It is impossible not to be familiar with Elif Shafak, the Turkish novelist, and be fond of modern English literature at the same time. This world-known fiction writer has truly refashioned the realm of creative writing, and by bridging between the past and the present, east and the West, she has created a distinct taste of imagination for her readers so far.
Elif Shafak is a Turkish fiction author who was born in Strasbourg, France, to a diplomat mother and a father who was a philosopher. Later on, when her parents separated, she moved to Ankara, Turkey, where she was raised without her father or any Male guardian. Growing up in an environment where females were dominated provided the bases of her becoming a feminist. And being in Asian Turkey and Western Europe, she has dived into different cultures from a very early age. This is why she blatantly discusses the issues of women’s rights, freedom of speech, and cultural and religious diversity and regional politics in her writings.
The Bastard of Istanbul (Review)
Her bestselling fiction book The Bastard of Istanbul is one of her those books that is crammed with all those topics that Elif Shafak is often concerned: Feminism, freedom of speech, regional politics, established family rituals, women’s rights and so on. The book was originally published in 2006 in the English language, and was later translated into her native language, Turkish, and became a bestseller. Following its publication, she was arrested by the Turkish government for insulting ‘the Turkishness’ of the country.
The book pivots around two main characters: Asya Kazanci and Zeliha Kazanci. Zeliha Kazanci is Asya Kazanci’s mother, who owns a tattoo parlor, and her daughter, Asya Kazanci, is born out of Medlock. Since being born out of Medlock is considered a sin and the baby, Asya, a bastard in conservative Turkey, the book is named The Bastard of Istanbul. No one knows about her father’s identity, and in her women-dominated family where there is no Male guardian around, no one bothered to know about him either. Why is there not any Male inside their family? Well, there is one: Mustafa Kazanci. But he has migrated to the United States in a bid by his family to save him from a weird curse that has befallen the Kazanci family for generations.
Due to this strange curse, no Male family member survives to live any longer than the age of forty years. Generations after generations, like ‘an evil spell put on the lineage,’ as the writer puts it herself, all Male members have succumbed to death as unexpectedly as it was. One uncle dies of a heart attack before his forty-first birthday, while on the other hand, another uncle, father or grandfather is crushed by a concrete chunk. The only Male member in the family and perhaps the youngest is Mustafa Kazanci, who is the only brother to four sisters. To save him from this perpetual curse, and from inner guilt that is known only to him and his elder sister Zeliha, the family decides to send him to the United States, where he marries a single mother."The bastard of Istanbul is replete with historical grudges, challenges aimed at socially established values, and family secrets." Click To Tweet
Before moving any further from this part of the book, the reader should have a little familiarity with the Turkish and Armenian history. And as Armanoush Tchakhmakhchian, the half-cousin of Asya Kazanci comes from the United States and enters the story, a great part of the book deals with the Turkish and Armenian history, especially the 1914 genocide of Armenians.
Armenia, now a neighbor country to Turkey, was part of the great Ottoman empire before World War One. Though the Turkish side does not accept the accusations of genocide, it is stated that 1.5 million Armenians were systematically killed by the Ottoman empire from 1914 to 1923, on the grounds that the Armenians were mostly non-Muslims who might have stronger inclinations towards the Christian Russians than the Muslim Turks during the war. Intermittently, there have been many calls for reparations by the Armenians, but the Turkish government denies the allegations.
Contrary to all these, the story takes its another twist. When Mustafa reaches in the US, he meets a single mother, Rose, who has been married to an Armenian man. Knowing the historical and longstanding grudges that exist between the Turkish people and the Armenians, their former population that accuses the Ottoman empire of their ethnic genocide, Rose marries Mustafa Kazanci. This step by Rose enrages her former Armenian family-in-law, the Tchakhmakhchian, but life continues, and nineteen years pass.
Following the return of Armanoush Tchakhmakhchian back to Turkey, her stepfather, Mustafa Kazanci, also returns home to meet his family after almost 20 years. But, quite unexpectedly, with the return of Mustafa Kazanci, two great mysteries of the family and the story also reveal themselves: the identity of Asya’s father and the family curse Mustafa was to be protected from. Unfortunately, Mustafa Kazanci can not survive his family curse and dies inside his family house; it also emerges that he was the real father of Asya Kazanci, his niece, who was born because he had raped his elder sister Zeliha twenty years ago.
Elif Shafak has crammed this book with layers of family mysteries and cultural differences. The bastard of Istanbul is replete with historical grudges, challenges aimed at socially established values, and family secrets. Reading Elif Shafak’s books always gives us a new perspective on ideas and norms. Her thrilling writing style always forces us to keep reading and develop a relationship with the characters inside the stories. In addition, her writing style also lets the reader imagine the story happening before his/her eyes, and takes the reader out of the world of reality.
The book is highly recommended to anyone who is interested in Turkish culture and history; and who wants to have some new windows of thoughts open to themselves.