Novelist May Be Jailed for a Character’s Remarks
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Turkey’s government is making a second attempt to prosecute one of its leading authors after she allegedly “insulted Turkishness” with a comment made by a character in her latest novel, “The Bastards of Istanbul.”
Elif Shafak will appear in the country’s seventh high criminal court on charges of violating Article 301 of the Turkish Criminal Code, which prohibits the denigration of any aspect of Turkish culture. Ms. Shafak’s translator, Asli Biscan, and her publisher, Semi Sokemen, also face charges.
In June, similar charges against Ms. Shafak were dismissed after a public prosecutor argued that the book is a work of fiction and therefore does not represent the views of the author. But the decision was overruled by the high court after complaints from a group of right-wing lawyers, the Unity of Jurists.
Ms. Shafak and her publishers have said they are not sure which comment in the book is “anti-Turkish.” In an e-mail message to her agent in America, Marly Rusoff, the author suggested possible paragraphs that are being “particularly targeted by the ultranationalists.”(The book’s American publisher, Viking, forwarded the email to The New York Sun.)
• “I am the grandchild of genocide survivors who lost all their relatives to the hands of Turkish butchers in 1915, but I myself have been brainwashed to deny the genocide because I was raised by some Turk named Mustapha! What kind of joke is that?”
• “What happened to the millions of Armenians? Assimilated! Massacred! Orphaned! Deported! And then forgotten!”
• “Do you think they are going to say: oh yeah, we are sorry we massacred and deported you guys, and then contentedly denied it all?”
The passages refer to the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians by the Turkish government in 1915. The massacre is recognized as the first genocide of the 20th century, but in the last few decades the Turkish government has attempted to deny it ever took place. In May 2005, the Turkish justice minister, Cemil Cicek, labeled Turkish historians who have said the genocide occurred as “traitors.”
Ms. Shafak is not the first author to be prosecuted by the Turkish government for talking about the genocide. In January, author Orhan Pamuk was found not guilty of similar charges for comments he made to the press.
An artistic rights organization, PEN American Center, has defended Ms. Shafak and other authors. “It is very discouraging that she is being prosecuted again by the conservative members of the judiciary,” the director of PEN’s Freedom to Write program, Larry Siems, said. “Writers shouldn’t be held responsible for what their characters say and do.”
Mr. Siems added that underlying these sorts of trials is a political battle within the country over Turkey’s bid to join the European Union. “The ultranationalist faction is pressing for prosecution as a way of embarrassing Turkey in its bid to join the E.U.,” he said. “Cases like Shafak’s and Pamuk’s, involving internationally renowned authors, point to the fact that they are looking to get international headlines.”
The date for Ms. Shafak’s trial has not been set, but if convicted the author could be sentenced to up to three years in prison.No one has ever been convicted under Article 301, but Mr. Siems said Ms. Shafak faces a “long and trying” battle.
“The Bastard of Istanbul” confronts the genocide alongside the issue of feminism. It tells the story of an Istanbul-based family and an exiled Armenian family who discover that they share a secret that links them back to the 1915 genocide.
The novel, originally written in English, was a best seller on its release in Turkey in March. Viking is set to release the book in America in early 2007.