In Turkey, award-winning novelist Elif Shafak is a mega-star, the bestselling author of nine acclaimed books (seven of which are novels), and the most widely-read female author in the country. Writing in both Turkish and English, Shafak’s work has been translated into twenty languages.
In the US, however, Shafak is probably best known for the controversy surrounding her 2007 novel, The Bastard of Istanbul, a brave and ambitious work for which she was indicted and prosecuted (and ultimately acquitted) under Article 301 by the Turkish government. Pregnant at the time, Shafak (the first fiction writer to be prosecuted under the law) became more of a symbol to us, a reminder of the precious freedoms we sometimes take for granted — but somehow her work was overlooked in the process.
That’s why the LA Books Examiner is pleased to announce the release of Shafak’s newest novel, The Forty Rules of Love. An instant bestseller in Turkey, the book sold 150,000 copies in the first month. More importantly, this mesmerizing and lyrical love story, more accessible to American readers, is a great opportunity to learn more about the important work of this vibrant, intelligent writer and passionate champion of multiculturalism and spirituality.
The Forty Rules of Love is a modern love story between a bored Jewish-American housewife/literary agent named Ella Rubenstein and the charming and mystical Aziz Zahara, a novelist in Holland, whose relationship seems to mirror Rubenstein’s first assignment: a manuscript that describes the 3-year relationship between mystic Sufi poet Rumi and Shams of Tabriz. What follows is a testament to the transformative power of love and the ancient philosophy of Sufism that link hundreds of years of history with the forty rules of love.
I recently had the great opportunity to interview Elif Shafak. Please take a few more minutes to read the revealing interview below.
Q. The Forty Rules of Love is already a bestseller in Turkey. What are your hopes for this book in the US, and who do you feel is your target audience?
A. In today’s world there are two currents side by side. On the one hand there is a growing interest in Rumi’s philosophy & poetry, in Sufism and mysticism. On the other hand there is also too much ignorance and too many stereotypes with regards to Islam. My novel will come against this kind of background. I am excited about the US launch of The Forty Rules of Love and I look forward to hearing the thoughts of the American people. I do not have a specific target audience in mind. The doors of my novel are open to everyone regardless of religion, class or race. In Turkey the novel has been a big bestseller thanks to the readers. Readers of all walks of life have embraced the story and this is something that I cherish.
Q. What does Sufism mean to you, and why does it play such a major role in your work and in your life?
A. My interest in Sufism began about 16 years ago when I was a college student. At the time I was intrigued by the subject. As years passed I kept reading. Annemarie Schimmel, Idris Shah, Coleman Barks, William Chittick, Karen Armstrong, Sachiko Murata, Kabir Helminski…. I see Sufism as a tapestry of colors and patterns. In my novel Sufism is not introduced as a theoretical, abstract teaching. It is a living, breathing, moving, peaceful energy. I am interested in what Sufism means for us in the modern world. I wanted to bring out how Rumi’s philosophy appeals to us today, even when we seem to be miles and centuries and cultures away from it.
Q. Can you talk about the forty rules of love? Where did they come from and why did you choose to share them?
The rules of love were shaped as I kept writing the novel. It was the characters in the novel that inspired them. Shams of Tabriz was a beautiful person who challenged dogmas and opened his heart to all humankind. He had great influence on Rumi. I shaped the rules with the inspiration they have given me and I wanted to share it with readers everywhere. One of the things that made me most happy about the novel in turkey was how the readers kept text messaging and emailing these rules into one another. If someone felt a bit down, her friends sent messages saying “remember rule number 18”, “think about rule number 23…” and so on. It was amazing to see how the rules were embraced by the readers.
Q. Your books seem to address the dualities of man, culture, and history and the many gaps this quality creates for societies as a result. Within these gaps, however, live controversy, conflict, and often a kind of gloominess that other writers tend to avoid. Personally, I enjoy writers who dwell in the gaps, but why do you continue to go there with your writing?
A. I am a writer interested in showing how humor and sorrow intertwine all the time. My writing has both humor and gloominess. I like to write about sadness through humor and about humor though sadness. So the gloominess in my stories is not “depressing” because there is always a way out, another door. Why do I do this? Simply because I think this is the way life moves; a mixture of day and night, good and bad, death and rebirth. The combination of happiness and sadness, humor and gloominess is the chemistry of the universe and in my novels I like to reflect this. In all my novels there are minorities, people on the fringes of the society and I like to explore the underbelly of the society.
Q. You’ve had some gloominess in your own life. How much of yourself or your life is revealed in your work and through your characters?
A. I have had some gloominess in my life. I did not have a happy childhood. But the important thing is, thanks to this gloominess I discovered the world of books early in my life and I started writing my own stories. I was a lonely introvert child and books were my best friends. I always went to Storyland because it was much more colorful and “real” to me than the life I led. That’s how I began to write fiction. So what might seem to be a “disadvantage” in one area can help us to build something positive and constructive in another area. If we can channel it in the right way, gloominess is something that feeds art and creativity.
Q. In your country you were indicted, prosecuted, and ultimately acquitted of violating Article 301 with the writing of your novel The Bastard of Istanbul. How has that unfortunate experience affected your writing since?
A. To be put on trial for writing a novel was a sad experience. That period of my life has been difficult and I cannot deny that. However, despite the occasional difficulties of being a novelist in Turkey, I believe the beauties and rewards are far more important. There is a very dynamic literary world in Turkey and especially women readers are so generous and embracing. Over the years I developed a special bond with my readers and I get so much inspiration from them. I am a storyteller. I have stories to tell and I love telling stories. This is what matters.
Q. In Turkey you are the most widely-read female author and a major force in the literary world. In the US , however, this isn’t the case (not yet anyway). How does this duality affect your goals as a writer?
A. In Turkey I have nine books out and people know the diversity and energy in my writing. They know the variety of subjects I deal with and how I use different styles as I move from one book to the next. My Turkish is rich with Ottoman words and Sufi words. I write fiction in both English and Turkish, which is quite unusual. I have a solid readership. In Turkey most fiction readers are women. In general men write, women read. I would like to change this. I want women to write and both men and women to read. As for the reception of Turkish literature in the West, we have a long way to go. We in Turkey read Western literature more than the Western world reads Turkish literature. The amount of translated works in the USA is unfortunately still too little. Sometimes Turkish literature is seen as neither too “exotic/Eastern” nor too “Western”. But I believe precisely because we are on the threshold we have so much to offer. If we can build bridges through culture and art, bridges that extend across cultures, we can all learn from each other.
Q. You’ve said that the opposing cultural and religious views of your grandmothers taught you some important lessons that helped solidify your own views. Can you discuss this experience and how it fits into your writing?
A. I am a person interested in nuances and shades. Observing my two grandmothers helped me to see the nuances inside faith & religion. One of my grandmothers was a woman for whom religion very strict and God was always ready to punish. It was a more narrow interpretation of religion, based on guilt and fear. For my maternal grandmother however, religion was about love and tolerance and acceptance. She was and still is in constant dialogue with the entire universe, which she sees as fluid. I have a great interest in women’s culture, oral culture, folk Islam, superstitions, and the magic of life… I like to bring the heritage of women into highbrow literature.
Q. Is Elif Shafak a penname?
A. Yes, Shafak is my penname. When I was 18 and started to publish my first stories, I decided to choose a new surname for myself. Shafak in Turkish means Dawn. I liked the sound and depth of it, and adopted it as my surname. I renamed myself. I think as human beings we have at least two names: the one given to us by our parents and the one we choose as we get to discover ourselves.
Q. Besides your grandmothers, who inspires you?
A. I was raised by a single working mother and she has been a true inspiration for me for many years. I saw firsthand how a woman had to struggle if she chose to live “without a man to protect her”. Over the years many things have inspired me. I have lived a nomadic life and traveling is always a source of inspiration. Istanbul too inspires me with her crazy rhythm. Life inspires me. Life is full of stories.
Q. What books are you reading right now? Are there any writers you feel deserve more attention than they already receive?
A. I have just finished reading The Secret River by Kate Grenville and I liked it very much. I enjoy reading philosophy, Heidegger, Deleuze, Spinoza, Walter Benjamin, Martha Nussbaum… I have an academic background and I am interested in postcolonial, poststructuralist, post-feminist studies. I love William Blake and every now and then go back to reading him again.
Q. What’s next for Elif Shafak?
A. I have started writing my new novel. With every book I feel like I’m making a journey into a new continent and this book will be very different than all the ones before. I like to constantly renew myself.
The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak. February 2010. Penguin Group (USA). 384 pages.
*Photo of Elif Shafak by Ebru Bilun
For more great author interviews, check out the Author Interview Series from Frank Mundo.