A WAY WITH WORDS
Elif Shafak on learning the magic of storytelling at her grandmother’s knee
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