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Elif Shafak: Love is incredibly hard to master*

by - 03 March

Credit: Zeynel Abidin

There are fears of the rise of nationalism and populism in Europe. What should be the answer to it? 
 It is as if we have learned nothing from history. And I am not talking about 500-600 years ago. I am talking about recent history! Europe has suffered enormously from ultranationalism and populist politicians. Millions of innocent people died. And yet here we are, 60 years later, making the same mistakes. There is a disturbing rise in anti-immigration, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Most importantly there is “politics of fear”. The increase of far-right in Europe goes hand in hand with the increase of extremism in the Middle East. In the midst of all this madness those of us who believe in peace and democracy are trying to remain calm and sane. We need to work harder now. Because extremists on both sides are ruining our common humanity.

 How do you see the future of multicultural Europe?
 We are at an important crossroads. The young generations do not recognize the value of a common European ideal. Because they were born into EU they don’t understand the importance of supranationalism. Then there are many discontents who are not happy with the status quo. Many of them can be affected by nationalistic or religious propaganda. This is extremely worrying. Many young people in the Muslim world are affected by extremist propaganda. We need to build a counter-narrative. Humanism is not a passive, romantic discourse. It is a strong counter-narrative that speaks to our hearts and speaks a universal language. A new humanism needs to speak up louder.

 What could be the role of storytelling in building bridges between cultures?
 Art and literature can play an important role at times of conflict and insecurity. Today the art of storytelling is even more necessary than ever before. Hard power and antagonism has divided the world into camps. Art and culture also have power but a very different kind of power. Stories transcend boundaries. Novels, films, poems, songs, stories remind us what it feels like to be the Other. They activate our ability to empathize. There is a lot of scientific research that shows how reading novels increase our ability to empathize. If we do not develop our capacity for empathy we cannot build lasting peace or democracy.

You’ve mentioned many times that you’ve been an introverted child. Your salvation were the books. How do you think introverted people could succeed in an extrovert world?
 Introverts are amazingly sharp observers usually. They carefully observe the world, the people, themselves, finding out the mistakes and follies of humanity. But the problem is that introverts often keep their feelings and thoughts inside. Extroverts on the other hand have great public presence but a smaller inner space. Imagine if we could combine the two? I think that would be beautiful.

 Your TED talk is one of the most watched. Could you give an advice how introverts could feel comfortable with public speaking? 
 I don’t like comfort zones. There is nothing stimulating in there. If speaking in public is hard for us, then we must learn to speak in public. If solitude is hard for someone else, that person must learn the value of solitude. We have to expand our personality. The world is made of water fr the most part. So are we human beings. That means we need to flow, and change. The universe expands all the time. Human mind should do the same. I am still an introvert by nature but I have pushed and pushed myself to go beyond my boundaries. As a result I also have a public persona today who likes to give talks and readings. It really wasn’t easy. And I am still working on it. But I like the challenge.

In your book Black Milk you write: „No reason to feel depressed about being depressed. A depression can be a golden opportunity to collect the pieces and build ourselves anew”. How could one achieve that?
 We are always in a hurry, going from one place to another. From morning till evening we need to rush and do lots of tasks. We do not have the time or the will or the need to stop and think about our existence. But when something unusual happens, such as illness or depression, the rhythm is disrupted. Depression is a chance to stop and look within and then make the necessary changes to become a better person. I learned a lot from my depression.

 You are interested to Islamic mysticism and the idea of an „inner-oriented journey”. What have you learned from this journey? Is this the way to achieve inner harmony and to turn „the potential” into „the actual”?
 I am interested in mysticism. In the universe of mystics there are no “labels” or “categories". Christian mystics, Jewish mystics, Islamic mystics, Far eastern mystics, they are all kindred spirits. I am not interested in religion. I am interested in the essence of religion, in spirituality. I think both the religious and the atheists can be equally over-confident, even arrogant. Whereas I like people who can doubt. People who are not so sure of the ground beneath their feet. We need both: faith and doubt.

Is the balance between motherhood and career possible?  
It is possible indeed. But we have to understand this is not a linear journey. There are ups and downs. there are moments when we find it hard, then there are days when we find it easier. It is OK to have turbulence. balance doesn’t mean no movement.

 You are one of the few writers who speak favorably about social media. How do you think we could best use digital technologies? Some experts claim that they are affecting our skills in critical thinking and analysis?
 It is neither black nor white. Social media has lots of positive sides. It is more egalitarian. Many women who cannot speak up in the public space are active in social media. I see this all the time. I find it important that it can connect people from very different backgrounds. Also, in countries where the conventional media is strictly controlled and where there is no press freedom, social media acquires new roles. Over the years, as the media freedom and diversity visibly shrunk in Turkey, social media became a political platform. On the other hand social media has also lots of problems, such as hate speech, misinformation. We need to be cautious and selective. But we cannot be against social media. that is like being against the wind. Instead of trying to stop the wind we need to understand how to make the most of the wind.

What’s the universal language you speak to touch the souls of so many readers all around the world? How did you master this language?
I dedicated my latest novel to ‘apprentices everywhere” because, “no one told us that Love was the hardest craft to master.” I am an apprentice. That’s how I see myself. I am a lover of learning. I am a student. I am a curious soul who likes to learn. And I know that love is incredibly hard to master.

 What does writing give and take away from you? 
 Writing brings me two opposite things: loneliness and company. Writing novels is based on solitude. It is a very lonely task. But through books you connect with people, East and West. You make so many friends, so many connections. So it has two very different sides. It is a self-centered task, to write. But when you write you are able to go beyond yourself and touch other people’s hearts.

Do you work on a new book? 
I am doing research at the moment for my new book. When a novel finishes I do not start to write the next one right away. I wait a little bit. I listen to the people and to what the universe is telling me. So I am researching and listening at this moment.

 Do you have a mentor? Would you accept to be a mentor to someone?
 I have always believed that it is good to have a teacher but it is even better to have 1000 teachers. When we have a library we have a thousand teachers. I like learning from other people. But I do not put anyone on a pedestal. We do not need heroes. We need inspiration. And inspiration can come from everywhere, little moments, small things. Instead of big heroes, I look for small inspirations. That’s better for creativity.

*2nd part of my interview with Elif Shafak
(You could read the first part here)

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