The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak

excerpted review by John Freeman:

…in Turkey…according to 35-year-old writer Elif Shafak, a new generation of writers is using the novel – a form that came to them from the West – to reimagine their society from within.

“Novelists have played a very, very critical role as the engineers of social and cultural transformation in Turkey,” says Shafak, when we meet in a New York hotel. “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. Shafak, too, was put on trial because of passages from her new novel, The Bastard of Istanbul, which referenced the long fallout of what many call the Armenian Genocide, when up to one million Armenians were forcibly removed from Turkey and killed.

The book has become a best-seller 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 Empires deportation and massacre of Armenians during World War I.”

While Shafak was acquitted, others were not so lucky. In January, her “dear friend”, journalist Hrant Dink, the Armenian editor-in-chief of a Turkish newspaper, was murdered on a street in Istanbul, allegedly by an ultra-nationalist teenager.

“The debate on literature and art is very much politicised,” she says, her voice revealing palpable anguish, “sometimes very much polarised. I think my work attracted it because I combined elements people like to see separate.”

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