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Exploring Politics And Religion In 'Three Daughters Of Eve'


The writer Elif Shafak tells stories of Istanbul, Turkey, a city she used to call home.

ELIF SHAFAK: Almost like a pendulum, I would leave, and then I would miss the city. I would come back. Again, I would feel suffocated. I would leave. And then I would miss the city and come back.

GREENE: She says, in Turkey, the act of writing is a risk. People pass books from hand to hand, and writers keep writing them despite the danger. Shafak herself was once put on trial in Turkey for writing about a sensitive subject. She discussed her new novel with our co-host Steve Inskeep.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: She doesn't live full-time in Turkey anymore. She spends more time in London and sometimes the United States, yet Elif Shafak says she's been drawn back again and again to her former home of Istanbul on the dividing line between Europe and Asia.

SHAFAK: In countries where there's no freedom of speech, ironically, sometimes words matter even more.

INSKEEP: She was there in recent years as Turkey's leader took over newspapers and arrested opposition figures. Elif Shafak's new novel is largely set in Istanbul. It's called "Three Daughters of Eve." The main character is a woman in her mid-30s. Almost the first thing that happens is she is robbed and sexually assaulted on the streets, yet she overcomes her attacker and continues on to a scheduled dinner where she tries to pretend that nothing at all has gone wrong.

So a lot of this novel takes place in a dinner party in Istanbul. And there is a passage where the people who are quite elite are discussing democracy. And some of them are saying, democracy, we don't really need that. It's a luxury. There's no point. It's a waste. Better to have a benevolent dictatorship. And as I'm reading that, I was wondering if this was virtually a transcription of some conversation you've been in in Istanbul?

SHAFAK: Yes. As you pointed out, the structure of the book is such that we observe a dinner scene with starters, the main course, the desserts. And to be honest, the dinner scenes were the most realistic scenes in the book, if I can put it that way. Everything that I observed, I heard firsthand, I've seen throughout the year 2015, 2016 in Istanbul.

INSKEEP: The whole period where Turkey was becoming less and less democratic you're saying?

SHAFAK: Absolutely - more and more authoritarian, definitely more and more nationalistic, isolationist and inward-looking. It was quite a difficult time in many other ways as well because, as you might remember, there had been so many terror attacks throughout that period in Turkey, in different parts of the country.

At these dinner scenes, dinner environments, it was almost schizophrenic. One moment, people would be talking about very mundane things. And the next moment, they would be talking about death because someone might have checked their Twitter feed and they might have just found out that there was a terror attack somewhere nearby. And then five minutes later, again, the mood would change. So everything that I observed directly firsthand somehow seeped into those dinner scenes to such an extent that, at some point, I wanted to call this book "The Last Supper Of The Turkish Bourgeoisie."

INSKEEP: (Laughter) So are people in the elite in Turkey giving up on democracy?

SHAFAK: I think that's quite - of course, I can't generalize. Not everyone...

INSKEEP: The people you know, sure.

SHAFAK: Not everyone is like that. But I've heard enough conversations in Turkey, both from different class backgrounds, people saying - questioning, actually - the value of democracy. And it wasn't like that. I mean, this was a country that was very much longing to be part of EU, Europe.

My generation, we grew up with very different values in Turkey. And now we have a different Turkey, where the political elites are talking about joining the Shanghai Pact. They're saying, you know, the EU is not for us. And the Shanghai Pact, as you know, with Russia, with China, with Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, that is the right place to be if you don't - if you have a very poor record of human rights and freedom of speech. I don't want my motherland to walk in the opposite direction.

So I can see these shifts in daily life, people's talks, but not only in Turkey. I think all across the Middle East, unfortunately, there are many people who believe that democracy, particularly liberal pluralistic democracy, is a Western concept and maybe it's not that suitable for our part of the world. I find that quite alarming.

INSKEEP: Is the conversation that you hear about democracy any different when you come to the West?

SHAFAK: Especially after 2016, there have been lots of shifts in the West as well - in Europe, too. And many people, unfortunately, the elections in America did not make things easier. Many people started questioning, can we really trust the ballot box? Can the ballot box be manipulated? I think we're all going through very turbulent times.

In the past, there used to be this assumption that some parts of the world were liquid lands and there were more turbulence. And some other parts of the world - namely the West - was supposed to be more safe and stable and solid. But I think more and more, we're starting to understand that, in fact, this division, this hierarchal geography is quite artificial. And, in fact, we're all living in liquid times like the late Zygmunt Bauman told us years ago.

INSKEEP: You said liquid lands. You're making me think of a line in the book in which you compare Turkey to a river, which I took to mean that it's constantly changing. The water's high. The water's low. You're in a flood. You're in a drought. Anything could happen.

SHAFAK: Yes. And that's a very tiring feeling. I think it's very tiring to be a Turk. And it's a very lonely feeling too even though there's supposedly millions and millions of us. It's a very polarized, bitterly politicized country. As countries become more authoritarian, as they slide backwards the way we have been sliding backwards and tumble into nationalism, isolationism or populism, I think the society also changes - not only the governments or the politicians but also the society. And the culture even becomes more inward-looking, more xenophobic. And if that's the case, I think it should concern us women much more than men because when societies go backwards, I believe women have much more to lose.

INSKEEP: Elif Shafak is the author of "Three Daughters Of Eve." Thanks very much.

SHAFAK: Thank you.

GREENE: She was speaking there with our co-host, Steve Inskeep.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR'S "NEVERGREEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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