#100PENMembers No.20: Elif Shafak

Today we look at Turkey’s bestselling female author, Elif Shafak, who has been both the recipient of PEN support in her own fight for free expression and is a high profile and vocal PEN member in her own right. 

Photo: Zeynel Abidin (Dogan Kitap/Turkey)

In 2006, Shafak was prosecuted for violating Article 301 of Turkey’s criminal code in her novel The Bastard of Istanbul. A speech made by a character in the novel referring to the deaths of thousands of Armenians in 1915 as a genocide was accused of contravening Article 301 by ‘insulting Turkishness’. Shafak was taken to court and faced a potential three year jail sentence. 

Shafak argued that this assault on literature was both illogical – ‘if there is a thief in a novel’, she said, ‘it doesn’t make the novelist a thief’ – and represented a gear-change in Turkey’s suppression of writers. ‘Article 301 has been used by ultranationalists as a weapon to silence political voices in Turkey’, she pointed out. ‘But for the first time, they are trying to bring a novel into court. The way they are trying to penetrate the domain of art and literature is quite new, and quite disturbing.’

PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee campaigned for the charges against Shafak to be dropped. It was the beginning of her close links to the PEN organisation and active role as a global defender of freedom of expression. 

In 2014 she was a signatory to the open letter of protest against Vladimir Putin’s anti-gay and blasphemy laws before the Sochi Olympics.

In 2017 she formed part of a high-profile PEN International message of solidarity with imprisoned writers in Turkey. 

In 2019, however, she was herself again the target of the Turkish authorities, when she, along with other Turkish writers including Abdullah Şevki,was attacked for tackling difficult issues such as child abuse and sexual violence in her novels The Gaze (1999) and Three Daughters of Eve (2016). 

Shafak highlighted the terrible irony of these attacks. In a ‘country in which we have an escalating number of cases of sexual violence against both women and children’, she sated, and where the authorities ‘need to take urgent action to deal with sexual violence, instead they’re prosecuting writers. It’s the biggest tragedy. It has become like a witch-hunt.’

As a writer who has spent her life fighting, as she put it, for ‘ women’s rights, children’s rights, minority rights’, Shafak was insightful about how the authorities wanted to use these issues as an excuse to clamp down on literary freedoms: these attacks on Turkish writers will create a terrible chilling effect, with writers feeling that they ‘cannot write about these subjects any more.’

Resident in the UK for the past twelve years, Shafak continues to defend literary freedoms, and to be involved in events with English PEN, selecting her own panel for the ‘Extraordinary Times Call for Extraordinary Women’ series in 2019, featuring Patience Agbabu, Charlotte Higgins and Evie Wyld and appearing regularly at events.

In the PEN America World Voices podcast from last year ‘These Truths: Fighting Words’, Shafak and John Freeman discussed the importance of language in influencing how societies understand themselves socially and politically. 

More recently, Shafak has confronted a different set of free speech issues, by engaging with the problems created by the online dissemination of fake news and hate speech. In the PEN America World Voices podcast from last year ‘These Truths: Fighting Words’, Shafak and John Freeman addressed the importance of truthful language for politics and literature.

‘What we have seen in Turkey’, Shafak argued, ‘is the demise of language. That’s the first thing that changes—how words are being distorted.’ 

While writers believe in freedom of speech’, she stated, they also understand clearly the ‘power of words’, a power with the potential to have both positive and negative effects:  It is ‘very painful to see how words can be misused’, Shafak stated. 

Shafak continues to use her position in PEN and her growing public platform in national newspapers and media to raise issues around free speech and free expression. This public-facing work seeks to ignite a public dialogue around the need for writers to engage in order to reclaim or repurpose an increasingly violent and polarised public discourse, and to promote human rights, empathy and equality.

We interviewed Elif in 2017 about free expression and her work with PEN.

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