I started writing fiction at an early age. I must have been eight years old back then. I kept a turquoise notebook full of short stories and ideas for “longer stories”. I still remember that notebook vividly–its pages and its cover, forever embedded in my memory.
The year before, when I first started primary school, I had been taught to “send my left hand to exile.” I had never heard that word before: exile. It stayed with me since then. The teacher said she had to be strict with me—for my own good. Left-handed children could be corrected with a proper dose of attention and discipline, she claimed. I hated school. I hated my handwriting. I hated the patriarchal, ultra-conservative neighbourhood in Ankara that I found myself in.
So it was a bit of an effort for me to write into a notebook with my right hand, and yet I did. Imagining stories was like pumping oxygen into my lungs and I needed to breathe.
I kept writing, reading, imagining. But that is not because I dreamed of becoming a novelist someday. I didn’t even know such a thing was possible. There were no writers or poets around me. No role models I could look up to. I started writing fiction out of an existential need. I thought life was terribly boring.
I was an only child, a solitary child. My mother was a single, working mother. Years ago she had dropped out of university, married my father and together they had settled in France, Strasbourg, where I was born. When their marriage failed, Mum brought me to Turkey, Ankara—a land and a city utterly new to me. Mum went back to university to complete her degree. Despite the hardships, she was able to graduate with flying colours and become a diplomat several years later.
All that time, I was raised by my Grandma. Spiritual, superstitious and headstrong. Profoundly irrational, visibly Eastern and very, very compassionate. Her house was full of stories, tales, folk culture and magic.
The late 1970s were a time of escalating political violence in Turkey. I was not allowed to go out and play on the street. We were different from the rest of the neighbourhood, I knew. All the other children came from extended families. They did not communicate with me much. I felt like an outsider, even in my motherland. I had no friends, no siblings (I met my half-brothers in my late twenties). Grandma’s djinn kept me company. But I did not trust them. I trusted books.
Books were my true friends.
And so when I started writing stories it was mostly out of boredom. I thought life was dull and repetitive and I had to do something about it. There was another world somewhere out there, behind the Mountain Kaf, invisible but within my reach. An imaginary world where all boundaries melted and where left-handed, lonely children were just as welcome as the others.
When I was about 17, a magazine accepted one of my stories. I called their office and asked them to give me time before they published it. “For what?” the man at the end of the line asked. I told him I wanted to rename myself. I wanted my story to be published under my new name. If he thought that was crazy he did not say anything. The next day I had decided to take my mother’s forename and turn it into my surname. Thus I became Shafak—an androgynous name in Turkish given to both men and women. A week later my first story was published under my pen name.
I wrote my first novel when I was twenty-two years old. When I had finished the manuscript, I went to the post office and mailed it to a wellknown publishing house in Istanbul. Back then I had no idea what the publishing world was like, and somehow my ignorance made me free, perhaps even brave. Normally an anxious person, I was able to brush aside all worries. Without a thought, I left the novel in the post office, as though it were a letter in a bottle dropped into a flowing river.
Had I known what a difficult industry this was, and how closed and elitist and sexist the cultural elite were, I would have been frightened, probably. A month later I got a phone call from Istanbul. I will never forget the excitement in my trembling voice, my shock. The editor told me they were going to publish the novel this coming spring.
And that’s how it started. I didn’t know back then that, no matter if it is your first novel or tenth, as a writer you will always go through ups-and-downs, moments of turbulence and confidence, seasons of anxiety, tunnels of dark and light… all of this while writing a novel. It doesn’t get easier. But you get used to it.
Storytelling is a craft, and like any other craft it requires dedication, love, loyalty. Every writer, must remain a reader in their heart.
I realised over time that as interested as I was in stories, I was also intrigued by silences. The things we did not talk about. In my writing I have always asked questions about silences and tried to give more voice to the silenced.
At some point in my literary journey, I began to write in English first. There was a nasty backlash in Turkey. Some people called me a traitor. They said I could not be regarded as a Turkish writer anymore. They accused me of abandoning my mother tongue. But I have never thought of language in binary terms . To me this is not an ‘either… or…’ choice. Just like I commute between cultures and cities, I would like to commute between languages. I feel emotionally attached to both English and Turkish—though in different ways. If there is sadness, melancholy, longing in my work, I find it easier to express them in Turkish. If there is humour, satire, irony, I find it much easier to voice them in English. The word “irony” does not even exist in Turkish. We don’t do irony!
When I look at my work, I see a deliberate attempt to bring down walls, transcend boundaries, open up new conversations. I will always be a bit of an outsider perhaps. Everywhere. Writing novels, as Walter Benjamin told us, is the loneliest form of art. But this is not necessarily a self-centred individuality. Rather it is the kind of individuality that connects us with the rest of humanity, regardless of borders and tribes.
And that is what fiction taught me all this time. That I can have homes and belongings—multiple, fluid, flowing.
And that for a writer, for a storyteller, ultimately, there is one portable homeland. It’s called Storyland.
Elif Shafak is an award-winning British-Turkish