Salman Rushdie once noted that the societies that emerged from colonial rule in the ’50s and ’60s soon became hotbeds for literary invention. “The Empire Writes Back,” he called the phenomenon, punning on George Lucas’ Star Wars film.
That phrase is getting a new twist in Turkey, where according to 35-year-old writer Elif Shafak, a new generation of Turks are taking the novel—a form which came to them from the West—and using it 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. Last winter, Shafak too was put on trial based on passages from her new novel, The Bastard of Istanbul, which referenced the long-fallout of what is being called the Armenian Genocide, when up to one million Armenians were forcibly removed from Turkey and killed.
The book has become a bestseller in Turkey, selling more than 60,000 copies, but not without fallout for Shafak. Writing in the Washington Post, 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.”
While Shafak was acquitted, others have not been so lucky. On Jan. 19, her friend, journalist Hrant Dink, the Armenian editor-in-chief of a Turkish newspaper, was murdered in Istanbul by an ultra nationalist teenager. The reverberations of this event are still etched on Shafak’s face.
“The debate on literature and art are 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. All these elements come together in The Bastard of Istanbul, which was recently published in the U.S. 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 Instanbul, it is a lively book, full of powerful, talkative women, who are full of superstitions, folktales, vengeful schemes and codes of behavior that they both resent and subscribe to at the same time.
“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,” she explains. “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.”
In the beginning of her career, Shafak came under heavy criticism for using Ottoman words. Then, several years ago, she switched to writing in English and endured another barrage of epithets. “It was a blasphemy in the eyes of some people,” she says.
But in spite of the threats and criticism she has come under, Shafak refuses to be pushed into writing a certain kind of book, or reflecting a particular part of Turkey in her novels. Her influences are broad she says, and she is compelled to listen to them.
“I was raised by a single mother,” she says, and I think that explains a lot. Born in France, Shafak spent her childhood shuttling between Germany, Jordan and Spain, with stops in between to Turkey.
She earned a graduate degree in International Relations from a Turkish university and wrote her Ph.D. thesis on “An Analysis of Turkish Modernity Through Discourses in Masculinities.” Since 2003, she has been traveling to America to teach and living in Turkey. She calls herself a commuter, not an immigrant.
“There is a metaphor I like very much in the Koran, 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, but 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 uncomfortable in some ways with that role. And yet, Istanbul remains a source of endless inspiration for Shafak. Her previous book, The Flea Palace, looked at the city and its underbelly primarily through its garbage.
“It’s not an easy city,” she says. “If you’re the sort of person who is looking for a neat and tidy life—sterile, hygienic—than Istanbul is not your city. It’s a city of chaos.”
For all her frustrations with it, however, the city remains home to Shafak. It is where she is raising her child, where she lives. For her, it is an important test case.
“For anyone, especially after 9/11, who is asking herself how Western democracy and Islam can coexist 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.”