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18 March 2015updated 25 Jun 2021 8:49am

Elif Shafak’s Diary: Censorship in Turkey, social media trolls and Europe in flux

By Elif Shafak

There is something about a train journey that makes you want to disconnect from the world and travel within. So I think, as I take my seat on a train from London to south Wales, carefully placing on the table in front of me three newspapers, four magazines, a novel and a non-fiction book, all of which I unrealistically intend to read on my way to the Hay Festival.

My phone rings. My Turkish editor is calling. In a voice as calm as he can manage he informs me that police officers have come to the publishing house in Istanbul inquiring about my novels. They have also asked to see books by Duygu Asena, an iconic feminist author who passed away over a decade ago. The police have taken copies of our books to a prosecutor, who is reading them to see if we have committed a “crime of obscenity” by writing about issues such as child abuse and sexual harassment. Turkey has alarmingly high levels of sexual harassment, gender-based violence and child brides. But instead of dealing with the problem, the authorities prosecute novelists.

“One more thing,” says my editor, as the train slowly pulls out of the station. “For a few days, try not to look at social media.”

I know I should listen to him, but as soon as we hang up I take a peek at Twitter and Instagram. There are hundreds, if not thousands of abusive messages, accusing me of indecency, immodesty and worse. The messages are further amplified by bots and trolls. Hatred, slander, distortion. Sentences have been plucked out of my novels by people who admit they haven’t read them.  The books should be banned, they say, and their author should be imprisoned.

As the train chugs along, the messages keep multiplying. Islamist and ultranationalist columnists join the chorus accusing authors of being “perverts” or “degenerate”.

Welcome to limbo-land

The young volunteer who picks me up from the station cheerfully tells me that his family had always voted Labour but he and his wife have voted for the Brexit Party in the European Parliament elections, to show Brussels who the real boss is. Although they are no fans of Farage, he adds quickly, he feels it’s OK to support Farage right now. I cannot tell what it is that makes me feel so glum – the growing authoritarianism of my motherland or the new populist nationalism in my adopted country.

I come from a country that has for a long time been dangling in a limbo between Europe and the Middle East. And now the United Kingdom has entered a limbo of its own, having pushed itself to the periphery of Europe. When I first moved to London, more than ten years ago, I used to think, “The Brits are so calm when they talk about politics, how admirable.” That calmness is long gone, having given way to anger, frustration, resentment and polarisation.

Debunking the elites

At Hay-on-Wye, I give the Wellcome Book Prize Lecture: “How to Remain Sane in the Age of Populism, Political Uncertainty and Pessimism”. Towards the end, a middle-aged man stands up and suggests that we are just the liberal elite talking among ourselves. I have heard this before. It’s perhaps the biggest success of populist nationalism: to make us doubt ourselves in this way.

Elitism is not the prerogative of any political stance. Among today’s political and financial elites there are liberals, yes, but also many conservatives and a growing number of populists. A student who cannot afford her tuition fees or a teacher who cannot afford a house in central London or a single mum working extra hours… All of these people are labelled as “liberal elite” if they happen to have a progressive world-view. But privileged demagogues pretend to be “of the people”.

Life after death

I leave Hay and fly to Berlin for an event for my new novel, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World. I have been fascinated by scientific studies that show that after the heart has stopped beating, the brain continues to work for another few minutes. My novel tells the story of a prostitute, Tequila Leila, who has been killed and dumped in a rubbish bin on the outskirts of Istanbul. Her mind is still working and as she remembers her past, we hear the story of a country, told through the eyes of its outcasts. All day long I have interviews and I am asked political questions alongside literary ones. If you happen to be a storyteller from a wounded democracy, such as Turkey, Nigeria, Pakistan, Venezuela or Brazil, you will always be asked about politics.

Europe calling

The next day, in Hamburg, my audience is visibly mixed. A transgender reader starts to cry as she gives me a hug and suddenly we are all teary-eyed: Romanians, Bulgarians, Canadians, Dutch, Americans, Turks, Kurds. Afterwards I meet with my dear friend Fatih Akin, the German-Turkish director. We go to a punk bar and “London Calling” blasts from the loudspeakers. On the walls there’s all kinds of graffiti, most of it expressing views about neo-Nazis. The bartender has tattoos across her arms and everybody smokes, and for a moment I cannot tell whether I am in Hamburg or in the Istanbul of my youth, where we all smoked and laughed to our hearts’ content, hopeful that our motherland would one day join the EU and become a proper, pluralistic democracy. When we walk out in the middle of the night, I see two women on the sidewalk, young prostitutes chatting, and I think about Tequila Leila.

The next day, when I dare to check social media, the trolls seem to have calmed down, though the abuse continues. There is drizzle as I leave Hamburg. The cab driver, a German citizen of Moroccan descent, upon learning that I am a fiction writer, says I should write a novel about him because he has seen a lot despite being young.

“Really?” I ask.

“Yes, really!” He lowers his voice, as though sharing a secret. “It’s changing a lot, this Europe.” And I know what he means.

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