Elif Şafak on Identity Politics

A friend, who will shortly be sending me invoices related to research assistance if this keeps up, sent me a link to this 20 minute talk by the Turkish author Elif Şafak in which she talks about the politics of fiction.  I have not read any of her works but my friend, who is herself Turkish, thought I’d find it interesting and she was right.  There is a transcript of the talk at the link, and the bit that I found most interesting was as follows:

Yet as much as I love stories, recently, I’ve also begun to think that they lose their magic if and when a story is seen as more than a story. And this is a subject that I would love to think about together. When my first novel written in English came out in America, I heard an interesting remark from a literary critic. “I liked your book,” he said, “but I wish you had written it differently.” (Laughter) I asked him what he meant by that. He said, “Well, look at it. There’s so many Spanish, American, Hispanic characters in it, but there’s only one Turkish character and it’s a man.” Now the novel took place on a university campus in Boston, so to me, it was normal that there be more international characters in it than Turkish characters, but I understood what my critic was looking for. And I also understood that I would keep disappointing him. He wanted to see the manifestation of my identity. He was looking for a Turkish woman in the book because I happened to be one.

We often talk about how stories change the world, but we should also see how the world of identity politics affects the way stories are being circulated, read and reviewed. Many authors feel this pressure, but non-Western authors feel it more heavily. If you’re a woman writer from the Muslim world, like me, then you are expected to write the stories of Muslim women and, preferably, the unhappy stories of unhappy Muslim women. You’re expected to write informative, poignant and characteristic stories and leave the experimental and avant-garde to your Western colleagues. … Writers are not seen as creative individuals on their own, but as the representatives of their respective cultures: a few authors from China, a few from Turkey, a few from Nigeria.

The writer and commuter James Baldwin gave an interview in 1984 in which he was repeatedly asked about his homosexuality. When the interviewer tried to pigeonhole him as a gay writer, Baldwin stopped and said, “But don’t you see? There’s nothing in me that is not in everybody else, and nothing in everybody else that is not in me.” When identity politics tries to put labels on us, it is our freedom of imagination that is in danger. There’s a fuzzy category called multicultural literature in which all authors from outside the Western world are lumped together. I never forget my first multicultural reading, in Harvard Square about 10 years ago. We were three writers, one from the Philippines, one Turkish and one Indonesian … And the reason why we were brought together was not because we shared an artistic style or a literary taste. It was only because of our passports. Multicultural writers are expected to tell real stories, not so much the imaginary. A function is attributed to fiction. In this way, not only the writers themselves, but also their fictional characters become the representatives of something larger.

She’s not a fan of identity politics clearly, and she makes a good point above: if a westerner (man or woman) writes a novel then it can be about absolutely anything, but if a non-western woman writes a book then it is expected that it will be a vehicle to champion whatever trendy, lefty cause the western literary set subscribe to in her country.  Anything else and the chattering classes start scowling and wishing she’d written something else, something that confirms their prejudices and, as always, makes everything political.  How condescending is this?

It appears that Ms Şafak just wants to write stories about anything she likes, stories that she thinks people will enjoy.  Good for her.

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9 thoughts on “Elif Şafak on Identity Politics

  1. My friend Helen Dale (who you have possibly seen me chatting with on Facebook) infamously trolled the Australian literary establishment 25 years ago by writing the novel “The Hand that Signed the Paper”, which was set in World War 2 and was about a Ukrainian family who aided the Nazis in the Holocaust. She wrote it under the name “Helen Demidenko”, and claimed at the time that she was the child of Ukrainian immigrants. The book won a major literary award, and it then became a scandal when it was revealed that she came from British stock, and that she had made up the part about the Ukrainian ancestry and lacked the relevant ethnic credibility. The fact that the book was fiction, was made up, and was in fact the same book regardless of the ethnicity of the writer seemed then to somehow not matter.

  2. My friend Helen Dale (who you have possibly seen me chatting with on Facebook)

    I have! And I’ve seen her mention that she did a lot of research into the Holocaust that led her into conflict with Israeli authorities. I did wonder what that was about.

    The book won a major literary award, and it then became a scandal when it was revealed that she came from British stock, and that she had made up the part about the Ukrainian ancestry and lacked the relevant ethnic credibility. The fact that the book was fiction, was made up, and was in fact the same book regardless of the ethnicity of the writer seemed then to somehow not matter.

    That’s fascinating: it goes to show she did the right thing in making up the name.

    Some nationalities are notorious for insisting you have to be from their country to be able to write about it. I remember years ago when I was reading about the USSR, authors such as Anne Applebaum, Catherine Merridale, Simon Sebag Montefiore, and William Taubman, Russians would always ask me where the authors were from, and they would dismiss them immediately they heard they weren’t Russian presumably on the grounds that they were biased or could not fully understand the subject if they were foreign.

    I suppose there is an expectation that a work of fiction set against a historical background has been properly researched and the characters, scenes, and conversations representative of the time and place, but there is no reason why this cannot be done by a foreigner. After all, is somebody writing about medieval London at an advantage if he/she comes from Wapping? Probably not, the past being another country.

  3. Aye, that Wm Shakespeare should have stuck to his English Histories: no Hamlet, no Macbeth, no Rome, no Venice, ………

  4. >and they would dismiss them immediately they heard they weren’t
    >Russian presumably on the grounds that they were biased or could
    >not fully understand the subject if they were foreign.

    I think though that being a national of a country can sometimes hinder understanding of it, too. Sometimes a foreigner can see it – or at least certain aspects of it – with more clarity rather than less. This is particularly the case when you have a central government that believes that it owns the national narrative. I am thinking of China in particular, but sometimes Russia, too.

  5. I think though that being a national of a country can sometimes hinder understanding of it, too. Sometimes a foreigner can see it – or at least certain aspects of it – with more clarity rather than less. This is particularly the case when you have a central government that believes that it owns the national narrative. I am thinking of China in particular, but sometimes Russia, too.

    Absolutely true. To get a balance, you’d need a mixture of both insiders’ and outsiders’ views.

  6. I think it was the film producer Samuel Goldwyn who said, when talking about meanings in movies: “If I want to send a message, I use Western Union.”

    Storytelling wins, and always will.

    As for: ‘Multicultural writers are expected to tell real stories, not so much the imaginary’ I always think of Jorge Luis Borges. Argentinian, and if I ever want an example of amazingly imaginative fiction that I (and possibly many other wannabe authors, too) can never begin to emulate I think of the sublime story ‘The Lottery in Babylon.’

  7. I no longer read new literary fiction (a genre devoted to bolstering the self-regard of its practitioners and readers – and to trousering grants/prizes etc.) because it has become almost entirely message-laden (and identitarian).

    But this is not new, unfortunately. Tolkien himself (in a swipe at his friend CS Lewis, I assume), summed it up in its older form:

    I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned– with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.

    Back in the day when humanities dons were worth listening to, of course.

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