Still the bestselling Turkish author’s latest book, published this month in the UK by Viking, can certainly be billed as an attempt at achieving this transformative effect.
In “Honour,” her eighth novel, which hit UK bookstores on April 5, Şafak tells the story of the Toprak family, a Turkish-Kurdish family of immigrants in London. The story begins in Turkey’s southeast, on the banks of the Euphrates River, and takes its readers all the way to İstanbul and across Europe to London and then further to Abu Dhabi.
Through the Topraks’ story, Şafak delves into the patriarchal structure of the Turkish family, the society’s view of the male child, and an increasingly hot topic on the country’s agenda, domestic violence.
“Honour,” billed by the British daily The Independent as “an extraordinarily skillfully crafted and ambitious narrative,” is set for US publication in 2013. The book was first published in Turkey in 2011 by Doğan Publishing with the title “İskender,” which is the name of the story’s protagonist.
Şafak, whose bestsellers include “The Saint of Incipient Insanities,” “The Bastard of İstanbul” and “The Forty Rules of Love,” spoke about her newest novel, the weight of being a female Muslim writer, and how books can transform us, in an online interview earlier this week with Today’s Zaman.
“Honour” has just been published in the UK, around a year after its Turkish release. Were you personally involved in the translation process?
Like my previous three novels, I wrote this one in English first. It was then translated into Turkish, which I then took and in a way, rewrote. I have been doing this for years now. It is as if I write the same book twice. It is a lot of work and the only reason why I do that is my love for language. I love commuting between languages just like I love commuting between cultures and cities.
How did you decide to write “İskender,” or “Honour”? How did you conceive the story?
I wanted to focus on a family’s trajectory, on love and heartbreak, and on how we hurt the people we love most. I find families intriguing, perhaps because I did not grow up in one. I was raised by a feminist, independent, single mother, a divorcee. That was very unusual in Turkey in the early 1970s. I spent my entire childhood observing people. I still do.
The book’s Turkish version is named after the protagonist. But the title of the English version is more suggestive of the subject matter. Why?
That was my publisher’s choice mainly. They realized if they named the book İskender or Alexander, most readers were going to think it was a historical novel about Alexander the Great. So my UK and US publishers wanted to focus on the theme rather than a character. The Italian name is even more different. Because my Italian publisher thought if they named the novel Honour, in Italy everyone would think this was a book about the mafia. So instead they named it “The House of the Four Winds.”
How do you think the novel will be received in the English-speaking world?
I don’t know. No author can know these things beforehand. I write my stories, set them free, and once it is published a book belongs to its reader, not to its writer. I have readers from very mixed backgrounds; people of all religions, ethnicities and nationalities. I respect and cherish this. A book is both an individual journey and a meeting of kindred spirits.
As a bestselling author, do you feel the weight of a certain kind of responsibility to recount stories from this particular part of the world -- or that are in one way or another linked to this part of the world?
When you are a female Muslim writer there is an expectation in the Western literary world that you should be writing about the problems of Muslim women per se. I don’t like to be pigeonholed. I like to defy stereotypes and cultural clichés and I do this all the time. Literature is universal. It belongs to humanity. It transcends national, religious and ethnic boundaries.
Do you think men in Turkey read enough?
Men do not read as much as women do. And yet men have bigger opinions than women do and they talk louder, with more conviction. It is because we women keep our thoughts to ourselves most of the time. In Turkey, the overwhelming majority of fiction readers are women. And they make the men around them read. I have so many male readers who come to me and say, “my wife reads your books, she makes me read them too.” I think overall men need to read more and women need to write and speak up more.
Which brings to mind another question: Do you think this novel can transform, at least to a certain extent, the points of view of its male readers on matters such as patriarchal family structure and domestic violence? Can this book help them take a more critical look at this dominant structure?
Books change us. Books save us. I know this because it happened to me. Books saved me. So, I do believe through stories we can learn to change, we can learn to empathize and be more connected with the universe and with humanity. Even very macho male readers can slowly change with the help of stories and novels, it is not easy, but it is not impossible.
Last summer you faced accusations of “plagiarism” regarding a number of similarities between “İskender” and Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth.” And now that your novel has just been published in English, what would you say about the accusations?
In Turkey we are each other’s worst enemy, which I find rather sad. Whenever someone is even slightly creative and different, all kinds of negative things are said by the elite to demean that person. Instead of focusing on new ideas and creativity, we focus on gossip and badmouthing. It was only a few people who made up these false accusations, and it was incorrect and distorted. Zadie Smith herself wrote to me saying she was not taking any of this seriously and nor do I and nor do real booklovers.
You are now based in London. Was this a career-related choice? How frequently do you visit Turkey?
Half of the time I am in İstanbul, and the other half in London. This is the only way I can find an inner balance. When I am divided and fragmented like this, life is harder, much harder, but my mind is more balanced. İstanbul is amazingly inspiring and so beautiful and full of stories and yet it can be rather tiring for us writers and artists.
Is there anything you find easier to say in English than in Turkish?
Turkish is my mother tongue, I have a profound love for the Turkish language. But I dream in two languages. I write fiction in two languages. In time I have realized that when I am writing about sorrow and melancholy, I find it easier in Turkish. But humor, especially irony and satire, I find it easier to write in English.