The Bastard of Istanbul

I came across several used copies of The Bastard of Istanbul (2006) by Elif Shafak in quick succession, and, because her 2010 The Forty Rules of Love was one of my favorites when I read it in 2017, I knew that I had to read it and was really looking forward to the experience. It was quite controversial when it was published–the author was charged with “denigrating Turkishness” by a Turkish court because of comments a character in the book made about the Armenian genocide.

Unfortunately, Bastard fell far short of my expectations, although there were aspects of it that I appreciated. Overall, it is so full of anti-fat bias, descriptions of characters’ bodies as fat or thin, and discussions of how they should be dieting or are unhappy with their bodies, as to be nearly unreadable for me.

The story centers on two families–one Turkish, living in Istanbul–a multi-generational family of all women–the Kazanci mother, four sisters, and one young adult granddaughter, Asya, the “bastard” of the title. There was one son, but the men in the family are cursed (they all died young), so they sent him to America to keep him safe. The other family is Armenian, living in San Francisco, also multi-generational, the young adult granddaughter, Armanoush, living part-time with her father, and the other half of the year in Phoenix, Arizona, with her mother, Rose, and her stepfather, Mustafa. Mustafa is the only son of the Kazanci family and hasn’t been home in twenty years.

Armanoush, in the headstrong ways of teenagers, decides to travel to Istanbul during spring break, telling her mother she’s with her father and her father that she’s with her mother, but instead, goes to stay with her stepfather’s family. Armanoush and Asya are close to the same age, and Asya shows Armanoush the Istanbul that tourists don’t see.

I appreciated the coincidences that the books is based on, how thousands of individual choices shape a life and the lives beyond, and the exploration of sisters and the sisters’ individual characters. The author relied upon fabulism–on one of the sisters’ clairvoyance and interaction with djinn–genies, which I typically enjoy. The writing is beautiful and hooked me from the first sentences: “Whatever falls from the sky above, thou shall not curse it. That includes the rain. No matter what might pour down, no matter how heavy the cloudburst or how icy the sleet, you should never ever utter profanities against whatever the heavens might have in store for us. Everybody knows this.”

But I couldn’t enjoy the reading experience because the author used anti-fat bias often, throughout the book. While there are characters described as fat, their fatness is used to portray their unhappiness, or use of food as a substitute for love. Rose, Armanoush’s mother, who was married first to an Armenian man and then, to spite his family, to a Turkish man, is always on a diet and unhappy about her size, which is described as “volatile”. She’s an anxious, needy person. And the Kazanci sisters are various sizes, which they talk about openly in a way that most people think is normal, but what clearly indicates anti-fat bias and a desire to not become or be fat.

I would have loved to recommend it, but I cannot. I really wanted to love it as much as I loved The Forty Rules of Love, but the author ruined the story for me by tainting so many of the characters and their interactions on anti-fat bias.

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