Anglo-Turkish author Elif Shafak has been investigated and vilified for previous novels she has penned. Picture: GETTY IMAGES
Anglo-Turkish author Elif Shafak has been investigated and vilified for previous novels she has penned. Picture: GETTY IMAGES

Tequila Leila is a character in a novel, an imagined girl from a conservative family in eastern Turkey who escapes the tyranny of her family only to lose herself to the sordid world of Istanbul prostitution.

Don’t be surprised if, one day, Leila is brought to life and put on trial by the Turkish authorities. In Turkey’s assault on freedom of thought, fiction and reality can overlap at times to produce surreal outcomes.

Tequila Leila is the heroine in Shafak’s latest novel, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World, a rich, sensitive tale of the life, loves and friendships of a prostitute found dead in an Istanbul dumpster (this is revealed in the first pages, so no spoilers there). Like many writings by the award-winning British-Turkish author, the storyline weaves the struggles of modern Turkey into the author’s recurring themes of gender inequality and sexual harassment.

While reading the book at the weekend, I learnt that Shafak was being investigated for writing about sexual violence in an earlier work, The Gaze, a wacky story of love between an obese woman and a dwarf.

Back in 2006, the author landed in court over her bestselling novel The Bastard of Istanbul, which delved into the mass killings of Armenians in World War 1. Turkey has long denied the killings were a genocide.

She was acquitted (and the penal code on which her case was based has been amended since, though not sufficiently). But she had to listen to people she had made up in her book being quoted in court. “My Turkish lawyer had to defend my Armenian fictional characters,” she tells me when I call her to ask about the case.

There is no suggestion that her most recent novel will face an official probe — at least not yet. But 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World is already being attacked by (apparently organised) trolls and bots. All the messages accuse the writer of indecency and obscenity.

“Writing fiction is hard in Turkey. But this level of hysteria is new because it is a combination of undemocratic laws and the dark side of social media,” Shafak laments.

Hers is by no means a unique case. Turkish right-wing nationalists have been harassing fiction writers for decades. In 2006, they took aim at Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s most celebrated novelist. He was accused of “insulting Turkishness” in a newspaper interview in which he spoke of the 1-million Armenians who died in the war.

The climate has darkened further with the creeping authoritarianism and increasing intolerance of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the conservative Turkish president who has dominated the country’s political scene since 2002.

Government loyalists launch vicious attacks in mainstream and social media against authors, lately targeting those who write about sexual abuse and child abuse. In May, novelist Abdullah Sevki was briefly arrested for his graphic depiction of a paedophile sex abuse scene. He is now under investigation.

The tragedy of Turkey, says Shafak, is that writers who highlight a problem themselves become the problem. Sadly, she tells me, the Turkish government’s emphasis on morality is obscuring rampant sexual harassment and child abuse.

According to Turkish government data, there were more than 23,000 court rulings in child sexual abuse cases last year, a threefold increase over 2005, though the peak year was in 2014. It’s not clear, however, whether more cases are being brought to court or if many still go unreported. Child marriage, meanwhile, remains a problem, particularly in the impoverished east of the country and among the millions of Syrian refugees who now live in Turkey.

Whatever the scope of abuse, depicting it in fiction, as some writers with a wide following in Turkey do, should, in theory, help raise awareness rather than provoke retaliation.

“Literature creates empathy and connects people. In my work I tell stories of victims through their eyes and try to give the disempowered a voice,” says Shafak. “What writers are getting today is a social lynching.” Those who pluck sentences from books and attack novelists “don’t understand novels as art or fiction, nor do they read fiction”.

© The Financial Times 2019 

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