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Elif Shafak's The Bastard of Istanbul and the Question of Personal Identity

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Personal identity is a big deal, especially for a young girl in today’s society for everywhere we look, there are magazines, billboards, and people telling us what to wear, how to talk, and who to be. When I started reading ‘The Bastard of Istanbul’, I literally could not put it down. The combination of the two separate stories of two young women growing up on opposite sides of the planet in completely different cultures and what happens when they come together is not an uncommon plotline at least in American literature. Yet, the way Elif Shafak writes this story, it’s almost as if she take a regular mundane plotline and makes it entirely different with a whole new set of lessons to learn from the characters within the story. In ‘The Bastard of Istanbul’, both Armanoush and Asya are young women growing up in today’s society and struggling to feel confident in their identities and discover who they want to be in the world. Armanoush is growing up in Arizona, while Asya is from Turkey, both are entirely different young women, yet the same in many ways. When they meet, they have many adventures and with the help of one another dig up the past and find out who they want to be in the world and what kind of effect they want to have on the people around them. In the process, they end up creating a friendship that would last forever.

Armanoush is half Armenian and half American. Her mother, from Kentucky, is seemingly a die-hard patriot. She loves barbeques, the American flag, her home town, and doesn’t seem to want anything to do with her Armenian ex-husband and his culture. In fact, she goes so far as to not even call her daughter by her Armenian birth name, but instead, unofficially changes it to Amy. Her father’s older relatives are all survivors of the Armenian Genocide. So, the Armenian culture is very important to her father and his family. Armanoush feels caught in the middle because he mother is such a straight-forward American, and he father’s family is trying very hard to raise her up to be a good Armenian woman. When Armanoush was just a baby, though, her mother and father divorced and her mother re-married a Turkish man named Mustafa. This causes a lot of discontent on her dad’s side because most Armenians hate the Turkish from what they were put through a century ago. Since then Armanoush has been under even more constant pressure from both sides of her family. Her mother just wants her to be American. She wants her to eat normal, American food, answer her phone every minute, and stay away from her father’s side of the family. Or, at least not be influenced by them. Armanoush, however, is intreuiged by her heritage. As a huge bookworm, she spends most of her monthly savings on books. She was brought up to think that being a bookworm is not attractive to boys, But mostly, she knows that it upsets her mother, who thinks that she will never find a “moneyed husband” with her nose always in a book. Armanoush shows a lot of hatred toward her mother and is more keen to talk to her father’s side of the family since she wants to learn more about her past and heritage. She is beyond fascinated with the Armenian Genocide, and is even part of an online “café” and chat room under the name of “Madame My-Exiled-Soul”, where she talks to other Armenian-Americans just like her. She says to them:

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“For me to be able to become an Armenian American the way your guys are, I need to find my Armenianness first” (p. 119).

At that point, she realizes that she really wants to visit her step-father’s family in Turkey. So, shortly after, she leaves for Turkey to stay with her cousin Asya and her family in Istanbul in order to find out more about her heritage.

Asya on the other hand, is a completely different person. Born and raised in Istanbul by her single mother, Zeliha, Asya grew up in a household full of women. There was no confusion between cultures, so she is 100% Turkish, but she still feels out of place in her life. Her upbringing was clearly a lot different. Her family is that of upper middle class and the pressure to identify herself as a woman of her own country is tremendous. As if that wasn’t enough pressure, like many other upper and middle class families, Asya’s has forced her to partake in activities that she doesn’t particularly enjoy. One of those activities is ballet class, which Asya skips to go to her favorite café, Café Kundera. Through out the book, Asya struggles to discover who she is and where she belongs in the world. Of course, her struggles seem to be more complicated than her cousin Armanoush’s. Asya appears to be way more rebellious by comparison. At Café Kundera, Asya smokes pot and cigars and talks to older people about life, philosophy, and her favorite singer: Johnny Cash. She’s a rebel much like her mother was, but more miserable. She tears herself down on a regular basis and sleeps with men to gain a sense of reassurance. Her relationship with Dipsomaniac Cartoonist is an example. She wants the attention from an older man, but when he tells her that he is in love with her, she runs away. I believe that deep down under the layers of sadness and what appear to be “Daddy Issues”; she’s just a girl trying to figure out who she is in a world full of people telling her who she should be. Asya is the perfect example of a young woman affected by today’s media and society around her. Her family and friends telling her to be a certain type of woman, the type of woman that every other woman is supposed to be: poised, skinny, well versed in manners and polite talk, and able to marry a “well-moneyed” man.

When Armanoush arrives in Istanbul to find herself, she meets Asya through her stepfather’s family. At first, Asya is distant and a bit cruel to Armanoush, but over time the two girls find that they have much in common and soon become good friends. Together they embark on an adventure to discover who they are as women in the world and end up digging up some truths about the past, including the horrible story of how Zeliha became pregnant with Asya (she was raped by her brother, Armanoushe’s Step-Father). They run around the streets of Istanbul, laughing, talking, making memories and while Asya learns the truth of her past, Armanoush also gets to discover more about her true heritage. This was my favorite book throughout the whole semester because I related to it the most. As a young woman in today’s society, I feel the pressure around me to be someone that I’m not: Skinnier, taller, prettier, daintier, less out-spoken…etc. This book helped me to realize that I can be anyone who I want, despite the fact that the world tells me otherwise!

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