Elif Shafak (Turkish: Elif Şafak, [eˈlif ʃaˈfak]; born 25 October 1971) is a Turkish-British writer, storyteller, essayist, academic, public speaker, and women's rights activist. In English, she publishes under the anglicized spelling of her pen-name 'Elif Shafak'.
Shafak writes in Turkish and English, and has published seventeen books, eleven of which are novels, 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 fiftyone languages, and she has been awarded Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
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, a member of the Weforum Global Agenda Council on Creative Economy and a founding member of European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). In 2017, she was chosen by Politico as one of the twelve people that will "give you a much needed lift of the heart".
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. 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.
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.
Shafak holds a degree in International Relations, a master's degree in Gender and Women’s Studies, and a Ph.D. in Political Science. She has taught at universities in Turkey. 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. In the U.K., she held the Weidenfeld Visiting Professorship in Comparative European Literature at St Anne’s College, the University of Oxford for the 2017–2018 academic year where she is an honorary fellow.
Shafak has published seventeen books, eleven of which are novels.
Shafak's first novel, Pinhan (The Hidden), was awarded the Rumi Prize in 1998, 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.
Her following book, Bit Palas (The Flea Palace, 2002), was shortlisted for Independent Best Foreign Fiction in 2005.
Shafak wrote her next novel in English. The Saint of Incipient Insanities was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2004.
Her next novel in English, The Bastard of Istanbul, was long-listed for the Orange Prize. 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. 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."
In 2019, another time Elif Shafak was under investigation by Turkish prosecutors for addressing child abuse and sexual violence.
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, and in France was awarded a Prix ALEF* - Mention Spéciale Littérature Etrangére. It was also nominated for the 2012 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.; and was chosen by the BBC among 100 books that shaped our world.
Her next novel, Honour, focused on an honour killing, 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. “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.”
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."
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.” 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.”
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. 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.” 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."
Her next novel 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World was shortlisted for the Booker prize and shortlisted 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. These essays have been collected in three books: Med-Cezir (2005), Firarperest (2010), Şemspare (2012) and Sanma ki Yalnizsin (2017).
Shafak has written for numerous publications including The Guardian, Financial Times, La Repubblica, The New Yorker, The New York Times and Der Spiegel. Her work has been reviewed in numerous international publications, including The Washington Post, The Sunday Times, The Guardian, The Financial Times, La Repubblica, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Die Zeit, El Pais, and Der Spiegel.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos 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. 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. 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.
In July 2017, Elif Shafak was chosen as a ‘castaway’ on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs.
Shafak has twice been a TEDGlobal speaker, Her 2010 TEDGlobal has been viewed nearly 2 million times, and her 2017 has been viewed over 1.5 million times.
Public speaking and literary judging
Shafak is an active social media figure on Twitter and Instagram.
Other activities include:
- with Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell and Sjon, selected as the 2017 writer for the Future Library Project, a collection of 100 literary works that will be opened in 2114;
- Ambassador of Culture Action Europe Campaign, 2010;
- Special Envoy for EU-Turkey Cultural Bridges Programme, 2010;
- Recipient of the honorary distinction, Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2010;
- OSLO Freedom Forum speaker.
- a founding member of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR);
- member of Weforum Global Agenda Council on The Role of Arts in Society; and
- a guest curator at the Edinburgh Literature Festival.
Shafak has served as a judge for the following literary prizes:
- The Goldsmiths Prize, 2018;
- The 2017 MAN Booker International Prize;
- The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award, 2017;
- Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction in 2016;
- FT/Oppenheimer Funds Emerging Voices Awards, 2016, and 2015;
- The 2016 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction;
- The 10th Women of the Future Awards, 2015;
- Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards, 2015;
- Sunday Times Short Story Award in 2014, 2015; and
- The 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
Areas of interest
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." 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."
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."
Feminism and women's rights
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.
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." In an interview with William Skidelsky for The Guardian, she said: "In Turkey, men write and women read. I want to see this change."
Freedom of speech
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”. 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. 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."
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."
Mysticism, East and West
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.” Vogue says, “Elif Shafak has been building a body of work that needles her country’s historical amnesia.”
Awards and recognition
- 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, 2019;
- The Architect's Apprentice, shortlisted for RSL Ondaatje Prize, 2015;
- The Architect's Apprentice, longlisted for Walter Scott Historical Novel Prize, 2015;
- Honour, second place for the Prix Escapade, France 2014;
- Honour, longlisted for International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, 2013;
- Crime d'honneur (Phébus, 2013), 2013 Prix Relay des voyageurs;
- Honour, longlisted for Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2013;
- Honour, longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, 2012;
- The Forty Rules of Love, nominated for 2012 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award;
- Soufi, mon amour (Phébus, 2011), Prix ALEF – Mention Spéciale Littérature Etrangère;
- The Bastard of Istanbul, longlisted for Orange Prize for Fiction, London 2008;
- The Gaze, longlisted for Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, United Kingdom 2007;
- The Flea Palace, shortlisted for Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, United Kingdom 2005;
- The Gaze, Union of Turkish Writers' Best Novel Prize, 2000; and
- Pinhan, The Great Rumi Award, Turkey 1998.
- Caravan Award for Peacebuilding Through the Arts, 2017;
- Prize for Tolerance in Thinking and Acting, Prize of Honour of the Austrian Booksellers, 2017;
- Lahore Literary Festival Lifetime Achievement Award, 2016;
- Granted the Seal of the City and Certificate of Commendation by the City of Milan, 2016;
- 2016 GTF Awards for Excellence in Promoting Gender Equality;
- Asian Women of Achievement Awards 2015: Global Empowerment Award;
- Women To Watch Award, Mediacat & Advertising Age, March 2014;
- Turkish American Society Young Society Leader, 2013;
- Chevalier Des Arts et Lettres, 2010;
- Marka Conference 2010 Award;
- 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";
- International Rising Talent, Women's Forum - Deauville, France 2009; and
- Maria Grazia Cutuli Award – International Journalism Prize, Italy 2006.
- Board Member of Free Word Centre, promoting literacy, literature and freedom of expression;
- Member of English PEN;
- Cultural ambassador for The Ottoman Orient in Renaissance Art/BOZAR;
- Member of the Folio Academy;
- Member of Weforum Global Agenda Council on The Role of Arts in Society, DAVOS;
- Joined Future Library, writing piece to be unveiled in 2114;
- Member of Berggruen Prize Award Committee;
- WOW committee member; and
- Founding member of ECFR (European Council on Foreign Relations);
Shafak has lived in Istanbul, and in the United States—in Boston, Michigan, and Arizona—before moving to the UK. Shafak has lived in London since 2013, but speaks of "carr[ying] Istanbul in her soul."
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. In 2017, Shafak came out as bisexual.