Elif Shafak (3341 words)

Zeynep Atayurt Fenge (Ankara University)
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Elif Şafak (Anglicised as Shafak) is a contemporary Turkish writer who has received critical acclaim for both her novels and her non-fiction works. To date, she has written eleven novels, one short story collection, seven works of non-fiction, one book of selected quotations, and one children’s book. Her works have been translated into many languages, and have received national and international recognition. She was born in Strasbourg to intellectual parents, her father Nuri Bilgin working in academia, and her mother Şafak Atayman later becoming a diplomat for the Turkish Foreign Ministry. Her parents divorced when she was very young, and Shafak’s mother emerged as the dominant figure, a detail emphasized by Shafak’s adoption of her mother’s forename as her own surname. Travelling with her mother, Shafak spent her childhood and youth in the Middle East, Europe, and the United States. She studied International Relations during her undergraduate studies at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, where she went on to do her master’s degree in Women’s Studies, and continued with a PhD in political science. She has worked as a lecturer in Turkey, the United States, and in England. She was appointed as a Weidenfeld visiting professor in Comparative European Literature at Oxford University in 2018 where she is an honorary fellow. She is also a fellow and vice president of the Royal Society of Literature, and a TED Global Speaker. She lives in Istanbul as well as London, and writes both in Turkish and in English.

Shafak’s interest in languages and different cultures is a defining feature of her writing, and she herself has commented on her “love for words”, pointing out the “magic” of letters in “build[ing] infinite meanings” (“Writing in English”). Thus, Shafak’s lexical subtlety, along with her experience of different cultures, gives rich diversity to her storytelling, enabling multi-faceted portrayals of human life that she situates in a wide temporal spectrum ranging between the 12th century and the contemporary period, and an equally wide geographical span oscillating between the various regions of Turkey and the wider world beyond.

Further, this textual richness creates a panorama of delicately interwoven private and social experiences explored in the context of a vast array of dualities, varying between love/hate, urban/rural, light/dark, pretty/ugly, real/supernatural, hostility/hospitality, history/story through which she unfolds polarised views, divisions, and anxieties, and then situates them side by side in a narrative space where “different cultural elements [with regard to ethnicity, gender, and social class] can meet” (Sazyek 227). Accordingly, her novels display her “continuous interest in the world of stories, magic and mysticism inside the house and the world of politics, conflict, inequality and discrimination outside the window” (“Why the Novel Matters” 40).

Published in 1994, Shafak’s first book Kem Gözlere Anadolu [Anatolia to Evil Eyes] is a collection of short stories into which she interweaves mythology, folk tales, and history into the practices of everyday life. Her first novel Pinhan [The Hidden], which she wrote at the age of 23, was published in 1998 and won The Great Rumi Prize. Set in the Ottoman Period, the novel, which Shafak defines as “very esoteric and ‘introverted’” (“Creating the Story Together” 11), chronicles its eponymous hermaphrodite protagonist Pinhan’s mystical journey towards identity, a journey laden with internal and external confrontations. This critically acclaimed novel epitomizes Shafak’s sophisticated lexicon, containing words from old Turkish which fold into the storyline, functioning as a medium that forefronts the historicity as well as the style of her narrative. Shafak singles this novel out as “the one book of mine that is most difficult to translate into any other languages” (“Creating the Story Together” 11). Although in her later works she does not tend to use such elevated language, her interest in history and temporality situated alongside her exploration of the physical and metaphysical becomes a significant marker in her writing.

Following Pinhan, Şehrin Aynaları [Mirrors of the City] was published in 1999. Set at the end of the 16th century, the novel tells the story of a Jewish family’s escape from the Spanish Inquisition to Istanbul. In fact, in much of Shafak’s fiction, all roads lead to Istanbul – her fondness for the city’s multifarious folds and complex structures that simultaneously accommodate various contradictory positions providing an engaging backdrop to much of her fiction. On a BBC radio programme broadcast in celebration of Istanbul’s year as the European Capital of Culture, Shafak commented on the city’s multi-layered spirit and ambiance, comparing it to “a huge, colourful Matrushka” and to “a hall of mirrors where nothing is quite what it seems” (“Postcards from Istanbul”). This unique feel of Istanbul that houses multiple interwoven folds finds a rich embodiment in her writing and her storytelling. Shafak’s subtle collage of narratives set in different historical periods becomes a defining aspect of her third novel The Gaze. Published in 2000 and translated into English in 2006, The Gaze earned Shafak the Union of Turkish Writers’ Best Novel Prize and brought her international recognition. Alternating between 19th century and contemporary Istanbul, the novel speculates on the implications of seeing and being seen from differing embodied perspectives in a closely-knit polyphonic narrative which blends the supernatural, mysterious world of the fairy tale with a real and modern setting. The textual nuance of the novel is further made manifest by Shafak’s annotation of words, mythical and folkloric references, idioms, and proverbs that are related to the notion of gaze, such as “pupil”, “watchman”, “mirror”, “Janus”, “Morpheus”, “evil eye”, “lead pouring”, creating a dictionary during the course of the narrative which is subtly infused into the body of her text.

Shafak’s captivating storytelling was consolidated with the publication of her fourth novel, The Flea Palace, in 2002, which was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in the United Kingdom in 2005. The Flea Palace is set in an old apartment block built in Istanbul by a Russian aristocrat for his wife at the end of the Tsarist regime. The novel revolves around the lives of the residents of this once stately but presently rundown building in contemporary Istanbul. With a portrayal of cultural diversity resonating with the multi-faceted tone of the city, the novel conversely reads as a critique of the fear of the outside which is represented symbolically by the unpleasant smells and pests penetrating the inside of the apartment. As Shafak stated in an interview, the novel holds a mirror to the fear of difference, or of the other, and thus we see the Bonbon Palace residents striving to push chaos outside their lives motivated by their belief that every kind of dirt comes from the outside.

Shafak’s defence of multiculturalism as an antidote for cultural bias is further developed in the publication of her next novel, The Saint of Incipient Sanities, in 2004. Shafak deals with the notions of identity and the sense of belonging, setting these against the backdrop of multiculturalism and diversity through the lens of four culturally different characters’ experience in Boston, USA, exploring their adaptation, struggle, conflicts, and frustrations. Rumi’s sense of peace and tolerance adheres these characters to one another in such an embracive way that the characters go through the “dichotomy of being ‘different’ and ‘same’ at the same time” (Görümlü 272).

In her 2005 collection of non-fiction works entitled Med-Cezir [Ebb and Tide], she critically examines issues concerning women, culture, identity, language and literature. These issues again find a strong literary embodiment in her 2006 polemical novel The Bastard of Istanbul, which deals with the sociocultural construction of femininity through the experience of three generations of Kazancı women living in Istanbul. The hybridity of Istanbul serves as a spatial parallel to the lives of these women who share the same household but who have opposing beliefs and different ways of lives (such as conservative versus modern), a mix which situates the “celestial sounds of the city” (Bulamur 28) with the “heterogeneity of the city where multiple and contrary political beliefs blend and clash” (Bulamur 117). The novel’s infusion of diversity, plurality, and hybridity is explored by the inclusion of an Armenian American character into the narrative through whom the official history of Turkey is questioned. The novel’s controversial engagement with the history of Turkey, which some critics found one-sided and lacking in nuance, led Shafak to be charged with “insulting Turkishness” under Article 301 of the Turkish constitution, though she was later acquitted of this charge.

The same year Shafak published Black Milk: On Writing, Motherhood, and the Harem Within, an autobiographical work based on Shafak’s experience of motherhood after the birth of her first child. Her memoir is empathetic in its exploration of postpartum depression, breastfeeding, and the way a woman copes with multiple changes during motherhood. Shafak explores this complex experience in the shape of various encounters in different geographies through which she “hints at the fragile commonality of women’s experience” (Zakaria). By elaborate references to influential women writers such as George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Zelda Fitzgerald, Doris Lessing, and the Turkish novelist Sevgi Soysal, Shafak delves into the notion of creativity, and in particular aesthetic creation, and “dislodges the myth of effortlessness in both artistry and motherhood” (Zakaria).  

Perhaps the novel that cemented Shafak’s reputation around the world is the publication of her best-selling work The Forty Rules of Love in 2009, which was included in the BBC’s list of 100 Novels That Shaped Our World. In The Forty Rules of Love, Shafak situates the forty principles of Sufism within a captivating plot structure. Moving across different periods and geographies ranging from the 13th century Ottoman State to the contemporary United States, the novel showcases Shafak’s interest in Sufism, offering a well-constructed narrative that explores the life of Rumi and his relationship with Shams of Tabriz in parallel with an American woman character, Ella, and her relationship with a Sufi writer named Aziz. As Furlanetto points out, the novel “engages in an articulate cultural dialogue with American and Turkish cultures simultaneously” (Furlanetto 210), positing Rumi’s Anatolia as “a most desirable society, capable of redeeming both contemporary Turkey and the United States from their adherence to a ‘culture of fear’” (Furlanetto 211). Thus, Shafak regards the novel as a genre that, by virtue of its polyphonic nature, facilitates stories that, as she puts it, “connect us across borders, and help us to see beyond the artificial categories of race, gender, class” (“Why the Novel Matters” 43). In this regard, in 2009 a collection of selected quotations from her previous works entitled Kağıt Helva [Wafer Halvah] was published, which was followed by Firarperest [The Serial Runaway] in 2010, a compilation of her journalistic writing.

Shafak’s interest in gender, cultural norms, and identity gained momentum in her 2011 novel Honour, in which she engaged with the concept of honour and how it turns into a driving force for violence and murder in a patriarchal family. Set in London, the novel tells the tragic story of a Turkish-Kurdish family’s disintegration following their immigration to London from their village. The main concern of the novel is violence against women and murder in the name of honour. Reminiscent of The Saint of Incipient Sanities, Honour also deals with the complex state of in-betweenness experienced by immigrants in familial and extrafamilial spheres with respect to their struggle for and against a new way of life that lies outside of their sociocultural codes and norms. Honour was longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2013 and for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2012. It was selected as being among the 40 best books of the decade by The Independent in 2019.

In 2011 Shafak also published an extended essay, The Happiness of Blond People: A Personal Meditation on the Dangers of Identity, in which she offered her thoughts on the notion of identity in the context of cultural difference and immigration. This work was followed by a collection of her journalism entitled Şemspare [Şemspare] in 2012, and 2013 saw the publication of her novel The Architect’s Apprentice. The novel was shortlisted for the RSL Ondaatje Prize in 2015. Set in 16th century Ottoman Istanbul, the novel revolves around the elephant tender Jahan’s relationship with the white elephant Chota, his experience in the court, and his service to the architect Sinan – the chief royal architect – within the framework of a world of love, arts, history, and power dynamics. Shafak’s enthusiastic appropriation of the style of earlier literary works and forms is made manifest in The Architect’s Apprentice through her re-envisioning of Thousand and One Nights with regard to Jahan’s “regaling [his beloved] with exotic tales that keep her returning for more” (Feathers 63). Shafak’s employment of this technique of telling a story within a story is further evinced in her 2017 novel Three Daughters of Eve. In this novel, Shafak brings together the lives of three women – Peri, Mona, and Shirin – from different cultural and ideological backgrounds in a narrative that alternates between Oxford and Istanbul with flashbacks to the time when these three women were studying at Oxford. Centred on the Turkish protagonist Peri’s “existential crisis” (Kirkus Reviews), the novel revisits issues that were developed in her earlier works such as love, friendship, politics, religion, spirituality, family, and identity. Following this novel, in 2018 Shafak published Sanma ki Yalnızsın [Don’t Suppose You’re Alone], which is a non-fiction work composed of her essays on culture, gender, and society.

Concordant with the style and multivocal structure of her earlier works, Shafak’s latest novel 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World was published in 2019. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize and for the RSL Ondaatje Prize, 2020, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World was selected as The Blackwell’s Book of the Year in 2019. In this novel, Shafak tells the story of a prostitute called Leila, who in the aftermath of being raped by her uncle is forced to enter an arranged marriage to her uncle’s son, a union which she escapes by running away to Istanbul where she is forced to earn her living as a sex worker. Revolving mainly around Leila’s experiences in Istanbul with flashbacks to her hometown Van, the narrative unfolds and weaves together the stories of Leila’s acquaintances – five different characters who are pushed to the margins of their society due to their non-conforming ways of life. In its critique of the stifling orthodox societal norms, oppressions imposed on women, and violence in public and private territories, the novel unlocks the hidden parts of Istanbul, displaying the city’s dualistic appeal by taking the reader on a journey to the non-touristy places of the city, spaces which are as equally marginalised as her characters.

Following 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, in 2020 Shafak’s second non-fiction work in English – How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division – was published. In this short but subtle composition, Shafak critically examines the transformation of social media into “a forum of shouting and anger”, a platform where “divisions of modern political and cultural debate” take place but with “refusal of all sides to listen to opposing points of view” (Beard). As opposed to this “current climate of intolerance, censoriousness and blind moral certainty” (Beard), she underscores the power of stories as a way of eradicating frictions, factions, and disconnections.

Elif Shafak defines the writer as “nomad” and, on this note, regards her writing as “an open-ended journey” (“The Writer as Nomad”). In a similar fashion, Shafak often constructs her characters as nomadic subjects who are in constant motion and in the process of becoming. In simplified terms, nomadic experience might be understood as a series of linear movements from one point to another, and this experience is explicitly defined in Shafak’s fiction with regard to her characters’ spatial mobility. Thus, these external journeys enable her characters such as Pinhan, Shams of Tabriz, Peri, Jahan, or Leila to gain insight into their inner worlds and increase their awareness of their existence, surroundings, and the need for connectedness. In the course of her narratives, however, this linear experience often morphs into a circular form with an impetus to create a harmonious whole. This circularity manifests itself in her works either stylistically, as in the case of The Gaze in which the ending of the novel takes the reader back to the beginning, or, in terms of characterisation, where one central character is connected to other characters and where characters tend to be situated in equal proximity to each other. Given her philosophical outlook on life, the circularity of her narratives speaks to her interest in the mystical form, laying emphasis on the coexistence of different voices belonging to a whole. Viewed in that respect, her writing tends to harbour a sense of wholeness and connection that allows for multiple identities to cohabit in a narrative space that seeks to eliminate differences by the unifying and transcultural power of love – be it familial, romantic, or mystical. Accordingly, her writing appeals to a broad range of readers from different cultural backgrounds, which ultimately situates Shafak as an eminent author in contemporary Turkish as well as world literature.


Beard, Mary. “How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division by Elif Shafak.” The Guardian, 21st Aug. 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/aug/21/how-to-stay-sane-in-an-age-of-division-by-elif-shafak-review
Bulamur, Ayşe Naz. “Istanbulite Women and the City in Elif Şafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul.” Journal of Turkish Literature, no. 6, 2009, pp. 21-44.
Feathers, Lori. “Elif Shafak. The Architect’s Apprentice.” World Literature in Review, March-April 2015, pp. 62-63.
Furlanetto, Elena. “The ‘Rumi Phenomenon’ Between Orientalism and Cosmopolitanism: The Case of Elif Shafak’s The Forty Rules of Love.” European Journal of English Studies, vol. 17, no. 2, 2013, pp. 201-13.
Görümlü, Özlem. “Elif Shafak’s The Saint of Incipient Insanities: An Issue of Identity.” Selçuk University Journal of Faculty of Letters, no. 21, 2009, pp. 269-79.
Sazyek, Esra. “Mysticism as a Multicultural Tool in Elif Shafak’s Novels.” Bilig, no. 66, Summer 2013, pp. 205-28.
Shafak, Elif. “Writing in English Brings Me Closer to Turkey.” British Council, 19th Nov. 2014, https://www.britishcouncil.org/voices-magazine/elif-shafak-writing-english-brings-me-closer-turkey. Accessed 15 June 2020.
Shafak, Elif. “The Writer as Nomad.” Elif Şafak, 3rd Feb. 2008, https://www.elifsafak.us/en/roportajlar.asp?islem=roportaj&id=16. Accessed 26 June 2020.
Shafak, Elif. “Postcards from Istanbul.” The Essay, BBC Radio 3, 4th May 2010, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00s7d4s. Accessed 17th Sep. 2020.
Shafak, Elif. “Why the Novel Matters in the Age of Anger.” New Statesman, 5-11 October 2018, pp. 40-43.
Şafak, Elif. “‘Creating the Story Together’: An Exclusive Interview with Elif Şafak.” Journal of Turkish Literature, no. 6, 2009, pp. 9-20.
Three Daughters of Eve. Kirkus Reviews, 15 Sept. 2017, https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/elif-shafak/three-daughters-of-eve/. Accessed 22nd Feb. 2021.
Zakaria, Rafia. “The Women Within Elif Shafak.” Elif Şafak, 10th May 2011, https://www.elifsafak.us/en/degerlendirmeler.asp?islem=degerlendirme&id=41. Accessed 19th Jan. 2021.

Citation: Atayurt Fenge, Zeynep. "Elif Shafak". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 27 May 2021 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=14489, accessed 28 September 2022.]

14489 Elif Shafak 1 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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