Faith and Doubt, in Equal Doses

Posted December 17, 2017 5:18 p.m. EST

The three Muslim friends who meet at Oxford in Turkish novelist Elif Shafak’s “Three Daughters of Eve” are described as the Sinner, the Believer and the Confused. “The question I wanted to explore was: Could women so different still be sisters?” Shafak said. “When women remain divided in patriarchal cultures, the only thing that benefits from this is patriarchy.” The novel is anchored in the present day, when Peri, 35, is attending an upper-crust dinner party in Istanbul. She remembers her time at Oxford in flashbacks throughout the night. The timely novel explores themes of feminism, religious devotion, secular doubt and political upheaval. Born in France, where her father was studying at the time, Shafak has lived in many places, including Spain and the United States. For the past eight years, she has divided her time between London and Istanbul. Here, she discusses the importance of women’s voices, the artists who helped her find her own confidence and more.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Q: When did you first get the idea to write this book?

A: I had been thinking about this book for some time before I started. So many things I observed firsthand inspired me. The world we’re living in is a very liquid world. And when societies go backward and tumble into isolation and authoritarianism, women have much more to lose. Across the Muslim world, young women are having crucial debates, because the slide backward is so fast in many places, including Turkey, where I come from. The problem is we don’t hear their voices much in public spaces. What I wanted to do is reflect the discussions women are having in the private space, debates about faith, sexuality. I wanted to bring their voices into the public space and write a book with women in the center.

Q: What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?

A: Initially I was thinking of these three girls at Oxford as completely separate personalities. But I started to perceive them as three different stages that the same person can go through in their life; stages where they feel more faithful, or more doubtful. As they came alive, despite their apparent differences, I started to perceive them as more fluid, and wondered if it was possible that they could almost evolve into one another.

I also spent a lot of time in Oxford while writing this book. Turkey is a country of collective amnesia, but in places like Oxford there’s an accumulation of knowledge, a continuity. There’s a list of donors who have supported the library there since the 13th century. There’s no similar sense of continuity in Turkey. Comparing memory and amnesia was also interesting to me as I kept writing.

Q: In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

A: There are two different ways of writing a novel. The first I call the traditional father way, when the novelist slightly situates himself or herself above the text and knows what each and every character is going to do. It’s a bit like engineering. I’ve never felt close to that tradition. I like the second way, which relies a bit more on intuition. You don’t exactly know where the story is going, or what the charters are going to do maybe 15 pages onward.

All three girls in this novel take a seminar on god from a character named Professor Azur. Azur has a curious mind, and he wants to push boundaries. He was quite a mystery to me when I first started writing. I didn’t know which way I would go with him. People ask me which one of the three girls represents me most, but I think sometimes I like to hide within my male characters.

Q: Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?

A: I was in Madrid as a young girl and a teenager. I’ll never forget when I went to the Prado Museum for the first time and saw the paintings of Goya. They had such a big impact on me. There are stages in Goya’s life, but at the time I didn’t know the chronology of the works. Many are colorful and vivid and reflect the street life of the 18th century; others are full of grief, violence and war; others are full of madness. What I did in my teenage mind was look at the paintings and see all of that together — the complexity, the range of his mind and vision.

Years later, when I discovered the dance work of Pina Bausch, I had a similar feeling about the complexity of an artists’ mind. For me this was very important. Especially in countries like Turkey, I go to speak at schools, and I always observe young girls — 7, 8, 9 — and it’s amazing to see how much chutzpah and imagination they have. If you ask them, “Do you want to be a poet or writer some day?,” so many hands go up. Girls are just as confident as boys, maybe more. By puberty, everything has changed. No one wants to be a writer. No one is interested in art. And if they are, they aren’t saying it. The society kills that creativity, and women learn to become timid and reserved, and are very much concerned about what other people will say about them. When I looked at people like Goya and Pina Bausch, the message I got was: Just do what you’re passionate about. Don’t think about what other people are going to say, or how they’re going to receive your work. Just be your work.

Q: Persuade someone to read “Three Daughters of Eve” in 50 words or less.

A: We live in a very dualistic age. One of the nuances we’re losing concerns faith and doubt. We need a dose of doubt and a dose of faith, to challenge each other. This novel tries to talk about faith and doubt in a completely different way to move beyond dualities.

Publication Notes:

‘Three Daughters of Eve’

By Elif Shafak

384 pages. Bloomsbury. $27.