• The Bastard of Istanbul, Vol 2

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    Editor’s Note: This is the second 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 middle section 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


    In our last round, there were more characters and themes to discuss than I knew what to do with. We circle back to many of these issues in Chapters 7 – 12.

    The Tools of Narrative, Past vs. the Present

    Throughout these chapters, issues of narrative are paramount – not just the act of storytelling but the how of storytelling. Each character seems intent on constructing her own story, one that exists outside of the cultural or familial norm. Auntie Banu relies on her djinn and coffee grounds. Auntie Feride has lost the plot entirely. When she was in her prime, Petite-Ma was punished for not relating to either the concubine or the professional comrade narratives about femininity. Asya relies on Nihilist constructs, shedding all trappings of her family and the past. Armanoush goes the opposite route, seeking her own story in the history of her culture.

    What do these different narrative paths say about the characters who rely on them? Are Armanoush and Asya’s approaches indicative of the cultures they represent – the Armenians vs. the Turks? How do these paths further conflict with the intellectuals during the violent scene at Café Kundera?

    Another compelling narrative choice: the story of Havhannes Stamboulian, who is himself writing a folk tale to reframe history.

    Why do you think Shafak chose to write this story within a story within a story? In choosing this narrative technique, how is this story both anchored to the past and entirely applicable to the present? What is the significance of the pomegranate both here and throughout the book?


    Ignorance Vs. Knowledge

    These different narrative approaches are closely tied to another big issue: ignorance versus knowledge. This is a very purposeful decision on Shafak’s part, given that to this day the Turkish government still does not acknowledge the Armenian Genocide. However, this illusion can’t be maintained when Armanoush tells the Kazancis the story of her ancestors. Says Auntie Banu later on when she is on her own:

    “‘Allah…Either grant me the bliss of the ignorant or give me the strength to bear the knowledge’” (Pg. 193).

    Asya reacts a little differently, fitting the genocide neatly into her negative views of the world. Yes, this happened; life is suffering. We can only enjoy the now.

    Is Asya’s worldview a form of willful ignorance, too? What do you think of these two very different paths and their effects on the way these characters operate in the world at large? How will this issue come to a head as the stakes raise?


    Conceptions of Womanhood

    As in the last section, conceptions of womanhood are very important here, from Petite-Ma up to Asya. Zeliha has a particularly poignant moment where she wishes she could tell Asya she should be thankful for her homely looks as it will keep her well-liked by women and safe from men. This, coming from a woman who has either been abandoned by men or has willingly eschewed them, whose version of womanhood is a disgrace to her family. And yet, none of the other women live with husbands, and few fit any culturally normative version of womanhood.

    In what ways have the women in this book suffered from their non-normative (Zeliha, Asya, etc.) or normative (Granny Gulsum) choices? What does it say about Zeliha’s vulnerabilities, experiences and views about the ways of the world that she wishes to shield her daughter from the way it works?

    Any other thoughts? There’s so much to cover here and we could have gone in a million different directions. Feel free to propose any others!


    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

    There is certainly a lot to deal with here. Thanks for raising these thought-provoking issues, Leah! Re: past vs. present, I now fear that I misread the previous section. I’m not sure anymore that Armanoush has, in fact, traveled to Istanbul to discover her past. I’m now thinking that she’s done so to decide whether or not that past is worth discovering. Not worth discovering exactly; more like how relevant that past is to the present, if at all. Do we remember (Armenians) or do we forget (Turks)? Is it even fair to say that the Turks have forgotten? Can… Read more »

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