Shafak: Storyland Is the Taste of Freedom

Turkish novelist Elif Shafak


I have just listened to a wonderful TED talk by the Turkish novelist Elif Shafak that indirectly makes a powerful case for a literary education. Shafak doesn’t specifically recommend that we read more lit when she discusses “the revolutionary power of diverse thought,” but she makes it clear that great writers articulate the world’s diversity.

Shafak says that the pressures of our global world have people longing for simple answers:

I think our world is full of unprecedented challenges, and this comes with an emotional backlash, because in the face of high-speed change, many people wish to slow down, and when there’s too much unfamiliarity, people long for the familiar. And when things get too confusing, many people crave simplicity.

 To negotiate these challenges, “emotional intelligence” is required. Without it, societies fall prey to demagogues: 

[The demagogue] tells us that we all belong in our tribes, and he tells us that we will be safer if we are surrounded by sameness…I think [demagogues] have one unmistakable quality in common: they strongly, strongly dislike plurality. They cannot deal with multiplicity. Adorno used to say, “Intolerance of ambiguity is the sign of an authoritarian personality.” But I ask myself: What if that same sign, that same intolerance of ambiguity–what if it’s the mark of our times, of the age we’re living in? Because wherever I look, I see nuances withering away…

I think binary oppositions are everywhere. So slowly and systematically, we are being denied the right to be complex…

While we may not acknowledge our complexity, we are not as “solid” as the demagogue claims:

So just like solid countries was an illusion, singular identities is also an illusion, because we all have a multiplicity of voices inside. The Iranian, the Persian poet, Hafiz, used to say, “You carry in your soul every ingredient necessary to turn your existence into joy. All you have to do is to mix those ingredients.”

And I think mix we can. I am an Istanbulite, but I’m also attached to the Balkans, the Aegean, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, the Levant. I am a European by birth, by choice, the values that I uphold. I have become a Londoner over the years. I would like to think of myself as a global soul, as a world citizen, a nomad and an itinerant storyteller. I have multiple attachments, just like all of us do. And multiple attachments mean multiple stories.

Here, then, is the vital necessity of storytellers: they point out the multiplicity that the authoritarian denies.

“So what can we do?” Shafak asks. To construct a more diverse perspective, we must learn from the enemy:

The Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran used to say, “I learned silence from the talkative and tolerance from the intolerant and kindness from the unkind.” I think it’s a great motto for our times.  

So from populist demagogues, we will learn the indispensability of democracy. And from isolationists, we will learn the need for global solidarity. And from tribalists, we will learn the beauty of cosmopolitanism and the beauty of diversity.  

 Shafak concludes by noting that writers are central to this learning process:

 I think for writers, for storytellers, at the end of the day, there is one main homeland, and it’s called “Storyland.” And the taste of that word is the taste of freedom.

So to sum up, writers help foster the emotional intelligence necessary to live in a complex and diverse world. Through literature, we push against the demagogues that rail against complexity. To read is to resist.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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