Elif Shafak (spelled Şafak in Turkish) was born in 1971 in Strasbourg, France. She is an award-winning novelist and the most widely read woman writer in Turkey. Her books have been translated into more than thirty languages and have been best sellers in Turkey, France, and Italy. Shafak writes fiction in both English and Turkish.
Throughout her life, Shafak has lived in Madrid, Spain; Ankara, Turkey; Cologne, Germany; Amman, Jordan; Boston, Massachusetts; Michigan; and Arizona. Through it all she has maintained a deep attachment to the city of Istanbul, which plays an important part in her fiction. As a result, a sense of multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism has consistently characterized both her life and her work.
Her latest novel, The Forty Rules of Love, became the best-selling novel in a decade in Turkey, selling half a million copies in a few months. It was published in Italy by Rizzoli, in French by Phebus, and in English by Penguin.
The novel is a modern love story between a Jewish-American housewife and a modern Sufi living in Amsterdam. Their unusual romance is interwoven with the remarkable spiritual bond between Rumi and Shams of Tabriz.
Her first novel, Pinhan (The Sufi), was awarded the Rumi Prize in 1998, which is given to the best work in mystical literature in Turkey. Her second novel, Şehrin Aynaları (Mirrors of the City), brings together Jewish and Islamic mysticism in the seventeenth-century Mediterranean. Shafak greatly increased her readership with her novel Mahrem (The Gaze), which earned her the Union of Turkish Writers Prize in 2000.
Her next novel, Bit Palas (The Flea Palace), has been a best seller in Turkey. The setting is a stately residence in Istanbul built by Russian noble émigré Pavel Antipov for his wife, Agripina, at the end of the Tsarist reign, now sadly dilapidated, flea-infested, and home to ten families. Shafak uses the narrative structure of One Thousand and One Nights to construct a story-within-a-story narrative. The book was followed by Med-Cezir, a nonfiction book of essays on gender, sexuality, mental ghettoes, and literature.
Shafak’s first novel written in English, The Saint of Incipient Insanities, was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Her second novel written in English, The Bastard of Istanbul, was the best-selling book of 2006 in Turkey. The novel is about two families, one Armenian and one Turkish, and their stories are told through the perspective of women. The novel brought Shafak under prosecution by the Turkish government. The charges were ultimately dismissed.
Following the birth of her daughter in 2006, she suffered from postpartum depression, a period she addressed with humor and wit in her first autobiographical book, Black Milk.
A postfeminist, cosmopolitan, commuter, mystic, and human rights defender, Shafak is also a political scientist, having graduated from the program in International Relations at Middle East Technical University in Turkey. She holds a master’s degree in Gender and Women’s Studies and a PhD in Political Science from the same university. Focusing mainly in contemporary Western political thought with a supplementary interest in Middle Eastern studies, Shafak’s scholarship has been nurtured by an interdisciplinary and gender-conscious re-reading of the literature on the Middle East and West, Islam, and modernity. Her master’s thesis on Islam, women, and mysticism received an award from the Social Scientists Institute.
Shafak continues to write for various daily and monthly publications in Turkey. She has also contributed to various papers, including The Guardian, Le Monde, Berliner Zeitung, Dutch Handelsblatt, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and Time magazine, and she has been featured in the U.S. on National Public Radio.
Shafak also writes song lyrics for well-known rock musicians in her country. She divides her time between London and Istanbul and lives with her husband and two children.