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The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak

Updated: Nov 21, 2022

‘ “Where are you from?” Elif Shafak asked herself in a 2020 Vanity Fair article. “I am from multiple places. I come from memories and forgettings, from stories and silences, from various countries and cultures, but also their ruins.” ’[i]

Shafak is usually described as a Turkish/British writer, obscuring her birth in France and large parts of her childhood spent in Spain and the United States. What is not obscure is that for one of the main characters in The Bastard of Istanbul, Asya Kazanci, Istanbul is the place where she grows through the intensity of adolescence and along with that intensity absorbs her home-town into her being.

I say one of the main characters because at the heart of this book are two main characters, Asya and Armanoush, one Turkish, the other Armenian. There are also a wealth of other people, Turkish aunts, Turkish intellectuals, Armenian aunts and uncles, Armenian ancestors and American parents, not to mention a cyber-world.

One of the ways Shafak keeps you grounded is through food.

‘ “ But honey you are just nibbling like a bird. Don’t tell me you are not even going to taste my manti?” Auntie Varsenig wailed with a scoop in her hand and such severe dismay in her dark brown eyes that it made Armanoush wonder if something far more life-and-death than a bowl of manti was concerned.’

Shafak also uses food to bind the story together. Each chapter is named for a food. Turkish and Armenian food is the same food, it even has the same names. This when the American-Armenian Armanoush first meets her step-father’s family in Istanbul:

‘ “ These are all my favorite foods. I see you have made hummus, baba ganoush, yalanci sarma… and look at this, you have baked churek!”

“Aaaah, do you speak Turkish!” Auntie Banu exclaimed, flabbergasted as she walked back in with a steaming pot in her hands.’

“ No, no, I do not speak the Turkish language, unfortunately, but I guess I speak the Turkish cuisine.”

The mystery of Asya’s birth is the spine of the plot. She is the ‘bastard’ of the title. The story of Armanoush’s family is its ribs. The four Turkish aunts react with disbelief and horror to Armanoush’s version of their history, but, interestingly, the reaction is to history, not to her. Only Aunt Banu, the soothsayer who has captured two djinns, one perched on each shoulder, has a direct and terrible insight into the truth.

In 2006 Elif Shafak faced prosecution in Turkey for ‘insulting Turkishness’, because The Bastard of Istanbul talked about the Armenian genocide. The charges were dropped, but she moved to London, UK.

In 2019 she was once again under investigation in Turkey for the representation of sexual violence and child abuse in later novels.

If you like an intense relationship to place, a host of engaging characters, a flirtation with magic, a window into history and culture, or even precocious adolescents, The Bastard of Istanbul is for you.

Manti: meat filled dumplings with a yoghurt and garlic sauce

Yalanci Sarma: vine leaves stuffed with a vegetable and rice filling

Churek: a flat-bread with sesame seeds

[i] Elif Shafak, Perpetual Motion, Vanity Fair 2020

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