Books were my crazy, wise companions in a conservative world

This week, to commemorate World Book Night, Elif Shafak remembers growing up in Ankara, using literature to understand the world she lived in. And to discover new ones

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By Elif Shafak on

I was a lonely, unhappy child when I came across a hidden gate in the dullness of daily life. Behind that gate was the wonderful universe of Storyland. A sea-garden of mesmerising colours and extraordinary elements – shimmering, shifting, breathing. In this strange place, things were not bound by the rules of society or the limits of one’s culture and tradition or national identity. They were not even bound by the rules of physics. Water could talk in Storyland. Rivers changed their beds when they got bored of flowing in one particular direction. Flowers could dance a jig and bees and insects had complicated personalities. Everything was alive in Storyland. Every little thing had a story to tell. 

I entered this world with the kind of courage that is unique to the inexperienced or the ignorant or both. I was fearless. I dived into this sea-garden head-first, enchanted by its marvels.

Outside in the “real world”, I was a timid, introverted kid. I was living in a conservative, patriarchal Muslim neighbourhood. All the children I knew came from extended families where fathers were undoubtedly head of household. In my case, there was no extended family and no father and no siblings. It was only Grandma, Mum and me. And because Mum was a working single mother and because Grandma – a healer, of sorts – had other people to help, I spent a lot of time on my own. My socialisation was based on observation, which perhaps made me a good observer in the long run, but there always remained a gap between my eye and the things and the people I saw. That gap scared me sometimes. I had met crazy people on the streets, talking to themselves, quarrelling with imaginary beings. I had seen homeless people too, a strange glint in their eyes. And each time I shivered, as if I was guarding a secret, which could be revealed at any time. I, too, was an outsider after all. Did Grandma and Ma not see?

Books saved me from sameness, anger, insanity and self-destruction


So I kept reading. Books were wise companions. They were also crazy companions. Wise or crazy, they were the best companions I had. The more I read, the more I discovered Storyland – valleys, mountains, underground tunnels...   

“Look what I bought for you,” my mother said one day. In her hand she held a turquoise notebook.

“A diary… a personal journal for you to write in every day.”

“What do I write?”

She paused. “Umm. Your days… Your thoughts… Don’t know, whatever you feel and think just write it down.”

How boring, I thought. I wasn’t interested in my life. I was interested in the lives beyond my life. The world I found in Storyland. The endlessness, the openness, the freedom. So I took the notebook and began writing, not about myself, but about people who did not exist and things that had not really happened. Without being aware of it, I had crossed the line between fact and fiction. I had brought my personal journal into the sea-garden where the ink never dissolved and "all that was solid melted into air”.

Hence I began to visit Storyland as often as I could. I grew up there, in truth. Books saved me from sameness, anger, insanity and self-destruction. Books taught me about love and so much more, and I loved them back with all my heart.

I read with hunger, with passion, with longing. I read without guidance and a structure or a role model. Anything and everything I found, I read and reread. There was a hefty tome of Islamic Interpretation Of Dreams by my grandma’s bedside, hundreds and hundred of entries reminiscent of Borges' narratives. I adored this book because it showed me how everything was open to interpretation.

When I started school I discovered Charles Dickens, thanks to a coincidence. A book that belonged to the fifth class, and therefore shouldn’t be in our classroom library – which consisted of a cupboard with a limited number of books – found me. A Tale Of Two Cities. I was mesmerised. This was different than anything I knew. The story had nothing to do with my life and it had everything to do with life and therefore mine as well.

I kept reading Dickens, this 19th-century English author so close to a child in Ankara, Turkey in the late 1970s. Then I discovered Marquez. I was elated. Gabriel Garcia Marquez made water talk, he made rivers change their beds, he made my grandma’s stories and tales welcome. He showed me that there could be a bridge between my grandma’s stories and interpretation of dreams and Dickens and other books I borrowed from school library. Marquez made me understand we could walk back and forth this bridge between written culture and oral culture.

Books have changed me. Books have saved me. And I know, with all my heart, that they will save you, too.

Elif Shafak’s novel Honour is one of 20 books being given away by an enthusiastic network of volunteers World Book Night. #WBN2015


Picture: Zeynel Abidin

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