Author Faces Trial for 'Insulting Turkishness'

Turkish writer Elif Shafak has been charged with "insulting Turkishness" in her new novel, The Bastard of Istanbul. Shafak filed a piece for us last year from Istanbul. Scott Simon talks to Shafak about her current legal troubles.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

In her new novel, The Bastard of Istanbul, author Elif Shafak writes about two families, one Turkish, living in Istanbul, and the other Armenian, living in California. An Armenian character hears that a family member will marry a Turk and says, Only a handful of Turks come from Central Asia, right? Then the next thing you know, they're everywhere. What happened to the millions of Armenians who are already there, assimilated, massacred, orphaned, deported, and then forgotten? How can you give your flesh and blood daughter to those who are responsible for our being so few, and in so much pain today?

For those words and more, Ms. Shafak, who is a Turk, faces three years in prison under that nation's Article 301 for insulting Turkishness. Now, Ms. Shafak has been on our show before. She filed a story last year that took us on a journey down an Istanbul street where she once lived. Ms. Shafak also teaches Near East Studies at the University of Arizona. She commutes back and forth between Turkey and Arizona. She joins us now from Istanbul.

Ms. Shafak, thanks very much for being with us.

Professor ELIF SHAFAK (Author, The Bastard of Istanbul): Thank you for having me.

SIMON: And please tell us the legal side first. I gather that the charges were first rejected by a lower court. Then what happened?

Prof. SHAFAK: First, the prosecutors interrogated me and my Turkish publisher. At the end of that process, the prosecutor decided there would be no need for a trial. And we were all relieved because we thought the case had been dropped.

SIMON: Yeah.

Prof. SHAFAK: But it turns out, when they heard the prosecutor's decision, these ultranationalist lawyers, they took the complaint to a higher court and somehow eventually they managed to have the prosecutor's decision repealed. So we went back to square one, may be to an even worse point, in sense that trial was automatically initiated. And right now we are waiting to hear the dates of the hearings. There will be several hearings. It will be a long legal battle from now on.

SIMON: Of course, very famously, last year another famous Turkish novelist, Orhan Pamuk, was brought up on charges of Article 301, and then eventually the government got rid of the case. There was a lot international outcry. Is that the best you can hope for in this situation? Do you want to go to trial?

Prof. SHAFAK: I'm hoping, you know, a similar outcome will take place. I'm hoping that the case will be dropped eventually. But what is frustrating is, as you walk in and out of the court, usually there's a bunch of ultra-nationalists tramping outside.

SIMON: Mm hmm.

Prof. SHAFAK: (Unintelligible) very, very aggressive, so that process is also a bit unnerving for me. Just this week we had a negative conviction under Article 301.

SIMON: Mm hmm.

Prof. SHAFAK: The editor-in-chief of the Armenian newspaper, (unintelligible) conviction was verified by the higher court. So that was an unexpected development. There are several intellectuals going through this process, unfortunately.

SIMON: Mm hmm. And it has been reported in the press - I'm not breaking a news story here - that you're also expecting a child soon.

Prof. SHAFAK: That is correct, yes.

SIMON: If you're amenable to the question, where would you like your child to be born?

Prof. SHAFAK: Originally, I was planning to come back to the States. But under these circumstances, it would be more difficult for me to travel. So I decided to stay in Istanbul. But I'm fine with that. I mean, as long as the child is healthy, that's fine. I am not complaining about that.

SIMON: Ms. Shafak, has your novel appeared in Turkey yet?

Prof. SHAFAK: Yes. And my experience has been quite positive, ever since the day the book came out. I have been giving readings all over Turkey from the Diyarbakir to Isnis. The book sold more than 50,000 copies. And it became a bestseller for three months. So the general reception of the book was quite positive, both in the media and in the civil society.

That said, I did also receive some hateful messages, some poisonous letters and reactions. And, interestingly, most of them came from the Turks living in the States. I sometimes tend to think the Turks living abroad tend to be more conservative, sometimes more nationalist, than the Turks in Turkey.

But other than that, my experience with the society in Turkey has been quite positive, actually. That's why I think what's going on right now is a backlash.

SIMON: Is a backlash to the success of the book?

Prof. SHAFAK: It is a backlash in a more general sense, as well. I think in Turkey there's a clash of opinions. On the one hand are the people who are much more cosmopolitan minded, much more multi-cultural, who want to keep Turkey as an open society, who very much wholeheartedly support the E.U. process. But on the other hand are the people who want to maintain Turkey as an enclosed society, more xenophobic, more nationalist, more insular. So there's a clash of opinions between these two sides.

SIMON: Ms. Shafak's current novel is The Bastard of Istanbul.

Elif Shafak, thank you very much.

Prof. SHAFAK: Thank you. I appreciate it.

Our conversation with the past has been broken. But our history, our stories lie here in the layers just beneath our feet. As a storyteller, it is my job to collect them. Sometimes I liken my writings to walking on a pile of rubble. Atop the pile, I stop and listen for the sounds of breathing amid the stones. Look to the stories beneath your feet.

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Scott Simon.

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