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Why the novel matters in the age of anger

In the 2018 New Statesman / Goldsmiths Prize lecture, Elif Shafak explains why – in a world ruled by fear and division – novelists no longer have the luxury of being apolitical.

I was an only child raised by a divorced, working, well-educated, secularist, Westernised mother and an uneducated, spiritual, Eastern grandmother. Born in France, I moved to Turkey with my mother when my parents’ marriage came to an end. Although I was small when I left Strasbourg, I often think about our little flat and remember it as a place full of French, Italian, Turkish, Algerian, Lebanese leftist students who passionately discussed the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, read poems by Vladimir Mayakovsky and collectively dreamt about the Revolution. From there I was zoomed to my Grandma’s neighbourhood in Ankara – a very patriarchal and very conservative-Muslim environment. Back then, in the late 1970s, there was increasing political violence and turmoil in Turkey. Every day a bomb exploded somewhere, people got killed on the streets, there were shootings on university campuses. But inside Grandma’s house what prevailed were superstitions, evil eye beads, coffee cup readings and the oral culture of the Middle East. In all my novels there has been a continuous interest in both: the world of stories, magic and mysticism inside the house, and the world of politics, conflict, inequality and discrimination outside the window.

I was an early reader. An avid one. But it took me a long time to learn to write. Being left handed, at school, like all other left-handed kids, I was forced to use my right hand instead. “If you cannot control your left hand, keep it under the desk all the time, just send it to exile,” the teacher advised. It was the first time I had heard the word “exile” and it stayed with me.

In my sloppy handwriting, I started writing stories. Not because I wanted to become a novelist someday – I didn’t think such a thing was possible. There were no writers around me; no literary role models. But as someone who often felt like an “insider outsider” even in her own motherland, stuck between cultures and cities, my need for an “elsewhere” was profound. Books became my friends. Storyland became my homeland.

When I look back, there are so many moments that have left an impact on me both as a reader and a writer. Here is one: in high school, one Saturday, I started reading a book by the Yugoslav novelist Ivo Andric: The Bridge on the Drina. By the time I finished it something in me had shifted forever. Until then, at school, I had only learned an official version of Ottoman history: top-down. It was an abstract history in which there were no human beings, and the few names mentioned belonged to the sultan, shaykh al-Islam or grand vizier – always men. I was told that the janissaries, which composed the Ottoman military, were great soldiers full of faith and courage. But in The Bridge on the Drina I read the stories of the Christian families whose sons were taken away by the Ottoman state, converted to Islam and turned into janissaries. Yes, these boys were provided a great education and a good salary – and they could even make it all the way up to the top and become viziers provided they had the talent – but it all happened at the expense of never seeing their families again, forgetting their religion and fully erasing their identity. The truth about the janissaries was far more complicated than my history textbooks had made it seem.

Suddenly, I had to rethink what I thought I knew. I had to unlearn. What Andric’s novel did for me at that young age was to shake years of nationalistic education, and whisper into my ears: “Have you ever considered the story from the point of view of the Other?” This is a crucial question that we need to ask ourselves again and again, no matter which country we may live in, no matter which stories we might have been brought up with.

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The novel matters because it connects us with the experiences of people we have never met, times we have never seen, places we have never visited. The novel matters not only because of the stories it brings alive, but also the silences it dares to explore. As novelists we keep our ears pricked all the time, attentive to the rhythm of the language, the usage of words, the stories and legends swirling in the air – but we must also listen carefully to the silences. Here we find the things that cannot be openly talked about in a society; the political, cultural, sexual taboos.

A writer’s job is not to try to provide the answers. It is neither to preach nor to teach; just the opposite. A writer must be a student of life, and not the best student either, since we must never graduate from this school, but keep asking the most simple, the most fundamental and the most difficult questions. In the end, we leave the answers to the readers. Every reader’s experience is unique, and each will come up with their own answers – this the writer must respect. But the novel needs to be a free, egalitarian space where a diversity of voices can be heard, nuances celebrated and the unsayable can be said.

There are different ways of storytelling and very different traditions of writing novels in China, Russia, South America, the Middle East or Africa. There are striking differences within the same continent or even the same country, let alone across the globe. That is why, every time I hear someone praise a particular book by saying “this is exactly how a novel should be written!”, I flinch a little. Why try to reduce this amazing plurality of forms and voices worldwide into one single formula?

The novel as a genre has a very special place in Turkish cultural history. It is the youngest literary genre, and from the beginning it was regarded as an important vehicle of modernisation and Westernisation. The novel came to the Ottoman empire from Europe in the late 19th century, and the early novelists – almost all of them men – wrote with a mission. Known as “Father Novelists”, they situated themselves above their characters, above the text, above their readers. They saw their readers as their sons – children in need of paternal guidance. Every character was placed in a story to represent something larger than himself or herself. That is why in many Turkish novels language was neglected; it was kept simple to make sure the sons got the message right.

I have never felt close to the tradition of “Father Novelists” in which the author is regarded as the authority. Although this has been, and still is, the dominant tide in many parts of the Middle East, there have been many other undercurrents, including that of rebellious daughters – women writers of the Middle East who have refused to conform.

The novel matters because, like an alchemist, it turns empathy into resistance. It brings the periphery to the centre, it gives a voice to the voiceless, it makes the invisible visible. And it also distils the deluge of information into drops of wisdom – as argued by the German-Jewish philosopher and cultural theorist Walter Benjamin. Writing at a time when Nazism and the ideology of hatred were on the rise, and the world was turning upside down, Benjamin repeatedly made a distinction between “information” and “wisdom”. He believed that the writer, in the depth of solitude, shared his or her own experience or the experiences of others, and by doing this, shed light on “the perplexity of living”. But here is where Benjamin’s theory becomes all the more relevant for our world today. The more information is available and the faster it spreads, he thought, the deeper was the perplexity of living. The proliferation of information at the expense of wisdom, and the widening gap between the two preoccupied Benjamin. He was worried that this might bring along the demise, and eventually the death of the art of storytelling.

Writing in 1934, TS Eliot echoed Benjamin’s sentiment: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?/Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” Susan Sontag, who was fascinated with Benjamin’s work, agreed: “Literature, I would argue, is knowledge – albeit, even at its greatest, imperfect knowledge. Like all knowledge.”

In our digital world, Benjamin’s warning has become all the more relevant. We have plenty of “information” – and if we don’t we can always google it. Then there is “knowledge”, which, however imperfect, requires depth and focus and slowing the flow of time. “Wisdom” is harder won – I would argue that it embodies not only knowledge but also empathy and emotional intelligence. In life, you might come across very smart people with low emotional intelligence. Wisdom is difficult to achieve because it requires cognitive flexibility. It also demands that one steps outside identity politics and echo chambers.

 In the light of all that is happening today, particularly after the global shocks of 2016, perhaps we need to add yet another layer to Benjamin’s theory: that of “misinformation”. We are all living in a liquid world. And we are constantly being subjected to not only a cascade of information, but also a cascade of misinformation.

In East and West, all extremist ideologies benefit from misinformation. All extremists yearn to dehumanise the Other. An Islamic fundamentalist and a white supremacist share the same mentality and cognitive rigidity. The opposite of a fanatic is not another fanatic. The opposite of a fanatic is a moderate, as the American philosopher Eric Hoffer pointed out years ago in The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951). Populist demagogues dehumanise the Other because it provides fertile ground on which to sow the seeds of racism, misogyny and other kinds of discrimination. If you can convince masses that immigrants resemble animals, blacks are inferior, women have lower IQ, LGBT people are perverts, or Jews or Muslims are untrustworthy, you can legitimise all kinds of violence.

Here is where the novelist must speak up. For writers, there is no “us” and there is no “them”. There are only human beings with stories and silences. The job of a writer is to rehumanise those who have been dehumanised. As many who have lived through horrors have told us, including the Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel, the opposite of love, kindness or peace is not necessarily hatred and war. The opposite of love is numbness. It is indifference.

Too much information creates numbness. Then we stop feeling. Then we stop caring. Refugees become mere numbers, anyone who is different becomes a category, an abstraction. It is not a coincidence that all populist movements are essentially against plurality, against diversity. In creating dualistic frameworks and polarising society, they know they can spread numbness faster.

The novel matters because it punches little holes in the wall of indifference that surrounds us. Novels have to swim against the tide. And this was never more clear than it is today.

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After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with the growth of new technologies, there was so much hope and optimism. At the turn of the millennium, many people – including leading analysts, academics and journalists – believed that the triumph of liberalism was inevitable. There was a shared understanding that, sooner or later, all societies would become more modern, democratic and globally integrated. We would all turn into one big global village. There were expectations that religion would become irrelevant, that the nation-state would lose its power to supranational entities.

And the paradox is while all of these happened to a certain degree, the opposite also happened. Only two decades have passed since that time of optimism and we have entered the age of pessimism. Defined by anxiety, resentment and fear, this is an era  in which emotions guide and misguide politics: Pankaj Mishra has called it the “age of anger”. And our perplexity of living, in Benjamin’s words, has become more acute.

If the world is changing, so must the literary world. Writers from wobbly and wounded democracies – such as Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt or Venezuela – never had the luxury of being apolitical. But something interesting is happening today: more and more Western authors are feeling the same kind of urgency that non-Western authors have been feeling for so long. Doris Lessing called literature “analysis after the event”. Writers need time – to process, to digest, to imagine, to write. But perhaps today there is such immediacy and urgency that more and more authors across the world are feeling the need to respond “during the event”.

I am not suggesting that every writer has to become politicised and I am not talking about being a partisan or even being interested in party politics. I am using politics in its broadest sense possible: as a feminist, I know that the personal is also political and wherever there is power and inequality there is politics. Novelists need to speak up about the dangers of losing our core values: pluralism, freedom of speech, minority rights, separation of powers, democracy. Benjamin believed storytelling had to turn information into wisdom. Today a bigger challenge awaits writers: how to turn misinformation into wisdom.

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I come from a land where words often feel heavy. Every Turkish writer, poet, journalist or intellectual knows that because of a poem, a novel, an interview, or even a tweet, we can be stigmatised in pro-government media, lynched on social media by trolls and possibly put on trial, detained or exiled. With more than 120 journalists still imprisoned since the failed coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2016, Turkey has become the world’s biggest jailer of journalists.

We carry this knowledge at the back of our minds when we sit at our desk to write our stories. As a result, there is widespread self-censorship among writers. How do you even begin to speak about the kind of censorship that comes from within and not necessarily always from outside? This is what the loss of democracy and freedom of speech does eventually. It creates a climate of intimidation. As Arthur Koestler said, authoritarianism corrupts not only the politicians and the political elite, but also deeply damages the civil society. It damages the institutions that are essential for a democracy to survive. And it also damages collective memory. Turkey is a country of collective amnesia, and therefore, memory is a responsibility for us writers.

In a world beset with populist demagoguery and misinformation, memory is a responsibility for writers everywhere. We cannot forget what has happened in the past when tribalism, nationalism, isolationism, fanaticism and jingoism managed to get the better of humanity.

The novel matters because stories continue to connect us across borders, and help us to see beyond the artificial categories of race, gender, class. The world is frighteningly messy today, but a world that has lost its empathy, cognitive flexibility and imagination will surely be a darker place. 

A version of this piece was delivered as the New Statesman/Goldsmiths Prize lecture on 26 September. Elif Shafak is a judge on the 2018 Goldsmiths Prize, the winner of which will be announced on 14 November. She will appear at the Cambridge Literary Festival, 24-25 November

This article first appeared in the 05 October 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The fury of the Far Right