Elif Shafak investigates what makes the bilingual author choose to write in one language and not another, the ongoing problems of linguistic racism, and what language has in common with Lego
It is a question I hear often. Each time, I need to pause for a split second, the briefest hesitation within the span of a breathing space… How can I explain? How much can I tell? I try to offer a compact, rational answer that would do. Yet, I also know, deep down inside, that my urge to write stories in a language other than my mother tongue was an irrational choice, if it was a choice at all. I did not exactly decide to write in English. It didn’t quite happen like that. Rather than a logical resolution, it was an animal instinct that brought me to the shores of the English language. Perhaps I escaped into this new continent. I sent myself into perpetual exile, carving an additional space for myself, building a new home, brick by brick, in this other land. Being a stranger and an outsider in the English language intimidates me sometimes. It is a challenge, both intellectually and spiritually. Yet the joy and the pleasure I derive from the experience are so much bigger. And whatever pain there is, it is certainly less than the pain of feeling like a stranger and an outsider in my motherland. Somehow, that is heavier.
I started learning English at the age of ten as I became a student at a British School in Madrid, Spain. At the time, Spanish was my second language. Yet as much as I loved the sound of Spanish, my passion for and pull towards the English language was something else altogether. It was the flexibility of its anatomy and the openness of its vocabulary that struck me, most of all.
I started writing poems in English, keeping them to myself. When I took the step of writing and publishing my novels in English first, about 13-14 years ago, I was already an established author in Turkey. Immediately there was a negative reaction in my motherland. They accused me of betraying my nation, an allegation I had certainly heard before. They claimed I was ‘forsaking’ my mother tongue for the language of Western Imperialism.
But I never felt I was abandoning anything. I never thought I had to make a choice between my two loved ones: English and Turkish. In truth, perhaps even more than writing in English or writing in Turkish, it is the very commute back and forth that fascinates me to this day. I pay extra attention to those words that cannot be ferried from one continent to the other. I become more aware of not only meanings and nuances but also of gaps and silences. And I observe myself and others. Our voices change, even our body language alters as we move from one language to another. At the end of the day, languages shape us while we are busy thinking we control them.
I write my novels in English first. Then they are translated into Turkish by professional translators, whose works I admire and respect. Next I take the Turkish translations and rewrite them, giving them my rhythm, my energy, my vocabulary, which is full of old Ottoman words. Many of those words came from Arabic and Persian, and they have been plucked out of the Turkish language by modernist nationalists in the name of purity. Critical of this linguistic racism, I use both old and new words while writing in Turkish.
Over the years I have learned that separation, too, is a connection. Writing in English, putting an existential distance between me and the culture where I come from, strangely and paradoxically, enables me to take a closer look at Turkey and Turkishness. Just to give an example, had I written The Bastard of Istanbul –a novel that concentrates on an Armenian and a Turkish family, and the unspoken atrocities of the past- in Turkish, it would have been a different book. I might have been more cautious, more apprehensive even. But writing the story in English first set me at liberty; it freed me from all cultural and psychological constraints, many of which I might have internalized without even being aware of it. The same goes for all my novels written in English first. Sometimes, the presence of absence strengthens a bond and distance brings you closer.
In my heart, I am a commuter. This means I have to work twice as hard, spend twice as much time on each book. It is a completely irrational, illogical thing to do. Yet I do it because I love it and love, for me, is the key word.
Like a child who plays with Lego bricks, I play with alphabets. It amazes me to see how a limited number of letters can create endless meanings, infinite stories. I am in love with words and they are never enough. We keep moving, expanding, travelling together. By nature, I am always aspiring to go beyond the boundary drawn in front of me, curious to know what lies beyond.
That said, there are things I find easier to express in Turkish, such as sorrow and melancholy. There are things I find easier to write in English, such as humour, irony and satire. It is less a linguistic difference than a cultural one.
‘But if you are writing in English first, how can we call you a Turkish writer anymore? You are now one of them, not one of us,’ a critic said to me in Turkey last year.
The truth is, I don’t believe in this artificial duality between ‘us’ and ‘them’. As much as I respect writers and poets, such as Mahmoud Darwish, who claimed their mother tongue was their homeland, I also sincerely believe that there can be, and are, other paths in the world of creativity and storytelling. Some writers are just nomads. I happen to be one of them.
I wish I could write in Spanish as well. And in Russian. Or Japanese. But I have no such talents. What I have is two wonderful, beautiful and magical companions of the road. The English language with its grammatical suppleness and immense and ever-green vocabulary and the Turkish language with its agglutinated masses of microparticles and inverted sentences, like the serpentine streets of Istanbul. I love them both and in very different ways and for very different reasons.
Today, as more and more people are becoming displaced and replaced all around the world, our need to question static identity politics is also growing per day. Rather than a pre-given, fixed, monolithic identity, we can have multiple and fluid belongings. We can even love more than one person. Our hearts are wide and deep enough to do so. And yes, we can also dream in more than one language.