Elif Şafak

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Elif Şafak
ElifShafak Ask EbruBilun Wiki cropped.jpg
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[1] (Turkish: [eˈlif ˈʃafak]; born 25 October 1971) is a Turkish author, columnist, speaker and academic.

Şafak has published 14 books, nine of which are novels. She writes fiction in both Turkish and English. Şafak blends Western and Eastern traditions of storytelling in stories of women, minorities, immigrants, subcultures, and youth. Her writing draws on diverse cultures and literary traditions, reflecting interests in history, philosophy, Sufism, oral culture, and cultural politics. Şafak also uses black humour.[2] She was awarded the title of Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2010.


Early life[edit]

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.[3] 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—Turkish for "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.”[4]

Private life[edit]

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



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,[5] 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 [6] 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.[7][8][9]

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.[10] 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 Penal 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." [11][12][13]

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 bestseller in Turkey [14] and in France was awarded a Prix ALEF* - Mention Spéciale Littérature Etrangére.[15] It was also nominated for the 2012 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.[16] 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.[17][18] “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.”.[19] Described as a “writer on the edge of her culture” [20] 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.”[21]


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. Besides her professional titles, she 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.



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.” [22] 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."[22]

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."[23]


Boyd Tonkin in The Independent described Şafak as a “writer who weds the modern and the mystic.”[24] 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."[25]

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."[26] In an interview with William Skidelsky for The Guardian, she said: "In Turkey, men write and women read. I want to see this change."[27]

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”.[28] 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.[29] 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.” [30]

Awards and recognition[edit]

  • Asian Women of Achievement Awards 2015: Global Empowerment Award
  • The Architect's Apprentice, longlisted for Walter Scott Historical Novel Prize, 2015[31]
  • Honour, second place for the Prix Escapade, France 2014 [32]
  • Honour, longlisted for International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, 2013 [33]
  • 2013 Prix Relay des voyageurs, Crime d'honneur (Phébus), 2013 [34]
  • Honour, longlisted for Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2013 [35]
  • Honour, longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, 2012 [36]
  • The Forty Rules of Love, nominated for 2012 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award [37]
  • Prix ALEF – Mention Spéciale Littérature Etrangère, Soufi, mon amour (Phébus), 2011 [38]
  • Marka 2010 Award, Turkey
  • Chevalier Des Arts et Lettres [39]
  • Turkish Journalists and Writers Foundation "The Art of Coexistence Award-2009" [40]
  • The Bastard of Istanbul, longlisted for Orange Prize for Fiction, London 2008 [10]
  • The Gaze, longlisted for Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, United Kingdom 2007 [41]
  • Maria Grazia Cutuli Award – International Journalism Prize, Italy 2006 [42]
  • The Flea Palace, shortlisted for Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, United Kingdom 2005
  • The Gaze, Union of Turkish Writers' Best Novel Prize, 2000[6]
  • Pinhan, The Great Rumi Award, Turkey 1998 [5]



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"
  2. ^ Freely, Maureen (2006-08-13). "Writers on Trial". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-05-01. 
  3. ^ Finkel, Andrew. "Portrait of Elif Şafak". Turkish Cultural Foundation. Retrieved 2010-12-10. 
  4. ^ "The Urgency of a Cosmopolitan Ideal as Nationalism Surges". The Huffington Post. 
  5. ^ a b "Mevlana büyük ödülleri - Bilgi ve Eğlence Portalınız - Porttakal". porttakal.com. 
  6. ^ a b http://www.tyb.org.tr/tyb-odulleri/2000-yili-yilin-yazar-fikir-adami-ve-sanatcilari-odulu
  7. ^ "Spanning the literary globe". The Independent (London). 2005-03-04. 
  8. ^ name="marionboyars.co.uk"http://www.marionboyars.co.uk/Amy%20Pages/Bookseller%20Article.html
  9. ^ Elif Shafak. "The Gaze". Goodreads. 
  10. ^ a b "Orange newsroom - Orange Broadband Prize For Fiction Announces 2008 Longlist". orange.co.uk. 
  11. ^ Fowler, Susanne (2006-09-15). "Turkey, a Touchy Critic, Plans to Put a Novel on Trial". The New York Times. Retrieved 2011-08-23. 
  12. ^ Lea, Richard (2006-07-24). "In Istanbul, a writer awaits her day in court". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 2011-08-23. 
  13. ^ Burch, Nick (2006-09-22). "Judge throws out charges against Turkish novelist". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 2011-08-23. 
  14. ^ "Edebiyatta rekor Aşk 200 bin sattı". hurriyet.com.tr. 
  15. ^ "Prix ALEF - Mention Spéciale Littérature Etrangère". prix-litteraires.net. 
  16. ^ http://www.impacdublinaward.ie/2012/longlist.htm
  17. ^ "Curtis Brown website". Retrieved 2012-03-04. 
  18. ^ "Penguin Books website". Retrieved 2012-03-04. 
  19. ^ "Fiction Book Review: Honor by Elif Shafak. Viking, $26.95 (342p) ISBN 978-0-670-78483-7". PublishersWeekly.com. 
  20. ^ http://www.wildriverreview.com/INTERVIEW/Elif-Shafak/A-Writer-on-the-Edge-of-Her-Culture/Angie-Brenner.
  21. ^ Elif Shafak (6 November 2014). "The Architect's Apprentice by Elif Shafak - Waterstones.com". waterstones.com. 
  22. ^ a b Shafak, Elif (2006-07-31). "Pulled by Two Tides". Time Magazine. Retrieved 2010-12-10. 
  23. ^ Shafak, Elif (2010-05-13). "The Essay: Postcards from Istanbul". BBC Radio 3. Retrieved 2010-12-10. 
  24. ^ "An Interview with Elif Shafak". Bianet - Bagimsiz Iletisim Agi. 
  25. ^ Abrams, Rebecca (2010-06-19). "Elif Shafak: Motherhood is sacred in Turkey". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 2010-12-10. 
  26. ^ "Breaking down the boundaries". The Sydney Morning Herald. 2010-03-17. 
  27. ^ William Skidelsky. "Elif Shafak: 'In Turkey, men write and women read. I want to see this change'". the Guardian. 
  28. ^ "Major authors express Turkey concern". thebookseller.com. 
  29. ^ Alison Flood. "Sochi 2014: world authors join protest against Putin". the Guardian. 
  30. ^ "Elif Shafak on our common humanity". Free Speech Debate. 
  31. ^ "Longlist announced". Walter Scott Prize. 
  32. ^ "Les auteurs". salonlivre-vernon.org. 
  33. ^ "Honour". impacdublinaward.ie. 
  34. ^ "Crime d'honneur, lauréat du Prix Relay 2013 - Prix Relay des Voyageurs Lecteurs". prixrelay.com. 
  35. ^ "BAILEYS Women's Prize for Fiction  » Honour". womensprizeforfiction.co.uk. 
  36. ^ http://www.manasianliteraryprize.org/news/2012/12/3/2012-man-asian-literary-prize-longlist-displays-the-literary.html
  37. ^ "International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award". impacdublinaward.ie. 
  38. ^ "Elif Shafak". prix-litteraires.net. 
  39. ^ Salter, Jessica (14 November 2014). "Elif Shafak: 'I believe I'm not a good wife but I'm OK with that'". The Daily Telegraph (Telegraph Media Group). Retrieved 18 September 2015. 
  40. ^ "GYV". gyv.org.tr. 
  41. ^ "News of the world: Independent Foreign Fiction Prize". The Independent (London). 2007-01-19. 
  42. ^ [Today’s Zaman, 28 October 2006, Saturday / ANADOLU NEWS AGENCY (AA), ROMA]

External links[edit]