Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Bastard of Istanbul

The outspoken, defiant Turkish writer Elif Shafak, has written books in both English and Turkish. The Bastard of Istanbul is her second English novel, a best seller in Turkey in 2006. Armed with degrees in International Relations, Women's Studies and Political Science from University in Ankara, Shafak is outspoken on the topics of feminism, Ottoman culture, political matters, and defiant of orthodoxy. This book brought her under prosecution by the Turkish government for "insulting Turkishness" under Article 301 of the Turkish Criminal Code. The charge was made because one character in her book characterized the 1915  Turkish massacres of Armenians as "genocide". Charges were later dropped.

Her contemporary novel concerns a vivid. quirky Turkish family of four sisters living together in Istanbul, with Asya the 19 year old daughter (the bastard) of one of the sisters,  who loves Johnny Cash and the French Existentialists. Enter their estranged brother who lives in Tucson with his American wife and Armenian-American stepdaughter, Armanoush.  Armanoush travels to Turkey in search of her Armenian identity, meets her stepfather's Turkish family there and Asya and Armanoush become fast friends. A secret is reveal that links the two families and connects them to the 1915 deportation and massacre of many Armenians, with ancestors described vividly through the voice of Armanoush.

Safak's women characters are colorful, quirky, and vividly described. She successfully brings together the culture clashes and differing viewpoints of the two households, vast differences between the sisters, and her description of the Turk's massacre of Armenians during WWI is unsparing and clear. It added a good deal to my limited understanding of this topic, from the Armenian viewpoint. The treatment of it's Armenian population is still not officially acknowledged by the Turkish government, which refuses to recognize this part of their past as "genocide". (Author Orfan Pamuk recently ran into similar conflicts resulting in his short term imprisonment over his criticism of the Turkish treatment of their Kurdish minority population.) Although the plot meanders a bit at times, it's a worthy book, a good colorful and compelling contribution to international fiction.  I certainly recommend it to any reader with an interest in contemporary Turkey and her very tangled and violent past.

No comments:

Post a Comment