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.