Thursday, January 14, 2010

Multiplicity and Elif Shafak

A little less than a month ago I attended a talk Elif Shafak gave in which she alluded to the potential for holding multiple identities. For those who are not familiar with Shafak's work, Andrew Finkel has presented a fairly solid glimpse of someone whose refusal to be easily categorized makes any endeavor to profile Herculean. Though Shafak spoke in Turkish, which I am still very much at the incipient stages of coming to grasp, I was able, most surprisingly, to at least catch the broad outlines of her talk. Shafak's English, in which she also publishes, is like embarking on a long journey in which her use of language leads the way. It is not so much that her plots are secondary, but that they are at one with her language, making the latter not just a vehicle for telling her story, but in many ways the very story itself. Describing English as more mathematical than Turkish, I can only imagine what Shafak must be like in her mother tongue. That said, a critical pillar of her speech, and her work in general, is her conviction that identity should be characterized by a certain multiplicity and adaptive capacity. As Finkel quotes Shafak,
"You have to move beyond categories of good and bad. People are multi-layered and you can’t judge them by blocks and association.”
Yet, as Shafak laments, categorization is strongly rooted in Turkish society, a phenomenon in which she seems to hope to complicate in both her literature and her politics.

Additionally, Shafak's talk gave me reason to look back at a study exploring political idenity among Turkish youth, some of the results of which were released this past September. The study, carried out by NYU professor of applied psychology Selcuk Sirin, found political identity for Turkish youth is not so singular, settled, or intractable -- all phenomena which Shafak would be likely to celebrate. Qantara's Jan Felix Engelhardt interviewed Sirin in September. For more on the study, including some of Sirin's results, as well as a bit of analysis, see Jenny White's Sept. 15 post.

For a penetrating article by Shafak on Ask, her most recent book, and writing in multiple languages, see this March article from Zaman (in Turkish). One of Shafak's most prominent crusades is to heighten the vocabulary employed by Turkish youth -- no doubt perhaps useful in describing poitical attitudes that, at least according to Sirin's study, are becoming increasingly complex.

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