Elif Shafak: Crossover Artists: Writing in Another Language
I want to talk about how I made the journey from the Turkish to the English language. Before doing that, I would like to draw a historical framework—how literature and language have developed in Turkey—so I can give a better sense of where I come from. I will start with a small example from the world of art: Maurice Ravel’s Boléro. As you all remember, Boléro was unusual at the time it was composed because it’s based on the technique of deliberate repetition. It’s an eighteen-minute-long piece in which the same musical pattern is repeated again, again, and again—seventeen times.
Now please think of a Turkish citizen in the year 1928 or 1930 in Istanbul. You are traveling from one coast to the other. You take the ferry boat. The journey lasts forty minutes, maybe an hour. As you sit there, on a bench, you start hearing the Boléro play again and again, until you reach the other coast. The whole idea was part of the state’s project to build another culture out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire by modernizing, Westernizing, and secularizing the society from above.
I chose this example because I think it shows us how art is sometimes used by nation-states, by nationalist ideologies, by patriarchal structures. Perhaps no form has served nationalist causes or the building of nation-states more than literature itself. In Turkey, the novel especially served this end because it was a new genre. It was the voice of Westernization when the Turkish reformers were trying to accelerate the process of Westernization. It was brought as the voice of the bourgeoisie when there was no Muslim bourgeoisie. The Turkish reformers tried to create a Muslim bourgeoisie by transferring the property of the minorities into the hands of the Muslims. The genre of the novel was introduced to Turkish society at a crucial time, a turning point in history.
Early Turkish novelists, right from the beginning, were men. Almost all of them came from very wealthy families; they were educated either in Western universities or colleges or by private Western teachers. They knew the philosophy and the language of Western societies. Many of them were state employees, which gives us an idea of their limits. People wanted to serve the state, and they were more occupied with the state than with society. Modernization in Turkey occurred from above, not from below. Language and literature were essential to this.
In time, especially as novelists were actually given the cultural mission to revive society, the image of the Father Novelist emerged in Turkey. There was an expectation that the novelist would be like a paternal gaze, leading the society via his work of art. The novelist had to be above his characters, his book, his language, and his readers. That is the traditional Father Novelist that I refuse to accept.
In 1923 the Turkish Republic was established, and in 1925 the Reformist regime changed the alphabet in a day. People who were literate woke up illiterate the next morning. They couldn’t read the newspapers anymore. Everyone in the nation, old and young, middle-aged, women, men—like children—had to learn the alphabet again. Today in Turkey we have generations of people who cannot read their family’s tombstones, let alone archival documents. You walk by a tombstone in Istanbul and you have no idea who that dead person is because you cannot read the inscription. There was a huge rupture between the Ottoman time and the new regime. The reformists deliberately wanted this, because the more you distance yourself from the past, the more future you have to modernize and Westernize a society.
The Turkish language has been cleansed, Turkified—the reformists got rid of Persian words, Arabic words, Sufi expressions. The language has been disenchanted. This is not a problem, perhaps, in the genre of poetry because it is a very old tradition; it has its own rules and rhythm. However, when you come to the novel, language isn’t as important as what you’re saying. I try to go back to the Sufi tradition that has been purged—the old words that have been purged—and I return them to the language. Not only have the words been lost and the vocabulary shrunk, but the curiosity for the past has been lost. Information and knowledge cannot flow from one generation to another, which creates a big cultural gap.
Because of my passion for language, I refuse to take that gap for granted. I think it has something to do with my childhood; I had to live in different countries—France and Spain, Jordan and Amman, Germany. Every time I came back to Turkey, I realized not that I had forgotten my Turkish but that I had lost contact with expressions—the subtleties of the language, the slang—which made me realize you can lose your native tongue. You cannot take it for granted. It made me realize that maybe I have to pay more attention to it. So I started to study my own language as if it were a foreign language. In the short run, I felt bad; in the long run it helped to enrich my language. It’s ironic that today in Turkey, literary critics praise the richness of my Turkish. It’s precisely because I lost contact with my language, and because I felt like an outsider when I came back to that language, that I pay more attention and maybe value the language more than other Turkish novelists.
That said, when I moved into the English language it was, in a way, such a relief. You have an amazing vocabulary in the English language. I truly love it when I hear the word “chutzpah” from a person who’s not Jewish. The word “chutzpah” has traveled like the Nomads from one community to another, and nobody says, “Okay, this word comes from a Jewish origin. Let’s get rid of it.” Nobody’s saying, “This word has comes from an Irish origin. It’s four hundred years old. Let’s get rid of it.” What the Turkish reformists failed to see was that we do not have a power over language; language has a power over us. When you try to limit language, you limit your own imagination. In that sense, I very much enjoyed, despite the substantial challenge I had to face, writing in English.
The second thing I experienced was humor. My writing has a lot of humor, and I found it difficult to deal with that desire for humor in Turkish because the language is so disenchanted; it left no room for irony. There’s a solid tradition of humor in Turkey, but it is very direct humor. You have to know what you are criticizing. It’s political humor, but not irony. In English, I found more gates for that humor, additional doors. I found a more masculine voice, which I enjoyed also. But I do not see this as an either/or choice, and that is part of the dilemma I experienced in Turkey when my most recent novel came out.
Unlike the previous four novels, this one was written in English—The Saint of Incipient Insanities—and when the book was translated into Turkish and came out in Turkey, many people in Turkey didn’t know what to do with it. Just the fact that it was written in English became something to criticize. Turkish nationalists—these are not necessarily people calling themselves nationalists—were very much upset because they saw writing in another language as a cultural betrayal, as if I were abandoning my mother tongue. It’s always an either/or framework. When you do something there it means you have abandoned the other side. I do not believe in that. I think it’s possible to be multicultural, multilingual, and even multifaith.
MINAE MIZUMURA: There is a general rule when you are bilingual: If you have a choice between two languages or three languages, the language you choose to write in is generally the dominant language. I think that’s the case with most writers. You can think of someone like Kafka, who as a child was Czech, and Nabokov, who switched from Russian to English. Many writers who come from the English and French empires switch from the minor language to the major language. But there are always exceptions to the rule.
I wish I could tell you that I’m perfectly happy with the choice I made, but I can’t quite say that, especially when I know that 99 percent of you have not read my work because it’s written in Japanese. If I were speaking in Japan in front of a Japanese audience and if I wrote books in English, they would surely have been translated into Japanese. The most nonsensical, stupid stuff will be translated into Japanese because so many Japanese people want to read American things.
I can’t really say that I’m 100 percent happy with this asymmetrical situation. I wrote an autobiographical novel about ten years ago—Shishosetsu: From Left to Right. As you can see, shishosetsu is a Japanese word that means “I-novel,” autobiographical novel. “From left to right” is an English expression. The title is bilingual, and the book itself is, in a way, bilingual. But it’s not really bilingual because it’s written in Japanese with many English expressions thrown in. It’s written horizontally, whereas 99.9 percent of Japanese texts are written vertically. I had to write it horizontally because there are so many English expressions.
I know that some Spanish Americans are doing this with the Spanish language—throwing Spanish words into English texts—but the effect is very much different in Japanese because we don’t just use a phonetic alphabet. We use Chinese characters that came from China, and we have two kinds of phonetic alphabets. It’s very pictorial. We have the English sentences thrown in, so the visual impact or the clash of the two totally different languages is much more striking.
From Left to Right reflects my cultural upbringing and tells the story of how I became a writer. Ever since Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, how-I-became-a-writer stories have flourished. You can say that Shishosetsu: From Left to Right is a variant of such stories. You may even detect in my novel the sort of complacent, congratulatory tone characteristic of such stories. Yet my novel is also darker. My story does not suggest a how-I-became-a-writer story; it’s a how-I-became-a-Japanese-writer story. That story necessarily runs parallel to a sad tale of how I failed to become an American writer or a writer of the English language.
I was born in Japan and came to the States with my family when I was twelve. My father had been stationed in New York by a Japanese company. That was back in the 1960s, when Japanese products such as transistor radios, cameras, and tape reorders began selling overseas. Accordingly, the Japanese companies started sending their men overseas with their families. Little did my family know when we arrived that we would be spending the next twenty years in the States. Little did I know that I would grow up entirely in the States. Moreover, little did any of us expect that the girl who came to America at the age of twelve—a girl who was not particularly stupid—would twenty years later still find herself uncomfortable with the English language. But that’s what happened.
As I look back on my life, I cannot help thinking that I would have been writing in English now if some crucial conditions had been different. If I were a white girl, I would not have felt so alienated from the American society, though I may have rejected English at first. If my parents had come to the States like so many Japanese before the war, then America would have become my country and English my principal language. I would be writing in English. But my parents considered themselves long-term visitors; they always thought we would eventually go back, and my sisters and I would find nice Japanese husbands.
Maybe if I were not Japanese and were not so nationalistic, I might have abandoned my Japanese more easily. And if I had known at the time the linguistic power structure of the world—that you could have infinitely more advantages as a writer of English than of Japanese—if I had known that, I might have chosen English. I’m often described as a writer who chose to write in Japanese rather than in English, who chose a local and singular language over the universal language. I am portrayed as someone who has made a sort of ideological choice. I wish that were the case, but it isn’t. I did not know I had a choice.
It depends on what kind of writing you want to do as a novelist. If I’d wanted to write a fantastic novel, for example, or if I were more interested in abstract, avant-garde-ish novels, my own English might have sufficed. But I’m an orthodox, nineteenth-century-realism kind of writer, and I want every detail to carry cultural weight. I want everything to be completely, verbally, historically sound. As the kind of novelist I am, I don’t think I have a choice to write in English.
I did everything in my power during those twenty years to avoid writing in the English language. The main thing I did, which I think is the stupidest thing I did, was to learn French. I went to graduate school at Yale. I wrote paper after paper in French. I received honors in French. I lived in France. If you look at the past linguistic politics, French was the only language in which you could say, “I don’t know English, but that’s okay because I know French.” Politics played into my psyche but twenty years later, with all due respect to people who write in French and to French culture, what is it to have spent my youth learning French instead of learning English in America? I think it was a very frivolous thing.
However, at the bottom of all these evil conditions is the worthy existence of Japanese literature, modern Japanese literature, which may need some explanation. You think it’s natural that there is such a thing as Japanese literature, but when you consider all the non-Western countries at the turn of the century, it’s very rare to have a national literature. Most countries have been colonized; their principal language has become the language of the colonizer. The well-educated have been schooled in the colonizer’s language—in French, sometimes in Dutch. Japan, because it escaped being colonized—it colonized its neighbors—was able to develop the language to such a high level politically, scientifically, mathematically, and literally. But within twenty to thirty years, between 1867 and 1890, the Japanese language borrowed so much from Chinese tradition and from the southern tradition that it transformed into a wonderfully rich language. My parents brought with them a whole collection of Japanese novels that were published before 1925. Japanese literature is the only non-Western literature that would have a full collection of modern novels by the year 1925. Until recently, I never realized that if I had been brought up Korean, I would not have kept the Korean language the way I did because Korea was occupied by Japan and did not develop a national literature until much later. The same thing even with Chinese, which had a very excellent classical tradition but was unable to develop a modern Chinese literature because of all the political upheavals, and because of Japanese literature.
Japan did have this very early, established national literature played a major role in my choices. I would go to high school and my body would be there but not my soul. My heart wasn’t there. I’d come home from school and start reading all those collected volumes that came from my grandparents’ basement. I read and read and read. By the time I grew up, my Japanese was archaic. People speaking to me would think they were speaking to an old lady.
That is why my first work was a continuation of a novel left unfinished seventy years ago by Natsume Soseki. He is the founder of modern Japanese literature. He had a stomach ulcer and when he was serializing the novel—it was a cliffhanger—he was about to write his ending but he died. That was his last work and it was supposed to represent his last thought on modern Japan. Nobody wanted to touch it. There were so many conjectures about how he would have finished it, but nobody dared to touch it. It was easy for me to do because I was so used to his kind of language, which was now archaic. I was able to start my career finishing that work, which created a rather big sensation in Japan. It was a lucky start for me.
SHAN SA: I apologize, first of all, for my accent. It’s a really horrible, Chinese-French accent because I’m Chinese and I’m living in Paris now and I’m writing in French. I want to share with you my experience on that literary emigration from East to West. I have to first confess that when I was a teenager, I really despised Western culture. My parents went to France, and my father was a professor in a Paris university. He told us about the splendor of Paris and how great French literature is. I was a teenager; I rebelled against that idea. I despised Balzac and Zola and how boring they were. I focused all my free time after school on classical literature, which is so beautiful, so powerful—that is, the literature that China that has gathered from five thousand years like a treasure. It was like a huge ocean that I spent all my time swimming in. It was a very important time for me because when I left China, I had read all the classical novels and I knew the famous Tao Dynasty poems by heart. But now I’ve forgotten them because I have all this language mixed in my mind. Even though I didn’t understand it totally, I really was deeply in love with my Chinese culture.
I left China when I was almost eighteen, and decided to begin a new life in the Western world after Tiananmen in 1989. I arrived in Paris without knowing about French culture because I had refused to see it when I was a child. I didn’t speak French at all. I spoke English, which helped me learn French very quickly. I will always remember my first lesson in French philosophy. My teacher said, “Descartes said, ‘Je pense, donc je suis,’ ” I think, so I am. For Chinese people, and for Asian culture, the human being is a part of the universe. The thinking machine is the universe; the cosmos is not a human being. We’re only a small part of it. Why is it such a hopeful pretension to say that the world is inside our minds, and that because we think, there is the world?
While I made progress in my French, I studied philosophy, but it took a very long time for me to understand “I think so I am.” When I started writing French, four years after my arrival in France, I very fortunately met the French painter Balthus and stayed at his place for two years, working as his secretary. I wrote my first novel in French in the afternoon. His place was a very peaceful chalet in the mountains, and I really had time to read, to visit the beautiful, rich French literature. I fell in love with Flaubert, Maupassant, Madame de Lafayette, and I discovered the difference between Chinese literature and European literature.
The difference is like in painting: In the traditional Chinese way, painters draw the contour, the line. The landscape comes from the few colors but with the simplicity of the lines. Chinese poetry is a work of the imagination. In the traditional European way, painting is laying a base of colors; you use more colors, you get the contour; you can make a portrait, a landscape. It’s a totally different direction of expression.
Asian poetry is about suggestion. We never describe inner voice and consciousness because consciousness doesn’t exist in our tradition. We believe that there is a life after life; we believe in reincarnation. But there is not this kind of space inside the individual. All is about cosmos and collectivity. As a Chinese poet, I won’t say “I hate” or “I love” or “I’m angry.” I will say, “I look at the cloud passing in the heavens. I look at the tree and the seasons are changing.” Those natural landscapes, the feeling that a tree, a flower, the daylight can give me, expresses my emotion. That is the Chinese way to express the individual. The European way is more direct.
When I started to write, I had to find my French, which was an invented language, and I was aware that I was walking on a path where nobody had been. No one could tell me, “That word is good” or “that word is bad,” because when I use a French word, I have my Chinese literariness and I have my Chinese judgment of this world. I wrote my novel. People loved that first version because it was Chinese, not French. Then I corrected it. I think I rewrote it twenty times. I think that is the only way I could learn French—by writing, by touching the words, and then by judging them myself. Now with my fifth novel coming out in Paris in September, I can say that I really know about every word, like so many individuals whose faces I know—I know how they smell, their perfume, how to put them together.
I think writing is a gesture; it’s inventing another language. Every writer has his own language. Writing is quite complex work; it’s work like a composer’s. It’s the music of the voice, different voices. A very powerful novel is one that has very powerful music. It’s like the work of a painter. With a painting, you have to choose the frame and you have to choose the beginning and end. That is the painter’s work and his genius. A writer has to choose pace and a time when the novel starts and when it will be finished. A film director has complex talents because he has to mix music, colors, actions, and the stories together. The writer is a strange animal who has to think about everything and do everything. Writing in another language is just the path but not the place where we want to go, and the place where we want to go is the place of our dreams, the place that everybody wants to go: a place of passion and truth and life and death.