I can I would love to bridge between culture with oral culture. So I don’t want to divide it into feminine values or non-feminine values. But I think what she left me with is this notion that I wholeheartedly believe in. Life is much more fluid than we recognize. Identity is much more fluid, and we are all on a journey, and we’re learning.

I love people who can say “I don’t know.” When was the last time we ever said “I don’t know”? We’ve forgotten how to say that. You can ask me anything and everything. If I don’t know the answer, I can Google it, and in the next five minutes I’ll be able to say a few words about the subject, giving me the illusion that I know something about the subject. But in fact, I know nothing. So we forgot to understand our own ignorance. That’s why I think we live in an age in which there’s way too much information, but very little knowledge and even less wisdom. And wisdom requires to be able to say, “I don’t know. I’m learning. I’m a student of life. It’s an ongoing, open-ended discovery. I’m changing, I’m becoming.” That kind of a fluid world was my grandmother’s one.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

That’s so beautiful. But I want to go back to your father now, because you mentioned him a couple of times now, and you had, in one . . . I think to The Guardian, or several other places, you said you have healed your relationship with your father, who is no longer with us. How did you heal your relationship? You saw him again in your twenties, and you realized he’s a good father to his sons. I’m curious: How did you heal your relationship with your father?

Elif Shafak:

Actually healing took such a long time, because I had a lot of anger. So yes, I did see him in my early twenties, but by then I was so angry. I was fuming. I had this rage inside, and anger is a very interesting source of energy. I mean, the beginning of anger can be quite uplifting. This might sound controversial, but there is a power to anger, or there is an energy to it. But the problem with anger is that, in the long run, it becomes repetitive, and it becomes toxic, and it starts to destroy from within. I’m not someone who underestimates seemingly negative emotion such as anxiety, or anger, or frustration, or disappointment, or even confusion. I think all of these can be good sources of energy, if only we can turn them into something more constructive and positive, both for ourselves individually but also for our communities and societies. That is perhaps the most difficult thing.

So for a very long time, I had this clash. I tried to understand why he was so absent in my life, and I never got a satisfactory answer from a human being who was very intelligent, who was very articulate otherwise. But he couldn’t articulate his own emotions. So, maybe he made me also understand two things. First of all, maybe the importance of emotional intelligence, that it is a different type of intelligence. But also, my own broken relationship with my father made me understand, as a storyteller, that we’re very complex beings. As human beings, we all have these multiplicities. You can be a very good professor. You can be very good at your job, but you can fail miserably, perhaps in your personal relationship with your wife, or with one of your children. It is possible. Layer upon layer. That doesn’t make you a bad person. It doesn’t make you an absolutely good person. We’re all somewhere in between. We’re all shades along that spectrum, different colors along the same spectrum.

So it helped me to re-evaluate my understanding of what a human being is. The healing, or the making some kind of peace, happened much later, after I became a parent because I wanted him to see his own grandchildren. And I never wanted what happened between us to affect his own relationship with his grandchildren because they’re each an individual. And he should be able to build a relationship with his own grandchildren separate from what happened between us. But of course it’s not easy. I mean, there are scars. I’m sure he carried his own scars as well. But when I managed to get over that feeling of anger, which took me [a] long time, I felt a sense of lightness. When I realized that I was not angry at him anymore, it was better. So it made our relationship better, but also within me it made me a relatively calmer person.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

But how did you do that? Because I had a different story, and I have issues with my father, and in my case the work happened, I did the work on my own. It wasn’t in dialogue with him. It was, I had to dig deeper into seeing him as a full human, as you said, rather than my father, but just seeing all elements of him. And then seeing his wholeness—his fullness, rather—helped me release my anger to him. And so the relationship in my case healed, not because he showed up and said, “Let’s heal it.” It’s because I was carrying that heavy baggage, and I had to work on it to dissolve it. And once that happened, it helped. How did you do it? I’m just curious. Was it in dialogue, or it seems that you did it on your own as well?

Elif Shafak:

I did it very much on my own, because when he showed up, he wasn’t there to build a dialogue. He just wanted to carry on as if nothing has happened—all these years of absence are not there. So he wasn’t emotionally responsive. He wanted to talk about books. He was an intellectual, and he felt very much comfortable when we were talking about books—philosophers, ideas—which is lovely. But when it comes to emotions and facing our own truth, and the things that we have missed out, and why is it like that, he was not very willing to go in that direction. So like you, I had to do the work myself. Sometimes I failed miserably, but I kept trying and trying. I had to work on my own anger. I had to try to understand him, but also accept him, that this is who he is, with his own weaknesses, with his own flaws, and the things that he never wanted to face. That was him.

After that, I think I felt freer. So it’s an internal work that you have to do very much on your own.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Where is your mother in this picture? Where is your mother in here?

Elif Shafak:

She has a great impact on my life, upbringing. She’s a feminist, and she’s always been very sensitive, conscious about gender inequality. But not only what she says—puts into words—her very life, growing up, observing a single mother, working mother, in late 1970s Ankara. It just opens up your eyes, and you observe what she’s going through emotionally, the challenges. There came a time when my mother became a diplomat, but this happened around the time I was ten, eleven years old, which was a bit unusual. As you mentioned, when we came back from France she was a very young divorcee. She had no diploma, no money. Nothing to fall back on. And usually women in such situations are immediately married off, usually to someone older because they’re not very favorable in the marital market anymore.

And because it was my grandmother who intervened and said, “You go back to university, build your life again.” In my early years, I think I did not see her that much, but she managed to graduate with a very high average, and eventually she became a diplomat. She learned many languages on her own. So there’s a lot of struggle, a lot of work that she put forth on her own, and I respect her so much for that. And then she and I, we went to Madrid, Spain, where I started learning English. And in that regard, I think I grew up observing my mother’s struggles.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Is she in Turkey?

Elif Shafak:

Yes, she’s in Turkey.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Beautiful. She must be very, very proud of you, because I think it’s true, for when mothers see their daughters becoming. I have an aunt—my mom has passed away, but I have an aunt in Iraq—and as I told you, my grandmother made sure all the daughters are going into college, and they became feminists, and all for women’s rights, and women’s independence and all of that. And my aunt got into religion, and she’s very observant right now, and she wears the head scarf, and she prays day and night. And one day out of the blue called me, and she’s in Iraq, Baghdad, and I’m here in New York, and she says, “Zainab, I just want to tell you,” in English, “You go girl.” And she’s like, “You’re doing what we’re not able to do. So you go girl.”

And it was so beautiful, because it was more like getting their endorsement, getting their push, getting their love, means a lot, just to say, “Hey, I’m hearing you, I’m acknowledging you.”

Elif Shafak:

Just one thing. I mean, you inspire me. Listening to you is so inspiring. I think that means so much, that is so important, and we don’t have enough solidarity among women, especially in the region. And sometimes it really breaks my heart, understandably for psychological reasons, women who themselves have suffered a lot. They’re almost like, “Okay, it’s someone else’s turn to suffer now.” In very traditional settings, you can have the elder women in the family being not very understanding towards the struggles that the younger women are going through. You need to break that chain, that patriarchal chain.

I also find it problematic that, in patriarchal society, actually we have matriarchal households. We respect our grandmothers culturally—in Iraq, in Turkey, across the Middle East. But we respect women only and only when they are desexualized, defeminized in our minds, in the public eye. We don’t see grandmothers as women anymore. They’re in a different category altogether. Which means, if you are a woman, until you are deemed to be old in the eyes of the society, you will not get respect whatever you do. And that is incredibly debilitating. I mean, we have amazing women in so many fields, but unless we support each other, unless we have a proper sisterhood and solidarity, nothing is going to change.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

That’s so true. You’re making me think that a lot of it has to do with the sexuality of women. So we tell the girls you have to be [a] good girl, and you have to keep your virginity, and all of these things. So now you’re suppressing any expression of the girl. And then she becomes a woman she gets married, and she’s supposed to be a very good wife, showing up for her husband and whatever sexual needs that he has, is again to serve the husband’s needs. And then she evolves into the grandmother, and that’s when she really has a voice. It’s because she is now asexual, and so we can actually listen to her. So, so true.

Elif, you broke a huge taboo in the entire Middle East, I would assume maybe less in Turkey because Turkey tends to be a bit more liberal than the entire Middle East, but maybe not, when you talked in your TED Talk about your own sexuality. And it just pff! [emphatic exhale] it created an uproar. What are your thoughts about that? And what are your answers to that? Because we all know sexual expressions in the Middle East happens as any other region of the world, and yet it’s suppressed and not talked about. And so those who do talk about, get attacked. What’s your message to that? How did you handle that also?

Elif Shafak:

I’m not sure that Turkey is more liberal when it comes to talking about sexuality. It might seem to be on the surface, but when you scratch the surface, underneath it’s the same old patriarchy, it’s the same old homophobia, and misogyny, and we find it very, very difficult to talk about sexuality in particular, but also sexual minorities. Coming back to my story, I think it’s very visible in my writing that there’s always a desire to give more voice to minorities, including sexual minorities. And throughout my adult life, I’ve been very vocal about my support for LGBTQ+ rights in all my interviews, public talks. But the truth is, I never had the courage to say, “This is also my story. It has a personal connection to me.”

For a long time, I thought about it, and I kept thinking, “Shall I talk about this in the public space, or just keep it in my writing, in my fiction, in my interviews? Does it really matter?” But the very honest truth is: I was scared of the reaction that I would get in Turkey, because I knew I would receive a lot of hate speech, that I would get a lot of verbal abuse, all kinds of things, but also ridicule. I would be belittled, and from all sides. I was aware of this. So until my mid-forties, I never had the courage to own who I am in that sense, in the public space. And I always kept it in my fiction and in my interviews. I wish I had the courage to do so earlier, but I also respect anyone . . . People have different stories, people go through different journeys. So there’s no point in pushing anyone in any direction.

However, when we are ready to come out, I think we should come out because it’s very important to be able to say, first and foremost, “This is who I am. Whether you like it or not, regardless, this is my reality, this is my truth and I want to be able to speak my truth.” But also, when you do that, maybe it’s a little message to someone else who might be feeling very lonely, and maybe . . . I received incredibly moving letters, particularly from parents who have children who might be going through similar things. So that, to me, is very moving.

But the sad side was, after the TED Talk was shared online, I’m not exaggerating Zainab, I think it went on for nine weeks uninterrupted. Constant, constant abuse all over social media, but also papers, newspapers in Turkey, Islamist papers, ultra-nationalist papers, columnists, making fun, saying awful things. The amount of hatred and verbal abuse every day, that was tough. But I think I did it at a time when I was ready to face that storm, I was ready to navigate that storm, and I’m so glad I was able to share it.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

I’m glad you were able to share it also, because again, for me, when we don’t share our truth, it’s death, for me. And I will refuse to die in silence. I’d rather die screaming. And because I’ve seen so many women die in their silence. That’s what keeps me going, is I’ve seen my own mother die in silence, and my grandmother, and I was like, “I’m not going to do that again.” There’s no goodness that comes out of silence. But my question is: Do you have a support group, a support system, that hold you when a storm like that happens? Do you go to therapy? Seriously, just on a very practical level, what do you do—do you just hold your spine?

Elif Shafak:

I mentioned when I shared I was bisexual, I received so many letter and emails and words of support, and solidarity, from people of all backgrounds, and all countries. Some of them from the LGBTQ community, some of them from completely different backgrounds. But that kind of humanity, that kind of love, was very, very moving. So from all over the world, you get lots of positive messages. But from your own motherland, you get all kinds of negativity. And that hurts like nothing else hurts.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Oh absolutely. I know that. I want to go to The Island of Missing Trees. Truly, truly beautiful book about forbidden love, collective trauma, and the cause of having to leave home to start a new life. Can you talk about the challenges of writing it and what kind of self-reflections was needed to tell that story?

Elif Shafak:

This is a novel that takes place in Cyprus, and also the UK. Maybe some of your listeners might not know this, but the UK became my adopted country. I’ve been in this country for more than twelve years now, and I feel attached to this land as well, deeply. But the truth is, I had been wanting to write about Cyprus for a very, very long time. And there’s no doubt in my mind this is a beautiful island with beautiful people north and south. And yet, it is not an easy story to tell because it is a land that has experienced partition, division, ethnic violence, civil war. As we’re speaking, there is an actual division, frontier there that is separating Christians from Muslims, Greeks Cypriots from Turkish Cypriots, a border that is guarded by UN troops. So when we’re talking about Nicosia, we’re talking about the last divided capital in Europe.

And it’s also a place where the past is not a bygone affair. It’s not left behind, and closed doors. I think the past is very much alive, and breathing within this present moment. So Cyprus is a place where there are unhealed wounds, and clashing memories. Depending on whom you ask, you might get a different version of history. And therefore, the challenge for me was: How do you tell the story of a place that has been ravaged by division and partition, without yourself falling into the trap of nationalism as a storyteller, without yourself falling into the trap of tribalism? And I could never find that angle into the story, that opening, until I found the voice of a fig tree.

And finding that tree gave me a completely different opening, window into the story because first and foremost you realize, whenever, wherever humans have destroyed each other, it’s not only human lives that perish. It’s also an entire ecosystem, trees and animals and plants. So, that was important to me. But also, thinking about the voice of the fig tree gave me an opportunity to write about roots—what does it feel like to be uprooted, displaced, almost deracinated, rootless, rerooted? All of these questions about belonging, exile, displacement, which are very important to me as well, are part of the story.

So in a nutshell, this is a love story. It’s a forbidden love, you might say, but it’s also [a] story that deals with entire generational memories. We always talk about family stories, but what about family silences? It deals with inherited pain, and it is the story of a fig tree.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

That’s so beautiful. Truly, I can’t recommend it enough. It’s a beautiful, beautiful reading. I have a few quick last questions, rapid questions, about books that inspire you, uplift you, give you[r] soul joy. Your favorite books.

Elif Shafak:

I love reading. Rather than this book or that book, just to make the act of reading constant, continuous. Every day I try to read, and it doesn’t matter. I’ve never believed in this distinction between highbrow literature, lowbrow literature. Who even decides? We can read political philosophy, we can read cookbooks, graphic novels. But always keep reading. And I think it should be eclectic, fiction and nonfiction, east and west.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

But are there books that you just constantly go back to?

Elif Shafak:

I love poetry, from Cavafy to Walt Whitman. I do read a lot of poetry. And I love discovering new books as well as rereading some of my old favorites, like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is a book I must have read so many times, for instance, or Walter [inaudible 00:47:20], a thinker who I respect so much.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Wonderful. How about films?

Elif Shafak:

So many. From Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, to Jim Jarmusch movies.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

And finally, poems. Any favorite poets? [laughs] I know.

Elif Shafak:

Yeah. For this book in particular, I revisited Cavafy, the Greek, also Levant—the poet from the Levant I should say. I mean, so many. So many poets from the region and beyond. But I’ve been reading Cavafy a lot recently while I was writing this book.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

And last but not least, and you have two children in London, you have your husband in London. You’ve been living in exile for a while. What do you think [it] would take, in terms of change, in Turkey for you to be able to go and celebrate and visit safely and with joy?

Elif Shafak:

Yeah. It’s a tough question because I think Turkey is, of course, beautiful country, but it’s a very difficult environment for anyone who deals with words, so writers, journalists, poets, also cartoonists. I mean, if you want to defend the freedom of humor, being able to laugh at people in power, in authority, your life can be very difficult. If I may add this very quickly, I think what countries like Turkey have demonstrated very clearly is how fragile democracy can be. I do have a lot of respect for the ballot box, for elections, but in itself having a ballot box is not enough to sustain a democracy. In Turkey, we do have elections. Turkey is not a democracy. In addition to the ballot box, you need rule of law, separation of powers. Nobody in this life, no politician, no political party, or no tech company, should have absolute power. So separation of powers is important.

And also, is a free and diverse media, independent academia, women’s rights, minority rights, LGBTQ rights. Together with all these components, a democracy can survive and thrive. So all I’m trying to say is democracy’s a very delicate ecosystem of checks and balances, and it needs to be nourished. It needs to be cared for, and countries, I believe, sometimes can go backwards, as it happened in Turkey. Countries can tumble into more religiosity, more ultranationalism, populist authoritarianism. When and if that happens, I think we women have much more to lose because the first rights that will be curbed will be women’s rights and minority rights.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

That’s so true. Elif, my mother, who passed away two decades ago, but at one point her best friend, who was an artist, was killed by an American bomb that fell on her house, and died. And she got killed. And my mom called me, and she was crying, and she said, “When the artist dies, all else dies.” When the artist dies, all else dies. And as I speak with you today, the words that come to mind is “The artist is alive—and kicking, and it’s vibrant. The artist is here. The artist is, the artist is not going anywhere.” And it gives me hope. So the artist is alive, ladies and gentlemen. And she is here with me. Elif Shafak, thank you so, so, so, so much Elif.

Elif Shafak:

Zainab, no thank you so much. I’m so grateful. But may I say, you give me hope as well. So shall we also add “sisterhood is alive.”

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Oh absolutely. Sisterhood is alive! Absolutely.

That was Elif Shafak. Her latest novel, The Island of Missing Trees, is available now wherever books are sold. For transcripts and other resources from this episode, please go to www.findcenter.com/redefined. You can follow Elif on Instagram @ShafakElif. You can follow Find Center @Find_Center. You can follow me @ZainabSalbi. And please email me questions about this podcast and your own transformative moments at redefined@findcenter.com.

Thank you so much for listening. We’ll be back next week for another conversation about life’s turning points and lessons learned. My guest will be the great Hugh Jackman. Redefined is produced by me, Zainab Salbi, along with Rob Corso, Kacey Kahn, and Howie Kahn at FreeTime Media. Our music is by John Palmer. Special thanks to Uğur Canbilen, Neal Goldman, Caroline Pincus, Sherra Johnston, and Elijah Townsend. Looking forward to seeing you next time.