By Rachel Potter
It is ironic that Elif Şhafak’s fiction has been targeted by the Turkish authorities twice, but for entirely different reasons. In 2006, she was taken to court by a Turkish lawyer for insulting Turkishness in her novel, The Bastard of Istanbul because it refers to the First World War Armenian massacre as a genocide.
This is a criminal act under Article 301 of the Turkish penal code, which prohibits the ‘public denigration’ of Turkishness, the Turkish Republic, the Grand National Assembly, the government, judiciary, military and security services’. The terms of the law are extremely broad, and hundreds of writers and journalists have been targeted under its terms.
Last week, she was investigated by a prosecutor for a very different crime; the fictional representation of sexual violence and child abuse in her novels The Gaze (1999) and Three Daughters of Eve (2016). It is not just the legal authorities who are after Şhafak. She has been attacked on social media for her latest novel, 10 Minutes, 38 Seconds (2019) which depicts the final moments in the life of a murdered sex worker.
As she put it, she is ‘dealing with thousands of bots and trolls’. The criticisms of her fictional representations of sexual violence are part of a much broader recent clamp-down on Turkish writers. Ayşe Kulin has been subject to widespread online abuse for her fictional depiction of sexual scenes. Novelist Abdullah Şevki has been arrested because his first-person representation of sexual assault on a child has been deemed to be, in itself, a form of ‘child abuse’. As Şhafak said to The Guardian of the Turkish authorities ‘This is a very new focus for them.’
Since its inception in 1923 the Turkish Republic has strongly policed its writers. Its penal code, taken from Mussolini’s Italy, put serious curbs on freedom of expression. Turkish writers have often refused to be silenced, and many of them have struggled against censorship. The modernist poet Nâzim Hikmet spent much of his adult life in prison and died in exile. Novelist Yaşhar Kemal, Turkey’s most famous writer in the 1950s and 1960s, was harassed and prosecuted. Orhan Pamuk, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, was sued by Kemal Keriçsiz in 2005 for insulting Turkishness by mentioning the Armenian genocide.
In the early 2000s, Turkey was in talks with the European Union about its possible entry into the EU, and the long conflict with Kurdish separatists seemed to be finished. A new generation of Turkish writers, including Latife Tekin, Asli Erdoğan, Perihan Mağden and Elif Şhafak, mined Turkey’s cultural history by mixing Turkish and Ottoman traditions with European forms. With the declaration of the state of emergency after the attempted coup in July 2016 and the rule by executive decree that followed the position of writers and journalists in Turkey has become even more perilous. Over 150 journalists and writers are in prison and more than 180 media outlets and publishing houses have been closed down.
When I spoke to Şhafak in 2017 about her experiences of censorship she talked about Turkey’s cosmopolitan history, and the modern-day battle between nationalist and cosmopolitan visions of Turkish identity. She described the role of literary censorship in Turkey’s governmental imposition of a one-dimensional form of national identity on its people.
The recent targeting of the fictional depiction of sexual violence has moved the goal posts; from the prohibition of references to events in Turkey’s modern history, to a ban on depictions of sexual violence and paedophilia. While the objects of attack are different, both involve the representation of Turkish identity, whether national, familial or sexual. The view of fiction is also similar. Fiction is seen as that which enacts or brings into being the thing or activity it represents. Literature, on this view, has the power to undermine Turkish identity, and the representation of sexual assault is itself a form of ‘child abuse’. Şhafak sees it from the opposite way round; that the attack on fictional representations of sexual violence diverts attention from the rising incidents of sexual violence against children in Turkey.
International PEN has long defended writers’ rights in Turkey, attacking anti-terrorism legislation, criminal defamation and the law prohibiting insulting Turkishness. It monitors ongoing criminal trials, including against novelist Ahmet Altan and his brother Mehmet Altan, as well as the group Academics for Peace. Responding to the recent attacks on Turkish writers who depict sexual violence, English PEN director Antonia Byatt said that ‘Freedom of expression in Turkey is increasingly under serious threat’.
Many writers who have spoken out against Government censorship have talked of the fragility or ‘paranoia’, as J. M. Coetzee put it in an important essay, of heavily prohibitive nation States. The paranoid state, as Coetzee also insightfully pointed out, induces watchfulness and mutual suspicion, encouraging the breakdown of ‘human sympathy and trust between people’.
The attack on Turkish writers is being undertaken both by legal authorities within Turkey, and, in the cases of Kulin and of Şhafak who lives in London, by hate mail via social media. Both have the power to have a chilling effect on expression. At the moment online censorious hate speech has an enormous power to violate the private sphere.
It seems unlikely that Şhafak, who, along with PEN, has long campaigned for writers’ rights to free expression as well as minority rights and rights for women, will allow such attacks to change her own forthright views and expressions on the subject of violence against women and children. Nevertheless, we must acknowledge the power of this violation, in limiting, distorting or forcefully politicising expression.
The fact that Şhafak has been targeted twice and for different reasons is a revealing one. It invites us to look beyond the particular reasons given for censorship and see the wider pattern. The targeting also has paradoxical effects. While it seeks to silence the literary depiction of sexual violence, it serves to highlight the fact of sexual violence. And while it aims to suppress writers it also effectively gives to literature a forceful power to insult and undermine the Turkish State.