Incredible Women

Elif Shafak on finding empathy and optimism in challenging times

As ELIF SHAFAK releases a new pocket-sized book, How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division, the Turkish-British author, academic and activist speaks to KATIE BERRINGTON about the power of storytelling and putting negative emotions to good use

Elif Shafak, whose latest book, How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division, posits that negative emotions can be just as helpful as positive ones

“It’s a strange time, isn’t it?” says Elif Shafak, as we meet via Zoom to discuss her latest book – a 90-page “uplifting plea for conscious optimism” in the midst of what is, indeed, a strange time.

A year after her novel, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, was shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize, Shafak took a different approach to writing this new non-fiction pocket-sized book. How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division was written during lockdown, having been inspired by a question and answer that she had seen across London as the pandemic turned normality upside down.

“What would you like to be different?” had been asked repeatedly, emblazoned on placards and graffitied in parks, as the world woke up to the opportunity for a new normal. One person’s response had resonated particularly strongly with Shafak: “I want to be heard.”

“That really stayed with me,” she says. “I think it symbolizes what most of us are going through at the moment. We feel like we’re not heard.” The Turkish-British author is passionate about the importance of championing storytellers for improving our individual and collective understanding. “I think we rely too much on numbers, information, thinking that to just share information is enough to make people interested,” she considers of the necessity for using stories to exemplify statistics and counter misinformation. “What we need is more knowledge, more wisdom, more empathy – and for that, you need stories.”

One of the many things I’ve learned from generations of feminism is that the personal is also political… Our stories matter

It is for this reason that Shafak incorporates her own experiences into the examples she presents in the book – from her upbringing in a “conservative, patriarchal” neighborhood in Turkey after her parents’ separation, to being raised by her grandmother until the age of 10 so that her mother could return to her studies. The author admits that sharing so much of herself is something that she has hesitated with, but she recognizes the value of weaving the personal with the political.

“That’s one of the many things I’ve learned from generations of feminism – that the personal is also political and that it matters. Our stories matter,” she asserts. “And I like that kind of questioning, I don’t feel we see enough of [it]. Usually, when you read analysis on politics, international relations or the economy, it is devoid of emotions, as if emotions don’t matter. But as human beings we are emotional creatures. What we remember, we remember through our emotions.”

It is not enough, of course, to listen only to the stories and experiences of those you already know and understand. “We need multiple stories,” insists Shafak. “I think that plurality is very important, and for that we need to embrace diversity in public spaces, but also in our digital spaces. What worries me is that it’s the exact opposite: I think we are being divided more and more into – whatever you want to call it – echo chambers or silos or tribes.”

It’s better to have an open mind and to be curious, to be curious about subjects that we don’t know much about

The spare time she has had during lockdown (while being at home with her children and writing her book) has been spent reading. She applies the importance of plurality to her reading list, which she says is unconstrained by genre. “There are weeks when I read only political philosophy, there are weeks when I read only poetry. It depends on my mood… [But] I don’t believe in ‘highbrow literature versus lowbrow literature’, whatever that means. Who decides, even?”

“It’s better to have an open mind and to be curious, to be curious about subjects that we don’t know much about.”

Though short in length, How to Stay Sane… covers a breadth of topics of the human experience and emotions, from anxiety, anger and apathy to disillusionment and bewilderment. These areas of interest have been inside Shafak for a long time. “I used to travel a lot across the Middle East to Europe and beyond, and when I go to a new place, I like to listen to people. I think writers need to be good readers and good listeners all our lives,” she says of where her sources and inspirations come from.

Something that was striking to Shafak as she traveled was how much anxiety she saw in the world – particularly in the younger generation. “When I listen to people, I listen to two things: what they’re telling me and how they’re telling me, with what kind of energy and choice of words, [because] the emotion attributed to the content is also important.”

I believe we live in an age where none of us can afford to be indifferent; none of us can afford to be apolitical

Shafak’s activism spans human-rights causes, including women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights and freedom of speech. In addition to her novels, she writes and speaks extensively across global, cultural and socio-political issues. “I believe we live in an age where none of us can afford to be indifferent; none of us can afford to be apolitical. And I’m not talking about partisan politics, I’m not talking about party politics even, but just to be vocal about these central issues,” she says. “Because all those components are good for all of us, whatever party we vote for. If we lose that, I think democracy cannot thrive; it cannot survive.”

The book feels fortifying and optimistic, despite the circumstances of chaos and crisis that it was born from and responds to. Shafak is pleased by that. “I’m someone [who is] familiar with pessimism, too, and maybe that’s the key – because it’s OK to not be OK; it’s OK to feel anxious and it’s OK to have fears,” she says. “Maybe that is more uplifting than saying we need to be strong all the time and focused and keep our eyes on the horizon. Because the truth is, I think we’re all confused at this moment in time and we’re all dealing with lots of negative emotions… And that’s OK. What’s not OK is to stay there.”

“I think once we recognize the feelings inside us, it’s ‘What do I do with it and how do I move forward?’ It’s a source of energy – anxiety in itself, anger in itself – and it can push us in a better direction. Hopefully, what is uplifting about the book is that it doesn’t deny negative emotions in our life, but rather it tries to do something positive with them. That makes me [feel] optimistic.”

Shafak’s advocation for storytelling is motivated by its influence on our capacity for empathy, and this is exactly what the author hopes readers will take away from How To Stay Sane…[But] when I say empathy, it’s primarily empathizing with people who are different from us. Also, empathy towards ourselves,” she clarifies. “We need to change the way we approach ourselves and our own complexity, and not forget empathy and compassion both inwards and outwards.”