Newsletters  | Mobile

Literary Life in Istanbul’s Changing Society

Jasper James Istanbul's Literary Life

Photo: Jasper James

I thought she was exaggerating the potential danger of such narrow thinking. She wasn't.

It was Maureen Freely who introduced me to Elif Shafak, the young Turkish author of The Bastard of Istanbul, which has sold more than 120,000 copies in Turkey and more than 20,000 copies in hardback in the United States, which is quite a feat. The novel is the story of two young women, both 19: Asya, who lives in Istanbul with her mother and three batty aunts, and Armanoush, who splits her time between Arizona and San Francisco with her divorced father's family, who are Armenian. "What will that innocent lamb tell her friends when she grows up?…all my family has been Something-Somethingian, and I am the grandchild of genocide survivors who lost all their relatives at the hands of Turkish butchers in 1915, but I myself have been brainwashed to deny the genocide because I was raised by some Turk named Mustafa! What kind of a joke is that?"

I wanted to talk to Shafak on her home ground. But in Istanbul, I couldn't find her novel in Turkish—or in English, the language in which she'd written it (considered a cultural betrayal by some)—and I couldn't find Shafak, either. I knew that she, pregnant with her first child, had been charged with violating a Turkish law that prohibits writers from denigrating their Turkishness. She was acquitted, as Pamuk had been on a similar charge. Just why her fiction was causing such a brouhaha in Istanbul is very much worth trying to understand, for it may not be simply that her characters accuse the Ottoman Turks of the genocide of the Armenians in 1915—she uses the "g-word" explosively—it may also be about memory and amnesia, or as Shafak asks, "Was it really better for human beings to discover more of their past?And then more and more…?Or was it simply better to know as little of the past as possible and even to forget what small amount was remembered?" Just after I left Istanbul, Hrant Dink, the editor of Agos, a Turkish-Armenian newspaper, was murdered on the streets there. He was killed by a young man reported to be the pawn of an ultranationalistic group trying to sabotage Turkey's pending membership in the European Union. This splendid sanctuary on the edge of the Muslim world, and a significant part of it, has not been able to forge an easy entrance.

Dink was a friend of Shafak's, and after his murder she found herself living under police protection in Turkey. She was in the hospital in Istanbul nursing her newborn baby, Sehrazat Zelda, when she saw pictures on television of a poster-size copy of her book-jacket photo being burned. Frightened by the violence, she was about to cancel her American book tour. But she made an exception for New York, and this is where I met her.

Tall and slim and strikingly good-looking, she says, "I am demoralized." The anxiety after the murder of Dink has been wearing. "Writers are public figures in Turkey, especially novelists." She brightens as we begin to talk about the wonder that is Istanbul—its myriad neighborhoods, the liveliness of the streets. "I like to walk to Ortaköy," she says, "where the women over the weekends are setting up stalls, selling necklaces or pretty charms." Or baked potatoes, with their wonderful array of ingredients: fresh yogurt and scallions, cheeses, pickles, and sour cream.

"Istanbul is not a passive city—both pain and joy are visible. The dead and the alive live side by side in Istanbul, where tombstones are everywhere." Painted green, I remind her, as in the ancient cemetery on the road leading up to Bogaziçi. "For us, history starts in 1923. It's so far away." And suddenly I think: I'm old enough to be her mother. I wrote my first book when I was her age, about Zelda Fitzgerald. Why had she given her daughter the middle name Zelda?I understood her choice of the name Sehrazat (Sheherazade), the lovely storyteller whose life depended on the tales she told. "I picked Zelda for my daughter's name," she explains, "because under anesthesia I talked about The Great Gatsby. When I woke up, my doctor said that in all his 30 years as a doctor he had never seen a woman he operated on blabber on about a novel. He was smiling. And so I decided to name my daughter Zelda. I have a deep admiration for Zelda Fitzgerald."

Maybe only I remember that when Zelda had her first and only child, she was also groggy when she came out from under the anesthesia. But it was F. Scott Fitzgerald who recorded what she said: "Oh, God, goofo I'm drunk. Mark Twain. Isn't she smart—she has the hiccups. I hope it's beautiful and a fool—a beautiful little fool." When Fitzgerald used it in Gatsby, Zelda felt betrayed. No one, of course, is using Elif Shafak's life to write one of the finest works of fiction of the 20th century. She's making her own way as a writer and a mother in the perilous 21st century in her beloved Turkey. But I must wish her Godspeed, or "Sehrazat!" as the Turks say, raising a glass to toast new lives and new books in their kingdom by the sea.


Sign Up

Connect With Travel + Leisure
  • Travel+Leisure
  • Tablet
  • Available devices

Already a subscriber?
Get FREE ACCESS to the digital edition