#TBT: Elif Shafak is the new Paulo Coelho by Zainab Agha

Quotes from The Forty Rules of Love, Turkish writer Elif Shafak’s best-selling novel, are all over social media these days. Shafak’s books – in pirated print – are stacked on tables in makeshift book markets across South Asia. The Forty Rules of Love and The Bastard of Istanbul now constantly make it to the top 10 list of the favourite books of many young South Asians.

It’s official. Elif Shafak is South Asia’s new Paulo Coelho.

Impressed more by the topics she chooses to write about rather than her writing itself, I went to the hear her speak at the London Literature Festival at Southbank Centre on November 12. I expected a different author, an earnest sort of historian with maybe a wad of typewritten notes highlighted with key messages in green.

Instead, I found an articulate, sophisticated writer who engaged the audience in a natural conversation about storytelling, superstition and Sinan, the chief architect of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century

Shafak writes in Turkish and English, and, ironically, some of her English books have been translated back into Turkish. When asked why (she chose to shift from writing in Turkish to writing in English), Shafak said each language gives a person an additional zone of existence. English gave her more freedom to write. She related it to how Turkish women are not comfortable swearing in Turkish but can swear in English with complete ease. How familiar!

It is clear that Shafak’s books have a point to make. Although Shafak admitted that she did meticulous research for each of her books, when it came to writing them down she said she let the story tell itself. Shafak said she does not write in a structured way but lets the words and characters lead the story.

For her, the art of storytelling allows the reader to see history from a different perspective. She remarked that the official version of history only allows the mainstream voice. Fiction, however, allows history to be told from the perspectives of women and minority groups.

During the conversation, it was clear that her books resonate with her personal life.  She did not grow up with mysticism, the topic of her novel The Forty Rules of Love, but became interested in the subject during her student life.

She was drawn to mysticism because of its universality, its emphasis on connection in contrast to most organised religions that try to create a sense of ‘the other’. She spoke about her being brought up by a single mother, spending a lot of her childhood in travelling, and being bored (I am beginning to discover that boredom is a prerequisite for creativity).

She recalled that her grandmother’s house was infused with spirituality and superstition. She remembered what it was like feeling safe inside that house during a time in Istanbul when the outside world was violent. The Bastard of Istanbul has the same sense of a family home but in the story, the violence is of course on the inside.

Shafak read an extract from her new book The Architect’s Apprentice, which is set between 1546 and 1632. It focusses on the famous architect Sinan, who is credited with the construction of more than 300 major structures including the Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul. The novel spans a period almost as long as Sinan’s life, who died at the age of 99.

Shafak said she was fascinated that Sinan was Christian until the age of 21 when he converted and how he must have felt being asked to make a mosque’s dome that was higher than any cathedral in Christendom.

The paragraphs Shafak read out were about what Jahan – a 12-year-old Indian boy – sees when he arrives at the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul with a white elephant as a gift for the Sultan,  the mix of identities (he notices) and how although they ‘walked different paths but their shadows mingled.’

I have not read The Architect’s Apprentice yet. But I intend to read it soon, before all the quotes start appearing on my Facebook feed.