I've been slammed. That's the only thing I can say in response to my cold blog silence these past few days. Work + wedding + sick + writing + two writing classes + nine million other things = no blog love.
I was driving to Trader Joe's last night (yes, we still have to drive even though we live downtown because there are no services yet downtown for those of us who live here...all in good time) and heard an interview with Turkish author Elif Shafak on NPR. In light of recent events (the death of Hrant Dink and the recent trials of Turkish writers such as Orhan Pamuk), most coverage of Shafak has centered around her recent acquittal after being taken to trial for "insulting Turkishness" in her latest book, The Bastard of Istanbul. I expected her time on NPR to be focused on these recent events. Instead, I was delighted to hear Shafak pointedly talk of other things. Of her passion for words. Of her insatiable interest in other languages. What they allow her to express and not. I got the distinct feeling that despite the recent events in Turkey, Shafak wanted to bring the conversation back to words, to language, to the very reasons she has gotten to this point. A few things that are still with me this morning:
- She spoke of the Islam she learned from her father's mother. An angry Allah who was writing down your sins in a big book. She then contrasted that with the Islam she learned from her mother's mother. An Allah that could be bargained with, that was mystical, that was fluid. She then applied this comparison to language and how it can either be a political thing that is feared and must always be guarded, or it can be something that is a fluid mystery, that you live within and negotiate daily based on your feelings, your experiences, the ideas you need to express at a moment in time.
- She talked about her use of "old" sufi words and other "Islamic words" in her Turkish writings -- something she has been widely criticized for by those in her own country. Over many generations, Turkish writings slowly did away with all politically charged words, all references to the past. An intentional amputation of the language. Cut off the parts that upset you and keep going. In Shafak's view, this led to a narrowing of the language. To demonstrate her point, she talked about the words for colors. That there are no nuances...no shades...between red and yellow. They now have only the word "red" and the word "yellow" - nothing in between. All the nuances, the shades, are older words that have been removed by generations of writers, thinkers and speakers that wanted to shed their past. Shafak believes that this reduction in language equals a reduction in thought, in creativity in imagination. When you limit your words, you limit what can be said. What can be thought. Such a powerful idea, no? Haunting when you think of this systematic reduction of words, ergo thought, over time.
- As a reaction to this narrowing, she has dedicated her life to the study of those lost words. To bringing her Turkish vocabulary back to its fullest, most robust iteration. Her passion for words and her desire to rediscover them and reintroduce them is delicious. Gorgeous, really.
- Shafak also spoke of the freedom she finds in speaking other languages. That learning other languages -- their word systems, their capacity for irony, for self-reflection or not -- is like putting on another identity. That within the system of another language, you can express yourself in a way that is not possible in your mother tongue. Or in yet another tongue. To illustrate her point, she said that it is unacceptable for women in her country to swear in Turkish. Yet, these same women can swear in English without any fear of recrimination. They find a freedom to express themselves in English that is not available to them in Turkish.
- I have always believed there was freedom in language, but it's been awhile since I've had such a powerful, concrete example of it. Listening to Shafak speak of these things in her own beautiful patchwork of words from past, present and future was delicious. She has reminded me of the power of words and language. Most importantly, she has strengthened my belief in the awesome power of writing.
Simply cannot wait to read her book. Do have a listen...