Elif Şafak

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Elif Şafak
Elif Shafak credit Zeynel Abidin.jpg
Elif Şafak (Photographer Zeynel Abidin)
Born (1971-10-25) 25 October 1971 (age 43)
Strasbourg, France
Occupation Writer
Literary movement Postmodernism, historical fiction, magic realism, literary fiction
Notable works The Gaze
The Bastard of Istanbul
The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi
The Architect's Apprentice

Elif Şafak (or Shafak,[1] born 25 October 1971) is a Turkish author, columnist, speaker and academic. "As Turkey's bestselling female writer, Şafak is a brave champion of cosmopolitanism, a sophisticated feminist, and an ambitious novelist who infuses her magical-realist fiction with big, important ideas...".[2] Critics have named her as "one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary Turkish and world literature".[3]

Her books have been published in more than 40 countries,[4] and she was awarded the honorary distinction of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters in 2010.

Şafak has published thirteen books, nine of which are novels. She writes fiction in both Turkish and English. Şafak blends Western and Eastern traditions of storytelling, bringing out the myriad stories of women, minorities, immigrants, subcultures, youth and global souls. Her writing draws on diverse cultures and literary traditions, reflecting a deep interest in history, philosophy, Sufism, oral culture, and cultural politics. Şafak also has a keen eye for black humour, with "a particular genius for depicting backstreet Istanbul."[5]


Elif Şafak has published thirteen books, nine of which are novels.

Şafak's first novel, Pinhan (The Hidden) was awarded the Rumi Prize in 1998,[6] which is given to the best work in mystical literature in Turkey. Her second novel, Şehrin Aynaları (Mirrors of the City), tells the story of a family of Spanish conversos, brings together Jewish and Islamic mysticism against a historical setting in the 17th century Mediterranean. Şafak greatly increased her readership with her novel Mahrem (The Gaze) which earned her the "Best Novel - Turkish Writers' Union Prize in 2000 [7] Her next novel, Bit Palas (The Flea Palace, 2002), has been a bestseller in Turkey and was shortlisted for Independent Best Foreign Fiction in 2005.[8][9][10]

Şafak wrote her next novel in English, The Saint of Incipient Insanities, which was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2004.

Her second novel in English, The Bastard of Istanbul, was the bestselling book of 2006 in Turkey and was longlisted for the Orange prize.[11] In the novel, Şafak addresses the Armenian genocide, which is systematically denied by the Turkish government. Şafak was prosecuted on charges of "insulting Turkishness" (Article 301 of the Turkish criminal code) for discussing the genocide in the novel. If convicted, she would have faced a maximum jail term of three years. According to The Guardian, "[The Bastard of Istanbul] is perhaps the first Turkish novel to deal directly with the massacres, atrocities and deportations that decimated the country's Armenian population in the last years of Ottoman rule." Şafak stated the following regarding The Bastard of Istanbul and the charges that were twice filed against her: "The overt reason is my latest novel and the critical tone of the book. The latent reason is deeper and more complex. I have been active and outspoken on various 'taboo' issues, critical of ultranationalism and all sorts of rigid ideologies, including those coming from the Kemalist elite, and I have maintained a public presence on minority rights, especially on the Armenian question. It is a whole package." [12][13][14]

Following the birth of her daughter in 2006 she suffered from post-natal depression, an experience she addressed in her first autobiographical book, Siyah Süt (Black Milk). In this book Şafak explored the beauties and difficulties of being a writer and a mother. The book was received with great interest and acclaim by critics and readers alike, and became an instant bestseller.

Şafak's novel The Forty Rules of Love focused on love in the light of Rumi and Shams of Tabriz. It sold more than 750,000 copies, becoming an all time best-seller in Turkey [15] and in France was awarded a Prix ALEF* - Mention Spéciale Littérature Etrangére.[16] It was also nominated for the 2012 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.[17] Her next novel Honour focused on an honour killing story, opening up a vivid debate about family, love, freedom, redemption and the construct of masculinity. It was nominated for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize and Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2013.[18][19] “Shafak's wonderfully expressive prose, sprinkled throughout with Turkish words and phrases, brings the characters to life in such a way that readers will feel they are living the roles.”.[20] Described as a “writer on the edge of her culture” [21] Şafak's most recent novel The Architect’s Apprentice revolves around Mimar Sinan, the most famous Ottoman architect. “Filled with the scents, sounds and sights of the Ottoman Empire, when Istanbul was the teeming centre of civilisation, The Architect's Apprentice is a magical, sweeping tale of one boy and his elephant caught up in a world of wonder and danger.”[22]

Academic life[edit]

Şafak is also a political scientist, having graduated from the program in International Relations at Middle East Technical University in Ankara. She holds a Masters degree in Gender and Women's Studies and a Ph.D. in Political Science. Her thesis on "Islamic Mysticism and the Circular Understanding of Time" was awarded by the Social Scientists Institute.[23]

She has taught at Istanbul Bilgi University and Bahçeşehir University in Turkey, Kingston University in the Umited Kingdom, University of Michigan and University of Arizona in the United States, and was a fellow at Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts, USA.


Şafak is a regular contributor to major newspapers in Turkey as well as several international daily and weekly publications, including The Guardian website. She has been featured in major newspapers and periodicals, including the Washington Times, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, The Financial Times, The Huffington Post, The Economist and The Guardian. Her nonfiction work covers a wide range of topics, including belonging, identity, gender, mental ghettoes, daily life politics, multicultural literature and the art of coexistence. These essays have been collected in three books, Med-Cezir (2005), Firarperest (2010), Şemspare (2012)

Elif Şafak holds various social, academic roles. She is an active social media figure with 1.6 million Twitter followers https://twitter.com/Elif_Safak. Besides her professional titles Elif Shafak is a TED Global speaker, founding member of ECFR (European Council on Foreign Relations); member of Weforum Global Agenda Council on The Role of Arts in Society; the 2013 judging panel for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the 2014 judging panel for the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award; Ambassador of Culture Action Europe Campaign, 2010; Special Envoy for EU-Turkey Cultural Bridges Programme, 2010. She was awarded the honorary distinction of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters in 2010.

Early life[edit]

“Like her home city, the career of Turkey’s leading female author and political commentator straddles continents.”[24] Şafak was born Elif Bilgin in Strasbourg to philosopher Nuri Bilgin and Şafak Atayman who later became a diplomat. When she was a year old her parents separated and Şafak was raised by a single mother.[25] She says not growing up in a typical patriarchal family had a great impact on her work and writing. She incorporated her mother's first name, which means Dawn, with her own when constructing her pen name.

Şafak spent her teenage years in Madrid and Amman before returning to Turkey. She has lived around the world -Boston, Michigan, Arizona, Istanbul and London- and her writing has thrived upon these journeys. She sees herself as not just migrating from country to country, city to city but language to language, even in her native Turkish she believes she plays to the vocabularies of different cultures. Through it all she has maintained a deep attachment to the city of Istanbul, which plays an important part in her fiction. As a result, a sense of multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism has consistently characterized both her life and her work. In the Huffington Post she defended the cosmopolitan ideal as follows:“Instead of reducing ourselves to the binary opposition of identity politics, we need to do the exact opposite: multiply our attachments and affiliations.”[26]


Istanbul has always been a central part of Şafak’s writing. She depicts the city as a ‘She-city’ and likens her to an old woman with a young heart who is eternally hungry for new stories and new loves. Şafak has remarked “Istanbul makes one comprehend, perhaps not intellectually but intuitively, that East and West are ultimately imaginary concepts, and can thereby be de-imagined and re-imagined.” [27] In the same essay written for Time Magazine Şafak says "East and West is no water and oil. They do mix. And in a city like Istanbul they mix intensely, incessantly, amazingly."[27]

In a piece she wrote for the BBC, she said, “Istanbul is like a huge, colourful Matrushka - you open it and find another doll inside. You open that, only to see a new doll nesting. It is a hall of mirrors where nothing is quite what it seems. One should be cautious when using categories to talk about Istanbul. If there is one thing the city doesn't like, it is clichés."[28]

She lives with her husband and two children and divides her time between Istanbul and London.


Boyd Tonkin in The Independent described Şafak as a “writer who weds the modern and the mystic.”[29] Şafak first became interested in Sufism as a college student in her early 20s, and it has reverberated through her writing and her life ever since. In The Forty Rules of Love, she tackles the subject head on with a modern love story between a Jewish-American housewife and a modern Sufi living in Amsterdam. Their unusual story is set against a historical background that narrates the remarkable spiritual bond between Rumi and Shams Tabrizi. She said in an interview given to The Guardian, "The more you read about Sufism, the more you have to listen. In time I became emotionally attached. When I was younger I wasn't interested in understanding the world. I only wanted to change it, through feminism or nihilism or environmentalism. But the more I read about Sufism the more I unlearned. Because that is what Sufism does to you, it makes you erase what you know, what you are so sure of. And then start thinking again. Not with your mind this time, but with your heart."[30]

Motherhood, feminism and post-feminism[edit]

An advocate of women's equality and freedom, Şafak herself grew up with two different models of womanhood – her modern, working, educated mother and her traditional, religious grandmother. Her writing has always addressed minorities and subcultures, such post-colonialism and post-feminism, and in particular the role of women in society. Following the birth of her daughter in 2006 she suffered from postpartum depression, a period she then addressed in her memoir, Black Milk: on Motherhood, Writing and the Harem Within which combines fiction and non-fiction genres. Şafak has commented concerning the book: "I named this book Black Milk for two reasons. First, it deals with postpartum depression and shows that mother's milk is not always as white and spotless as society likes to think it is. Second, out of that depression I was able to get an inspiration; out of that black milk I was able to develop some sort of ink."[31] In an interview with William Skidelsky for The Guardian, she said: "In Turkey, men write and women read. I want to see this change."[32]

Freedom of speech[edit]

Şafak is an advocate of women’s rights, minority rights and freedom of expression. In an English PEN letter to protest Turkey's twitter ban she commented: “Turkey's politicians need to understand that democracy is not solely about getting a majority of votes in the ballot box. Far beyond that, democracy is a culture of inclusiveness, openness, human rights and freedom of speech, for each and every one, regardless of whichever party they might have voted for. It is the realization of the very core of democracy that is lacking in today’s Turkey”.[33] Safak was one of the world authors who signed the open letter in protest against Putin’s anti-gay and blasphemy laws before Sotchi 2014.[34] Taking part in the Free Speech Debate, when asked about her role as a writer, she commented: “I am more interested in showing the things we have in common as fellow human beings, sharing the same planet and ultimately, the same sorrows and joys rather than adding yet another brick in the imaginary walls erected between cultures/religions/ethnicities.” [35]

Awards and special recognition[edit]

  • An active social media figure with over 1.6 million Twitter followers https://twitter.com/Elif_Safak
  • Women to Watch, Advertising Age & MediaCat, 2014[36]
  • Honour, came second for the Prix Escapade, France 2014 [37]
  • Honour, Nominated (long listed) for International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, 2013 [38]
  • Member of the judging panel for the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award two consecutive years [39]
  • Member of the 2013 Class of YSL (Turkish American Society)
  • 2013 Prix Relay des voyageurs, Crime d'honneur (Phébus), 2013 [40]
  • Honour, Long listed for Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2013 [41]
  • Member of the 2013 judging panel for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.[42]
  • Honour, Long listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize, 2012 [43]
  • The Forty Rules of Love, Nominated for 2012 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award [44]
  • Prix ALEF - Mention Spéciale Littérature Etrangère, Soufi, mon amour (Phébus), 2011 [45]
  • Member of Weforum Global Agenda Council on The Role of Arts in Society[46]
  • TED Global speaker [47]
  • Marka 2010 Award, Turkey
  • Chevalier Des Arts et Lettres
  • Ambassador of Culture Action Europe Campaign, 2010
  • Special Envoy, EU-Turkey Cultural Bridges Programme, 2010
  • Turkish Journalists and Writers Foundation "The Art of Coexistence Award-2009" [48]
  • International Rising Talent, Women's Forum - Deauville, France 2009 [49]
  • The Bastard of Istanbul, Long listed for Orange Prize for Fiction, London 2008 [11]
  • Founding member of ECFR (European Council on Foreign Relations)[50]
  • The Gaze, Longlisted for Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, United Kingdom 2007 [51]
  • Maria Grazia Cutuli Award - International Journalism Prize, Italy 2006 [52]
  • The Flea Palace, Short listed for Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, United Kingdom 2005
  • The Gaze, Union of Turkish Writers' Best Novel Prize, 2000[53]
  • Pinhan, The Great Rumi Award, Turkey 1998 [6]


Azerbaijani translations
Dutch translations
French translations
German translations
  • Spiegel der Stadt (translation of Şehrin Aynaları from Turkish), Literaturca Verlag 2004, ISBN 3-935535-06-6
  • Die Heilige des nahenden Irrsinns (translation of The Saint of Incipient Insanities from English ), Eichborn 2005, ISBN 3-8218-5750-1
  • Der Bastard von Istanbul (translation of The Bastard of Istanbul from English), Eichborn 2007, ISBN 3-8218-5799-4
  • Der Bonbonpalast (translation of Bit Palas from Turkish), Eichborn 2008, ISBN 3-8218-5806-0
  • Die vierzig Geheimnisse der Liebe (translation of The Forty Rules of Love from English), Kein & Aber 2013, ISBN 978-3036956664
  • Ehre (translation of Honour from English), Kein & Aber 2014, ISBN 978-3-0369-5676-3
Italian translations
Polish translations
Portuguese translations
Russian translations


  1. ^ This is the spelling on her foreign editions, including the Penguin Books edition of "The Forty Rules of Love"
  2. ^ http://www.newrepublic.com/book/review/lost-translation#
  3. ^ Journal of Turkish Literature,Issue 6,2009
  4. ^ http://www.curtisbrown.co.uk/elif-shafak
  5. ^ Freely, Maureen (2006-08-13). "Writers on Trial". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-05-01. 
  6. ^ a b http://www.porttakal.com/ahaber-mevlana-buyuk-odulleri-73603.html
  7. ^ [1]..
  8. ^ "Spanning the literary globe". The Independent (London). 2005-03-04. 
  9. ^ name="marionboyars.co.uk"http://www.marionboyars.co.uk/Amy%20Pages/Bookseller%20Article.html
  10. ^ http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/248734.The_Gaze
  11. ^ a b http://newsroom.orange.co.uk/2008/03/18/orange-broadband-prize-for-fiction-announces-2008-longlist/
  12. ^ Fowler, Susanne (2006-09-15). "Turkey, a Touchy Critic, Plans to Put a Novel on Trial". The New York Times. Retrieved 2011-08-23. 
  13. ^ Lea, Richard (2006-07-24). "In Istanbul, a writer awaits her day in court". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 2011-08-23. 
  14. ^ Burch, Nick (2006-09-22). "Judge throws out charges against Turkish novelist". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 2011-08-23. 
  15. ^ http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/gundem/12006481.asp
  16. ^ http://www.prix-litteraires.net/prix/1825,prix-alef-mention-speciale-litterature-etrangere.html
  17. ^ http://www.impacdublinaward.ie/2012/longlist.htm
  18. ^ "Curtis Brown website". Retrieved 2012-03-04. 
  19. ^ "Penguin Books website". Retrieved 2012-03-04. 
  20. ^ http://publishersweekly.com/978-0-670-78483-7
  21. ^ http://www.wildriverreview.com/INTERVIEW/Elif-Shafak/A-Writer-on-the-Edge-of-Her-Culture/Angie-Brenner.
  22. ^ http://www.waterstones.com/waterstonesweb/products/elif+shafak/the+architect27s+apprentice/10849506/
  23. ^ http://www.bookbrowse.com/biographies/index.cfm/author_number/1422/elif-shafak
  24. ^ http://moreintelligentlife.com/content/places/anonymous/seven-wonders.
  25. ^ Finkel, Andrew. "Portrait of Elif Şafak". Turkish Cultural Foundation. Retrieved 2010-12-10. 
  26. ^ http://www.huffingtonpost.com/elif-shafak/urgency-cosmopolitan-ideal-nationalism_b_4732212.html
  27. ^ a b Shafak, Elif (2006-07-31). "Pulled by Two Tides". Time Magazine. Retrieved 2010-12-10. 
  28. ^ Shafak, Elif (2010-05-13). "The Essay: Postcards from Istanbul". BBC Radio 3. Retrieved 2010-12-10. 
  29. ^ http://bianet.org/bianet/minorities/105723-an-interview-with-elif-shafak
  30. ^ Abrams, Rebecca (2010-06-19). "Elif Shafak: Motherhood is sacred in Turkey". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 2010-12-10. 
  31. ^ "Breaking down the boundaries". The Sydney Morning Herald. 2010-03-17. 
  32. ^ http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/apr/08/elif-shafak-honour-meet-the-author
  33. ^ http://www.thebookseller.com/news/major-authors-express-turkey-concern.html
  34. ^ http://www.theguardian.com/sport/2014/feb/06/sochi-games-anti-gay-blasphemy-laws-russia-putin-letter-writers
  35. ^ http://freespeechdebate.com/en/discuss/elif-shafak-on-our-common-humanity/
  36. ^ http://www.taraf.com.tr/haber-turkiyenin-fark-yaratan-kadinlari-153337/
  37. ^ http://www.salonlivre-vernon.org/Escapades2014.html
  38. ^ http://www.impacdublinaward.ie/nominees/honour/
  39. ^ http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/public/article1308965.ece
  40. ^ http://prixrelay.com/crime-dhonneur-laureat-du-prix-relay-2013/
  41. ^ http://www.womensprizeforfiction.co.uk/title/honour
  42. ^ http://www.booktrust.org.uk/news-and-blogs/news/166/
  43. ^ http://www.manasianliteraryprize.org/news/2012/12/3/2012-man-asian-literary-prize-longlist-displays-the-literary.html
  44. ^ http://www.impacdublinaward.ie/
  45. ^ http://www.prix-litteraires.net/detail_prix_auteur.php?auteur=5232_Elif_Shafak
  46. ^ http://www.weforum.org/content/global-agenda-council-role-arts-society-2012-2014
  47. ^ http://www.ted.com/talks/elif_shafak_the_politics_of_fiction.html
  48. ^ http://www.gyv.org.tr/Haberler/Detay/663/2009%20Living%20Together%20Award%20Winners%20Revealed
  49. ^ http://www.womens-forum.com/news/category/posts/the-2009-rising-talents-nominees
  50. ^ http://www.ecfr.eu/
  51. ^ "News of the world: Independent Foreign Fiction Prize". The Independent (London). 2007-01-19. 
  52. ^ [Today’s Zaman, 28 October 2006, Saturday / ANADOLU NEWS AGENCY (AA), ROMA]
  53. ^ http://www.tyb.org.tr/tyb-odulleri/2000-yili-yilin-yazar-fikir-adami-ve-sanatcilari-odulu

External links[edit]