Opinion: Home Sweet Homes

Novelist Elif Shafak—based in Istanbul and London—considers whether a life divided between two cities, two cultures and two languages can still be a life of belonging.

Istanbul and London binocular illustration by Tatsuro Kiuchi

Elif Shafak suggests that instead of identifying solely with one city or culture, we allow ourselves to embrace the many places that bring out the best in us.

As a writer, whichever way I travel, East or West, I treasure meeting with readers of all backgrounds. I am used to being asked questions, at every literary festival, conference or talk, on a wide range of issues—from Turkish politics to Muslim women, from the art of storytelling to Turkey/EU relations, from creativity to “clash of civilizations.” As challenging as these topics might be, I always enjoy the interaction. There is, however, one question that makes me cringe every time I hear it: “Where is your home?”

Once, at the Hay Festival, I had a peculiar exchange with a reader. I had just finished reading from The Forty Rules of Love when an elderly gentleman in the front row put up his hand and shot off the query I dreaded most. “Where is home to you, may I ask?”

“I don’t have a home, exactly,” I said after a pause. “I have homes. Several, not one. I’d like to believe that this is possible.”

But the old man was not convinced. He said he had come from Pakistan many moons ago, and even though he had spent a long time in the U.K., there was not the slightest doubt in his mind or in his heart that Pakistan was his home. He said that might not be the case for his children, all of whom had been born and raised in the U.K. and therefore regarded England as their home. Yet for him, home definitely was Pakistan. “Now,” he said, turning his sharp gaze to me. “You might reside in various houses, but one of them must be your home. Which one?”

The conference room went silent. People looked up expectantly. There was a red-haired young woman by the door with a baby. I hoped the infant would start to cry and save me, but that didn’t happen. Like a student who knows she is going to fail to give the right answer in front of her classmates, I blushed. I could respond to other questions with relative ease, but I had never quite mastered the subject of “home.”

Nonetheless a voice inside me spoke up—calmly, to my surprise. “I have a home in Istanbul and one in London. Then there is a home inside the Turkish language and another inside the English language. Then I have a home in Storyland.”

The Pakistani-British gentleman looked at me, his eyes gleaming with a mixture of sympathy and pity. He nodded slowly. “With all due respect, you are telling us you have rabbit holes here and there. A hole is not a home.”

Shaken by his remark, I thought about the imagery afterwards. Perhaps he was right. Perhaps I was dwelling in invisible burrows, moving from one self-imposed exile to the next. I was born in Strasbourg, and raised partly in Ankara, partly in Madrid. There were houses in Cologne and Amman, after which I moved to Istanbul, the city I loved dearly, passionately. After staying for several years and writing several novels in Istanbul, I took up residence in the U.S. I lived and wrote books in Boston, Michigan and Arizona. Each place added something: As a big-city person, for instance, I learned in the desert to look within. My life has always been on the move, a constant back and forth between cities, cultures and longings.

Some people in Turkey criticize me for not having roots. “I do have roots,” I tell them.
“But they are up in the air.”

In Sufi mythology there is a wrong-side-up tree somewhere in heaven, with multiple roots, extending in every direction. I like that arborescent image. Or think of air plants, which absorb moisture through the pores in their leaves, and thus survive without being rooted in the soil. Instead of a single rigid identity, could we not have multiple “belongings”? Ours is the age of migrations, movements and cosmopolitan encounters. Ours is the age in which an increasing number of people, when they go to sleep at night, dream in several languages. As fellow human beings, how can we—and why should we—be pigeonholed into a separate, single box?

When I’m in London, I miss Istanbul and its beautiful people. When I’m in Istanbul, I miss London and its beautiful people. I feel connected to each language in a different way. If I am writing about melancholy and sorrow, I find it easier to do so in Turkish. If I am writing about humour, satire and irony, it comes more easily in English. But it is the commute between the languages that fascinates me most, that quest for another space to breathe and dream in.

London and Istanbul have things in common. Each metropolis is immense and bustling with energy, but also rather “lonely” in the sense that it is different from the rest of the country in which it takes part. But the two cities are also rather different. London is a well-organized, solid urban sprawl; it has already “become.” Istanbul is a liquid place; it is still in the process of “becoming.”

As I wrote in my novel Honour, if London were a confection, it would be a butterscotch toffee—rich, intense, established. Istanbul, however, would be a chewy black-cherry liquorice—a mixture of conflicting tastes, capable of turning the sour into sweet and the sweet into sour, leaving you slightly dizzy.

And there is further contrast within the cities themselves. While crossing the Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul, you see a sign: “Welcome to Asia.” On the way back, you spot another sign: “Welcome to Europe.” Yet despite that delineation, Istanbul famously blurs these boundaries, mixing Europe and Asia all the time.

London for me is about architecture, parks, innovation, art, literature and multiculturalism. A quiet walk in Regent’s Park, an afternoon in Tate Modern, a quick lunch in Soho. Istanbul for me is about memory, amnesia, graffiti, contrasts and serpentine streets. Sipping tea in Bebek Café, walking on Istiklal Avenue with music pouring out from every store, buying vegetables from the local bazaar in Bostanci.

I am not claiming that having a dual or multiple sense of home is easy. There are things it takes away from you. But there are things it adds, too, intellectually and spiritually. Instead of anchoring ourselves in one place or one identity, we can connect with the parts of each place that call out the best in us, and perhaps become a walking bridge between cultures that might seem worlds apart to others’ eyes. After all, some of us make homes out of rabbit holes.