These Truths: Fighting Words with Elif Shafak and John Freeman
These Truths is a new, limited-run podcast from the PEN World Voices Festival, exploring literature and the deeper truths that connect us. In a moment that risks tearing our world apart, and when the factual basis of our daily lives is constantly undermined, this podcast explores how literature can help us arrive at the truth and a deeper understanding of what connects us.
Each week, authors wrestle with urgent questions about contested histories, foundational myths, and dangerous manipulations of language rampant in our daily lives. This podcast brings writers and artists of America’s premier international literary festival into homes everywhere while introducing listeners to new books, ideas, and authors on the vanguard of contemporary literature.
In our first conversation, Chip Rolley, director of the World Voices Festival, speaks with critic, essayist, and poet John Freeman and Turkish novelist Elif Shafak about how we can harness the power of language and storytelling at a time when truth is debased and devalued.
CHIP ROLLEY: Words and language are, of course, essential building blocks of storytelling. These are your tools as writers. Do you agree that, as writers, you have a special role as guardians of language?
JOHN FREEMAN: Well, I’m really happy to be having this conversation with Elif, whose work I admire. She’s been such a clinician of the many different ways you can imagine a story. And right now in this moment, with this particular pandemic raging, there aren’t spectacles of unrest, necessarily. You don’t see people wandering the street and in states of terrible illness. It’s happening by and large inside prisons and meat-packing plants and factories, and in hospitals. And so, you have to imagine what’s happening there in order to feel it.
This is in some ways a pandemic of the imagination. All of us begin in our skulls, and we have these private thoughts, and language is the way out of those things. It’s the way of going from a “you,” to a “me,” to an “us.” And without language, those footbridges are just absolutely impossible. The only way out of the skull, really, is the precise use of language and an enlarging idea of narrative. And I mean, precise use of language, in that you have to be very specific about what a word means and clear. And then you have to deploy it, I think, in a story for it to actually mean something.
So, I think we’re not stewards of language, but we are. We’re basically doing what everyone else is trying to do. We’re just doing it publicly.
ELIF SHAFAK: The thing is, for a long time, I’ve had the feeling that if you come from a country where democracy does not exist, or where democracy has been wounded, and if you happen to be a storyteller, I honestly don’t think you have the luxury of being nonpolitical, you know? When I say ‘politics,’ I’m not talking about party politics or partisan politics, but to be political about core fundamental issues, like human rights, rule of law, freedom of speech, women’s rights, minority rights. We need to speak up about all these issues.
So my feeling is, perhaps, more and more of us East and West—more and more authors—have begun to feel that kind of urgency to speak up, which is perhaps not surprising because literature, the way I see it—it’s not only about words.
Of course, as writers, we adore words, and we chase stories, but I feel like we are equally drawn to silences, the things we cannot talk about. And particularly at this moment in time, I think this has become even more important, because as John so beautifully puts it, this is about making the invisible more visible.
You know, we are being told that we’re all in this together. That sounds like maybe a heartwarming, motivating thing. But the truth is, some people are suffering much more than others.
So we need to talk about inequality. We need to talk about the gaps that keep us apart. I do believe that the pandemic has made all those inequalities that did exist previously all the more sharp, vital, and urgent. From now on, inequality cannot be a side issue. It cannot be a footnote. It has to be at the center of all of our debates.
And in that regard, I do not want to go back to the world before the pandemic, because that wasn’t normal. This is a crossroads, I believe, for all of us to rebuild our lives, our worlds, our politics, our systems, hopefully in a much more egalitarian, embracing, pluralistic way. But I’m also worried that the opposite tendencies are pretty much on the way, which is much more tribalistic, more nationalistic, isolationist, and full of paranoia.
And this duality—artificial duality—between us and them. So that, too, is unfortunately very much reinforced with the pandemic. And that kind of narrative uses lots of martial metaphors—military metaphors—and uses language in a completely different way. So, I think as storytellers, this is a crucial time for us to talk about how narratives can be hijacked, how words can be hijacked and misused.
“I tumbled through words I felt were reclaimable—that somehow had possibility in them, like ‘body’ and ‘citizen’ and ‘decency’ and ‘fairness’ and ‘justice’ and ‘norms’ and ‘questions’ and ‘rage,’ ‘teachers’ and ‘voting,’ and ‘you.’”
ROLLEY: Your point, John, reminds me of what Elif wrote earlier this year in the Evening Standard, that “the demise of democracy often starts with language.” Elif, can you tell us more about that?
SHAFAK: What we have seen in Turkey is the demise of language. That’s the first thing that changes—how words are being distorted. For instance, something that is initiated by the government and that is used against journalists, intellectuals, and academics can be called a very benign name—can have a very peaceful name—so that even the word “peace” can be distorted.
And all of that stayed with me, which is not easy for us because, as writers, we believe in freedom of speech. We believe in the power of words. So it’s very painful to see how words can be misused.
But if I may give you another example, even though it’s in a different context, I’ve been living in the U.K. for the last 12 years now, and I’ve seen a big transformation—change in the political language in this country as well, before Brexit and after, through Brexit. So now, words like “surrender”—like if you’re criticizing the government’s Brexit plan—then you are “surrendering” to the enemy. Suddenly, politics has become this war, almost warfare between “us” and “them.”
And I find that very dangerous as well, because at the end of the day, politics has to be about compromise, concession, coexistence. So when language becomes so dualistic, the distinction between “us” and “them” also is sharpened, and coexistence is being eroded.
ROLLEY: John, this sounds like precisely the reason that you decided last year to write Dictionary of the Undoing. You call this a “lexicon of engagement.” Can you tell us a little bit what you mean by that?
FREEMAN: I think I was feeling and watching a lot of the things that Elif has been noticing in Britain, Turkey, and here in the United States.
Every day, I would watch and tune into the news and try to make a coherent narrative out of what had happened. And because the president is so constantly saying something and then claiming he didn’t say it and distorting words, it created an irreality where I felt constantly unsettled and confused as to what was when and what was happening.
I realized I was falling into the trap of this sort of seduction of the disaster spectacle that this president has been putting on since he came into office. And so, I unplugged and just started to think, unreactively, what did I actually believe in? And I started getting up every morning as a way to break this habit, and reading poetry, where the pressure falls on words more than anywhere else.
And it reignited for me something about the power of language—that it wasn’t entirely lost, that its vandalism in public space didn’t mean it was broken. It simply needed to be reclaimed and remade as an intimate thing personally, and then I could use it with confidence. And so, I sat down one morning and wrote about “agitation,” because that’s what this feels like, watching language being vandalized. Oh, [it’s] watching this sort of syntactical violence that’s being done to words so that none of those words can only mean one thing.
And one of the words I saw vandalized the most—which upset me the most—was “love.” I remember not long after the president was elected. He stood before a wall in the Central Intelligence Agency, which has nothing but stars for people that were killed in battle. And he stood before people in that room and talked about the size of his victory, and then he said, “I love you all.” And he says that often, “I love you all.” He’s talking to people as fans, as worshipers, and to me, the word “love” is full of sacrifice, sorrow, longing, creativity, food and family, warmth and touch, and the body. And his words in his mouth—the word “love”—said, “Look at me. I give you back some of my sunshine that you’ve given to me.”
And so, over the next 30 days, I tumbled through words I felt were reclaimable—that somehow had possibility in them, like “body” and “citizen” and “decency” and “fairness” and “justice” and “norms” and “questions” and “rage,” “teachers” and “voting,” and “you.”
In a way, it was a kind of a maniacal project of trying to retrieve my sanity. But in the end, I felt like it had become something that I could give to someone else.
ROLLEY: It’s interesting you should use the example of “love,” because that’s the word that jumped out at me from the book as well. Elif, you’ve described your most recent novel, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, as a love story to Istanbul. Can you tell us how you use storytelling to give meaning to that idea of love and to ensure that it has integrity?
SHAFAK: I think when we tell a story, maybe what we’re trying to do is to show how all these feelings are much more nuanced. You know, nuances are important, and I feel this in my heart. In a world that’s becoming more and more polarized, [we need] not to forget that we can think, speak, and write in a much more nuanced way than the way that’s being imposed on us. Also, I want to bring the periphery, if I may put it this way, into the center. Because the way mainstream narratives work, there are so many stories that have been silenced, erased, forgotten. I’ll try to give you an example. Turkey is a country with a very rich history, but a society of collective amnesia. And our entire relationship with the past is full of ruptures. And those silences—those voids—are being filled by ultra nationalistic or religious interpretations.
And so, to be able to ask small questions [like], how would I feel if I had been maybe an Armenian silversmith or a Jewish miller in the Ottoman Empire? What would be my life like? Or if I were a concubine, to ask those micro questions about individuals. I think it’s incredibly important.
Or to ask those questions about today. And then you realize there are so many people out there whose stories we never hear—never ever read in history books or in mainstream narratives.
And I think when I speak about love, belonging, non belonging, or exile, there’s always a desire in my heart to give more voice to the voiceless.
FREEMAN: One of the things I love about Elif’s books is the way it gives the reader so many different maps of the place.
There’s a kind of seeing of a place and mapping it, in three dimensions that great novelists can do. And I think what I’m hoping for with novels, in this moment going forward, is that we remember the importance of mapping, because it’s spatially as connected to our imaginations and our ability to dream in complexity as language itself is. And so, I love nothing more than when there’s a book set, as Elif’s last novel is, in a recognizable real world, because it can show me places that maybe I haven’t been.
“In that regard, I think culture and language also play an important role to sustain a democracy. My worry is, we live in an age in which there’s a lot of information, a bombardment of misinformation, but less knowledge and even less wisdom.”
ROLLEY: There’s a similar sensitivity to the idea of spacing and the demarcations that we impose upon our environment in your latest collection of poetry, John, published this week and called, The Park. Tell us a little bit about that and how that enterprise relates to some of the things we’re talking about here in terms of language and preserving the integrity of language, but also using language as a way to map ourselves out of this and toward a better place.
FREEMAN: Well, like Elif. I’ve spent, strangely, a large chunk of my life in France. I teach there and live, when I’m there, on a street just north of Saint-Sulpice, right below the Luxembourg Gardens. Four years ago, after I turned in my last collection, I went to the park every day, and I would sit there in a state of bewilderment thinking, “How can something so beautiful and so open exist while so many infernal things are happening in the world?” And then, gradually, as I sort of slowed down and began to notice the park itself, I realized it wasn’t simply a kind of cupped paragon of beauty being held out to the luxurious traveler. Life was going on in there. There were people weeping. There are people praying. People breaking up or getting together. People eating. There were migrants in the park who were chased out of the park, and everything I thought was outside the park was in. But one thing I noticed, in particular, was just how much more readily people would coexist in a space in the park.
How much more willing to do that they were versus, say, online or in the public sphere of political debate—and in that sense, “politics,” as in political parties. It gave me a lot of hope that I could sit beneath wildlife or birds of prey, and they could get on doing what they were doing. I could sit next to people that were deeply and vastly different from me. And yet, we could coexist. It made me realize that we need to cultivate spaces for coexistence and think about where those are, and make them more open to people who are being shut out of them.
And in some ways, that made me think in a utopian way of a nation. What if a nation was more like a very open park, versus a kind of castle? What would a nation feel like if you were to think of it that way?
ROLLEY: I want to return to this idea of the hollowing out of language. It predated the pandemic, and accompanied this sort of escalation in authoritarian tendencies in the United States, the U.K., and around the world. It was already creating a sense of alienation partly out of the daily drip of scandal, abuse of language, the questioning of reality. Now we add the pandemic, and the forced isolation we are all facing on top of that.
So, I wonder, how do you think we chart our way out of this? Both during this isolation and after? How do we use the tools we have to resist, to make connections between what you’re doing as writers and what needs to be done for society at large?
SHAFAK: In many ways, the pandemic needs to be a wake-up call for all of us. And the timing couldn’t have been worse. Of course, there’s no good time for a pandemic, but this happened at the time when, already, we were experiencing an erosion of liberal, pluralistic democracies all across the world.
And maybe now we know that democracy is a much more delicate ecosystem of checks and balances. You might remember not that long ago, [in the] early 2000s, there was so much optimism across the world. People thought, thanks to digital technologies, there was going to be democracy everywhere. We were all going to become globally connected. No more nation-states would exist, but there wouldn’t be nationalism in the same way. And certainly no religious fundamentalism, etc. All of those predictions failed. Now, from that kind of optimism, I think we have swung to the opposite—pessimism and anxiety, and in many ways, it’s the era of angst.
And like you, I ask myself, “How do we move forward?” I think we need to bear in mind countries like Turkey and Russia. Turkey has elections—regular, relatively regular elections. Turkey is not a democracy. Russia has elections. Russia is not a democracy. All I’m saying is, the ballot box in itself is not enough to sustain a democracy.
So, in addition to elections, we need rule of law, separation of powers, and freedom of speech. Definitely respect for media freedom, women’s rights, and minority rights. So, together, with all those components and a healthy, robust civil society, a democracy can survive.
In that regard, I think culture and language also play an important role to sustain a democracy. My worry is, we live in an age in which there’s a lot of information, a bombardment of misinformation, but less knowledge and even less wisdom. So I make a distinction between information, knowledge, and wisdom.
And I think too much information, actually, is an obstacle in front of knowledge. As for wisdom, that’s something else altogether. Because wisdom requires us to bring the heart and the mind together. For wisdom, we need emotional intelligence. For wisdom, we need empathy. And for that, we need stories. So, one of the questions that I ask myself is, “How do we lessen the amount of information that we’re subject to every day because we can’t process it?” That’s the truth, but increase our knowledge, and hopefully in the long run, increase our wisdom and empathy.
“We as citizens, who are living through this time, need to remember that we can build spaces of care amongst ourselves—that we don’t always have to look directly to the top for direction. That we can look to each other.”
ROLLEY: John, how do you see our path forward to making connections either during this time or indeed after this period of imposed isolation due to the epidemic?
FREEMAN: Oh, well, I agree wholeheartedly with everything that Elif just said. In her new novel, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, she has this term “water family” that applies to a group of, kind of, prostitutes, misfits, and people who are so far at the margin of society that they almost have the freedom to make up a new space, a new name for themselves. I’ve always loved cities, and I’ve loved novels set in cities. And I think right now, we’re in such a cruel phase of human history, because the gap between the have’s and have not’s is so great that it creates enormous pressure on a large part of the population.
In order to preserve this gap, constant and actual violence has to be done to keep it going. And Elif was right when she said that the world that we left coming into this pandemic was out of control. So the future, I think, has to be communitarian. If you’ve noticed right now, as the federal government in the United States just totally walks away from its role of care, fellow citizens are helping each other. People are giving money to go into food banks. This has been and will be an ongoing instinct in human civilization, which is giving care to others and sharing pain, sharing burdens. It’s not just an act of resistance; it’s a kind of almost factual truth. That’s what we do when times are difficult. And so, I think, in addition to all the actual policies that need to be put into place, that there does need to be a rule of law, separation of powers, that there needs to be free, fair, open, unmolested elections.
But there needs to be free speech. The media needs to be diverse and independent. We as citizens, who are living through this time, need to remember that we can build spaces of care amongst ourselves—that we don’t always have to look directly to the top for direction. That we can look to each other. And in some ways, I think that’s a kind of federalist map of the empathic—localities that make up, say a nation, or the United States, or even a city—that a city is a map of those places. And within those, there is a role for the storyteller, because some stories need to travel in order to mean something.
In a small-scale frame, we can start this at home, thinking about the stories we tell the children. Everyone right now who has children is educating them at home. Think about how you educate, what you expect of education, and what kids get when they go back to school.
And then thinking just in terms of decency. Who do you open a door for? Who do you listen to? And beginning in those very, very small ways. If we’re all doing it simultaneously, it can have a massive change in how society operates and feels. It will be intolerable, in a society that is acting more decently amongst each other, to tolerate the indecencies of power that we see around the world today.
ROLLEY: I’m sort of transfixed by the idea of this term that you’ve pulled from Elif’s novel—the “water family,” as opposed to a blood family. In that term alone, it underscores the possibility of imagination or reimagination of our circumstance. The ability for imaginative and creative power to put an imprint on us to change our reality. Is that something that you see might hold promise for us, Elif, either through storytelling or in our life and in our interaction with each other as a community?
SHAFAK: I do. I do indeed. Especially, maybe in Turkey, I’ve seen this, because when democracy is lost, it’s difficult to be different in a country where there is no respect for diversity—if you are different in the eyes of the state or in the public eye, different for whatever reason. This could be the color of your skin; it could be your sexual identity; it could be how you look physically—whatever reason. Then, I think, life would be difficult for you. So, especially among people who are being pushed to the periphery, I have seen these bones of solidarity and sisterhood becoming all the more important.
And these bones keep us alive. They keep us going. I think water families are so important, and they go beyond tribes, because we find each other—and maybe we’re all tribeless in that regard.
There’s a beautiful story in Rumi’s Masnavi that stayed with me when I read it years ago. He talks about a sage who was walking in the forest one day, and he realizes there’s a stork and a crow flying together and feeding together, and he was very surprised, because these birds belong to different flocks, different tribes.
They should not be socializing. And then, he realizes that other birds are joining them, so he takes a closer look. He notices each and every one of these birds has either a broken beak or a hurt wing, or maybe there is a lame bird, and then they found each other.
And they helped each other. So that, to me, is an important metaphor. We are bruised by the systems, the cultures, the societies, the inequalities, injustices we go through. But we can find each other, and we can build our own water families.
“At the end of the day, I think a novel tells us that there’s much more to reality than has been told to us.”
ROLLEY: One of the guiding questions for this podcast series is a quote from filmmaker Werner Herzog, that “the deeper truth is an invented one.” I want to ask you both, as writers of fiction, essay, and poetry, how does storytelling bring us to deeper truth? When we speak of the deeper truths illuminated by literature, what do we mean by that?
FREEMAN: Well, I think of the feeling I have whenever I read a novelist I love, whether it’s Elif or Naguib Mahfouz, who wrote The Cairo Trilogy. Or Alaa Al Aswany, Toni Morrison.
I think what novelists can do, in an imaginary setting, is not reveal something that is unknown to us. It can tell us what is already known to us, and that is somewhat obscured by the containers in which we live. Be it nationality, ethnicity, tribe, or religion. While those are very important and worth respecting simultaneously, they often get in the way of realizing connections that we have with many other people across the globe. And so, the novelist, by making us dream and while sitting still, I think, can remove those containers. And that’s the truth that they reveal. It’s not a hidden truth; it’s one that we know and just had obscured.
SHAFAK: Sometimes I hear readers saying with all good intentions, “I don’t have time for fiction. I read politics. I read history, philosophy—important stuff. I don’t have much time, and I want to understand what’s happening in the world, so I don’t read novels.”
And when I hear that, I really feel sad because, why are we compartmentalizing knowledge in that way? I think a novel is about everything. Anything. There is history in it. There is philosophy in it. There is politics in it. There’s everything inside a novel. And whether we are dentists, fashion designers, or engineers, I don’t know a single human being who doesn’t need emotional intelligence in life.
And that’s what the novel builds: our emotional intelligence, our empathy. John mentioned kindness—I think it is so important. Compassion. I love that kind of storytelling. I think I also love humor, which is sometimes difficult to explain, but it’s so essential. Humor is our oxygen, and it’s not a coincidence that countries that have lost their democracy have also lost the ability to laugh in public space. You can’t laugh at people in power anymore. You can’t make jokes anymore. So cartoonists will also be incarcerated, along with writers and journalists. That is not a coincidence. Humor is incredibly precious. But I’m not talking about the kind of humor that looks down upon people. The kind of humor that is more compassionate—that is, you also laugh at yourself as the writer. It’s a much more egalitarian, embracing kind of humor.
I find that is very important as well. At the end of the day, I think a novel tells us that there’s much more to reality than has been told to us. If I may share this very briefly, I went to school in Turkey. I swallowed a very nationalistic interpretation of history. I will never forget the day I read as a young high school student. . . that the first day I started reading The Bridge Over the Drina, there was a scene in that novel when two peasants in the Balkans are talking about the Ottoman Empire, and they’re talking about the Janissaries. One of them says, “Well, thanks to the system, poor boys were given a good education,” which is half the truth.
But then the other one says, “Are you sure? Because of the system, all these Christian boys were taken from their families. They never saw their mothers again. They never spoke their own language again. Their entire identity was erased. So maybe, they weren’t given an education in the palace, but at the expense of what?” It seemed like a simple question, but to me, it had never occurred—to us, how did these families feel when their children were taken away from them for the Janissaries system in the Ottoman Empire? So, it was a novel that made me take a closer look at history rather than history textbooks.
These Truths is a production of the PEN World Voices Festival. Nancy Vitale produced and edited the series. Clarisse Rosaz Sharyif, Nicole Gervasio, Jared Jackson, Viviane Eng, and Emily Folan provided editorial and research assistance. Destry Sibley consulted on this episode.
About Elif Shafak
Elif Shafak is an award-winning British/Turkish novelist, public speaker, and advocate for LGBTQ and women’s rights. She writes in both Turkish and English and has published 17 books. Her work has been translated into 50 languages. Her latest novel, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and chosen as Blackwell’s Book of the Year. Her previous novel, The Forty Rules of Love, was chosen by BBC among 100 Novels That Shaped Our World. Shafak holds a Ph.D. in political science, and she has taught at various universities in Turkey, the United States, and the United Kingdom, including St. Anne’s College, Oxford University, where she is an honorary fellow.
About John Freeman
John Freeman is the editor of Freeman’s, an award-winning literary annual published by Grove Press. He’s also the author and editor of nine books including Dictionary of the Undoing; Tales of Two Planets, an anthology of new writing on inequality and the climate crisis; and The Park, a collection of poems. His work has appeared in The New Yorker and The Paris Review, and has been translated into 24 languages. The executive editor of Literary Hub, he lives in New York City, where he is an artist-in-residence at New York University.