Title: The Bastard of Istanbul
Author: Elif Shafak
Publisher: Viking Adult
Page Count: 368
Publication Date: 2007
Category/Genre: Fiction, Contemporary Fiction, Historical Fiction. Turkish Literature
Good Reads Rating: ★★★★☆ (3.83)
My Rating: ★★★★☆(4.0)
From one of Turkey’s most acclaimed and outspoken writers, a novel about the tangled histories of two families.
In her second novel written in English, Elif Shafak confronts her country’s violent past in a vivid and colorful tale set in both Turkey and the United States. At its center is the “bastard” of the title, Asya, a nineteen-year-old woman who loves Johnny Cash and the French Existentialists, and the four sisters of the Kazanci family who all live together in an extended household in Istanbul: Zehila, the zestful, headstrong youngest sister who runs a tattoo parlor and is Asya’s mother; Banu, who has newly discovered herself as a clairvoyant; Cevriye, a widowed high school teacher; and Feride, a hypochondriac obsessed with impending disaster. Their one estranged brother lives in Arizona with his wife and her Armenian daughter, Armanoush. When Armanoush secretly flies to Istanbul in search of her identity, she finds the Kazanci sisters and becomes fast friends with Asya. A secret is uncovered that links the two families and ties them to the 1915 Armenian deportations and massacres. Full of vigorous, unforgettable female characters, The Bastard of Istanbul is a bold, powerful tale that will confirm Shafak as a rising star of international fiction
The Bastard of Istanbul follows two girls –one Turkish and one Armenian American– and their two families as their deep and emotional familial histories interweave.
19 year old Armanoush “Amy” Tchakhmakhchian lives a life with a foot in two different worlds. One is with her over-protective American mother and quiet Turkish step-father. The other foot is firmly set with her father Barsham’s large Armenian family.
Asya Kazanci is the 19 year old bastard daughter of Zeliha who is being raised by an eccentric group of aunts and grandmothers in Istanbul.
Struggling to understand herself and what it means to be Armenian, Amy decides to journey to Turkey where her grandmother’s family was forced to flee from during the 1915 deportation and massacre –and stay with her step-father’s family, the Kazanci’s.
This is a beautifully written tale of two families from opposing cultures and histories coming to terms with the past and what that means for their futures. Even more so, the book approaches Turkey’s dark spot on their history of the early 20th century genocide, a very delicate subject for a Turkish author to address. In fact, Elif Shafak was put on trial for “denigrating Turkishness” in this book. The charges were brought against her due to the words that some characters spoke.
Shafak makes an effort to show different arguments, as in, why the Turks are so ignorant of this history and why the Armenians are so stubborn to relive it.
“the past is anything but bygone.”
Being an expat in a country that is currently rebuilding and haunted by their own genocide narrative just 20 years ago, this really gave me a lot of insight into why not forgetting the past and preserving a culture is so important here. The characters and their viewpoints resonated with me personally and found myself asking a lot of questions such as how can two sides entrenched in such an ugly and horrific past reconcile, what are costs for either or both, is it even possible, and what would a future look like?
“The past lives within the present, and our ancestors breathe through our children.”
Politics, history, philosophy, religion, and the struggle for personal identity in relation to and against a collective group fill this novel to the brim. There’s a touch of magic realism and a light, airy atmosphere that is whimsy which serves well as a contrast to such a deep and dark topic.
The ending was unexpected, the final third brings the full view over the two families and the connection between their histories. It serves as a beautiful reminder of empathy, connection and differences in perception based on experience.