So said Elif Shafak at yesterday’s BBC World Book Club recording. “My characters are human beings,” she added. And that was very much the theme of her interview with Harriett Gilbert. She stressed the importance of valuing the individual, with all their flaws, rather than fetishising an ideal to which, ultimately, we can never connect. And she is true to her word. Even her most remarkable characters in The Forty Rules of Love, the famous poet, Rumi and the dervish, Shams, are more human than god-like. For a start, they need to learn how to treat women better, especially their wives! When criticised for her portrayal of the 21st century East Coast housewife, Ella, she defended her protagonist as being a unique character rather than a type. Her behaviour isn’t there to be celebrated or imitated – only to be understood, which is, as ever, one of the things fiction does best: building a reader’s empathy.
As well as defending the individual against the hero, Shafak held up the importance of the individual above the the uniform collective: in her life and in her novels, she celebrates diversity in all its forms: “we learn so much more from those who are different from us than from those who are like us”. Tribal identity, whether cultural, political or religious leads to schism, to a sense of “us against them” and denies the richness of individual human lives. She spoke with sadness of Turkey, once the cradle of multiculturalism, now polarised, highly politicised and increasingly nationalistic. It is interesting that in her home country, Shafak is read with as much enthusiasm by the conservative right as by the liberal left – just look at the make-up of those lining up to have their books sighed. So, as a novelist, she is bridging a divide – though without suggesting that either side must be more like the other. Coming together in diversity is what she longs for.
Shafak is first and foremost a storyteller, but, as is so often the case with writers outside the Anglo-centric world, she is also a philosopher, a mystic in her own right, someone who explores the grit of human existence within a spiritual framework. Her two principles for writing are to be guided by her imagination and to respect the individual: a helpful mantra for those of us who spend our days scribbling.