The Turkish Government’s Relentless Campaign Against Author Elif Shafak

Every few days, a notification pings my phone: a fresh installment of Elif Shafak’s Substack. In one post, the Turkish British novelist recalls reading Don Quixote at age 11; in another, she offers a dispatch from New York, where she met the publishing team for her upcoming novel There Are Rivers in the Sky before delivering a talk at the United Nations on “dismantling stereotypes, breaking down prejudices and the power of storytelling.”

Shafak, who has lived in London since 2013, is a regular presence in British media outlets like The Guardian and the BBC. UK literary festivals host her talks year-round. She has shared a stage with former First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon in Edinburgh and appeared as a guest on Queen Camilla’s podcast.

This is not the reception Shafak receives in her home country. Over the past two decades, she has become one of Turkish literature’s most attacked authors. The campaign against her books began among the ranks of fringe nationalist groups. Since the mid-2010s, the attacks have grown: media and individuals associated with the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, have attempted to confiscate her books and denigrate her reputation. Even Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate in literature, who famously lives with a bodyguard, leads a peaceful life compared with her. 

A relentless campaign to tar Shafak’s name peaked earlier this year when an Istanbul court convicted her of plagiarism and ordered her to pay damages. The court ruled that Shafak’s 2002 novel The Flea Palace had lifted “five percent” of its content from Sinek Sarayı (The Palace of Flies), a 1990 novel by the Turkish writer Mine Kırıkkanat, in part because both books mention insects and palaces in their titles.

Writers have been imprisoned or exiled because of their opposition to Erdoğan.

If they lose their appeal, Shafak and her publisher Doğan Kitap will pay roughly $7,800 to Kırıkkanat. The greater damage would be to Shafak’s reputation. Remaining copies of The Flea Palace would be confiscated from bookstores and her publisher’s warehouses. Shafak would have to run an advertisement in one of the country’s biggest newspapers and confess to plagiarism.

Shafak’s case is part of a wider trend in President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s “new Turkey,” which has been marked by the arrests of academics and a systematic clampdown on press freedom. As Erdoğan has amassed greater powers, anti-Erdoğanism has become a tenet of Turkish public life. Many of these culture wars have played out in the literary world. Writers have been imprisoned or exiled because of their opposition to Erdoğan. Prominent cases have included the journalist Can Dündar, the poet İlhan Sami Çomak and the politician Selahattin Demirtaş who published two story collections and three novels behind bars. Erdoğan declared a state of emergency in 2016, days after warplanes bombed Turkish capital Ankara in a failed putsch that claimed 249 lives. In the year that followed the coup, more than 160 media outlets were shuttered.

Since the failed coup, the government has been keeping a close eye on writers and their opinions. Do they hold anti-Erdoğan views? Have they shown sympathy for liberal views at any point in their careers? Have they ever defended Turkey’s integration with the European Union or the decentralization of its political structure — ideas that the government now considers heinous? Do they express skepticism about state-sponsored versions of Turkish history? Such questions can define the reception and reputation of Turkish authors for good.

Shafak was born in Strasbourg in 1971, the daughter of an academic and an attaché who assisted diplomats at Turkish consulates in Spain, Jordan and Germany. After her parents divorced, Shafak felt alienated from her father and began using the pen-name Shafak because it was her mother’s first name.

During Shafak’s childhood, the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia staged attacks on representatives of the Turkish government. Shafak would later recall that as a child, she believed the word “Armenian” meant “a terrorist who wanted to kill my mother.” In her 20s, Shafak began to wonder, “Why did the Armenians hate us?” and saw how for many Turks, “the massacres, atrocities, and deportations that decimated Turkey’s Armenian population” were “not part of our common historical memory.”

Shafak started writing fiction at the age of 8. By the age of 34, she had published six books. Her work often takes on Turkish history in new or fantastical ways. Her 1994 debut, the short story collection Kem gözlere Anadolu (Anatolia to Evil Eyes), draws from Anatolia’s rich heterodox tradition of myths. Shafak’s fiction became more complex and fragmented with her next book, Pinhan (The mystic), from 1997. Its eponymous dervish, a hermaphrodite, tries to hide their identity while living in an Anatolian lodge. Shafak’s first book to be translated into English, The Gaze, came out in Turkey in 2000. The novel concerns an obese woman and her lover, a short man. They both despise being stared at in public. To confront the problem, they reverse their social roles; he wears makeup while she puts on a fake mustache. These early works showcase Shafak’s interest in Sufism, mysticism and gender, subjects long ignored in the history of republican Turkey.

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As she wrote, Shafak read about Ottoman and Turkish social history. She was drawn to the stories of minority groups. While teaching in Arizona in 2002, she became involved in a network of Armenian and Turkish intellectuals and attended workshops for reconciliation. She started to collect stories from “Armenian friends who were generous enough to entrust me with their family memories and secrets,” she would later recall.

A few years later, at an academic conference in Istanbul, Shafak presented a paper on Zabel Yesayan, the first Armenian woman to attend college in the Ottoman Empire. Born in Istanbul in 1878, Yesayan was acknowledged as the leading Armenian feminist voice of the Ottoman press. After witnessing the massacre of Armenians in the city of Adana, Turkey, in 1909, she chronicled the atrocity in her columns, evaded arrest on April 24, 1915 and escaped to Bulgaria. She died in exile in Siberia.

Shafak hoped the conference would be a step forward for “a thriving movement” in Turkish civil society toward reconciliation with Armenians. The dominant split in Turkish politics at the time was between the nationalist old guard and the reformers who considered Turkey’s membership to the European Union vital for its democratization. The newly elected AKP, co-founded by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, pledged to face Turkey’s autocratic political legacy and push it toward the future.

The Armenian conference, held at this critical political juncture, provoked controversy. Turkish nationalists feared that discussing the genocide would lead to reparations — something they said would force the seizure of property and wealth the Turkish bourgeoisie had amassed from exiled or murdered Armenians and Greeks. An Istanbul court said the conference might be “unfairly biased against Turkey” and ordered its cancellation. Erdoğan, who was then the prime minister, said the ruling wasn’t “compatible with democracy, freedoms and modernity.”

Shafak’s growing interest in the clash between Turkish republicanism and the customs and traditions that had come before increased suspicions among nationalist intellectuals that she had a problem with the Turkish Republic. Why did her novels contain arcane words rooted in Arabic and Persian? With her unorthodox linguistic choices, hadn’t she attacked father of modern Turkey Kemal Atatürk’s republican project of Westernizing the centuries-old Ottoman culture?

Around the same time, Shafak decided to write her new book in English. The Saint of Incipient Insanities, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2004, differs from her previous novels by setting the action outside of Turkey. The book’s characters are Omer, Abed and Piyu, friends in their 20s who arrive in Boston and live as roommates. For the first time in Shafak’s fiction, Istanbul appears as little more than backstory. For her critics, Shafak’s bilingual turn was further proof of her suspicious political agency.

Meanwhile, she continued to explore the legacy of Ottoman Armenians in The Bastard of Istanbul, her second novel to be written in English. In June 2006, the Beyoğlu Prosecutor’s Office in Istanbul opened a case against the novel for “denigrating Turkishness,” a crime that had been created just a year before through the Turkish Penal Code’s Article 301. By 2007, more than a thousand scholars, journalists and activists, were accused of breaking this law. Many of these court cases originated with Kemal Kerinçsiz, the leader of the Great Jurists Union, a small organization of nationalist lawyers. Kerinçsiz opened 40 Article 301 cases, including ones against the Turkish Nobel laureate Pamuk and the Turkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. Pamuk was acquitted; Dink was sentenced to six months in jail and later shot in the head by a 17-year-old Turkish ultranationalist in central Istanbul.

Now appointed to top positions in media funded by the AKP government, ultranationalists reheated their old arguments about Shafak “betraying the nation.”

Still, the Turkish government at the time seemed proud of Shafak’s achievements. Some AKP officials may have even hoped that her novels could change views about Turkey and Islam in the West. Shafak’s rise coincided with a period when the Turkish government was more actively looking to the EU, reforming its civil code and relaxing bans on Kurdish culture. Shafak and her novels celebrated the heterodox histories of Islamic culture. Her international fame accompanied growing hopes about Turkey’s successful intermingling of democracy, religion and capitalism.

By the early 2010s, magazines, newspapers and television networks were interviewing her with increasing frequency. She even appeared in a television commercial for the official credit card of Turkish Airlines. Shot in London, the ad shows the novelist reminiscing about her life and her refusal to please those who said she was flying too high with her bilingualism. At the end of the commercial, a voice-over praises Shafak’s ability to “fly higher than anyone else.”

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