Elif Shafak and Michela Murgia on the importance of writers in modern society
A warm round of applause welcomes Elif Shafak and Michela Murgia when they enter the stage in Piazza Castello in Mantua on Wednesday afternoon. Just in front of the entrance of Mantegna's famous Camera degli Sposi, the Turkish-British and Italian writers entertain the audience with a passionate conversation about the role of intellectuals in today's society.
The meeting starts with the presentation of 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, the latest novel by Elif Shafak, Turkish writer and women's rights activist. Her new tale is about Tequila Leila, a sex worker who's found murdered in a rubbish bin in Istanbul: the reader meets her while she's living the last ten minutes of her brain's activity before death. Shafak reveals that a specific part of her beloved Istanbul once again inspired her characters: the "cemetery of the companionless" is a graveyard where the most marginalized members of society (abandoned children, gay people, and refugees died at sea) are buried.
Michela Murgia, Italian novelist and political activist who recently published Istruzioni per diventare fascisti ("Instructions for becoming fascist"), stresses how Elif Shafak's novels always manage to make Istanbul speak about its contradictions. The love for Istanbul permeates all of Elif Shafak’s work, who no longer lives in Turkey and calls herself a world citizen and global soul.
The two writers emphasise the difficulty of being a writer in a country where people working with words are persecuted and threatened. At the same time, they also agree that intellectuals have the responsibility to denounce the severe crackdown of democracy when it happens.
The two authors touch on different topics during this intense one-and-a-half-hour conversation ranging from the rise of international populism to patriarchy, from feminism to emotional intelligence as the basis for a new political approach.
When asked about a phrase to save for the future, Elif Shafak chooses "global solidarity," while she'd like to forget once and for all the word "indifference." “Maybe the opposite of goodness is not evil, but numbness,” she says. “When we start to feel disconnected from the world around us, that's when we create fertile ground for racism and hatred. We can't allow ourselves not to be political nowadays.”
In the end, Michela Murgia and Elif Shafak ask the audience of Festivaletteratura to take a picture together: “We have to reclaim everything,” Michela Murgia says, “including selfies!”. And the audience happily joins in, without thinking twice.