The Forty Rules of Love: Conversations With Elif Shafak

Photo from Hurriyet

On the occasion of the publication of Elif Shafak’s new book, The Forty Rules of Love (Viking 2010), in English, I’m posting some discussions of the book and her life as an author. There’s more about her on her website (click here). I admire her books very much — her creativity and inventiveness with language, her ability to inspire the present with intellectual and moral insights from the past. I also admire Elif Shafak as a person, sincere and vulnerable, who has turned hardship into shared treasure through the alchemy of fiction.

Here are some excerpts from reviews and interviews (Hurriyet also has an interview in English, click here):

In Turkey, award-winning novelist Elif Shafak is a mega-star, the bestselling author of nine acclaimed books (seven of which are novels), and the most widely-read female author in the country… (click here for the rest of this interesting interview with Elif Shafak by LA Books Examiner)

…Shafak, 39, studied international relations and political science in the US and spends several months a year teaching at the University of Michigan. Of her nine books, four have been published in the US. Her work is translated into 25 languages.

In 2006, Shafak shocked her readers with Black Milk, a nonfiction account of her battle with postnatal depression after the birth of her daughter. It will be published in English next year. “The title came from my grandmother saying that if you cried too much the milk would turn sour. I wanted to show that mother’s milk is not always as white – that is, spotless – as society likes to think. Out of that black milk I got ink, with which to write not just about my experience but that of other women.” Men wrote her letters, thanking her for explaining the syndrome.

“The topic was not discussed in Turkey because motherhood is so sacred here,” but also it was not considered a “literary” topic, she says. “It was too physical, too petty. It’s an irony that my grandmother’s generation was more in touch with the body than today’s. They had wisdom passed down through the ages about not leaving a woman alone for 48 hours around the birth. They tied red ribbons around the room to ward off bad spirits. We might dismiss that as superstition but maybe it helped prevent the kind of anguish I went through.”

Magical realism permeates Safak’s fiction, with djinns (spirits) interrupting and influencing characters’ thoughts, prompting inevitable comparisons with Isabel Allende. Both embrace superstition as part of their writing routine. While Allende begins each new book on the same day of the year, Shafak always writes hers wearing a pair of purple, fingerless gloves. Around her neck she wears a small talisman to ward off the evil eye.

Born in Strasbourg as the only child of a philosopher father and a diplomat mother, Shafak remained with her mother when her parents divorced and led a nomadic life growing up in Madrid and Amman. She admits she has found it hard to settle down. “I commute between cultures, genres and languages. The story tells me which language to write it in.”

She published her first novel at 24, taking her mother’s first name as her pen name (which is also spelt Safak and Shafik). Now she divides her time between Turkey and the US with her husband, a journalist, and two children.

[Her new book] The Forty Rules of Love is imbued with sufi mysticism, which may puzzle Western readers unfamiliar with the teachings of Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet, philosopher and mystic whose followers founded the order of Whirling Dervishes. The novel shifts to and fro between his travels on a spiritual path and the world of Ella Rubinstein, an American Jewish housewife (think of a heroine written by Australia’s Lily Brett) who is reading a manuscript about Rumi for a publishing house… (click here for full interview)

13 Responses to “The Forty Rules of Love: Conversations With Elif Shafak”

  1. JW,

    I admire her books very much — her creativity and inventiveness with language, her ability to inspire the present with intellectual and moral insights from the past.

    I too would like to be able to participate in that admiration.
    Would you care to elaborate (or, at least, give some examples/samples) on ‘her creativity and inventiveness with language’ –and which language?
    Unless, of course, you’re hinting at the way she writes her name in English (i.e. Elif Shafak as opposed to ‘Elif Şafak’ in Turkish).
    If so, wouldn’t it be a lot more creative if she used ‘Aleph Shafuk’ (or variants thereof, perhps with light innuendos of connections to Anatolian Cybele)?
    Secondly, regarding “her ability to inspire the present with intellectual and moral insights from the past.”.. I am not sure your admiration is shared by those who know the subject.

    The Forty Rules of Love is imbued with sufi mysticism, which may puzzle Western readers unfamiliar with the teachings of Rumi, [..]

    While, personally, I am no fan of men skirting around love of God and what not under the guise of dervishes, I doubt if the puzzlement expected of Western readers will be any greater than that of the author herself.

  2. Like CA, I was just thinking about the level of Safak’s creativity and inventiveness in the way she wrote her last name on the cover of her latest book. The very same set of questions resurfaced when I tried to give Safak’s work another chance by reading “Kagit Helva”, which was simply a compilation of nice quotes by others – making me agree – to some extent – with those who criticize the contemporary Turkish literature for producing “pop pieces for sale”. I have not read her latest book but it sounds like it has the Sufism flavor, which has been a popular taste for the Western appetite for quite some time. I still wonder why I attempted to read “Siyah Sut” which made me unnecessarily depressed. I must admit I could not finish it. Perhaps I need to read more of her work to come up with a more refined critique.

    But I admire the fact that she writes well (meaning that better than I can) in two languages.

  3. Elif Safak is a good example of the new wave of Anglo-American writers, who turn their lives into projects, twist the logic of Foucault’s words on ‘life as art’. Her only book I respect, in that sense, is her first, Pinhan.

    “Siyah Sut”, for example, is a direct ‘outcome’ of “Let’s play some Sylvia Plath in the Occident”. Sensing the project mentality, that’s why she was ‘kindly’ fired from Metis -in spite of her money generating books- and transferred to Dogan, a pulishing co. that she will work better with.

    I’m not even mentioning “Ask”, which is number one in the neo-Islamist bookstores such as NT> Mr. Cundioglu, a well-respected theologist gave her an intellectual spanking as CA mentioned.

    Well, I know that turning ouyr life into a marketing project might be prerequisite to penetrate into Anglo-American markets, but this will not stop bugging me. We have much better authors in this country, who kept, keeps, and will keep away from this immoral marketing stance.

  4. Well, CA, this has been said of her use of language (inventiveness) in her previous work:
    However, a novel is first of all a structure of words, and it has to be said that the structure is sometimes shaky in this one. Certainly we British must be on our guard against looking upon the English language as the last of our colonial possessions, quite failing to notice that it was lost long ago under the combined assault of a billion or so people all over the globe who regard it as theirs too, and often use it more vividly and inventively than we do. There is also the risk of being regarded as an inmate of a Home for Aged Pedants who has been let out for the day. All the same . . . “A tortuous moment,” what can that be? How can a person’s nose be called “blatantly aquiline”? How can you “listen to your Middle Eastern roots”? What does it mean to say that “sex is far more sensual than physical” or to describe a truth as “stringent and stolid”? These perplexities intensify at times to outright rebellion. No, no, no, a person cannot, at one and the same time, be “almost paralyzed” and “wallowing” in something. A gaze of mutual love cannot be called, in the same breath, “a prurient moment.”
    (From here, the opinion is from Barry Unsworth, WP.)
    I’m not qualified to comment on either the use of the English language (or its American variety) or the piece of literature in question itself. Having watched Jenny praise certain others here, though, and having read some of Safak’s (and her husband’s) columns I’d say she fits in with a vague sense of a profile of a crowd and a bunch of attitudes that are shaping up in my mind. Suffice it to say, what I seem to sense is not exactly what I’d have expected from increased US-Turkish interaction. I was naively expecting what us techies got out of our ties with (and education in) the US. I mean such things as a healthy amount of respect for the truth and solid methods of seeking it. Instead we get spin, propaganda and inane marketing passed off as respectable opinion with manifest conceit and the imprimatur of the ‘West.’
    As for who shares whose admiration for what and, indeed, who exactly knows which subject be it Rumi or not, I’d say get with the times: marketing and advertising carries the day. Experts are those who manage to pass themselves off as experts, and the truth is what sounds fashionable and palatable among people who count. Even my reaction to all this is no longer ‘conservative’ mind you, because that, too, has been redefined to mean the folks who have no compunction about talking from both sides of their mouths (in several languages, no less) as long as they refer to religion.
    Going back to inventiveness with language, to tie it into my ill-temper about all this, I’ll quote from Carrol’s work: “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” In a significant sense, we can take pride in having bested Humpty Dumpty, because we don’t seem to even know what we mean any more. Perhaps, though, some semblance of the truth can still be gleaned through all this disgraceful rubbish with proper training that would provide the prophylactic device Rumi himself once described. It might even be more than a simple gleaning and be like the blissful edification that Rumi seems to imply. Without that kind of a protection, though, the fate of our brains is as described in the link I just gave except, of course, we don’t cease to exist after that kind of a penetration but go around spreading nonsense. Puzzlement, as you say, is probably an apt description but it would take some sense to recognize it as such. I’m not sure we have much of that kind of old fashioned sense left.

  5. A few years ago, a woman/lady (speaking in one of the many of those roundtable discussions on TV about the headscarf issue) asked this question: “You are telling me that I misrepresent ‘Turkish woman’. Well.. in what way do you think those without headscarf do? You see exact replicas in US, Germany, UK, France etc. So, how do they –being carboncopies of ‘Western’ women, hair color included– represent Turkish women better than I do?”
    Ever since, the question nags me.
    Elif Safak is –in my eyes– a typical example of that sort of travesty.
    She first writes those novels in English and other people (other than herself) translate them into Turkish.
    The moment I heard her say this, I felt nauseous.
    No, not because everyone has to think and write in Turkish, but those who market themselves as among the paragon of female Turkish writers should at least make the effort to immerse themselves in that culture.
    She doesn’t.
    To me, she is a tasteless Arby’s roastbeef sandwhich (self-)packaged to fool as delicious dürüm.

  6. And my point is that she is selling “Arby’s roastbeef sandwich packaged to fool as delicious durum” because her market demands an Arby’s roast beef sandwich disguised as delicious durum. Thus, we end up with distorted realities and highly romanticized depictions of Turkey.

  7. She may be a good writer, but I can’t stand the rubbish she writes about “spirituality” and all these Gulenist things. Besides, she is married to an Islamist. I won’t be surprised if one day she would veil herself.

  8. Thus, we end up with distorted realities and highly romanticized depictions of Turkey.

    Last I checked there was a very sizable demand and an incredibly lucrative market for snatched organs; but, that –somehow– didn’t compel me to sing praises to sad realities of life.
    I need to learn to hate that romantic in me; needn’t I?

  9. I think the problem, in part, is related to the dose of spirituality and mysticism one is exposed to. To the Western world these are simply exotic flavors that enhances their taste. But living in the middle of a silo where such flavors are in abundance runs the risk of delirium and catatonia distorting the reality beyond recognition.

    What disappoints me the most in this exchange is that we come to export these flavors in a rather dishonest and undignified way. We seem to do whatever it takes to sell. Thus we end up with “on demand” writers/journalists/reporters/cartoonists becoming experts in faculties they have limited comprehension of. Anything for a moment of fame at Western markets…. just give us the topic…

    Should this compel us “to sing praises to sad realities of life” as CA rightfully stated? Absolutely not. But that requires convincing the West to control its consumption of the exotic.

  10. Cingoz,
    It might be worse than that. Popularity in the West is getting leveraged into influence domestically. It perhaps doesn’t matter as much for literature (since people here don’t tend to read much anyway), but I suspect we see that in political discourse and related work too.
    There might be immense convenience in referring to and perhaps adopting the Westerner’s local frameworks and prevailing political attitudes — especially, I imagine, in securing foreign funding. That warps the local discourse and turns people that this society could truly benefit from into somewhat useless — but nonetheless famous — pleasers of some foreign audience while at the same time helping them rise to prominence here with all the influence on subsequent work that would entail.
    It is like a starving country dedicating its highly-trained horticultural talent to the production of exportable rare orchids — but worse. Because food, being a commodity, can be imported but work that would help make sense of the goings on here probably cannot be done elsewhere by other people.

  11. Quite simply, I enjoyed ‘The forty rules of love’ and though I am a ‘westerner’ living in Australia (not my birth country) like a lot of reasonably well read people, I am familiar with Rumi and to some extent understand what Sufism is about.
    Mysticism isn’t confined to the East either. What people refer to as mysticism, may to others simply mean any non-orthodox means of seeking God/Enlightenment. The loving heart/by extension is open… And isn’t bound by so-called-normal conventions/restrictions.

  12. Hahaha, yes, all the players — except perhaps the consumers of culture in the West — understand, acknowledge and even take pride in the basest commercialization and marketing: ‘Marka 2010’ ödülü Elif Şafak’ın.

  13. I found The Forty Rules of Love one of the most beautiful, inspiring books I have ever had the privilege of reading. It is now dear to my heart after taking me deeper into myself and my relationship to God. In deep gratitude.

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