Photo by Mahua Guha Thakurta
Before I heard Elif Shafak speak at the very first PEN World Voices festival in New York City in April 2005, I had not been aware of this author’s work, nor of her courage.
That April in New York, Shafak spoke on two panels: one was entitled, “The Way We Live Now: Who Wrote the book of sex?” The other was “Crossover Artists: Writing in Another Language.” Shafak writes in Turkish and English. I was attracted to this discussion topic because I had just spent the previous summer teaching Chinese language at my alma mater, Beloit College, in the Midwest. The title of the second panel attracted me because while learning Chinese, I wrote short stories and short essays in Chinese. And while teaching Chinese, I wrote my own short, dramatic dialogues for the students because they had requested supplementary material for further practice. Writing creatively in an acquired language remains one of the most profound experiences of my life, yet I have had no serious opportunities to discuss and digest what this experience means for me. That’s why, at the World Voices festival, Shafak’s example as a threshold writer provided a much-needed sense of solidarity.
But it was Shafak’s candid discussion of sexuality in the Middle East that provoked my interest in reading her fiction. Her comments ranged from Ottoman Empire books on sexuality to the Sufi mystical tradition of Islam that is very much open to discussions of eroticism. Shafak said, “The interesting thing that happened in Turkey is that in the name of modernization, secularizing, and Westernizing ourselves, we cut our ties with the long tradition of eroticism, erotic literature, and especially homoeroticism.” This comment interested and excited me most because I had graduated from Columbia University in 2002 with a Masters in Chinese Literature, and throughout that program I was amazed at how much erotica we were reading in our Pre-modern fiction class, including titles such as The Plum in the Golden Vase, The Carnal Prayer Mat, and What The Master Didn’t Speak Of. Through study and discussion, it eventually occurred to me that a post post-modern consciousness, might at first assume that these days we are more progressive in our attitudes toward sexuality just because we live the outcomes of the Feminist Movement and the continuing struggles for Gay Rights. But if a reader digs deeper, she will discover cultural and literary traditions out there that could be informative on matters of sexuality in ways that post-modern minds may not have thought of. Shafak is very keen at pointing out the negative consequences of creating historical divisions.
Now I am recalling a discussion I’ve had with grad school friends of mine. On occasion we speculated about Bisexuality in the Chinese concubinage. Among our group were those who defined their sexual identity as anything ranging from Lesbian to Metro-sexual to Poly-amorous, even a Retro-sexual; we were friends who studied culture, literature, and language who dared to entertain the wildest hunches. For instance, in a wealthy Chinese household, the man typically chose one wife to sleep with for that evening, according to however his whims guided him. He would order a servant to go to that wife, prepare her with pampering and a foot massage. This wife would beam. In the traditional literature, drama erupts due to the rejected wives’ disappointments and jealousies. And in our little discussion group—these centuries later and miles away—we came up with this question: well, what if it wasn’t really like that? What if the wives who were not chosen to sleep with the husband for that evening did, in fact, sleep with one another? Wouldn’t that solve a whole lot of issues? Or would that just fan the dramatic fire?
It’s impossible to prove any such thing really happened, and we wade in the dangerous territory to impose certain assumptions on other times, places, cultures, etc. But the whole point is the fascinating dialogue that such speculation opens up, a dialogue between Now and Then—Mr. Past taunting Ms. Present, and Ms. Present teasing Mr. Past. All this helped us to conclude that celebrating erotic traditions helps us riff on the themes of sexuality in its colorful variations without feeling alienated from the past.
Elif Shafak’s fiction gives me strength and energy to write about this now. Colorful options that provide comfort are the kinds of considerations that Elif Shafak’s work invites. Because she is a woman from a threshold culture and because she embraces tradition and modernism with humor and grace, her fiction offers much food for thought to a cosmopolitan mind.
Recently, I finished reading her latest novel The Bastard of Istanbul. Now, not only do I appreciate a sense of solidarity with this author, but I am welcoming all her work into my life and cherishing all it can Teach.
Photo by Jakop Eskinazi
Now. What if we learn brutal truths about our families’ pasts? What if we learn about the atrocities from which we are all descended? Are we victims? Are we perpetrators? Aren’t we all suffering the consequences? Once we gain knowledge of the truth of our past, what should we do with that knowledge?
Shafak’s novel is a sweeping family saga that handles these tough questions.
The story revolves around the revelations of two young women: Asya Kazanci, who is fatherless and Turkish, and Armanoush Tchakhmakhchian, who feels exiled as an Armenian American, so she journeys to a foreign land. When Asya and Armanoush meet, their bond provides striking illustration of human connectedness. Transcending our hang-ups seems possible here. What hang-ups? Well: History. Identity. Community. Family. For starters…
The story begins with a nineteen-year-old Istanbulite woman, the seductive Zeliha, lying on an examining table about to have an abortion. She hears the call to prayer as the anesthesia starts working. When she comes to, she learns that the abortion could not be performed. She still has the fetus inside her because when the doctor tried to do his work, Zeliha shrieked with such horror that the doctors and nurses abandoned the procedure. Zeliha decides she will keep her baby girl, even though the city she lives in is hostile toward bastards.
If that opening isn’t absorbing enough, by the time readers get to page 53, Barsam Tchakhmakhchian, an Armenia exile, is asserting the taboo proclamation, “I am the grandchild of genocide survivors who lost all their relatives at the hands of Turkish butchers in 1915.” These words spoken by Barsam—and similar claims made by other characters—including the ravings of a bitter djinn who induces a memory trance in the thoroughly affecting “Pomegranate Seeds” chapter—got Elif Shafak into trouble with Turkish nationalists. Come on guys. Be real. Article 301 is for the birds!
But, back to the story.
The sensually-rich saga unfolds in chapters named after ingredients: Cinnamon, Garbanzo Beans, Sugar, Roasted Hazelnuts. Gathering around for mealtimes, one ingredient might trigger a memory or sensation, might open an opportunity to tell of something that once was or something that once wasn’t. But all the ingredients are vital for a sweet surprise later in the text. Shafak is a generous with her sensual writing; she hoards nothing and all are welcome to enjoy desserts prepared by Armenian and Turkish grandmothers alike. But beware of bitter and poison.
Some scenes take place in Istanbul while others take place in Arizona and San Francisco. Shafak handles the geographical shifts smoothly. Reading her work makes transition feel effortless.
A brother of five sisters leaves Istanbul to study in America. Mustafa meets Rose. She is a young, embittered divorcée, originally from Kentucky, who has a daughter by her ex-husband—Barsam—a member of a huge Armenian Catholic family. Of Rose, that family says,
“Rose had no multicultural background. The only child of a kind Southern couple operating the same hardware store forever, she lives a small-town life, and before she knows it, she finds herself amid this extended and tightly knit Armenian Catholic family in the Diaspora. A huge family with a very traumatic past! How can you expect her to cope with all this so easily?”
Shafak writes as gracefully about family discord as about family unity. An example of unity is the comfort prompted by the Armenian grandmother’s knitting.
“Grandma Shushan’s knitting affected the family like group therapy. The sure and even cadence of each stitch soothed everyone watching, making them feel that as long as Grandma Shushan kept knitting, there was nothing to fear and in the end, everything would be all right.”
This is a story of how the Armenian Diaspora survives through collective spirit, how the Turkish cope with learning the truth. To ease all distress, Shafak becomes like Barsam’s Uncle Dikran who eases his nephew’s distress by telling him a story—more like a long joke—about what happens when an Armenian visits a generous barber. In Shafak’s world, stories ease distress. Tell stories.
The crux of the narrative opens fully in the chapter entitled “Pine Nuts.” In this chapter, Asya translates Armanoush’s story for her four Turkish-speaking aunties. While the American girl is re-telling the story of Armenian genocide that has been erased from the women’s Turkified memories, the Turkish version of the television show The Apprentice is airing in the background. This scene reveals that the complexity of these characters’ situation extends to communities and cultures beyond the characters in the story. This chapter’s dialogue raises the question, “who all is responsible for erasing memory?” But Shafak gives the screw another turn by forcing us to ponder, “what does it mean to remember?” But in this scene we see a young woman traveled from the U.S. to Turkey in search of her Armenian identity telling a Turkish family a fact about their history; meanwhile, a purely American knock-off television show provides somewhat distracting and odd-ball background noise. These are the kinds of techniques Shafak employs to tell this edifying tale. Readers come away from The Bastard of Istanbul with admiration for this writer’s courage to confront atrocities of History and the hard questions we have been gifted. Though this novel forces readers to confront tough questions, it also offers most satisfying surprises that are as bitter as they are sweet.
There are so many sophisticated ideas packed in this novel. I hope that it sells as well, or better, here than in Turkey; I hope readers’ groups, book clubs, and classrooms welcome this important tale to their discussion tables. I hope families read it together and talk about it around the dessert table while eating ashure. As the celebrating Istanbulites would say, “S¸erefe!”