The Bastard of Istanbul, a novel by Elif Shafak (Viking 2007)
“My family is a bunch of clean freaks. Brushing away the dirt and dust of the memories! They always talk about the past, but it is a cleansed version of the past,” (147) complains Asya Kazanci, the nineteen year old rebellious daughter and youngest member of her extended family of women that lives together in Istanbul. The three generations of Turkish women are at the center or The Bastard of Istanbul, a novel by Elif Shafak. Asya is the bastard of the title, daughter of Zeliha who owns a tattoo parlor, and niece to three eccentric aunts. Across the world in San Francisco, in an extended Armenian-American family, an aunt declares, referring to a relative who is dating a Turk, “In an ideal world, you could say, well, that’s her life, none of our business. If you have no appreciation of history and ancestry, no memory and responsibility, and if you live solely in the present, you certainly can claim that.” (55) The Bastard of Istanbul is about the Turkish denial of the Armenian holocaust, but it is also about the role of memory and denial within families, cultures and countries. If the Turks are as guilty of “brushing away the dirt and dust of memories” as Asya claims her family is, then the book seems to suggest that Armenians cannot escape their memories and how can the two cultures ever reconcile, acknowledge or forgive their shared history?
When the library book group discussed the book on Tuesday night, everyone said they enjoyed reading the book which, despite its serious themes, can be quite funny at times. Shafak, a Turkish author, was famously accused under Turkish law of being un-Turkish because of her writing, as has Turkish author and Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk. Shafak’s book reveals Istanbul as a beautiful, progressive city and the Turks as a unique mixture of East and West, European and Middle-Eastern, traditional and modern. The book presents no resolution to the problem of Armenian and Turkish animosities past and present, but the book makes a beautiful attempt at addressing the issues and introducing readers to Istanbul and Turkish culture.