Goodbye to All That by Elif Shafak

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Goodbye to All That by Elif Shafak. Prod. Emma Harding. Perf. Shafak. BBC Radio 3, 7 July 2015. BBCiPlayer

Inspired by Robert Graves's famous autobiography of the same name, Elif Shafak gave the first talk in a week-long series in the Radio 3 strand "The Essay."

She identified the moment when Turkey said "goodbye to all that" as 1925, when "the modernist Úlite" instituted its program of language reform. The old Ottoman script was set aside, and a western-style way of writing instituted. Ottoman words were removed from dictionaries and replaced; other symbols of Ottomanism (e.g. the fez) were banned; and everyone had to learn the new ways. As a result vocabularies diminished, imaginations fettered; and writers had to make do with limited forms of discourse.

This moment in Turkish history, Shafak claimed, is symbolic of a culture dedicated to forgetting. Millions of people stroll the streets of Istanbul, entirely oblivious to the country's Ottoman past; buildings are neglected; there are no blue plaques commemorating the achievements of great figures. There exists a collective silence about the past and its relationship to the present.

This is where the writer has a vital role to play. Shafak recalled her encounters with her aged grandmother, whose memories of World War One might have been fictional or factual. It didn't really matter; the fact that her grandmother actually spoke about the conflict proved that women were the custodians of cultural continuity, even if they remain highly under-represented in Turkish literary cultures.

Ever since she was a child, Shafak has been fascinated by the world of the imagination, and the way it can impact on people's lives. As a writer, she has been committed to disinterring the Ottoman past, whether in terms of vocabulary, manners or sexual attitudes. Much criticized by various interest groups in Turkey (nationalists, Kemalists, and traditionalists) she nonetheless insisted that her task was an important one; to promote hybridity as well as the belief in literature's capacity to transcend cultures and histories. Only through literature could the country's problems, many of which can be ascribed to nationalism and cultural dogma - be negotiated.

Shafak's arguments contained a great deal of truth: literature does have the power to humanize as well as transcend nationalistic and cultural prejudices. At the same time, I couldn't help but think that her references to west and east, Istanbul and London, Kemalists and nationalists emphasized the persistence of binarist ways of thinking, even for someone as enlightened as Shafak herself. The more I think of it, the more I understand that such oppositions do not actually exist; they are a product of the imagination, whether individual or collective. The only way to negotiate them is to think differently; beyond them, if you like. That requires us to set aside our place-limited understanding of life specific cities and countries and reflect instead on our relationship to the worlds we inhabit. If we can meditate on that relationship through writing, whether literary or otherwise, then perhaps we can try and say "goodbye to all that."

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