‘The British calmness about politics has evaporated, and the language has changed’

Writer and activist Elif Shafak spoke to Sorcha Pollak at the Irish Times Summer Nights festival

Elif Shafak: ‘We need to invite men on board, and men need to have conversations about gender codes and gender violence’

Elif Shafak: ‘We need to invite men on board, and men need to have conversations about gender codes and gender violence’

 

We have lost a decade of progress in women’s rights over the 18 months of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the Turkish-British writer and activist Elif Shafak.

“Until recently, people thought that they don’t need to worry about women’s rights and the future of democracy if they live in the western world, but with the rise of populist movements we all need to worry about the future of democracies, because countries can slide backwards, and the rights of women and minorities will be the first to go when nationalism, religious fundamentalism and authoritarianism take hold,” she told Sorcha Pollak on the second night of the Irish Times Summer Nights festival.

As a feminist, she said, it was time for the women’s movement to talk about racial, ethnic and digital inequalities, as well as the inequalities facing people in the LGBTQ+ community. “We also need to invite men on board, and men need to have conversations about gender codes and gender violence. Seemingly small things matter enormously, and we need to talk together about how we raise our sons compared to our daughters.”

Elif Shafak at first thought that British people were calm when they talked about politics. ‘That calmness has evaporated and the language has changed’

Born in Strasbourg, in France, she moved as a child with her mother to Turkey when her parents separated. As a teenager she lived in the countries where her mother worked as a diplomat. “Imagination was the only suitcase I could take with me. I needed books, and stories centred me,” said the author, whose books include The Forty Rules of Love and 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, which was shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize.

Shafak said she believed that writers don’t have the luxury of ignoring what’s happening around them and need to respond to the challenges of our times. “I don’t like when writers preach or dictate. A writer’s job is to ask questions – difficult questions – to open up space for a diversity of opinions which can be treated with dignity but to leave the answers to the readers.”

The words we use to describe marginalised people matter too, according to Shafak. Living in London for more than a decade, she said, she at first thought that British people were calm when they talked about politics. “That calmness has evaporated and the language has changed.”

Speaking about the impact of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s leadership in Turkey, she said that his party came to power 18 years ago promising liberal reforms and equality but has done the opposite. “So many people in Turkey believe in democracy and want a fairer society. The recent protests on the streets of Istanbul give me hope, but Turkey is a very angry, divided society now.”

Summer Nights: Elif Shafak spoke to the Irish Times journalist Sorcha Pollak
Summer Nights: Elif Shafak spoke to the Irish Times journalist Sorcha Pollak

She added that, although we must be critical of populist demagoguery, we have to connect with people from different backgrounds. “Diversity has to be inclusive. How we interact and learn from each other is what makes democracy stronger.”

Shafak said she sees herself as a citizen of the world, which allows her to care about the local, regional, national, international and global at the same time. “I believe identity matters, but I reject the myth of fixed personalities. I love Istanbul. I’m equally attached to the Balkans. I have elements of the Middle East. I’m a European citizen, a Londoner and a British citizen.”

Shafak’s next novel, The Island of Missing Trees, which is due out in the autumn, will focus on geopolitical struggles through the lenses of the natural world.

The Irish Times Summer Nights festival, sponsored by Peugeot, is a series of online talks featuring Irish Times journalists in conversation with local and international authorities. It runs until Thursday July 1st.

Still to come in the festival are: Chris de Burgh talking to Paul Howard; Maureen Dowd interviewed by Hugh Linehan; Gordon Brown and Roddy Doyle talking to Fintan O’Toole; Mona Eltahawy with Róisín Ingle; and Jo Spain talking to Bernice Harrison. A ticket covering all events costs €50, or €25 for Irish Times subscribers. Full schedule and tickets at irishtimes.com/summernights.

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