In search of the silent letter: Elif Shafak's quest to find a voice for forbidden truths

The Turkish author of this year's 'Big Bath Read', has travelled not just between cultures but between languages.

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

I was born left-handed, though I am not anymore. My conversion to being right-handed took place when I started school at the age of six. After their separation my father had stayed in France; my mother had brought me to Turkey and was now a working single mum—an oddity in that middle-class neighborhood of Ankara. It was Grandma who took care of me. Strong, stubborn, superstitious, she was a healer to boot. People with skin diseases came to see her from all over. She healed warts, scars, eczema, and at times, broken hearts. For several years, despite being repeatedly corrected, I called Grandma, "anne", mother. My own mother I called "abla", big sister.

As a lonely child my best friends were stories. Mostly I had to do with my own imagination since there were few books in Grandma's house—a Qur'an in a blue silken sheath, a thick tome of the Islamic Interpretation of Dreams, the love story of Farhad and Shirin, the love story of Joseph and Zuleikha, the love story of Layla and Majnun, the Adventures of Nasreddin Hodja and the Elementary Principles of Philosophy, which my leftist uncle had somehow forgotten and which, after the military takeover in 1980, would become the first book to be banned in Turkey.

It was the Interpretation of Dreams that I greatly enjoyed. I could start right in the middle or skip pages or peruse it backwards to my heart's content. It was a palace with marble corridors, secret passages and a thousand chambers. It showed me how everything in this world had two sides—the visible and the invisible—and I had to decipher the meaning the way that I disentangled each knot in my hair.

I had taught myself how to read. How to write, however, remained a mystery. Every time I grabbed the pencil, Grandma reminded me to use my right hand. When I started school the teacher was less gentle. I was told to "punish" my naughty left hand for trying to snatch the pencil from my right hand, to whom it belonged. I was to keep the culprit, the transgressor, under the desk. Yet whenever I attempted to write, my left hand, involuntarily, would crop up and crawl towards the pencil. Finally, the teacher came up with a solution. The colourful, gauzy scarves she was so fond of wearing, she now used to tie my left hand to the desk.

Back then, the student who learned how to write would receive a red velvet ribbon to wear with pride all year round. Although I was an early reader I became the last in my classroom to get that ribbon pinned on my chest. I might have never learned to write, were it not for the presence of one letter. The Turkish alphabet contains 29 letters. One of them is an outsider. I had noticed her immediately. While the other letters chattered and cracked jokes, she was silent as the morning breeze, observant and introverted. Not a single word in Turkish can start with this letter. She can be written down but cannot be read aloud. Her name is the mute-G or the ghost-G. That letter was like me, I decided. The freak. The oddball. The outcast.

In my fiction I have always been drawn to the people in the margins—minorities, castaways, subcultures. I connect with them through the gate that the mute-G opened up for me. When The Bastard of Istanbul came out, they said I must be a closeted Armenian, otherwise why would I write about "them". When The Forty Rules of Love was published they said I must have heterodox Sufis in my family; otherwise how should I have any knowledge of "them". When Honour came out, they said I had no right to tell the story of Kurdish immigrants in London, unless I confessed Kurdishness in my ancestry.

Identity is a colossal issue in Turkey - and a divisive one. You are either "here" or "there"; either one of "us" or one of "them". The Kemalists and the conservatives can be surprisingly similar in their dualistic rhetoric. Between equally intolerant clashing meta-narratives there is barely any breathing space for the likes of the mute-G; those who love multiplicity, diversity, ambiguity and, yes, perplexity.

Where does the West begin? Where does the East end? Turkey is a threshold society. Yet it rarely, if ever, values the complexity and diversity that in-between-dom entails. Starting with ultra-nationalism and religious fundamentalism, all extremist ideologies try to compel us to think and feel and act in dualistic terms. You are "this" or "that".

I cherish diversity and lament the loss of cosmopolitanism. I write in both English and Turkish. There are things I find easier to say in English, particularly humour, irony, satire and cynicism. Some other things come effortlessly in Turkish—melancholy, for instance. Yet it is the commute between cities and cultures, as much as the nomadic existence it generates that I treasure: the freedom to move. Languages are portable homelands. We are attached to our mother countries, true, but we also need an "elsewhere" to keep us sane against her dogmas.

Throughout the years I lived in Ankara, Madrid, Amman, Cologne, Istanbul, Michigan, Boston, Arizona, and settled in London. English is my third language and my great passion and place of shelter. Turkish is my first beloved. Spanish, in between, is an old flame. Every language changes, shapes, challenges and enriches us. I have met Turkish ladies, brought up as modest girls, who can never swear in Turkish and yet swear a blue streak when they speak English. I have met students, exiles and immigrants who dream, night after night, in more than one language. The Interpretation of Dreams of my childhood cannot fully grasp the dreams of multiple selves that we have become in the age of migrations and displacements.

When writing Honour I wanted to capture the silences inherent in Kurdish culture, which Harold Pinter narrated so powerfully. For many years we were told there was no such thing as Kurdish. It was a mountain dialect, a distorted Turkish. Gradually, the state ideology changed. Then it was said there was a language called Kurdish, but it wasn't sophisticated enough to produce literature.

Simultaneously, I was interested in the silences of women. Being female, Kurdish or Turkish, means learning how to be quiet. In Yilmaz Guney's legendary movie The Flock, the young woman is silent all the way through.

Turkey's early Republican elite, modelling themselves after the French, wished to control language from above. Hundreds of old Ottoman words were taken out of the dictionary because they stemmed from either Persian or Arabic and so were not Turkish enough. When I write in Turkish I use lots of exiled words in addition to modern slang. I want to bring back the nuances that we have lost in time. The English language is remarkable in its ability to incorporate words from different ethnic backgrounds. You can talk or write about having "chutzpah" and "kismet" and "karma" within the same breath.

Language is bigger, older and wiser than each and every one of us. Language cannot be possessed by any ideology or sect or party. We inhale words. We dream words. When we are hurt, we bleed words. And literature, at the end of the day, is the manifestation of an ache to give voice to the mute letters of the world.

Elif Shafak will be talking about 'Honour' (Penguin), the 'Big Bath Read', on Saturday 2 March: