A Magical Read

UA Professor Elif Shafak's controversial novel is political, ironic and incredibly smart

Clairvoyant Auntie Banu, in Elif Shafak's imaginative, political Armenian-American and Turkish family tale, carries a spiritual adviser on each shoulder. On her right floats djinn Mrs. Sweet. On her left sits old, unforgiving Mr. Bitter. They're useful for assisting clients, finding lost documents or revealing sources of vicious spells. They can also reveal real, personal truths.

But their power doesn't come without accountability. If Auntie Banu wants knowledge, she must pay. She has to--you've got it--take the Bitter with the Sweet.

For UA Near Eastern Studies Professor Shafak to tell this tale (right shoulder), she risked the ire of the Turkish nationalist government (that would be the left).

The Bastard of Istanbul opens in 1980s Istanbul. One ticked-off 19-year-old--caught in a sudden rainstorm, late for an appointment, harassed by men on the street, her high heel snapped on muddy cobblestones, swearing at a taxi driver--does some quick shopping, and then insults a waiting room of potential mothers by announcing loudly that she's there for "an abortion. " But even morphine can't shut her up. The fetus stays. Her anger's unabated.

The next chapter opens in 1980s Tucson with another angry young woman. Her baby in a Jeep in a Fry's parking lot, acting out the frustration of her dissolved marriage to an Armenian American with junk food and binge baby-supply buying, she runs into the perfect revenge: a university student from Turkey, newly arrived and lonely. Nothing could exact more appropriate revenge on her husband and his Turk-hating family than having their grandchild raised by a Turk. The Turk moves in. Her anger's assuaged. With that, Shafak has set up her two-family story.

Switch to today. The parking-lot baby--Armanoush (Americanized to "Amy" by her Kentucky-born mother)--is now a freshman at the UA. She has grown up shuttling between mother in Tucson and her father's large family in San Francisco. Unsettled with her own identity, smothered by both parents, when spring break rolls around, Armanoush decides to try to track down traces of her Armenian grandmother who'd been exiled from Istanbul. Though her stepfather has long been out of touch with his Istanbul family, Armanoush calls on them; they welcome her, and she meets her counterpart in the tale--Asya, daughter of ticked-off Zalika--the "bastard" of the title.

They will uncover "identity" together.

The core issue of this politics-tinged novel is the Armenian question. What happened to the Armenian minority in Turkey in 1915? Who was responsible for killings and deportations? How is the period represented in history: What's its effect on contemporary life?

It's clearly still raw. The charges against Shafak were eventually dropped, but she was accused of "anti-Turkishness" for the book last March, and she could have been imprisoned for three years.

But The Bastard of Istanbul--title aside--is hardly a political screed. Shafak draws Turkish and Armenian characters similarly enough and sympathetically enough to be family. Crediting her Armenian and Turkish grandmothers with the "ability to transcend boundaries," she honors the reconciling differences--male/female, East/West, sacred/secular, present/past--as a resonant theme throughout the novel.

The strength of this work derives from setting and character. Chaotic, colorful, dirty, crowded, Istanbul comes alive. Asya's all-female household (males die young in the Kazanci family) provides a lively tableau: Petite Ma is in her 80s ... and unmoored in time. Grandmother Gülsüm "could have been Attila the Hun in another life." Asya's four aunts (that includes her mother; Asya "auntified" her when she discovered illegitimacy) range from the scarlet-scarfed fortune-teller through a prim national history teacher, and a schizophrenic, to Zeliha, who runs a tattoo parlor. Only son Mustafa hasn't returned since he left for the University of Arizona 20 years before, so he hardly counts.

Shafak often portrays through detail. The characters of the two young women are reflected in their reading (Armanoush devours literary novels; Asya, philosophy). Their choice of friends colors the politics and social commentary. Asya hangs out with an indolent group of artists and intellectuals at the "Kudera." Armanoush's pals are her tight chat room of politically ardent Armenian Americans. It's their online chats, it seems, that inspired the charges of anti-Turkishness.

You've gotta roll your eyes. Shafak anti-Turk? She shows an abiding fondness for Istanbul, and appreciation of the rich cultural diversity of Turkey as an East-West fulcrum.

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