In Istanbul, a writer awaits her day in court
Bestselling novelist Elif Shafak is the latest writer to face trial for “insulting Turkishness”. She tells Richard Lea about her work, the charges that have been brought against her, and how the Turkish language has become a battleground.
“Nobody was expecting this,” says bestselling Turkish novelist Elif Shafak. A decision in Istanbul’s seventh high criminal court earlier this month reopened her prosecution on charges of “insulting Turkishness”. She faces a maximum jail term of three years if convicted.
Shafak joins a roster of more than 60 writers and journalists to be charged under Article 301 of the Turkish criminal code since its introduction last year. University professors, journalists and novelists such as Perihan Magden, Orhan Pamuk and now Shafak have been charged under legislation drawn so broadly as to criminalise a wide range of critical opinions. Writers not only face the prospect of a three-year jail term, but the prosecutions also lay them open to a campaign of intimidation and harassment waged by rightwing agitators.
“The protests are maybe even more unnerving than the actual trial,” Shafak told the Guardian today from her home in Istanbul. “Although their number is very limited they are very aggressive, very provocative.” She describes crowds of protesters slapping and jostling defendants both inside and outside the courtroom, shouting and throwing coins and pens.
The charges against Shafak open up new ground. She is not accused of “insulting Turkishness” because of her campaigning journalism or her academic work, but for remarks made by a fictional character in her latest novel, The Bastard of Istanbul.
The novel, which was originally written in English, was published in a Turkish translation in March 2006 and quickly became a bestseller. The novel follows four generations of women, moving between Turkey and the US to tell the story of an Armenian family and the descendants of a son left behind during the deportations, who converts to Islam and lives as a Turk. It is perhaps the first Turkish novel to deal directly with the massacres, atrocities and deportations that decimated the country’s Armenian population in the last years of Ottoman rule.
Initial reactions to the book were mostly positive, and it went on to sell over 50,000 copies in less than four months. “I gave numerous readings, talks and book signings all over Turkey,” explains Shafak. “Although the novel was difficult to digest for some people, in general the reception has been very positive.”
But in June a nationalist lawyer called Kemal Kerincsiz filed a complaint in Istanbul’s Beyoglu district court against Shafak, her publisher, Semi Sokmen, and her translator, Asli Bican. Shafak and her publisher argued during interrogation that the book was a work of literature and that comments made by fictional characters could not be used to press charges against an author.
“The interrogation went on for some time and eventually the prosecutor decided there was no element of insult and he dropped the case,” says Shafak. But her relief was short-lived. Earlier this month the same lawyer took the case to a higher court, and ultimately managed to have the decision overturned. She is now confronted with a long and daunting legal process. A trial, with all the unwelcome attention from rightwing groups which that entails, is now inevitable.
It could not have come at a worse moment – she is six months pregnant. “From now on it is a long legal battle,” she says. “The later stages of the pregnancy will probably coincide with the first stages of the trial.”
Peter Ayrton, founder of Serpent’s Tail, a publisher deeply committed to literature in translation, was unsurprised by the news of Shafak’s prosecution. “Most writers that are any good would get into trouble with the Turkish authorities,” he explains. “She’s a very acerbic voice. Her novels are lively, episodic and innovative. She’s obviously a feminist, and her work is obviously rooted in contemporary social conditions in Turkey.”
Perhaps the time she spent abroad has given her a different perspective on Turkish life. She was born in Strasbourg, France in 1971 and spent her teenage years in Spain, before returning to Turkey to study social sciences. Four years ago she moved to the US, spending a year at the University of Michigan before her appointment as assistant professor at the University of Arizona. She now divides her time between the US and Turkey, where she has been touring the country to promote her new novel.
Shafak herself believes the charges were brought for two reasons: “The overt reason is my latest novel and the critical tone of the book. The latent reason is deeper and more complex. I have been active and outspoken on various ‘taboo’ issues, critical of ultranationalism and all sorts of rigid ideologies, including those coming from the Kemalist elite, and I have maintained a public presence on minority rights, especially on the Armenian question. It is a whole package.”
Indeed, her fiction has always focused on social issues which Turks prefer to keep hidden, explains sociologist Muge Gocek, who translated the first of Shafak’s novels to appear in the UK, The Flea Palace. “But she does so with humour, with grace, and without ever letting her characters lose their nobility of spirit,” she adds.
The way Shafak deals with Turkey’s past is also unique, continues Gocek, “both in terms of her knowledge of religious heterodoxy as well as her use of Ottoman words – these elements add layers of depth to her novels.”
According to Shafak, language has been at the heart of the process of creating a new nation state, with words of Persian, Arabic or Sufi origin being purged from the language in an attempt to break away from the Ottoman past. “In the name of modernisation our language shrunk tremendously,” she says.
“As a writer who happens to be a woman and attached to Islamic, as well as Jewish and Christian heterodox mysticism, I reject the rationalised, disenchanted, centralised, Turkified modern language put in front of me,” she declares. “Today in Turkey, language is polarised and politicised. Depending on the ideological camp you are attached to, for example Kemalists versus Islamists, you can use either an ‘old’ or a ‘new’ set of words.”
It is a choice she refuses to make, filling her writing with both “old” and “new” words. She says her fiction is like “walking on a pile of rubble left behind after a catastrophe. I walk slowly so that I can hear if there is still someone or something breathing underneath. I listen attentively to the sounds coming from below to see if anyone, any story or cultural legacy from the past, is still alive under the rubble. If and when I come across signs of life, I dig deep and pull it up, above the ground, shake its dust, and put it in my novels so that it can survive.”
Catheryn Kilgarriff, co-director of her British publisher Marion Boyars, was also drawn to her use of old Turkish language, as well as her use of allegory and fable. “She’s an extraordinary writer,” she says, and an extremely exciting prospect for the future. “She’s only 35 now and she’s already mastered one or two different voices in her fiction. There’s more to come.”
It’s a body of work which is building her a formidable reputation overseas. “She’s doing astoundingly well,” adds Kilgarriff, pointing out that Shafak’s books have been taken up by the large chains and offered in three for two promotions – unusual treatment indeed for literature in translation.
Shafak has been published in Turkey, the US and Britain, though only two of her six novels are available in the UK at the moment. Since writing The Flea Palace, which was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction prize in 2005, she has begun writing in English – an act which has been seen by Turkish nationalists as a “cultural betrayal”.
It was a choice motivated more by her passion for language, by the search for new modes of expression. “There are certain things I’d rather write in English, certain others I’d rather write in Turkish,” she explains. “English, to me, is a more mathematical language, it is the language of precision. It embodies an amazing vocabulary and if you are looking for the ‘precise word’, it is right out there. Turkish, to me, is more sentimental, more emotional.” English seems more suited for philosophy, analytical writing or humour, “but if I am writing on sorrow I’d rather use Turkish.”
This is something that nationalists fail to understand, she says. “It is always us versus them, this or that. Nationalists cannot understand that one can be multilingual, multicultural, cosmopolitan … without feeling obliged to make a choice between them once and for all.”
It is perhaps this instinct which lies at the heart of the wider conflicts taking place in contemporary Turkish society. An increasingly urban Turkey has seen a broad cultural renaissance over the last three decades, which has been consistently under-reported in the west. Voices in literature, academia and the arts have begun to examine subjects which have long been taboo, to raise questions about uncomfortable issues such as the role of women or the history of Turkey’s Armenian minority.
But as this cultural resurgence has gained strength it has been met by a nationalist reaction.
“On the one hand there are the ones who want Turkey to join the EU, democratise further and become an open society,” says Shafak, but on the other “are the ones who want to keep Turkey as an insular, xenophobic, nationalistic, enclosed society. And precisely because things are changing in the opposite direction, the panic and backlash produced by the latter group is becoming more visible and audible.”
There are those who think that the prosecutions of leading writers under Article 301 are a sign that nothing is changing in Turkey, but Shafak thinks it is just the opposite: “Article 301 is being used more and more against critical minds precisely because things have been changing very rapidly in Turkey. The bigger and deeper the social transformation, the more visible the discomfort of those who want to preserve the status quo and the louder the backlash coming from them.”
It’s a reaction which has already cast doubt on to Turkey’s accession into the EU. Earlier this month the European commissioner in charge of negotiations with Turkey urged the Turkish authorities to amend Article 301, reminding them that freedom of expression “constitutes the core of democracy” and is a “key principle” in determining a state’s eligibility to join the EU.
It is too early to say what effect the trial will have on Shafak. She is determined that it will not influence her writing. “Next time I start a novel, I do not want to have qualms, fearing this or that topic might cause me yet another trouble,” she says, adding that she is “much more daring” in her fiction than in her daily life: “While I am writing the urge to go on with the story outweighs any other concern that might cross my mind.”
A date for her trial has not yet been fixed. For the moment all she can do is wait.
· The Bastard of Istanbul will be published in the US by Viking/Penguin in 2007
· Elif Shafak’s The Gaze was published in the UK earlier this month by Marion Boyars at £9.99
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