Friday, July 30, 2010

Friday TED Talk: Elif Shafak on Reaching Out Through Stories

Elif Shafak was born to Turkish parents in Strasbourg, France (her mother was a diplomat). Her parents divorced; she stayed with her mother, spending her teenage years in Spain, and then returned to Turkey, where she obtained an undergraduate degree in International Relations, a Masters in Gender and Women Studies, and a Ph.D. in Political Science.

In 2002 she came to the United States for the first time, on a fellowship, which she spent at Mt. Holyoke. From there she went to Michigan, and then to the University of Arizona, where she taught in the Near Eastern Studies Department (her courses include "Literature and Exile", "Politics of Memory", and "Sexualities and Gender in the Muslim World"). For a while, she divided her time between Tucson and Istanbul; after the birth of her daughter (about which she speaks in this wide-ranging interview), she took a position at Bilkent University in her home city, Ankara.

As she explains in her TED talk below, she has had a lifelong interest in storytelling, and published her first novel in Turkey in 1998. Since then, she has written nine books, of which seven are novels; she is the most widely read female author in Turkey today. She writes in both Turkish and English, and has a love for the different ways she can express herself in each. (She originally wrote her most recent novel, The Forty Rules of Love, in English. Then she had an expert translator turn it into Turkish, after which she revised the translation; then she returned to her English version, and rewrote that as well before publishing it earlier this year.)

When she grew up with her mother, she absorbed the latter's fear of assassination (as a Turkish diplomat) by Armenians, in revenge for the genocide of 1915, as happened to a Turkish cultural attaché walking down the Champs-Elysées in 1979. But as she experienced, in the foreign countries she visited, the attitudes towards Turks in general, and toward their steadfast refusal to acknowledge what happened, she began to explore the stories behind the event. What came of those explorations, and of her prosecution in Turkey in 2006 for "insulting Turkishness", as a result of a speech by a character in her novel The Bastard of Istanbul, is told in this Wikipedia article, and there is even more background here. (She alludes briefly to the prosecution in her TED talk.)

I find her talk eloquent and fascinating; her fluency in English is astonishing, and her rhythms of speech almost mesmerizing. Her message comes through clearly: we are in danger of letting the politics of identity isolate us from our neighbors, and those with whom we most disagree. It is through storytelling that we transcend political and ideological boundaries, and connect with our common roots as humans, and with the mystical aspects of our souls (she has long studied Sufism, and works its themes into her writing). This was one of the best-received talks at the 2010 TED Global Conference:

Elif Shafak's TED page is here; her home page on the Web is here. Watch her talk in its high-res version at this link, and download it in that and other formats from this page.

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