The three Muslim friends who meet at Oxford in the Turkish novelist Elif Shafak’s “Three Daughters of Eve” are described as the Sinner, the Believer and the Confused. “The question I wanted to explore was: Could women so different still be sisters?” Ms. Shafak said. “When women remain divided in patriarchal cultures, the only thing that benefits from this is patriarchy.” The novel is anchored in the present day, when Peri, 35, is attending an upper-crust dinner party in Istanbul. She remembers her time at Oxford in flashbacks throughout the night. The timely novel explores themes of feminism, religious devotion, secular doubt and political upheaval. Born in France, where her father was studying at the time, Ms. Shafak has lived in many places, including Spain and the United States. For the past eight years, she has divided her time between London and Istanbul. Below, she discusses the importance of women’s voices, the artists who helped her find her own confidence and more.
When did you first get the idea to write this book?
I had been thinking about this book for some time before I started. So many things I observed firsthand inspired me. The world we’re living in is a very liquid world. And when societies go backward and tumble into isolation and authoritarianism, women have much more to lose. Across the Muslim world, young women are having crucial debates, because the slide backward is so fast in many places, including Turkey, where I come from. The problem is we don’t hear their voices much in public spaces. What I wanted to do is reflect the discussions women are having in the private space, debates about faith, sexuality. I wanted to bring their voices into the public space and write a book with women in the center.
What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?
Initially I was thinking of these three girls at Oxford as completely separate personalities. But I started to perceive them as three different stages that the same person can go through in their life; stages where they feel more faithful, or more doubtful. As they came alive, despite their apparent differences, I started to perceive them as more fluid, and wondered if it was possible that they could almost evolve into one another.
I also spent a lot of time in Oxford while writing this book. Turkey is a country of collective amnesia, but in places like Oxford there’s an accumulation of knowledge, a continuity. There’s a list of donors who have supported the library there since the 13th century. There’s no similar sense of continuity in Turkey. Comparing memory and amnesia was also interesting to me as I kept writing.
In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
There are two different ways of writing a novel. The first I call the traditional father way, when the novelist slightly situates himself or herself above the text and knows what each and every character is going to do. It’s a bit like engineering. I’ve never felt close to that tradition. I like the second way, which relies a bit more on intuition. You don’t exactly know where the story is going, or what the charters are going to do maybe 15 pages onward.