Elif Shafak Q&A: “If I weren’t a writer I might be a happier person”

The author and activist talks Nicola Sturgeon, Tracey Emin, Virginia Woolf, and Lisa Simpson.

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Elif Shafak was born in 1971 in Strasbourg and is the author of 11 books. In 2006 she faced prosecution for“insulting Turkishness” with her novel “The Bastard of Istanbul”.

What’s your earliest memory?

A house in Strasbourg full of leftist students, many of them immigrants, smoking Gauloises, talking loudly, laughing. Then a train station. My parents separating. My father stayed in France, my mother and I moved to Ankara, Turkey.

Who are your heroes?

As a child, I was in love with Jo March in Little Women. She was a writer, an avid reader, and boyish to boot. I must also mention Lisa Simpson in The Simpsons

Which book last changed your thinking?

Every book that I have read has shifted something in my soul. I am now reading The Narrow Corridor by Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson and it’s brilliant.

Which political figure do you look up to?

I have so much respect for Nicola Sturgeon. I am also interested in Mounir Baatour, president of the Tunisian Liberal Party – to be gay and liberal is not an easy combination in this part of the world.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I’d have loved to meet Virginia Woolf in early 20th-century Britain, Colette in France around the same time, Rumi in 13th-century Anatolia and Baruch Spinoza in 17th-century Amsterdam.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

I have no expertise, only endless curiosity.

What TV show could you not live without?

I am embarrassed to say this but I don’t watch much TV. But I cannot live without music or podcasts or radio programmes.

Who would paint your portrait?

I love the works of Tracey Emin, and Olafur Eliasson and Taryn Simon are fabulous multidisciplinary artists. If I could pick a name from history it’d be Goya, who carries fascinating opposites in one soul.

What’s your theme tune?

Rammstein’s “Du Hast”, which brims with energy and reminds me of Istanbul’s dynamism. It shows that good repetition, circles within circles, can be magnetic.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Sometimes writers get the best advice from their characters. Since time immemorial, “Know thyself” has been a precious motto. But my character in 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World told me that it was incomplete. It needed to be: know yourself and know an arsehole when you see one.

What’s currently bugging you?

Observing demagogues and dictators in one country encouraging demagogues and dictators in another country.

What single thing would make your life better?

What would make life better for everyone: love, justice, equality, dignity, empathy.

When were you happiest?

We are happiest when and if we can embrace ourselves – and others – with all our flaws and failures and lovable chaos.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

If I weren’t a writer I might be a happier person. But I know that if I weren’t a writer I would do everything to become a writer.

Are we all doomed?

We are all connected – in both doom and rise, destruction and progress. This is a crucial time for global sisterhood. 

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World” is published by Viking

This article appears in the 20 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Days of reckoning