Romania Rocks. The Blog – Elif Shafak meets Matei Vișniec

The festival’s very own author Andreea Scridon observes festival events

Elif Shafak and Matei Vișniec are both authors who today enjoy huge critical acclaim around the world; both are published by acclaimed publishing houses, translated widely and winners of countless prizes – but early in their careers it certainly didn’t seem this would one day be the case. In this ‘Rock Talk’, part of a series of discussions between Romanian and British authors under the aegis of the Romania Rocks Literature Festival, the two authors discussed the implications of coming from countries with complicated histories, Elif from Turkey and Matei from Romania.

While Elif Shafak is a “big name” in the United Kingdom, the same goes for Matei Vişniec in France. ‘The Romanian language is my identity because I learned everything in it’, he told us, but the books he read in Romania (a Francophone country) prepared him to feel at home in Paris. As such, his status as writer in two languages seems organic to him and relatable to a contemporary, globally-minded reader: ‘The liberty which these two languages bring to me is the most important identity for me.’ In communist Romania, he discovered literature as his only space of liberty, and described poetry in particular as ‘a coded language, a source of oxygen for many young people at the time’. Matei stated that his mission was not only to be a good writer, but a subversive one: ‘An artist has to be subversive if he wants to be recognized as a true artist’. As such, his Mr K released is ‘a therapeutic novel’, his ‘way of understanding what liberty means and how to use it’.

As a young Romanian born into democracy, I found this somewhat hard to relate to. But Vişniec brought the idea full circle and up-to-date by noting that fighting against self-censorship is as important – something I think will become a mantra of sorts for me. 

‘With my head, with my soul, with my articles – I am in Romania’, Matei confessed, and I found myself intrigued by this idea of accessing a parallel existence through writing. 

Elif described herself as a lonely child who found a companion in literature, which was an ‘existential glue’ in her nomadic childhood, exposed constantly to different viewpoints. She agreed with Matei on what she termed ‘unconsciously internalized censorship’ and ‘the pessimism that comes with being from a country with a complicated history’, which has informed her decision to write about silenced and marginalised voices. Elif’s perspective and how she related to the Romanian situation was particularly interesting: she praised Romania’s transition from a dictatorial regime to democracy, and hopes that what she considers to be Turkey’s collective amnesia might too undergo a shift in this regard.

I most enjoyed how the two authors engaged with each other. Matei, noting, that the two authors are published by the same publishing house in Romania, praised Elif’s translators and read the titles of her books out loud to her in Romanian: Elif was delighted. 

By Andreea Scridon

Category: Romania Rocks

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