A WAY WITH WORDS

Elif Shafak on learn­ing the magic of sto­ry­telling at her grand­mother’s knee

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Elif Shafak on how sto­ry­telling can change lives

My grand­mother was a sto­ry­teller. She was also a healer, in her own way. I won­der if that’s one of the rea­sons why, some­where deep in my mind, I tend to as­so­ciate writ­ing sto­ries with heal­ing wounds – in­clud­ing my own.

I was born in Stras­bourg, France, to Turk­ish par­ents. My fa­ther was fin­ish­ing his PhD in phi­los­o­phy. He was an in­tel­lec­tual, an aca­demic. My mother, too, had a stu­dious and en­quir­ing na­ture, but af­ter fall­ing in love, she had sud­denly de­cided to drop out of univer­sity at the ten­der age of 19. The mar­riage was not strong and in only a few years, it col­lapsed. My fa­ther stayed in France and mar­ried again. My mother re­turned to Turkey with me. We took a train. Then an­other one. In this state, we ar­rived in Grandma’s house in Ankara. A gar­den with cherry-trees, a two-storey house the colour of sage. A mid­dle-class neigh­bour­hood. Lit­tle did I know at the time, that this was a very con­ser­va­tive, very pa­tri­ar­chal en­vi­ron­ment.

My mother was now a young di­vor­cée. She had no diploma, no ca­reer to go back to. Soon af­ter, the neigh­bours started look­ing for a suit­able hus­band for her. A young woman on her own was re­garded as a ‘dan­ger’ for the en­tire so­ci­ety. But Grandma in­ter­vened. ‘I be­lieve my daugh­ter should go back to univer­sity, fin­ish her de­gree, have a diploma, a job, earn her own money… pur­sue her dreams and choose her own path. If she wants to get mar­ried again, she can al­ways do that, but it’s im­por­tant that she has choices.’ When the same neigh­bours re­minded Grandma that my mother had a small child to take care of and could not do any of these things, Grandma shrugged and said: ‘I will take care of my grand­daugh­ter. I will raise her.’

So it be­gan. My mother went back to univer­sity, fully im­mersed in her stud­ies. I stayed with Grandma. Through­out those early years of my life I called Grandma anne – mother, and my own mother abla, which means ‘big sis­ter’ in Turk­ish. Peo­ple found this con­fus­ing. I did not. In time, my mother grad­u­ated with fly­ing colours. She was so suc­cess­ful in her ex­ams that she be­came a di­plo­mat. At the time she spoke six lan­guages, all of which she had learnt on her own. Her first post was to Spain. Thus, from the small, tra­di­tional Ankara neigh­bour­hood I was zoomed to Madrid where I went to a Bri­tish school. And life, our lives, took a dif­fer­ent turn.

As I grew up and made my own choices, I of­ten thought about Grandma’s im­por­tant in­ter­ven­tion. She her­self had been mar­ried off at an early age, de­spite her wishes; and like many women of her gen­er­a­tion, she was not given a chance to have a good ed­u­ca­tion, even though she was in­cred­i­bly bright. She had raised her chil­dren vow­ing to give them a bet­ter life than the one she had. All across the Mid­dle East, there are women like my grand­mother: women who are not well-ed­u­cated but who whole­heart­edly sup­port the ed­u­ca­tion and in­de­pen­dence of their daugh­ters and grand­daugh­ters. To these women we owe so much.

In my nov­els, there is a plethora of strong, vivid fe­male char­ac­ters. I feel as if I know them well be­cause I grew up amid such women: aun­ties, neigh­bours, teach­ers… Equally im­por­tant to me was the sol­i­dar­ity that I ob­served among them. The bond of sis­ter­hood. My mother and my grand­mother were very dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ties, but they sup­ported each other through thick and thin. It is that kind of sol­i­dar­ity that I long to see to­day – among women of di­verse back­grounds. When women are di­vided into cat­e­gories, the only thing that ben­e­fits from this is pa­tri­archy it­self.

From my mother, I got my love for writ­ten cul­ture. And from Grandma, my pas­sion for oral cul­ture. She would tell me sto­ries. Not only to me but also to the ‘pa­tients’ who would ring our bell day and night, com­plain­ing of var­i­ous prob­lems – skin dis­eases, chronic fa­tigue, panic at­tacks, de­pres­sion… Each time Grandma would put pieces of lead in a pot on the stove and as they slowly melted, she would tell a new story. Mostly they were sto­ries about love and chivalry. There were heroes at their cen­tre, but also hero­ines. They could tra­verse deserts and climb moun­tains, sail oceans and make mince­meat of ogres, as long as there was even a morsel of hope.

Then the story would fin­ish and she would take the pot off the stove. She would pour the now fully melted lead into a bowl of cold wa­ter. With a siz­zling sound the lead would ac­quire a strange shape, which she would care­fully in­spect and in­ter­pret. She would also read cof­fee grounds. And she would lis­ten to the sound of the rain, the sound of the wind, the sound of a noc­tur­nal crea­ture in the dark, the sound of the dawn as it broke across the sky… telling me that all things in the uni­verse spoke in their own lan­guage and I had to lis­ten if I wanted to learn their sto­ries.

Sto­ry­tellers need to be lis­ten­ers, she would say.

Even in the most rigid regimes or closed so­ci­eties, women al­ways find a way to keep sto­ries alive. They are the bear­ers of col­lec­tive mem­ory. But the op­po­site is also true. The art of sto­ry­telling keeps women alive. Sto­ries give us courage, strength, in­spi­ra­tion and, yes, a sense of sol­i­dar­ity.

‘Three Daugh­ters of Eve’ by Elif Shafak (£8.99, Pen­guin) is out now.

Helena Lee and Elif Shafak

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