• The Bastard of Istanbul, Vol 1

    Posted Posted by Guest Writer in WBN News & Events     Comments 5 comments
    Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of our discussion of March’s Book Club selection, Elif Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul.
    If you’re not yet a book club member and would like to be, it’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon. Simply use the comments section below to express interest and join us on our next adventure.
    And now, Leah Kaminsky’s thoughts on the beginning of The Bastard of Istanbul. In your comments, feel free to respond to the questions Leah poses, or raise new talking points and questions to toss around. And don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of followup comments via e-mail” box below to stay engaged with the conversation. DD

    I’ll come clean right here: if you give me a voice that’s rich, warm, honest, funny, intelligent and complex, the rest of the book could be about tap dancing elephants for all I care. Just as long as I get more of that voice.

    And that’s just what we get as the book opens with two of what will be many main characters: Zeliha and Istanbul, and the parallels between them are many. As Zeliha runs and curses and dodges leering men, Istanbul rains and honks and bangs. There is so much life in both characters – filthy, humbling, glorious life. I especially love the contrast in Zeliha, who is at once a strong, opinionated woman, doing it on her own, and heartbreakingly vulnerable. I couldn’t help but wonder: how much is Zeliha’s personality shaped by Istanbul? Would she feel the need to be so fiercely different in a culture with a different relationship to sexuality – say one that didn’t require a “Golden Rule of Prudence for an Istanbulite Woman?” Or is it naïve to think a woman doesn’t operate in much the same way running through NYC? Did you see Istanbul as a character in its own right?

    And then we get the big reveal: Zeliha is going (and then not going) for an abortion. How does this new knowledge change our perceptions of Zeliha and her experiences in the world? Or does it?

    We move quickly from this scene to Zeliha’s home, where it’s holy freaking character overload. So far Shafak is navigating deftly between all of these characters, but would it kill her to throw a gal a family tree?

    Under the Kazanci roof we see yet another reflection of Istanbul: many different personalities, cultures and views forced to coexist in a very small space. My main questions here: Whose story is this? Does it matter? Can a story belong to a whole family or culture? How do our views of Zeliha again change as she’s placed in this larger context?

    In Chapter 2, we move to an American supermarket where a woman named Rose runs into and subsequently stalks Mustafa, the Kazanci’s golden son sent to study abroad. What I noticed here was the stark contrast in the description of food. In both cultures we get a plethora, but Rose’s choices are stubbornly and proudly American.

    What was your take on Rose’s rebellion against her former husband’s culture, food- or otherwise? How will Mustafa’s tortured relationship with women affect their relationship? Does Rose’s lack of family – so glaring next to the Kazancis – say something bigger about American culture?

    In Chapter 3, Rose’s relationship with a Turk has had the desired effect of angering her husband’s family, the Tchakhmakhchians. Funny, because they seem very much like the Kazancis, even though they’re Armenian. What do you think that’s saying? Sure enough, here we begin to see the real tensions that exist between these communities. How do you think this will affect Armanoush as these two cultures try to claim her? Will she be a path toward armistice or a flash point forever? Why do you think this claiming is so important for the Armenians?

    In Chapter 4, we’re really jumping through time, getting to meet The Bastard of Istanbul, Asya, who is turning eighteen. In this chapter, the focus seems to be on Asya’s experiences growing up in a household full of women. How do you think this has affected Aya’s views on the world? What is Shafak trying to say by so purposely removing men? And if Zeliha is Asya’s “auntie,” does Asya lack a mother as well as a father? Or does she have more mothers than she can handle? Are any of these things what cause her to attempt suicide?

    In Chapter 5, we go with Asya to meet Istanbul’s intellectual elite. Here we have a fascinating introduction into the many layers of Istanbulite society. Every person represents a different cross section, from the Nonnationalist Scenarist of Ultranationalist Movies to the Dipsomatic Cartoonist. By giving the characters these hilarious and apt titles, is Shafak intending to enact a microcosm in which Turkey’s larger political and social battles can be fought? Or, since they care little about joining the EU and “making profits, buying stocks” (Pg. 82) like the rest of the country, are they outside of it? Why is this group so compelling to Asya? Are there any parallels between her and Zeliha?

    In Chapter 6, we get to see Armanoush all grown up too, caught in a similar position as Asya but handling it in a much different way. She seems to have a lot less anger than Asya, yet it’s clear even within her empathy with all of her relatives she’s seeking to find her own way. Is this why Armanoush turns first to books and the chat room, and then to Istanbul itself?

    Here we are also introduced to Baron Baghdassarian, who tells us all about the Janissary Paradox, which seems pretty key to understanding this book: “Will you abandon your community to make peace with the Turks and let them whitewash the past so that, as they say, we can all move forward?” (Pg. 114). In your opinion, how has the Janissary Paradox applied to these characters’ lives so far? How do you think it will do so in the future? What is its importance, both personally and on a larger political level?

    Clearly, there’s a ton going on in this book. I recommend reading the Wikipedia pages for both Shafak and the Armenian genocide for more context. Hint: Shafak faced charges of “Insulting Turkishness” for writing this book. Seems important…


    Leah Kaminsky is a short story and freelance writer originally from Ithaca, NY. She received her MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Washington in 2009. She has placed three times in Glimmer Train top 25 lists and was nominated for inclusion in Best New American Voices, 2008. Her work has appeared on the Rumpus, Pindeldyboz, The Yellow Ham and her mother’s fridge right next to that picture of bath time circa 1987. She is a big fan and producer of short-shorts and comics, which she posts semi-regularly on her website, leahkaminsky.wordpress.com. She is in the midst of launching Just Start Applications, a business, college and graduate school consultancy, located in Texas and Virginia and operating mostly online.

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    Justine Tal Goldberg

    Re: “Did you see Istanbul as a character in its own right?” I very much did–and do. It feels like a ticking time bomb, much like Zeliha herself. Which is why the sudden jumps in perspective and time threw me at first. Now Rose is the time bomb, now Asya, now Armanoush (although she’s less threatening somehow). It felt like a game of hot potato. As the stories begin to merge, though, I’m seeing the purposefulness of the structure more clearly.

    More later!

    Leah Kaminsky

    I love that – ticking time bomb hot potato. I found the sudden jumps in perspective jarring at first, too, particularly because I really liked Zeliha and just thought it was going to be a different kind of story. But I do think there’s something larger at work and was willing to embrace it. Just had to be willing as a reader to let her take me on this strange narrative journey.

    Justine Tal Goldberg

    Okay, I’m back. Re: “How does this new knowledge change our perceptions of Zeliha and her experiences in the world? Or does it?” For me, it doesn’t. A woman’s decision-making process surrounding abortion is such a common storyline, there’s little left to explore. I’m not saying that it’s not a worthwhile exploration, just that it’s familiar and Shafak seems to know that because she doesn’t harp on the issue. Re: “Whose story is this? Does it matter? Can a story belong to a whole family or culture? How do our views of Zeliha again change as she’s placed in this… Read more »

    Leah Kaminsky

    ” Even the narrative of a shared evening around the dinner table would be unrecognizable as a shared experience.” True. And this is almost what Shafak does with the narrative, just moving one scene ahead rather than rehashing the same moment. I love that. “This story belonging to a whole culture, though, feels on point. What is Armanoush doing in Istanbul if not attempting to gain access to an opposing culture’s story in an effort to more fully understand her own?” Definitely. I guess that raises the question of how you build your own story. Must you stick to the… Read more »

    Jose Skinner

    I’m having to sit out this book, but it sounds pretty interesting, especially in view of current political situation in Turkey, which seems to be lurching away from secularism, but then again maybe not… all up in the air…

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