Towards Turkish American Literature

Narratives of Multiculturalism in Post-Imperial Turkey

by Elena Furlanetto (Author)
©2017 Thesis 284 Pages
Open Access
Series: Interamericana, Volume 10


The author expands the definition of Turkish American literature beyond fiction written by Americans of Turkish descent to incorporate texts that literally ‘commute’ between two national spheres. This segment of Turkish American literature transcends established paradigms of immigrant life-writing, as it includes works by Turkish authors who do not qualify as American permanent residents and were not born in the United States by Turkish parents (such as Elif Shafak and Halide Edip), and on novels where the Turkish and Ottoman matter decisively prevails over the American (Güneli Gün’s «On the Road to Baghdad» and Alev Lytle Croutier’s «Seven Houses»). Yet, these texts were written in English, were purposefully located on the American market, and simultaneously engage the Turkish and the American cultural and literary traditions.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • I. Introduction: What is (not) Turkish American Literature
  • The Significance of the United States in Turkish American Literature
  • Turkish American Literature and the “Transnational Turn”
  • A Gentle Empire
  • ‘Unearthing’ and Embracing the Colonial Past
  • Beyond Empire: A Postcolonial Reading of Turkish American Literature
  • The Postcoloniality of Turkey
  • Turkish American Literature and the Postcolonial Imagery
  • Postcolonialism and Resistance: A Critical Perspective on Turkish American Literature
  • II. Imaginary Spaces: Representations of Istanbul between Topography and Imagination
  • The Unplaceability of Orhan Pamuk
  • Orhan Pamuk: Overground and Underground Istanbul
  • “Safe Spaces of the Like-Minded”: Elif Shafak’s Cafés
  • Becoming Someone Else: Imitation and Truthfulness
  • ‘Authenticity’ and Americanization
  • Integration and Segregation: Shall the Twain Meet?
  • The Ottoman Utopia
  • Utopia and Empire
  • Ottoman Utopia and Neo-Ottomanism
  • “Hrant Dink’s Dream”
  • Life in the Islands and in the Villages
  • Two Approaches to Cultural Identity
  • III. Rewriting History, Rewriting Religion
  • Between Imperialism and “Wholesome Curiosity”: Halide Edip’s Benevolent America.
  • Imperialism and Humanitarianism
  • True Christians and very Unchristian Christians: American Humanitarianism in the Empire Territories
  • An Imaginary Us and an Imaginary Them
  • Ferries and Orphanages: Rewriting the Legacy of Edip’s Memoirs
  • Hullabaloo on the Bosphorus Ferry: The Development of Othering Strategies from “Borrowed Colonialism” to Nationalism
  • Ferries Rewritten: Elif Shafak’s “Life in the Islands”
  • Little Stories of Independence: Orphanages
  • Towards Ottoman Sisterhood
  • Women and Children First: Founding a ‘Subaltern’ Religion
  • Halide Edip: Rethinking Prophets and Fathers of the Nation
  • Sufi Madonna with Child
  • Undermining Myths of Masculinity and the “Threat of Islam”: Ali’s Religion of Love
  • A Religion of Love and a Religion of Fear: Mitigating the East/West Divide in the Aftermath of 9/11
  • IV. Sufism in America and Turkey: A Transnational Dialogue
  • The American Journey as Sufi Journey: Emerson and Shafak
  • Two directions in the American Discourse on Sufism: Whitman and Shafak
  • The Transcendental Author: from National to Transnational Literature
  • Sufi Selves in comparison
  • The Forty Rules of Love: A Secular Awakening
  • Of Material Love and Ornamental Sufism
  • The Road to Baghdad Leads Somewhere: the (Ir)relevance of Sufism in Güneli Gün’s On The Road to Baghdad
  • Secularized Sufi elements in On the Road to Baghdad
  • Sufi Mysticism and North American Postmodernism: Barth, Barthes, Gün
  • V. Ottoman Nature: Natural Imagery, Gardens, Wells, and Cultural Memory in Republican Turkey
  • American Nature and Turkish American Natural Symbolism
  • Fig Trees and Pomegranates: The Shaping of Post-Genocidal Armenian Identity in Elif Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul
  • Fig Trees: Beyond Negative Identities
  • Pomegranates: Under two Empires
  • Birds of Migration: Ornithological Symbolism in The Bastard of Istanbul and The Saint of Incipient Insanities
  • Amnesiac and Memory-Bound Societies: The Bastard of Istanbul
  • The End of the Ottoman Garden: Alev Lytle Croutier’s Seven Houses
  • Space and Narrative in Seven Houses
  • The Patriarch’s Garden
  • The Matriarch’s Garden
  • Re-Orientalism, Hyper-Orientalism, and Acceptance: Problematizing Gardens in Seven Houses
  • Wells and National Amnesia: Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book
  • Troubled Gardens of Turkey and the World
  • Works Cited
  • Acknowledgements

← 10 | 11 →

I.   Introduction: What is (not) Turkish American Literature

In a 2005 interview with Khatchig Mouradian, Turkish American sociologist Fatma Müge Göçek laments the lack of dialogue between Turks and Armenians, exposing what she sees as the Turkish state’s tendency to construct historiography in a way that suits a nationalistic agenda. Göçek begins and ends the interview on a hopeful note, claiming to have seen the signs of a postnational turn in Turkish cultural discourse and self-representation. For her, literature plays a crucial role in the articulation of more inclusive historiographical practices. Göçek praises Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak as the authors who are most invested in capturing the full “spectrum of meaning in [Turkish] society” and who highlight “the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural fabric of Turkish society, past and present” (Göçek in Mouradian 12). The publication of Shafak’s first novel in English, The Saint of Incipient Insanities, in 2004 and Orhan Pamuk’s Nobel Prize for literature in 2006 indeed projected Turkish literature beyond the national borders and sanctioned its presence in world literature.1

A series of cosmopolitan, binational writers of Turkish origin with strong biographical and literary ties to the United States have become prominent over the last decades. In their writings, they engage with the national horizon of Turkish literature but also explore the relationship between Turkey and America, turning to the U.S. as to an omnipresent interlocutor. I term this group of writers and their work “Turkish American literature.” The term has been used in the past, but mostly in reference to the status, work, and biography of individual writers and never with the aim of delineating a literary phenomenon open to canonization and theorization.2 I understand Turkish American literature as defined by the ← 11 | 12 → effort to question, revise, or dismantle the monocultural narratives of Kemalism, open a bicultural dialogue with the United States, and propose a multicultural identitarian model for Turkey that is strongly reminiscent of paradigms of American multiculturalism. The Kemalist model established itself as the country’s leading ideology in 1923, with the birth of the Republic of Turkey under the leadership of its first president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Kemalism places a strong emphasis on secularism, the separation of state and religion, radical Westernization, and an idea of Turkish identity primarily based on ethnicity. The Kemalist reforms, determined to eradicate the Ottoman heritage from the country’s collective self, included the banishing of Islam from school curricula, the closing of Sufi schools and religious centers, the introduction of the Latin alphabet, the expulsion of Arab and Persian terms from the Turkish language, and the forced assimilation of non-Turkish ethnicities as ‘Turks’ (Çandar 89).

In my definition, Turkish American literature strives to overcome the discourses of Kemalism and seeks to redefine Turkey as a diverse, multicultural space. Albeit critical of Americanization as an outcome of Kemal’s radical Westernization, these texts are informed by U.S. practices of multiculturalism and postmodernism.3 In fact, they challenge the nationalist doctrine of Kemalism by resorting to aesthetics of polyvocality, polyvalence, and multilingualism, and by focusing on borderland sensitivities and hybridity politics. This translates into a strongly bicultural literature, “nor Turkish, nor American, yet both” (Pultar, “Travelling Biculturalism” 49), whose uniqueness deserves to be studied and discussed as it offers fundamental insights into Turkish culture in its global and transnational declensions. In fact, Turkish American literature as I am discussing it here fits imperfectly in Turkey’s national literary scene and, in contrast to migrant writing produced by larger migrant communities (such as Greek ← 12 | 13 → American or Armenian American literature), it cannot be defined through models of migrant literature in English.4

Another salient theme Turkish American literature engages with is the contested legacy of the Ottoman Empire. If in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 military coup d’état in Turkey the AKP’s neo-Ottomanism has come to signify the seemingly irreversible rise of political Islam, religious radicalization, and authoritarianism, up to the early 2000s Turkish American literature strongly invoked a revival of Turkey’s Islamic identity and looked at the legacy of the Ottoman Empire as the key to unlock a cosmopolitan future for the country. Turkish American texts present the empire’s diversity as irrefutable proof of the nation’s intrinsic potential for multiculturalism and tolerance of diversity. Ottoman history covers roughly six centuries and it is necessarily composed of very heterogeneous phases. Discourses of multiculturalism and multi-ethnicity – whether historical or romanticized – refer to the ‘classical age’ of the Ottoman Empire (1300–1600), when the Ottoman rulers showed great openness towards ethnic/religious minorities, accepting their presence as part of the empire, allowing them to practice their faith, and integrating them in Ottoman identitarian narratives.5 Béatrice Hendrich writes that “the Ottoman rulers were interested in the functioning of state affairs, not in creating a ‘Muslim state’,” or in putting an ← 13 | 14 → end to religious diversity in the empire (Hendrich 16–17). This attitude of laissez faire and pragmatism limited the rulers’ interference in the organization of non-Muslim communities, and facilitated the relatively unproblematic coexistence of different ethnic and religious groups (Armenians, Jews, Kurds, and Greeks, among others), as the majority of these were allowed the right to practice their religion and maintain their identity. However, Turkish American literature tends to indulge in romanticized representations of the Ottoman Empire, exaggerating its tolerant and diverse character – a behavior that borders on imperial nostalgia6 and presents complications worth investigating.

Scholarship about Turkish American literature is scanty, which is probably attributable to the contested quality of the term “Turkish American.”7 Before the early 2000s, configurations that mixed Turkish and Western literary forms were regarded with skepticism by Turkish scholars and critics, who were cautious in validating a hybridization between the Turkish and the Western selves. Ahmet Evin’s assessment of the early Turkish novel dismissed the hybridization of Western forms with local contents. To Evin, the unity of a novel would necessarily be blemished by “the incompatibility of [Eastern and Western] themes,” as abysmal structural defects would ensue from the unbridgeable distance between Turkish and European “methodologies and concerns” (Evin in Moretti 62). Jale Parla’s analysis of Turkish fiction in the late 19th century – a century that had been marked by intensive Westernization reforms – develops along similar lines. For Parla, late Ottoman literature reflected the inevitable “crack” provoked by “different epistemologies that rested on irreconcilable axioms” (Parla in Moretti 62). ← 14 | 15 →

In her 1998 article “Ethnic Fatigue: Başçıllar’s Poetry as a Metaphor for the Other ‘Other Literature’,” Gönül Pultar invites us to problematize the concept of Turkish American literature. Pultar begins by stating that the number of Turkish immigrants in the United States is small and the members of the Turkish American community who are active in the literary arena are very few. On the one hand, works in Turkish by Turkish American writers do not concern themselves with the American mainstream or multicultural America, nor do they refer to the experience of the Turkish individual on American soil (Pultar 125). The few novels that are written in English “adopt the attitude of the consensual American” (Pultar 126). In Pultar’s analysis, Turkish American literature is either too Turkish to be American, or too American to be Turkish.

Turkish American individuals seem to be caught in the paradoxically unproductive situation of not being discriminated against enough – at least specifically as Turkish Americans – to resort to literature to assert their ethnic identity. Yet, they remain isolated from the “predominantly different” American society that is supposedly “too positioned in the ontological space of the Other” to allow productive contaminations (Pultar 124). The problem highlighted by Pultar is that the Turkish and the American spheres hardly ever intersect. For this reason, the “putative juncture” (126) between these two selves, sparking the possibility of an ethnic Turkish literature in English, appears elusive.

In his study of world literature, Franco Moretti notes that everywhere the modern novel arises “as a compromise between West European patterns and local reality,” and notes that the historical forces that regulated the relationships between the West and the “local reality” kept changing, and so did the result of their interaction (Moretti 64). Hence, if Turkish American literature was an unthinkable phenomenon in past decades, this does not mean that it must remain forever unthinkable. My contention is that Turkish American literature – defined as a corpus of texts written in English that establish a compelling bicultural connection with the United States – not only exists, but needs to be addressed as a significant expression of world literature. Although Turkish American literature began to catch the public’s eye in the early 2000s, thanks to the visibility gained by Elif Shafak in the Anglophone market, it can be retrospectively extended to works produced in the 20th century.

Writers who could be part of such a canon of Turkish American literature according to my definition incude Halide Edip, Selma Ekrem, Shirin Devrim, Güneli Gün, Alev Lytle Croutier, Judy Light Ayyildiz, Elif Shafak, Elif Batuman, and Serdar Özkan. In this study, I will focus on a core group of writers who have adopted English as their literary language and extensively engage with issues of ← 15 | 16 → ethnicity, identity, and dual citizenship. These are Halide Edip, Güneli Gün, Alev Lytle Croutier, and Elif Shafak.

Halide Edip (1884–1964) was a prominent scholar, author, political activist, and one of Turkey’s first and most vocal feminists; she is remembered as a “figure of controversy in modern Turkish history” (Göknar, Orhan Pamuk, Secularism and Blasphemy 150). She fought in Atatürk’s army in the War of Independence, earning the nickname of “Corporal Halide.” Once one of Kemal’s closest collaborators, Edip subsequently lost the favor of the Turkish leader, who branded her a traitor and publicly maligned her as the woman who “wanted an American mandate” over Turkey (ibid.). She and her husband chose self-exile in England and France. Edip travelled extensively, also to the United States, where she delivered lectures and public talks. Her literary production in English strives to present Turkish history and culture to European and American readers. She returned to Turkey in 1939 to embark on a political and academic career in her homeland. The autobiographical and non-fictional works she originally wrote and published in English in the 1920s and 1930s (Memoirs of Halide Edip in 1926, The Turkish Ordeal in 1928, and Turkey Faces West in 1930) were not translated into Turkish until the 1960s, when her status as a scholar and a patriot was re-evaluated.

Güneli Gün was born in Turkey in 1939. She is the author of Book of Trances: A Novel of Magic Recitals (1979) and On the Road to Baghdad (1994). Based in Ohio, she taught creative writing and women’s studies at Oberlin College. She became known as Orhan Pamuk’s translator, as she authored the first English translations of The New Life (Yeni Hayat, 1994; tr. 1998) and The Black Book (Kara Kitap, 1990; tr. 1995). In 2006, Maureen Freely revised and re-published both translations. Gün’s writing incorporates elements of magical realism and North American postmodernism, and draws inspiration from Ottoman folklore and the One Thousand and One Nights. Her literary production, especially On the Road to Baghdad, is marked by the influence of the American postmodern author John Barth, who claimed to have “served as a midwife in [Gün’s] delivery upon our writing scene” (Kadir 63).

Born in Izmir, Alev Lytle Croutier moved to the U.S. when she was 18. She studied comparative literature in Oberlin, Ohio. Eventually she moved to San Francisco where she founded a publishing firm called Mercury House. She is the author of two novels (The Palace of Tears, 2000, and Seven Houses, 2002), non-fictional works (Harem: The World behind the Veil, 1989, and Taking the Waters, 1992) and numerous articles and contributions to anthologies. In her interviews and non-fictional works, Croutier frequently reported being the granddaughter of a harem lady. This sapient self-exoticization allowed her to ← 16 | 17 → offer her American readership a supposedly first-hand account of one of the most secret spaces of Turkish culture, the harem, presenting herself as a unique mediator between cultures.

Elif Shafak is the author of numerous novels both in Turkish and English. Her most widely read works in Turkish include Pinhan (1997), Mahrem (The Gaze), and Bit Palas (The Flea Palace, translated by Fatma Muge Göçek). Her first novel in English, The Saint of Incipient Insanities, was published in 2004, followed by The Bastard of Istanbul in 2007, The Forty Rules of Love in 2010, Black Milk in 2012, Honour in 2013, and The Architect’s Apprentice in 2014.8 Shafak often describes her life and work as being infused with cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism. Throughout her childhood, Shafak followed the highly mobile life of her diplomat mother. She was born in Strasbourg and spent her teenage years in Madrid, completed her studies in political science, international relations, and women’s studies in Turkey and the Unites States, and worked at the University of Michigan and the University of Arizona. The recurrent concerns in her writing are the promotion of a cosmopolitan sensitivity for both Turkey and America, the condition of women, Islamic mysticism, and the retrieval of the Turkish Ottoman heritage. Shafak undoubtedly stands out as the most popular and globally acclaimed author analyzed in this study.

The work of these writers is particularly interesting in so far as it extends the label of Turkish American literature beyond the sphere of immigrant life-writing to literary works in English that do not produce immigrant success stories or what is commonly understood as migrant fiction, namely, fiction that relates the experience of first- or second-generation migrants struggling to balance two cultural traditions in U.S. territory. Literary works by Edip, Gün, Croutier, and Shafak present predominantly Turkish settings and characters, but are at the same time written for an American market and an American audience. Besides, most of these authors’ biographies do not qualify for full inclusion into what is commonly understood as ‘ethnic’ or ‘migrant’ American literature, which demonstrates the necessity to address a Turkish American literature that is not the product of Turkish American biographies. Edip travelled to the United States frequently, lectured at American universities, and entrusted her work to American publishers, but never failed to return to Istanbul, which remained her place of residence. The same is true for Shafak, who lived in Boston, Michigan, and ← 17 | 18 → Arizona for years, but eventually returned to Istanbul. Only Gün and Croutier moved to the United States in their formative years.

If the biographies of these authors are too strongly rooted in the country of origin and thus do not fit the notion of ‘Turkish American,’ their work does. “Literary classification,” Rebecca Walkowitz claims in her essay “The Location of Literature,” “might depend more on a book’s future than on a writer’s past” (23). “Migrant literature,” Walkowitz reminds us, “is not written by migrants alone” (ibid.). Designed for and distributed on the North American literary market as well as the Turkish one, works such as Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul and The Forty Rules of Love, Croutier’s Seven Houses, Gün’s On The Road to Baghdad, and Edip’s autobiographical volumes function, in this sense, in more than one national context. The way in which these novels reimagine their home country as a global and transnational space, target the American readership, and use English as a literary language allows them to develop beyond Turkish borders and across two national dimensions. Pultar’s 1998 study underlines the difficulties presented by the canonization of these texts in either cultural tradition. My analysis hopes to move beyond this point, acknowledging the impossibility of affiliating these texts with a single cultural tradition. My solution is to envision Turkish American texts as travelling texts that escape affiliation with one cultural context, and therefore cannot be claimed as either ‘Turkish’ or ‘American.’ At the same time, these texts turn their lack of solid affiliation into a productive tool to read one cultural context through the lens of the other.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2017 (May)
Ottoman Empire Elif Shafak Cosmopolitanism Empire Studies Postcolonial Literature Transnational American Studies
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 284 pp.

Biographical notes

Elena Furlanetto (Author)

Elena Furlanetto received her MA in English, American, and Postcolonial Studies from the Ca' Foscari University of Venice and her PhD in American Studies from the Technical University of Dortmund. She works as a researcher and lecturer at the University of Duisburg-Essen.


Title: Towards Turkish American Literature