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?"


Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Square Cash, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.