Elif Shafak’s novel Iskender, published in English as Honour this week, came out in Turkey last August. Like her previous books, it sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Within days of its appearance, however, a blogger accused Shafak of ‘lifting’ themes and characters from Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. The blog post quickly went viral. Smith’s Turkish translator said that Shafak had used White Teeth as a ‘template’ which didn’t really fit with the Kurdish characters in her novel. One journalist suggested the book should be moved to the foreign fiction shelves of Turkish bookshops.
Shafak issued a statement:
In Turkey people often attack authors instead of subjecting them to proper literary criticism. Rumours and accusations about my novel are caused by the chaotic nature of the internet where all sorts of information can flow freely. These accusations come from a cultural elite and are then taken up by the press.
In mid-August, Smith sent Shafak an open letter:
Dear Elif, Hanif Kureishi sent me the link to an article where there are ridiculous accusations about our novels. I just wanted to tell you how absurd I find those accusations.
This seemed to put an end to the discussion. But the question of why Shafak’s book received such a response remained unanswered.
Honour is concerned with the experiences of a Kurdish immigrant family. Most of the action takes place in Hackney in the 1970s. The book features twin sisters, squatters, feminists in flared trousers and radical politics. There may be echoes of Smith’s novel here, but Honour is a specifically Anatolian story: an important part of it is set in the 1940s in a Kurdish town in eastern Turkey. Local customs and conservative traditions cast a long shadow over the protagonist, Pembe, who escapes to England for a new life. But her family finds it hard to adapt, and Iskender, her son, decides to put an end to what he sees as the perversity of his mother’s new life and undertakes to commit an ‘honour killing’.
The complexities of multiculturalism in Turkey and in England are familiar territory for Shafak, and her treatment of them is what her critics from both right and left tend to focus on. Some argue that the themes Smith or Kureishi explore in their novels set in London can’t be straightforwardly transferred to Turkey or other developing countries, where the problems are different.
But Istanbul, the city Shafak returned to after writing her book in London and the setting for many of her earlier novels, resembles London more and more. Turkey is undergoing an unprecedented capitalist transformation, and urban gentrification and economic liberalisation are proceeding at a frantic pace. And I suspect it’s this, rather than whether or not Shafak ‘plagiarised’ White Teeth, that really makes her critics uncomfortable. Shafak’s sympathy for multiculturalism and her affinities with the contemporary English novel are undeniable. It’s not the fact of plagiarism that’s the problem, but the tradition she appears to be aligning herself with: that Honour seems to acquiesce in, rather than scrutinise, Turkey’s ‘anglobalisation’.