ISTANBUL — Turkish novelist Elif Shafak hasn’t had a happy 12 months. Last summer, the 36-year-old spent most of her first pregnancy preparing to go on trial.
In September, three days after her daughter, Sehrazat Zelda, was born, she was acquitted of “insulting Turkishness” under the now notorious Article 301 of the Turkish penal code.
But in January, Shafak’s relief turned to fear and mourning after a Turkish nationalist youth shot dead her friend, the Turkish-Armenian editor Hrant Dink, in a crime connected to his own high-profile trials under Article 301. He wrote, in newspapers, as Shafak did in fiction, about the taboo subject of the mass killing of ethnic Armenians in Ottoman Turkey during World War I.
Shafak now has a bodyguard, as does Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, another 301 defendant.
So while she should be enjoying the widely praised English-language publication of her novel, “The Bastard of Istanbul,” the writer considered to be one of Turkey’s most promising young novelists is keeping a low profile. She has also had enough of discussing politics at the expense of literature.
“I do think it is a pity that Turkish writers grab the attention of the Western world only or mainly because of political reasons. Unfortunately, a similar attention is not paid to our fiction,” she says in the measured English that has become familiar ground for her now that she has written the last two of her eight novels in the language and begun to divide her time between Turkey and the U.S., holding teaching posts in Boston, Michigan and Arizona.
“People in America and Europe knew about the book before the book was out. As a novelist, I felt troubled by this experience. I believe novels should speak for themselves,” she says.
“The Bastard of Istanbul” follows the lives of two families — one living in San Francisco, the other in Istanbul — that become intertwined when the Armenian-American stepdaughter of a Turkish man decides to explore her past by visiting his family in Istanbul. The novel examines the theme of amnesia versus memory — in this case, the Armenians’ quasi-obsession with the past and the Turks’ willful avoidance of it.
This story first appeared in the April 26, 2007 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Shafak says the theme developed from her attempts to come to terms with a lonely childhood full of hurt and separation. Born in France in 1971, she grew up the only daughter of a single Turkish mother who traveled the world in her job as a diplomat.
The rupture from what society Shafak had at each new posting and the lack of a family turned her into an avid reader of a range of writers, from Balzac to Paul Auster and the mystic Rumi. Her love of literature developed into love of expressive language on its own merits. Shafak insists, in the face of strong modernist Turkish disapproval, on using old Persian and Arabic words that had been purged after the Ottoman Empire became a republic in the early 20th century.
“My starting point [for the novel] was a simple question: If the past is gloomy, if it is heavily loaded, is it worth knowing more about it, or is it better to move on and let the bygones be bygones?” she says.
“My childhood was gloomy, too, and remembering always hurt, so I avoided it,” Shafak continues. “There came a point in my life when I realized that without memory of the past, you cannot possibly mature. This is true for individuals and for nations. And yet at the same time, if you stick to the past all the time, you cannot move forward and will find yourself in a loop of repetitions.”
The main thrust of the story is carried by a cast of often eccentric women, including a quartet of fearsome sisters in a Turkish family whose men just happened to die off, leaving the women to seek the story of their past.
“If and when memory survives, we owe it to women. Mothers, grandmothers, aunties pass stories to their daughters and granddaughters. Women are the main carriers of collective memory,” Shafak says.
Yet she is wary of being stereotyped by the English-reading public as a “Muslim woman writer,” with all the attendant expectations — the feeling that she should be writing about the exotic, the struggle of a downtrodden class of people in macho societies, honor killings, wife-beating and so on.
In Turkey, there is the opposite expectation — that a woman of her modern outlook shouldn’t be interested in Muslim mysticism, as she is, or in the old-fashioned language of the “discredited” Ottomans.
But literature, she believes, is one of the strongest weapons available to thrust aside the kind of stereotyping and taking sides that in their extreme forms encapsulate the most dangerous elements of modern society.
“As a writer, the boundaries of a nation-state do not constitute the boundaries of my imagination….That the world is becoming more and more polarized between ‘East’ and ‘West,’ or ‘us’ and ‘them’ is a great concern to me,” she says. “Writers and artists can help to heal old wounds and transcend the boundaries that people on all sides take for granted. At the core of literature lies the ability to empathize with others.”