The Way We Love Now: Elif Shafak
I will talk about how I interpret the relationship between sexuality and fiction writing and the relationship between sexuality and the fiction writer. Most of my remarks will be inspired by my experience as a woman novelist in Turkey. Geographical location is important. In Turkey, we do not like to see ourselves as a Middle Eastern nation. We prefer to call ourselves a European nation. However, as those of you who come to Istanbul know, at the one end of the Bosporus Bridge is written “Welcome to the Asian Continent,” and at the other end of the bridge is written “Welcome to the European Continent.”
The Turkish nation is a threshold society. Although the Turks would like to see themselves as a European nation, we do share many things with the Middle Eastern cultures. When we talk about Middle Eastern cultures and sexuality, especially in the West, almost immediately two things happen: First, it is always women we start talking about. Women become the object of our attention, the object to scrutinize as if there were no other actors or forms of sexuality to talk about. Second, sexuality becomes problematized, if not traumatized. We start talking about honor killings, virginity tests, homophobia, and the colossal issue of the veil. I’m not saying that these things should not be talked about; they should certainly be critically evaluated. However, we oftentimes fail to recognize that this is not what sexuality is all about in the Middle East.
In the Middle East, sexuality is also about delight, pleasure, and yes, sexual perversion and the delight you derive from that. It’s also about not knowing your limits. There’s a long tradition behind that. There’s a long tradition of eroticism, erotic literature, and especially homoeroticism. The interesting thing that happened in Turkey is that in the name of modernizing, secularizing, and Westernizing ourselves, we cut our ties with that erotic literature. This didn’t affect the tradition of the poem, the genre of the poem, very much, but it did influence the genre of the novel because it is a very recent genre, and when it came, it brought us the voice of Westernization. The novelist, oftentimes the cultural elite, did not have any contact whatsoever with that old tradition of eroticism and homoeroticism. For instance, when we look at the Ottoman Empire, books on sexuality—The Perfumed Garden, or not to mention The Thousand and One Nights—these were circulated widely and widely read. So we lost that connection in a way.
The second source through which sexuality could be expressed was Sufi thought, different interpretations of Islam. We tend to regard Islam as if it were just one monolithic terrain. However, there’s a big discrepancy between a more orthodox interpretation and a mystical interpretation of Islam. The latter is very much open to eroticism and the notion of desire and delight. There are many literary examples of this as well, but to tell the truth, it has a resonance with my personal life and my background.
As a child, I grew up with two different grandmothers. I lived with one of them for a short period and with the other for a longer time. At first glance, you would say there is no difference whatsoever between these two women. They come from very similar class backgrounds, they are both Turkish women, they are both Muslim women, and they both read the Koran. However, I think they read it in very different ways and with very different eyes. My grandmother in Smyrna had a god based on fear, the Muslim God. It was like a celestial gaze always watching you from above with a very paternal, patronizing gaze, seeing every sin you committed or you were even thinking about committing. I remember coming back from Smyrna pretty traumatized and not being able to go to the bathroom because if God is always watching you, you don’t want to be seen naked.
The other grandmother was a different story. Again, of the same age group, a Muslim, Turkish woman, she was a woman of folk Islam and superstitions. She would say, “Yeah, the clergy is like that. Religion is like that. But they are bricks and you are water, so they will stand in your way, and you will flow.” Her understanding of Islam was based on love, not fear, and in that understanding there was so much scope for delight and pleasure.
I think that is part of what differentiated me from many other Turkish novelists. The cultural elite in Turkey is cut off from these two traditions, both eroticism as a tradition and the Sufi tradition. My first novel, for instance, is the story of a hermaphrodite dervish with very heterodox views about Islam. He falls in love with an impossible lover—impossible in that he is in love with another man, who is Greek. It is, in a way, transgressing national and ethnic boundaries at the same time.
It was interesting to see how many veiled women brought me the book so I could sign it. Obviously they liked this book. I sometimes ask myself if I had told the same story in a different language, would they still accept that story in their houses? Because I do, as I said, use the tradition of Sufi language, an esoteric language, and the language of eroticism, which already existed in Ottoman times. By using these two traditions, I was able to enter people’s houses, maybe through the back door.
I would like to say a few words about how I interpret the relationship between sexuality and the writer herself. Especially in Turkey, gender is of course a big, big, big criteria. But so is age. We come from a culture in which youth is not a good quality and is not respected. Age is respected. It’s also a society that is very writer-oriented, rather than writing-oriented. When you write about sexuality, or anything else, they read the book but they think they are reading you. People don’t discuss the book, the novel; they discuss you. It puts the writer at the center of attention, which can be suffocating if you do want to write about sex and sexuality.
Women novelists, in Turkey in particular, but in other parts of the world as well, have found three ways to cope: First, they do not write about sexuality until they are old. They wait, they wait, they wait. Then, when they’re safe, they all of a sudden publish this book that is almost pornographic. The second strategy is that you do write about sexuality, but you desexualize yourself. You try not to look feminine, to look more masculine if possible, but to look, in any case, as desexualized as possible so you can be respected. The third strategy is to speed up the flow of time so you can age as quickly as possible. We age very quickly. We jump from the category of virgins to respected old women, and there are many women in their thirties acting as if they’re in their sixties. You derive strength and respect from aging quickly. I try not to follow these three strategies. I try to develop my fourth strategy by going back to the tradition of eroticism and the tradition of Sufi thought.