Elif Shafak

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Elif Shafak
Shafak in 2021
Shafak in 2021
Native name
Elif Şafak
Born (1971-10-25) 25 October 1971 (age 51)
Strasbourg, France
  • Novelist
  • essayist
  • public speaker
  • activist
  • English
  • Turkish
  • Spanish
GenreLiterary fiction
Notable works

Elif Shafak FRSL (Turkish: Elif Şafak, pronounced [eˈlif ʃaˈfak]; born 25 October 1971) is a Turkish-British[1] novelist, essayist, public speaker, political scientist[2] and activist.

Shafak[a] writes in Turkish and English, and has published 19 works. She is best known for her novels, which include The Bastard of Istanbul, The Forty Rules of Love, Three Daughters of Eve and 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World. Her books have been translated into 55 languages and been nominated for several literary awards. Described by the Financial Times as "Turkey's leading female novelist",[3] several of her works have been bestsellers in Turkey and internationally.

Her works have prominently featured the city of Istanbul, and dealt with themes of Eastern and Western culture, roles of women in society, and human rights issues. Certain politically challenging topics addressed in her novels, such as child abuse and the Armenian genocide, have led to legal action from authorities in Turkey[4][5] that prompted her to emigrate to the United Kingdom.

Shafak has a PhD in political science. An essayist and contributor to several media outlets, Shafak has advocated for women's rights, minority rights, and freedom of speech.

Early life and education[edit]

Shafak was born in Strasbourg, France, to Nuri Bilgin, a philosopher, and Şafak Atayman, who later became a diplomat. After her parents separated, Shafak returned to Ankara, Turkey, where she was raised by her mother and maternal grandmother.[6] She says that growing up in a dysfunctional family was difficult, but that growing up in a non-patriarchal environment had a beneficial impact on her. Having grown up without her father, she met her half-brothers for the first time when she was in her mid-twenties.[7]

Shafak added her mother's first name, Turkish for "dawn", to her own when constructing her pen name at the age of eighteen. Shafak spent her teenage years in Madrid, Jordan and Germany.[7]

Shafak studied an undergraduate degree in international relations at Middle East Technical University, and earned a Master's studies in women's studies.[8] She holds a Ph.D. in political science.[9][10] She has taught at universities in Turkey. Later emigrating to the United States, she was a fellow at Mount Holyoke College, a visiting professor at the University of Michigan, and was a tenured professor at the University of Arizona in Near Eastern studies.[7][11]

In the UK, she held the Weidenfeld Visiting Professorship in Comparative European Literature at St Anne's College, University of Oxford, for the 2017–2018 academic year,[12] where she is an honorary fellow.[13]


Shafak has published nineteen books, both fiction and nonfiction.[14]


Shafak's first novel, Pinhan, was awarded the Rumi Prize in 1998, a Turkish literary prize.[15]

Shafak's 1999 novel Mahrem (The Gaze) was awarded "Best Novel" by the Turkish Authors' Association in 2000.[16]

Her next novel, Bit Palas (The Flea Palace, 2002), was shortlisted for Independent Best Foreign Fiction in 2005.[17][18]

Shafak released her first novel in English, The Saint of Incipient Insanities, in 2004.[7]

Her second novel in English, The Bastard of Istanbul, was long-listed for the Orange Prize.[19] It addresses the Armenian genocide, which is denied by the Turkish government. Shafak was prosecuted in July 2006 on charges of "insulting Turkishness" (Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code) for discussing the genocide in the novel. Had she been convicted, she would have faced a maximum prison sentence of three years. The Guardian commented that The Bastard of Istanbul may be the first Turkish novel to address the genocide.[20] She was acquitted of these charges in September 2006 at the prosecutor's request.[21]

Shafak's novel The Forty Rules of Love (Aşk in Turkish) became a bestseller in Turkey upon its release;[22] it sold more than 200,000 copies by 2009, surpassing a previous record of 120,000 copies set by Orhan Pamuk's The New Life.[23] In France, it was awarded a Prix ALEF* – Mention Spéciale Littérature Etrangère.[24] It was also nominated for the 2012 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.[25] In 2019, it was listed by the BBC as one of the 100 "most inspiring" novels[26] and one of the "100 novels that shaped our world".[27]

Her 2012 novel Honour, which focuses on an honour killing,[28] was nominated for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize and 2013 Women's Prize for Fiction,[29][30][31] followed by The Architect's Apprentice, a historical fiction novel about a fictional apprentice to Mimar Sinan, in 2014.[7]

Her novel Three Daughters of Eve (2017), set in Istanbul and Oxford from the 1980s to the present day[32] was chosen by London Mayor Sadiq Khan as his favorite book of the year.[33] American writer Siri Hustvedt also praised the book.[34] The book explores themes of secular versus orthodox religious practice, conservative versus liberal politics and modern Turkish attitudes towards these .[35]

Following Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell and Sjon, Shafak was selected as the 2017 writer for the Future Library project. Her work The Last Taboo is the third part of a collection of 100 literary works that will not be published until 2114.[36]

Shafak's 2019 novel 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, revolving around the life of an Istanbul sex worker, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.[37] In 2019, Shafak was investigated by Turkish prosecutors for addressing child abuse and sexual violence in her fiction writing.[5]

Shafak released her twelfth novel The Island of Missing Trees in 2021.[38]


Shafak's non-fiction essays in Turkish have been collected in four books: Med-Cezir (2005),[39] Firarperest (2010),[40] Şemspare (2012)[41] and Sanma ki Yalnızsın (2017).[42]

In 2020, Shafak published How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division.[2]

In the media[edit]

Shafak has written for Time,[43] The Guardian,[44] La Repubblica,[45] The New Yorker,[46] The New York Times,[47] Der Spiegel[48] and New Statesman.[49]

Shafak has been a panellist or commentator on BBC World,[50] Euronews[51] and Al Jazeera English.[52]

In July 2017, Elif Shafak was chosen as a "castaway" on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs.[53]

Shafak has been a TEDGlobal speaker three times.[54]



Istanbul has been prominent in Shafak's writing. She depicts the city as a melting pot of different cultures and various contradictions.[55] Shafak 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."[43] In the same essay written for Time magazine Shafak says: "East and West is no water and oil. They do mix. And in a city like Istanbul they mix intensely, incessantly, amazingly."[43] The New York Times Book Review said of Shafak, "she has a particular genius for depicting backstreet Istanbul, where the myriad cultures of the Ottoman Empire are still in tangled evidence on every family tree."[4]

In a piece she wrote for the BBC, Shafak 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."[56]

Eastern and Western cultures[edit]

Shafak blends Eastern and Western ways of storytelling, and draws on oral and written culture. In The Washington Post, Ron Charles says, "Shafak speaks in a multivalent voice that captures the roiling tides of diverse cultures."[57] Mysticism and specifically Sufism has also been a theme in her work, particularly in The Forty Rules of Love.[58][59][22]


A feminist and advocate for gender equality, Shafak's writing has addressed numerous feminist issues and the role of women in society.[58][55][32] Examples include motherhood[58] and violence against women.[55] In an interview with William Skidelsky for The Guardian, she said: "In Turkey, men write and women read. I want to see this change."[60]

Human rights[edit]

Shafak's novels have explored human rights issues, particularly those in Turkey. She has said "What literature tries to do is to re-humanize people who have been dehumanized ... People whose voices we never hear. That's a big part of my work".[61] Specific topics have included persecution of Yazidis, the Armenian genocide[55] and the treatment of various minorities in Turkey.[61]


Freedom of speech[edit]

Shafak is an advocate for freedom of expression.[62] While taking part in the Free Speech Debate, 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."[63]

Political views[edit]

Shafak has been critical of the presidency of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, describing his tenure as leading to increased authoritarianism in Turkey.[64] She signed an open letter in protest against Turkey's Twitter ban in 2014, commenting: "the very core of democracy ... is lacking in today's Turkey".[65]

Shafak has spoken and written about various global political trends. In the 2010s, she drew parallels between Turkish political history and political developments in Europe and the United States.[59] Writing in The New Yorker in 2016, she said "Wave after wave of nationalism, isolationism, and tribalism have hit the shores of countries across Europe, and they have reached the United States. Jingoism and xenophobia are on the rise. It is an Age of Angst—and it is a short step from angst to anger and from anger to aggression."[46]

Shafak signed an open letter in protest against Russian persecution of homosexuals and blasphemy laws before Sochi 2014.[66]

Personal life[edit]

Shafak had lived in Istanbul, and in the United States before moving to the UK.[67] Shafak has lived in London since 2013,[7][68] but speaks of "carrying Istanbul in her soul".[69] As of 2019, Shafak had been in self-imposed exile from Turkey due to fear of prosecution.[59][70]

Shafak is married to the Turkish journalist Eyüp Can Sağlık, a former editor of the newspaper Radikal, with whom she has a daughter and a son.[68][71] In 2017, Shafak came out as bisexual.[72]

Following the birth of her daughter in 2006, Shafak suffered from postnatal depression, a period she addressed in her memoir Black Milk.[73]

Awards and recognition[edit]

Book awards[edit]

Other recognition[edit]

  • Maria Grazia Cutuli Award – International Journalism Prize, Italy 2006.[83]
  • Turkish Journalists and Writers Foundation "The Art of Coexistence Award, 2009";[84]
  • Marka Conference 2010 Award;[85]
  • Women To Watch Award, Mediacat & Advertising Age, March 2014;[86]
  • Asian Women of Achievement Awards 2015: Global Empowerment Award;[87]
  • 2016 GTF Awards for Excellence in Promoting Gender Equality;[88]
  • BBC's 100 most inspiring and influential women, 2021.[89]


Turkish English
Name Year Publisher ISBN Name Year Publisher ISBN
Kem Gözlere Anadolu 1994 Evrensel 9789757837299
Pinhan 1997 Metis 975-342-297-0
Şehrin Aynaları 1999 Metis 975-342-298-9
Mahrem 2000 Metis 975-342-285-7 The Gaze 2006 Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd 978-0714531212
Bit Palas 2002 Metis 975-342-354-3 The Flea Palace 2007 Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd 978 0714531205
Araf 2004 Metis 978-975-342-465-3 The Saint of Incipient Insanities 2004 Farrar, Straus and Giroux 0-374-25357-9
Beşpeşe (with Murathan Mungan, Faruk Ulay, Celil Oker and Pınar Kür) 2004 Metis 975-342-467-1
Med-Cezir 2005 Metis 975-342-533-3
Baba ve Piç 2006 Metis 978-975-342-553-7 The Bastard of Istanbul 2007 Viking 0-670-03834-2
Siyah Süt 2007 Doğan 975-991-531-6 Black Milk: On Writing, Motherhood, and the Harem Within 2011 Viking 0-670-02264-0
Aşk 2009 Doğan 978-605-111-107-0 The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi 2010 Viking 0-670-02145-8
Kâğıt Helva 2010 Doğan 978-605-111-426-2
Firarperest 2010 Doğan 978-605-111-902-1
The Happiness of Blond People: A Personal Meditation on the Dangers of Identity 2011 Penguin 9780670921768
İskender 2011 Doğan 978-605-090-251-8 Honour 2012 Viking 0-670-92115-7
Şemspare 2012 Doğan 978-605-090-799-5
Ustam ve Ben 2013 Doğan 978-605-09-1803-8 The Architect's Apprentice 2014 Viking 978-024-100-491-3
Sakız Sardunya 2014 Doğan 978-605-09-2291-2
Havva'nın Üç Kızı 2016 Doğan 978-605-09-3537-0 Three Daughters of Eve 2016 Viking 978-024-128-804-7
Sanma ki Yalnızsın 2018 Doğan 978-605-095-146-2
On Dakika Otuz Sekiz Saniye 2018 Doğan 978-605-096-309-0 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World 2019 Viking 978-024-129-386-7
Aşkın Kırk Kuralı (compilation based on Aşk) 2019 Doğan Novus 978-605-095-864-5
Bölünmüş Bir Dünyada Akıl Sağlığımızı Nasıl Koruruz 2022 Doğan 978-625-821-547-2 How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division 2020 Welcome Collection / Profile Books 978-178-816-572-3
The Island of Missing Trees 2021 Viking 978-024-143-499-4

NOTE: Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd was bought out by Viking in 2011.


  1. ^ Her name is spelled "Shafak" (with the digraph ⟨Sh⟩ in place of the ⟨Ş⟩) on her books published in English, including the Penguin Books edition of The Forty Rules of Love.


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Further reading[edit]

  • Kalpaklı, Fatma. Amitav Ghosh ile Elif Şafak’ın Romanlarında Öteki/leştirme/Us and Them Attitude in the Works of Amitav Ghosh and Elif Şafak . Konya: Çizgi Kitabevi, 2016. ISBN 978-605-9427-28-9

External links[edit]