Rob Riemen: Elif, wel­come. It’s so good to see you here in London. In a cou­ple of months we’ll meet again in Amsterdam, as you are one of the speak­ers for our con­fer­ence What Will Save the World?” Would you please be so kind [as] to intro­duce your­self to the Dutch audi­ence? You’re a cos­mopoli­tan, you’re a nov­el­ist. Maybe you can tell us a lit­tle bit about yourself.

Elif Şafak: Yeah, with plea­sure. I am a writer, I’m a nov­el­ist, I’m a sto­ry­teller. That’s how I con­nect with the world, through sto­ries and through imag­i­na­tion. That said, I also have an aca­d­e­m­ic back­ground, an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary back­ground. I was edu­cat­ed in inter­na­tion­al rela­tions. Then I’ve done a Master’s degree in wom­en’s stud­ies. And then for a PhD, polit­i­cal sci­ence or polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy. And I have always kept my con­nec­tion with acad­e­mia through­out the years. I’m also a pub­lic speak­er and com­men­ta­tor on var­i­ous issues that I think are impor­tant in the world today, so I do write for var­i­ous pub­li­ca­tions around the world.

To me, all of that is… They’re all in har­mo­ny, but at the same time maybe there is a gap, because by nature I am an intro­vert. As a writer, my job is based on soli­tude. But, I also have this oth­er side that likes to engage in pub­lic debates and likes to think about the issues that mat­ter today.

Riemen: One of the gifts of being a writer, the pow­er of imag­i­na­tion. And you have a huge pow­er of imag­i­na­tion. Everybody knows, who have read your books. But when you look at nowa­day’s world as a writer, now what is it that you see?

Şafak: Well, I see lots of signs that I find quite alarm­ing. Maybe I’m a Gramscian in that regard. I always shared his pes­simism of the intel­lect and the opti­mism of the will, opti­mism of the heart. So I’m half pes­simistic, half optimistic.

I am half pes­simistic because, when I look at the signs today, I see a very strong trend back to what I call trib­al­ism, back to nation-states, nation­al­ism, reli­gios­i­ty, all those divi­sive forces that many intel­lec­tu­als in the 1940s, 50s, thought were going to dis­ap­pear grad­u­al­ly. That did not hap­pen. In fact, the oppo­site hap­pened. They’ve made a very strong come­back. So, reli­gion is a major fac­tor today. Nationalism indeed so. But also this trib­al­ism divid­ing human­i­ty on the basis of imag­i­nary categories. 

I’m half opti­mistic when I look at the peo­ple, glob­al souls. I’m a big believ­er in cos­mopoli­tanism. I’m a big believ­er in the truth that in this world if we’re ever going to learn any­thing, we will learn it from peo­ple who are dif­fer­ent from us. I have noth­ing to learn from some­one who is exact­ly like me, who thinks exact­ly like me. But some­one who’s dif­fer­ent will chal­lenge me, and per­haps I’ll chal­lenge him, too. So that diver­si­ty, that cos­mopoli­tanism that we are belit­tling today is some­thing that we need to renew. And also I believe in the pow­er of human­ism, empa­thy, in the role of empa­thy on which the art of sto­ry­telling is very much based.

Riemen: But then the ques­tion is—and we will of dis­cuss it of course lengthi­ly at the con­fer­ence. But the big ques­tion is, what hap­pened? After World War II, we built our inter­na­tion­al insti­tu­tions like the United Nations. And we have won­der­ful NGOs like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International. We became more pros­per­ous. There’s huge devel­op­ment in tech­nol­o­gy, sci­ence. And then the fall of the Berlin Wall. There was a huge sense of opti­mism in the ear­ly 90s. So how come, do you think, that we now have this back­ward tendency?

Şafak: Yeah. There was indeed a huge wave, tide, of opti­mism in the sense that many smart intel­lec­tu­als, they thought that thanks to glob­al­iza­tion we were all going to become a big glob­al vil­lage and every­body would have pri­mar­i­ly eco­nom­ic and social ties, and that would help to tran­scend nation­al and nation­al­is­tic boundaries.

It did not hap­pen in that way. I think we need to bear in mind that, when we think about time, we tend to think that time always goes in a lin­ear direc­tion. But, we have seen that time does not always go for­ward; it some­times it draws cir­cles; it can move back­wards. In oth­er words, what I’m try­ing to say is if we learn noth­ing from the mis­takes of the past, we are bound to make those mis­takes again and again and again. And that is what is so sad, how mem­o­ry is lost. 

And I’m not talk­ing about very long-term mem­o­ry of cen­turies. I’m talk­ing about recent polit­i­cal mem­o­ry, even with regards to Europe, the EU. How it was estab­lished. How the jour­ney began. Very few peo­ple today are talk­ing about the begin­ning, that spir­it that ini­ti­at­ed every­thing. So we tend to take things for grant­ed very eas­i­ly. And I find myself in this a bit iron­ic sit­u­a­tion, to tell you the truth, because com­ing from Turkey, a coun­try that’s on the fringes of Europe (and I live in the UK), I find myself defend­ing more pas­sion­ate­ly what I regard as European values. 

For me, the EU is not pri­mar­i­ly a finan­cial project or an eco­nom­ic project. It’s pri­mar­i­ly about val­ues, which mean a lot to me. And by those val­ues I mean free­dom of speech pri­mar­i­ly, sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers, rule of law, def­i­nite­ly wom­en’s rights, LGBT rights, minor­i­ty rights, and many oth­er human rights that all togeth­er make sense. So I do not take these val­ues for grant­ed because I do know that soci­eties can lose them. Neither do I take cos­mopoli­tanism for grant­ed, because I come from a coun­try that has lost its cos­mopoli­tan her­itage, and I think that by los­ing that, Turkey lost a lot.

Further Reference

Nexus Conference 2016, What Will Save the World?”