Why Elif Shafak believes literature must amplify 'dehumanised' voices

'The art of storytelling makes the invisible a bit more visible,' the author said while appearing virtually at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature

WB1ACT Edinburgh, UK. 22 August. 2019. Turkish-British novelist, Elif Shafak attends a photo call at Edinburgh International Book Festival. Pako Mera/Alamy Live News

In her stirring pocket-sized 2020 manifesto How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division, Elif Shafak writes "there are many citizens around the world today who have a hard time recognising their countries, walking like strangers in their own homelands".

The celebrated novelist was referring to an increase in authoritarianism and religious fundamentalism in parts of the world, including her native Turkey.

During her virtual appearance at the 2021 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature on Saturday, she warned of what would happen “when countries go backwards".

“The first thing that will be taken away is women’s rights,” she said.

“We have seen this in country after country. Wherever democracy crumbles, appreciation for diversity is also lost. We have seen a rise in patriarchy. We have seen a loss in women’s rights. And in that context, if you are deemed to be different in the eyes of society, be it for the colour of your skin, how you look ... your life is going to be difficult.”

During her talk, Shafak highlighted a cemetery in Istanbul for people who have left no one behind in life, who have been abandoned by their families and society. The tombstones bear no names, only numbers. There are many minorities buried there, as well as abandoned babies, Aids victims of the 1990s, and a growing number of Syrian and Afghan refugees, Shafak added.

She also revealed that she became interested in the cemetery years ago, visiting it often and trying to imagine the people behind the numbers.

“It is a very sad and strange place,” she said.

It was at that cemetery that Shafak found the main character of her 2019 novel 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World. In a place that turns humans into numbers, Shafak sought to individualise one of the tombstones, to take a number and give it a story. And so she named her protagonist – a sex worker shunned by the world – Leila.

Turkish-British author Elif Shafak poses with her book '10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World' during the photo call for the authors shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize for Fiction at Southbank Centre in London on October 13, 2019. (Photo by Tolga AKMEN / AFP)

“I think literature has to and does rehumanise people who have been dehumanised constantly,” Shafak said.

The author revealed that this philosophy has been one of her driving forces, adding that her two latest releases – even though one is fiction and the other non-fiction – are linked by their aim to bring the marginalised to the fore.

“I’ve always been much more interested in the periphery than the centre,” Shafak said. “I think literature, the art of storytelling, does bring the periphery to the centre, makes the invisible a bit more visible. The unheard, a bit more heard.”

Shafak credits mother and grandmother with instilling her love for literature and culture. The Honour writer described her "unusual upbringing" at the festival, saying the pair helped hone her storytelling skills.

“My mum is a very rational, modern, secularised woman,” she said. “My grandmother was more irrational in some aspects, less educated because she was not allowed to have a proper education because she was a girl,” Shafak said. “She was a very wise woman who made me see that there were different ways of attaining knowledge. From my mother, I inherited a love for written culture. From my grandmother, I got my love for oral culture.”

Emirates Airline Festival of Literature continues until Saturday, February 13. More information is at emirateslitfest.com