As unrest continues in Turkey, we revisit Elif Shafak’s thoughts on her experience of transitioning to English from her native tongue and rediscovering the richness of an extinct Turkish 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 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.