Elif Shafak

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Elif Shafak
ElifShafak creditZeynelAbidin.jpg
Native name
Elif Şafak
Born (1971-10-25) 25 October 1971 (age 49)
Strasbourg, France
OccupationWriter, storyteller, academic, public speaker, women's rights activist
LanguageEnglish, Turkish
Notable works10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World, Three Daughters of Eve, The Bastard of Istanbul, The Forty Rules of Love, Honour, Black Milk, The Architect's Apprentice, The Flea Palace

Elif Shafak (Turkish: Elif Şafak, pronounced [eˈlif ʃaˈfak]; born 25 October 1971) is a Turkish-British[1] writer, storyteller, essayist, academic, public speaker, and women's rights activist. In English, she publishes under the anglicised spelling of her pen-name 'Elif Shafak'.[2]

Shafak writes in Turkish and English, and has published 17 books, 11 of which are novels,[3] including 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World, The Bastard of Istanbul, The Forty Rules of Love, and Three Daughters of Eve. Her books have been translated into 53 languages,[4] and she has been awarded Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.[5]

Shafak is an activist for women's rights, minority rights, and freedom of speech. She also writes and speaks about a range of issues including global and cultural politics, the future of Europe, Turkey and the Middle East, democracy, and pluralism. She has twice been a TED Global speaker,[6] a member of the Weforum Global Agenda Council on Creative Economy[7] and a founding member of European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).[8][9] In 2017, she was chosen by Politico as one of the twelve people that will "give you a much needed lift of the heart".[10]


Early life[edit]

Shafak was born in Strasbourg to philosopher Nuri Bilgin 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 grandmother.[11][12] She says that growing up in a dysfunctional family was difficult in many ways, but that growing up in a non-patriarchal environment had a positive 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.[12]

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 Ankara, Madrid, Amman, and Istanbul.[13][14]

Academic career[edit]

Shafak holds a degree in International Relations,[15] a master's degree in Gender and Women's Studies,[16] and a Ph.D. in Political Science.[17][18] She has taught at universities in Turkey.[15] In the United States, she was a fellow at Mount Holyoke College, a visiting professor at the University of Michigan, and a tenured professor at the University of Arizona.[19] In the U.K., she held the Weidenfeld Visiting Professorship in Comparative European Literature at St Anne's College, Oxford for the 2017–2018 academic year[20] where she is an honorary fellow.[21]



Shafak has published seventeen books, eleven of which are novels.[22]

Shafak's first novel, Pinhan (The Hidden), was awarded the Rumi Prize in 1998,[23] an honor bestowed on 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, by bringing together Jewish and Islamic mysticism against a historical setting of seventeenth-century Mediterranean.

Shafak greatly increased her readership with her novel Mahrem (The Gaze) which earned her the "Best Novel" – Turkish Writers' Union Prize in 2000.[24]

Her following book, Bit Palas (The Flea Palace, 2002), was shortlisted for Independent Best Foreign Fiction in 2005.[25][26][27]

Shafak wrote her next novel in English. The Saint of Incipient Insanities was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2004.[28]

Her next novel in English, The Bastard of Istanbul, was long-listed for the Orange Prize.[29] Shafak addresses the Armenian genocide, which is denied by the Turkish government. Shafak was prosecuted 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 jail term of three years. 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.[30] Of the novel, Ariel Dorfman says, "Mixing humour and tragedy as effortlessly as her two unforgettable families blend and jumble up the many layers of their identity, Elif Shafak offers up an extravagant tale of Istanbul and Arizona, food and remorse, mysticism and tattoos, human comedy and yes, massacres. Quite an exceptional literary feast."[31]

In 2019, Turkish prosecutors put Shafak under investigation for addressing child abuse and sexual violence in her newest book.[32]

Following the birth of her first child in 2006 she suffered from post-natal depression, an experience she addressed in Siyah Süt (Black Milk). In this book Shafak explored the beauties and challenges of being a woman, writer and a mother.

Shafak's novel The Forty Rules of Love focused on love in the light of Rumi and Shams of Tabriz. It sold more than 900,000 copies in Turkey,[33] and in France was awarded a Prix ALEF* - Mention Spéciale Littérature Etrangére.[34] It was also nominated for the 2012 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.;[35] and was chosen by the BBC among 100 books that shaped our world.[36]

Her next novel, Honour, focused on an honour killing, opening up a vivid debate about family, love, freedom, redemption, and the construct of masculinity.[37] It was nominated for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize and Women's Prize for Fiction, 2013.[38][39] "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."[40]

Shafak's 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."[41]

The Sunday Times said "Shafak is passionately interested in dissolving barriers, whether of race, nationality, culture, gender, geography or a more mystical kind." And the Irish Times has called her, "The most exciting Turkish novelist to reach Western readers in years."[42] The New York Times Book Review says, "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."[43]

Her novel Three Daughters of Eve (2017) set across Istanbul and Oxford, from the 1980s to the present day, is a sweeping tale of faith and friendship, tradition and modernity, love and unexpected betrayal.[according to whom?][citation needed] In the Financial Times, Sadiq Khan chose the book as his favourite book of the year. "This is a truly modern novel — about the way we are shaped by politics, including freedom of expression and political repression, but also by our personal relationships."[44] Siri Hustvedt said, "Elif Shafak's urgent, topical novel explores the ambiguities and dangers of being caught in the Land of Between. Three Daughters of Eve upends the omnipresent but crude truisms of East and West, oppression and liberation, right and wrong that continue to divide, torment, and haunt us all."[45]

Her next novel 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World was shortlisted for the Booker prize for RSL Ondaatje Prize and for the Prix de Livre Etranger in France.


Shafak's nonfiction work covers a wide range of topics, including belonging, identity, gender, mental ghettoes, daily life politics, multicultural literature and the art of coexistence.[46] These essays have been collected in four books: Med-Cezir (2005),[47] Firarperest (2010),[48] Şemspare (2012)[49] and Sanma ki Yalnizsin (2017).[50]


Shafak has written for numerous publications including The Guardian,[51] Financial Times,[52] La Repubblica, The New Yorker,[53] The New York Times[54] and Der Spiegel.[55] Her work has been reviewed in numerous international publications, including The Washington Post,[56] The Sunday Times,[57] The Guardian,[58] The Financial Times,[59] La Repubblica,[60] The New Yorker,[61] The New York Times,[62] Die Zeit, El Pais, and Der Spiegel.[63]

At the World Economic Forum in 2017, Shafak joined a panel discussion for BBC World on "Politics of Fear: The Rebellion of the Forgotten?" with Ursula von der Leyen, German Defence Minister, Eric Cantor, former House Majority Leader of the US House of Representatives, and Liam Fox, UK Secretary of State for International Trade.[64] On EuroNews she joined a panel discussion "Is this the end for multi-culturalism?" with Brendan Cox, US historian Lonnie Bunch, and Belgian deputy prime minister Alexander De Croo.[65] She was also one of three speakers on a panel on faith alongside the Muslim scholar Abdullah Bin Bayyah and the Chief Rabbi of the UK, Ephraim Mirvis, moderated by Damien O'Brien, Chairman of Egon Zehnder.[66]

In July 2017, Elif Shafak was chosen as a 'castaway' on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs.[67]

TED talks[edit]

Shafak has twice been a TEDGlobal speaker,[68] Her 2010 TEDGlobal has been viewed over 2 million times,[69] and her 2017 has been viewed over 4.5 million times.[70]

Public speaking and literary judging[edit]

Shafak is an active social media figure on Twitter[71] and Instagram.[72]

Other activities include:

Literary judging[edit]

Shafak has served as a judge for the following literary prizes:

  • The Orwell Prize for Political Writing, 2020[77]
  • Chair of the Wellcome Book Prize 2019 judging panel[78]
  • Berggruen Prize Juror for Philosophy & Culture[79]
  • The Goldsmiths Prize, 2018[80]
  • The 2017 MAN Booker International Prize[81][circular reference]
  • The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award, 2017[82]
  • Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction in 2016[83]
  • FT/Oppenheimer Funds Emerging Voices Awards, 2016 and 2015[84]
  • The 2016 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction[85]
  • The 10th Women of the Future Awards, 2015[86][87]
  • Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards, 2015[88]
  • Sunday Times Short Story Award in 2014, 2015[89]
  • The 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize[84]
"How we see God is a direct reflection of how we see ourselves. If God brings to mind mostly fear and blame, it means there is too much fear and blame welled inside us. If we see God as full of love and compassion, so are we."

Elif Safak, [90][91]

Areas of interest[edit]


Istanbul has always been central to Shafak's writing. She depicts the city as a 'She-city' and likens it to an old woman with a young heart who is eternally hungry for new stories and new loves. 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."[92] 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."[92]

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."[93]

Feminism and women's rights[edit]

An advocate of women's equality and freedom, Shafak 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 as post-colonialism and post-feminism, and in particular the role of women in society.[94]

Following the birth of her daughter in 2006, Shafak suffered from postpartum depression, a period she addressed in her memoir, Black Milk: On Motherhood, Writing and the Harem Within, which combines fiction and non-fiction genres. Shafak has commented, "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."[95] In an interview with William Skidelsky for The Guardian, she said: "In Turkey, men write and women read. I want to see this change."[96]

Freedom of speech[edit]

Shafak is an advocate of women's rights, minority rights, and freedom of expression. In an English PEN letter to protest against 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".[97] Shafak was one of the world authors who signed the open letter in protest against Putin's anti-gay and blasphemy laws before Sochi 2014.[98] 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."[99]

Global politics[edit]

Shafak is a speaker and writer on global politics, the dangers of populism, tribalism, and nationalism. Writing for The New Yorker she said, "Although the Turkish case is in some ways uniquely depressing, it is part of a much larger trend. 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."[100]

Mysticism, East and West[edit]

Shafak blends Eastern and Western ways of storytelling, and blends 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. And, of course, as readers know from her previous novels 'The Architect's Apprentice' and 'The Bastard of Istanbul,' it helps that she's a terrifically engaging storyteller."[101] Vogue says, "Elif Shafak has been building a body of work that needles her country's historical amnesia."

Awards and recognition[edit]

Book awards[edit]

Other recognition[edit]

Personal life[edit]

Shafak has lived in Istanbul, and in the United States—in Boston, Michigan, and Arizona—before moving to the UK.[137] Shafak has lived in London since 2013,[138] but speaks of "carr[ying] Istanbul in her soul."[139]

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.[138][140] In 2017, Shafak came out as bisexual.[141]


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 2019 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
How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division 2020 Welcome Collection / Profile Books 978-178-816-572-3

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


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  2. ^ 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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  8. ^ a b https://www.ecfr.eu/page/-/ECFR-04_AFGHANISTAN_-_EUROPES_FORGOTTEN_WAR.pdf The list of the founding members is on page 41
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External links[edit]