Elif Shafak on the Politics of Fiction

The French-born, Turkish fiction writer Elif Shafak gave a great TED talk a while back. She made a compelling series of points about the role of the fiction writer, especially the "foreign" or "other" fiction writer. Those of us who are readers and critics, she said, can be complicit in pigeonholing such writers with our expectations. We want them to write -- in Shafak's case -- of, or as, a Turkish woman. But her argument is that this expectation is unfair both to the writer and the reader. Fiction is fiction -- it is stories and imagination. It is, Shafak says, the chance for a "transcendental journay into other lives and other possibilities."

As such, fiction can be a way for us to experience other lives and other communities that we otherwise could not, and through that experience to develop empathy. Yes, Shafak could write from the perspective of a Turkish woman. But, she says, she could also write compellingly as a Norwegian man. What matters is that the story, and the character, come from her heart. The risk we face today is that "writers are not seen as creative individuals on their own but as representatives of their own culture." And that is a disservice to writers and readers. Fiction, of course, can be an incredibly powerful tool for making connections -- if we let it be. "The problem of today's cultural ghettos," Shafak says, describing the like-minded echo chambers toward which we often gravitate, "is [they produce] knowledge that takes us not beyond ourselves."