How fiction breaks us out of walls

I had never heard of Turkish author Elif Shafak, but after hearing her beautiful and intelligent TED talk, I will definitely be checking out her books.

“He wanted to see the manifestation of my identity. He was looking for a Turkish woman in the book, because I happen to be one. We often talk about how stories change the world, but we should also see how the world of identity politics affects the way stories are being circulated, read, and reviewed.”

“When the interviewer tried to pigeonhole him as a gay writer, Baldwin stopped and said, ‘But don’t you see? There is nothing in me that is not in everybody else, and nothing in everybody else that is not in me.’ When identity politics tries to put labels on us, it is our freedom of imagination that is danger.”

“It was just a story. And when I say ‘just a story,’ I’m not trying to belittle my work. I want to love and celebrate fiction for what it is, not as a means to an ends.”

“Identity politics divides us; fiction connects. One is interested in sweeping generalizations, the other in nuances. One draws boundaries, the other recognizes no frontiers. Identity politics is made of solid bricks; fiction is flowing water.”

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Writerly Wednesday (YA writer edition)


  1. First of all, I love her accent. And her speech was great!

  2. Oh my gosh that was freaking BRILLIANT. Love her! Just amen. That is exactly how I feel. Why do we pigeonhole writers like that? I feel it—I can’t help but feel like I’ll somehow get in “trouble” for writing outside my supposed cultural sphere.

    (I might have to ninja this—I will credit you for the find though.)

  3. Things that stuck out for me (beyond what you quoted):

    1. It has nothing to do with storytelling, but I loved when she said (more or less), “My grandmother started praying that I would get married, and because God loves her, I did.” Great line!

    2. This quote is something I will spend some time thinking about: “Knowledge that takes us not beyond ourselves is far worse than ignorance.”

    3. And I’m not sure what to make of one of her last points, which is *not* to write what you know. I’ve had several experiences of reading a novel and coming up against facts that are just wrong – clearly the author didn’t “know” that subject matter – and it greatly compromised my ability to enjoy and succumb to the story, even the parts that were “right.” I think it is entirely possible to write about something that you haven’t experienced (I do that all the time) but I try to research the “unexperienced” and “know” it as much as I possibly can, and I also try to be very careful not to step outside of my acquired knowledge of the unfamiliar subject I am writing about. I get what she’s saying as a larger concept, but I’m afraid that the “truth” of the story can be lost if this concept is taken too far. In a lot of ways, writing fiction is like building a house of cards, and if your reader suddenly realizes that one of the cards isn’t there after all, the whole thing can fall down around him/her.

    4. But! Sexy woman with sexy accent talks for 20 minutes? Mmm, mmm, good. :)

  4. Jon

    Hmm…interesting piece. I would be curious to hear your thoughts on her talk.

    What Sonja says in her third point goes for me too. If you aren’t writing what you know, you better have all of the background information straight. Writing is pretty permanent, so do a fact check!

  5. Sonja, but she’s not talking about not knowing subject matter. Of course research is important in any kind of book. It’s more resisting the fear to stay within ourselves. Also, judging other writers based on their supposed cultural sphere.

    Like, just because I’m a white, 26-year-old woman, does that mean the only stories I’m allowed to write should be about what it is to be me? I don’t think so. I think I have a right to explore all sorts of lives and stories—male and female, outside my race or even species, maybe even in fully made up worlds.

    Fiction is for exploring—for reaching outside yourself and seeing what it might be like to live in another life. Good research should come with that, but the point is to not fear what’s outside our circle. To learn. Study. Grow.

  6. Kimberly-
    I loved her accent too!

    Haha, “ninja” as a verb FTW!

    1. LOVED that line too! Her grandmother anecdotes were fabulous.
    2. {nods} Another gem.
    3. More below…
    4. HEE.

    Jon, Sonja, and Natalie-
    I think there should be a balance. I absolutely believe we all have the right to write about whatever we want. I can write about a slave, or an undiscovered planet, or love. The question is, can I write about those things in a compelling and believable way? And please note that I think “believable” is very different from accurate.

    This may be an unpopular opinion, but I think it’s okay to take artistic license sometimes. Yes, you risk losing some readers’ trust. But you know what, not everyone was going to like you anyway. So it’s more important, IMO, to do what works best for the story and the characters. If you need to fudge things a little bit to accomplish that, then so be it.

    Example: There are TONS of doctors who can’t stand to watch Grey’s Anatomy or ER or any of those shows. Why? Because they do so many things that real doctors would never do in a million years. Sex in the on-call room. Cutting someone’s LVAD wire. Etc. etc. But guess what? There are MILLIONS of viewers (including me, hahaha) who eat those shows up. Who are willing to overlook a few “unlikely” actions in order to follow the story, the character arcs, the drama. Now, if Grey’s took TOO much liberty, and didn’t show the doctors scrubbing in/sterilizing before surgery, or they had the hospital decorated as if it were a living room from the 70s, or whatever — then that’s not just fudging anymore; that’s plain old f-cking up.

    So the Grey’s writers have to find the balance between the story and reality. And I think that’s fine.

    Of course, not everyone will agree with my philosophy, and they will write different kinds of books. Books that stick 100% to the way things are done in reality. And that’s fine too. They will lose readers for other reasons, I’m sure. Because you can’t please everyone, and there is no *right* way to write a book.

  7. “fiction is flowing water.” Oh, I love that! I haven’t listened to the talk yet (or read the other responses), but I know exactly what she means! Thanks for sharing this, Kristan.

  8. Jon

    Great points, agreed about Grey’s too. My mom is a doctor and she loves the show, but always bristles at the writers’ sometimes admittedly lame understanding of how an ER works.

  9. Sarah-
    If I had to pick one line, that was my favorite too. :)

    Oh, I didn’t know your mom was a doctor! How cool.

  10. I only had the chance to watch this now. It was an amazing talk. Circles have power, anything within thick walls will wither and die. It reminds me how we need to reach out and not get stuck in ruts of thinking, or living, or being. I’ll need to think more on this.

  11. Yep, it’s a very rich, layered talk. I love that about it. Circles circles circles!

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