Elif Şafak (pronounced “Shafak”) is an award-winning Turkish novelist and the most widely read woman writer in Turkey. Writing in both Turkish and English, she has published nine books, seven of which are novels. Şafak’s books have been translated into more than 25 languages.
I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that before coming across her wonderful TED Talk, I was only vaguely familiar with Şafak from a short book review that I had read about one of her novels, The Bastard of Istanbul. After listening to her presentation, however, I have made a note to pick up one of her books. She was utterly captivating.
See if you agree and then we’ll look at her presentation more closely.
Why is this such a good talk? Here are some of the reasons from my perspective:
- Şafak tells stories. Wonderful stories. Personal stories. Stories about her childhood; her spiritual, somewhat mystical grandmother; the genesis of her writing career; her international schooling experience; the 1999 earthquake in Istanbul; being put on trial for one of her novels; and more. But notice how each story has a purpose; how each story sets the foundation for a point that Şafak is trying to make.
- Her mastery of language is terrific. True, Şafak is an author, so she knows how to wield words. But speaking is not writing and English is not her mother tongue. Yet we hear gems such as: “So from the very beginning, fiction for me was less of an autobiographical manifestation than a transcendental journey into other lives, other possibilities.” (5:12 – 5:22) And: “I’m not saying that fiction has the magnitude of an earthquake, but when we’re reading a good novel, we leave our small, cozy apartments behind, go out into the night alone, and start getting to know people …” (8:20 – 8:35)
- She uses metaphors to bring her message to life. For example, from 2:35 to 4:00, she uses circles, walls, “cultural cocoons” and mirrors as a way of warning us of “communities of the like-minded” and encouraging us to take an interest in people and things beyond our usual experiences. Then, at 4:08: “Stories cannot demolish frontiers, but they can punch holes in our mental walls, and through those holes we can get a glimpse of the other and sometimes even like what we see.” I also like her use of a compass as a way to describe her books (16:50 – 17:20).
- She lightens the mood of her talk with clever humour at appropriate points. In my post, Anatomy of a Humorous Speech, I wrote about the power of using “triples” in humour. The idea is to three sentences or phrases, each with the same cadence or rhythm. But whereas the first two are serious, the third is unexpected. Şafak uses this technique to brilliant effect starting at 6:20 when she talks about three very negative events for Turkey while she was still in school: a military takeover in the country, the attempted assassination of the Pope by a Turkish gunman, and Turkey’s terrible showing in the Eurovision Song Contest. Brilliant!
- She makes good eye contact with the members of her audience.
- Her voice is strong.
- She uses well placed quotes from famous people and intriguing historical anecdotes to buttress her points.
- Şafak speaks passionately throughout her talk. For me, one particularly poignant moment is when she recounts the story of the conservative grocer sharing his cigarettes with the transvestite and the two of them smoking together in the numbing aftermath of the earthquake in Istanbul (7:35 – 8:15).
- She challenges her audience at the end of her talk by suggesting that instead of teaching students to “write what they know”, we should step out of our “cultural ghettoes” and teach them to “write what they feel”.
So how could ElifŞafak make an excellent talk even better? I have a few suggestions:
- Most importantly, I think that she should speak a little more slowly. Even though her English is excellent, Şafak does have an accent and sometimes her pronunciation of words (e.g., “stabbed” and “glue”) is not easy to follow.
- She should pause more between ideas to allow her audience sufficient time to absorb what she has said. Her words are incredibly rich with wisdom and emotion; pausing would allow the audience to reap the full benefit of them.
- The concept of circles is important for Şafak and she mentions them at the beginning of her talk. She then shows a slide of dozens of circles of different sizes and colours. I am pretty certain this is the only slide she shows and it stays up for a few minutes. I think that Şafak should drop it. We know what a circle is; she doesn’t need it.
But all in all, a terrific talk and one that was relished by the audience as is evident from the times that the camera panned across the room.