Yeah, we should all line up along the Bosphorus Bridge and puff as hard as we can to shove this city in the direction of the West. If that doesn’t work, we’ll try the other way, see if we can veer to the East. It’s no good to be in between. International politics does not appreciate ambiguity.

AMMAN – Elif Shafak‘s The Bastard of Istanbul is one of the books that have made me question my position in the world. From the moment I started reading the book, showers of questions poured on me, drenching my feet with a water pool underneath. I could not walk out of this reading experience the same as I had entered it. The novel raises inescapable questions which are reinforced with the confusing net of relationships between the characters. It makes one swirl in an endless loop, only stopping at a different point each time.

Turkish-British writer, storyteller, essayist, academic, public speaker and women’s rights activist Elif Shafak. image courtesy of the author’s website

Set between Istanbul and Armenian diaspora in the United States, the plot mainly shifts among the lives of women, each fighting her own battles, trying to find herself an identity in a ‘modern’ world where traditions are collapsing.

The novel continuously builds binarisms which bump into each other like opposing magnets, but remain faithful to the same gravity after all!

The story begins with Zeliha, a Turkish woman who does all things possible so she would remain uncategorized. Her continuous opposition to traditions, especially when these come to men, made me wonder several times: ‘why is she so aggressive?’. It was not until later in the plot that I could empathize with her and understand her viewpoint. Without a past of suffering, she would not be who she has become. Yet, how much does the past matter now? Would there be a ‘present’ without it? This is a question that kept popping up in my head all through the novel, especially when I encountered Zeliha‘s daughter, Asya who claims to be a nihilist. If the present is all that matters, then how much should we give in to it before it becomes the past?

On the other hand, the Armenian adolescent Armanoush and before her, her grandmother Shushan, captivated my heart with their search for their cultural identity and a sense of ‘home’. Armanoush is torn between her American mother and her Armenian father whose family have always rejected her divorced mother as an ‘other’. She decides to go to Istanbul and search for her family’s history so she would know about her heritage and identity. Ironically, Armanoush‘s quest ends up uncovering facts about the past that makes it incredibly significant in creating distinctions between her nation and the Turks, yet simultaneously significant in creating bonds that draws them nearer.

The Bastard of Istanbul made me understand what it is to be an ‘other’ as it presents a multitude of ways in which one can be marginalized. Through this novel, I could walk in the feet of a single mother who suffers the abandonment of a patriarchal society and through the feet of a fatherless child who chooses nihilism as a way out. It made me empathize with criminals who have become so because of parental abuse and rough upbringings. I could even empathize with a racist family who has become so in reaction to a genocide which scattered the reminiscences of a nation across the globe. I could empathize with a victim of both war and diaspora who chose her cultural identity over her husband and son. I now know what it means to be a ‘bastard’.

Thanks to Elif Shafak, I can now imagine how it feels to lose the distinction between past and present and between cause and effect. Whether we admit it or not, the past’s power in creating and breaking us is inevitable. Unfortunately, in a rapidly changing world and among politicized cultures, we all become bastards in a way or another.

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Image courtesy indicated in captions.