Day 33: The politics of fiction

“The solution to a problem and the correct way of posing the question are two completely separate things. And only the latter is an artist’s responsibility.” Chekhov.

In this talk, Elif Shafak describes how she feels fiction can provide a connection between cultures and broaden our horizons.

As the child of a divorced mother in 1970s Turkey, Shafak was acutely aware that she was different from many other children. Later on, when her mother became a diplomat in Spain and she attended an international school, Shafak describes the mix of nationalities as a mini United Nations; a place in which children from a country experiencing conflict were mocked and ridiculed.

Shafak describes herself as a bit of a nomad, spiritually and physically. She began to write fiction at the age of eight, using it to transport herself into different worlds from her own. As an adult, she began to write in English. She tells the story of one reviewer who wished she’d written her novel in a different way. Similar to the experience of Chimamamanda Adichie, who was asked why she didn’t write in a more ‘authentic’ Nigerian voice, the reviewer wanted to see more Turkish characters in Shafak’s novel, despite it being set in Boston. She describes situations in which all writers from outside the Western World are lumped together as multi-cultural, regardless of their genre of work.

Shafak questions the creative writing courses which teach us to write only what we know. She describes her lasting image from the 1999 earthquake in Turkey, when she saw a conservative grocer sharing a cigarette with a transvestite. While she doesn’t claim that writing has the same impact as an earthquake, good fiction gives the reader the power to enter another universe for a while. Why should a Muslim woman from Bahrain not write about a gay barman in Norway? Stories can indeed change the world; but it’s important to recognise that the ongoing culture of identity politics affects the stories which are distributed.

Shafek ends by telling us to get out of our cultural ghetto, to expand our hearts and write about what we feel. In the words of an old Sufi poem; “Come, let us be friends for once; let us make life easy on us; let us be lovers and loved ones; the earth shall be left to no-one.”


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