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MLF Chapter & VerseMLF Chapter & Verse

The Manchester Literature Festival Blog

Review: Gaeia Manchester Sermon with Elif Shafak

Our blogger Jonti Dalal-Small reports from Manchester Cathedral, where Anglo-Turkish author, journalist and critic Elif Shafak delivered an unforgettable 2015 Gaeia Manchester Sermon

“I don’t think writers should preach. I find it annoying.”

So says Elif Shafak who, from behind a pulpit in Manchester Cathedral, has just delivered a sermon.

Who is she? I am fascinated, perplexed. I am a last-minute stand-in to blogging. I haven’t read any of her novels, nor followed her journalism (which, I can’t decide, either makes me terribly-placed or very well-placed to blog about her quite startling sermon).

Speaking about labels and religious identity, she says she’s wary of the “full stop”. (“I am a Muslim. Full Stop”; “I am an atheist. Full stop.”) Preferable is a comma, a semi colon or “best”, an ellipsis. And so, I think, if we must label her, then she’s a writer. A writer of dazzling associations, fascinating connections, keen and loving attention to nuance, and rejection of ‘either/or choices’ which categorically put people in boxes. A writer who has a wonderfully fine sense of irony.

Not the irony of ironic detachment – but something much funnier and more uplifting, a kind of sincere, ironic engagement which in part explains why she is delivering a sermon even though she doesn’t think that writers should preach, and which illuminates why she’s speaking in a cathedral, even though she is not religious. She “just happens to be sincerely interested in religion.. as a fascinating puzzle waiting to be solved.”

To her “spirituality is a language that needs to be practiced, studied – which people from all walks of life can speak without an accent.”

She speaks in English, of course – but could have been delivering the sermon in Turkish. It might have been very different. Each language, she says, can be more or less appropriate depending on the purpose or mood. Turkish is best for “melancholy”. English for “black humour” and “satire”. And, yes, for “irony”.

She “commutes” between English and Turkish. An ironic downplaying of her skill, perhaps from such a most unworkmanlike prose stylist. (Especially as she says that “language is not a tool but a space that I enter into”.)

During the Q&A section, she states that she values “questions not answers” (while nonetheless providing richly stimulating and satisfying answers). It is not her style, she says, to lecture the reader: “I’m not a puppeteer. it’s not that I know more than the reader.” For this evening, the sermon may be her genre, and spirituality may be her starting point, but her range is as vast as the Cathedral we are all gathered in. In culture and politics, she is more interested in questions than answers – indeed she thinks “the 21st Century will belong to the perplexed, the learners, the searchers”. In literature too. “Big books start with little questions”. Little questions matter.

The converse is that she fears “unwavering belief” and the “hegemony of certainty”; yet she also stressed that we need contrast. We learn from contrast. To think deeply, we need difference. To me, this implies that we might need the contrast of ‘unwavering belief’ that Shafak fears.

A sermon without preaching. A sermon that didn’t stir, I think, even the slightest hint of annoyance in the Literature Festival congregation.

A sermon with so much in it that it probably needs to be read and re-read. But also a sermon that had to be heard. A sermon which was offered in the spirit of being a dialogue to be entered into, in which Shafak seemed somehow to listen much more than lecture, in which she very much practiced rather than preached.

I made a note to read her novels to find out a little more about who she is.

Read the full text of Elif Shafak’s  2015 Gaeia Manchester Sermon here.


Jonti Dalal-Small is a Manchester-based business psychologist.

Image: Jon Parker Lee