What novels say, how they say it becomes political issue in Turkey

Writer recalls being tried for writing about Armenia

February 25, 2007|By John Freeman

Salman Rushdie once noted that societies that emerged from colonial rule in the '50s, '60s and '70s became hotbeds for literary invention.

"The Empire Writes Back," he called the phenomenon, punning on George Lucas' Star Warsfilm.

That phrase is gaining new currency in Turkey, where, according to 35-year-old writer Elif Shafak, a young generation of Turks is using the novel, a form that came to them from the West, to reimagine their society from within.

"Novelists have played a very, very critical role as the engineers of social and cultural transformation in Turkey," Shafak says, sitting in an empty hotel ballroom in New York City. "Maybe in that regard we are closer to the Russian tradition than the Western tradition."

The debate over what these novels say about Turkish society, and how they say it, lurched to the forefront of life in Istanbul in recent years, as the Turkish government began prosecuting writers for "offending Turkishness."

Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk and several dozen other writers were tried under this code of Turkish law. In September, Shafak, too, was put on trial because of passages from her new novel, The Bastard of Istanbul (Viking, $24.95), which referenced the long fallout of what many call the Armenian Genocide, when up to 1 million Armenians were forcibly removed from Turkey and killed.

The book has become a best-seller in Turkey, selling more than 60,000 copies, but not without repercussions for Shafak. Shafak explained how critics within Turkey claimed she "had taken the Armenians' side by having an Armenian character call the Turks `butchers' in a reference to the Ottoman Empire's deportation and massacre of Armenians during World War I."

Although Shafak was acquitted, others have not been so lucky. On Jan. 19, her "dear friend," journalist Hrant Dink, the Armenian editor-in-chief of a Turkish newspaper, was murdered on a street in Istanbul, allegedly by an ultra-nationalist teenager. The reverberations of this event are still etched on Shafak's face.

"The debate on literature and art is very much politicized," she says, her voice revealing palpable anguish, "sometimes very much polarized. I think my work attracted it because I combined elements people like to see separate."

Shafak is referring to sex and religion, faith and skepticism, and all these elements come together in The Bastard of Istanbul. The novel tells the story of two families - one Turkish Muslim, the other Armenian - who discover they are united by a shared secret.

Set mostly in Istanbul, it is a lively book, populated by powerful, talkative women who are full of superstitions, folk tales and vengeful schemes.

"Turkey is incomparable with any other Muslim country with regard to the freedoms women exercise," Shafak says. "But we have a tradition of state feminism. To this day, when we talk about women's rights, we say Ataturk gave us our rights," she says, referring to the Republic of Turkey's first president. "And that tells us a lot. What we need is an independent women's movement."

In some people's eyes, Shafak is a walking contradiction: a radical feminist Muslim Turk who writes about sex and slang; a leftist on some issues who believes in the power of religion. Every point of her identity is politicized, even the types of words she uses.

"Turkish as we speak today is very centralized. We took out words coming from Arabic origin, Persian origin and Sufi heritage. And I think in doing so we lost the nuances of the language."

Born in France, Shafak spent her childhood shuttling between Germany, Jordan and Spain, with stops in between in Turkey. She earned a graduate degree in international relations and titled her doctoral thesis "An Analysis of Turkish Modernity Through Discourses in Masculinities."

Since 2003, she has lived in Turkey and traveled to the United States to teach. She calls herself a commuter, not an immigrant. "There is a metaphor I like very much in the Quran, in the Holy Book, and it's about a tree that has its roots up in the air. When my nationalist critics say you have no roots, you are a so-called Turk, I say no, I do have roots, they're just not rooted in the ground. They are up in the air."

In popular conception, Istanbul is the great meeting bazaar between East and West, but Shafak says the city remains somewhat uncomfortable with that role. "One thing that worries me is that there is no ... mobility between classes. There's not that kind of geographical mobility - east and west, north and south - that you have in the States."

And yet, Istanbul remains a source of endless inspiration for Shafak, and it also remains her home. "For anyone," she says, "especially after 9/11, who is asking herself how Western democracy and Islam can co-exist side by side, how seemingly opposite forces can be juxtaposed, for anyone asking these sorts of questions, Istanbul is a very important case study."

As for how she is going to manage, given the controversy and the real security issues, she's up for the challenge.

"My relationship with the city has been like a pendulum. I am deeply attracted to it, but sometimes suffocated by it.

"So I need to take a step outside of it and then come back."

John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.

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