Dispatch from Turkey: Plagiarism Charges Levied at Award-Winning Author

August 11, 2011 | 8 books mentioned 18 5 min read

coverAward-winning polyglot Turkish author Elif Şafak has been accused of plagiarism by a translator in Turkey, where her newest novel Iskender was released on August 1. Shortly after publication Iskender, which had already sold upwards of 200,000 copies, was called out by a blogger for its resemblance to the Turkish translation of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. The comparisons move from the general to the specific, with one vignette in particular offered as the most damning evidence of perfidy. Shortly thereafter, Smith’s Turkish translator, Mefkure Bayatlı, doubled down with a full accusation of plagiarism.

covercoverThe kerfuffle, which is front-page news in Turkey, does not of yet seem to have surfaced in the American literary blogosphere, despite the relative renown of Şafak in this country. Şafak, who writes in both Turkish and English, has enjoyed huge popular success globally for, among other novels, The Bastard of Istanbul, The Saint of Incipient Insanities, The Flea Palace, and The Forty Rules of Love. She was the winner of the Union of Turkish Writers prize for The Gaze and she is a frequent presence on the Turkish best-seller list. She has done the professorial/lecture circuit in the U.S., appeared on NPR, and written for the New York Times, The Guardian, and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications. In May, Şafak shared a stage with Jonathan Franzen and Salman Rushdie as a PEN presenter. In short, she’s a big deal (and in Turkey, a huge deal).

For those out of the loop, here’s a brief timeline of the scandal (NB: highly unprofessional translations ahead):

August 1: Iskender hits shelves. A novel about a bi-cultural immigrant youth living in London.

August 3: Culture blog Fikir Mahsulleri Ofisi (very loosely, “Department of Ideas”) reviews an advance copy of Iskender in a post titled “Elif Şafak’s new novel is a little too ‘Familiar.’”  The review details the many ways in which the characters and themes of Iskender resemble those of White Teeth:  Muslim immigrants living in London, inter-generational conflict, and so on. The blog makes an extended comparison of thematic and character similarities, before delivering the parting shot — two versions of one moment spent daydreaming in front of a basement apartment window. The money quotes are here (note that passage was taken from the Turkish translation of White Teeth, so what follows is the Turkish translation back into English, with many apologies to Zadie Smith and translator Bayatlı for liberties taken).

Bowden’s living room was situated below the road and there were bars in the windows so that the view was partially obscured. Generally Clara would see feet, tires, exhaust pipes and umbrellas being shaken. These instantaneous images revealed a lot; a lively imagination could conjure many poignant stories from a bit of worn lace, a patched sock, a bag that had seen better days swinging low to the ground. (White Teeth, p. 30, Everest Publishing)

He would sit cross-legged on the living room rug and gape at the windows near the ceiling. Outside there was frenzied leg traffic flowing right and left. Pedestrians going to work, returning from shopping, going on walks… It was one of their favorite games to watch the feet going to and fro and try to guess at their lives — it was a three-person game: Esma, Iskender and Pembe. Let’s say they saw a shining pair of stilettos walking with nimble, rapid steps, their heels clicking. “She’s probably going to meet her fiance,” Pembe would say, conjuring up a story. Iskender was good at this game. He would see a worn, dirty pair of moccasins and start explaining how the shoes’ owner had been out of work for months and was going to rob the bank on the corner.” (Iskender, p. 135, Doğan)

August 4: Burak Kara, writing for Vatan newspaper, prints a statement from Bayatlı, the Turkish translator of White Teeth:

A coincidence of this magnitude isn’t possible. Şafak, using Zadie’s book as a template, made the family Turkish and wrote a book. She simplified the topic. I especially note the similarity of the window story. Ten parallel stories like this can be written, but the window story isn’t even a parallel. This is called plagiarism. It’s like an adaptation. It surpasses inspiration…

covercoverAugust 7: Şafak, one of her editors, and the General Director of Doğan Kitap Publishing respond in the Sunday print edition of Milliyet newspaper (web version here). The editor defends the book, noting that White Teeth bears resemblance to Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia (published before) and Monica Ali’s Brick Lane (published after). “There are a number of similarities between Smith and Ali’s books,” stated Şafak’s editor. “Doctoral theses have even been written on this topic comparing the two novels. And yet no one says that Monica Ali plagiarized.”

The General Director, too, addresses the natural and inevitable similarities between works of immigrant literature dealing with similar themes: “These are probably not the only two novels for whom the basement apartment represents a state of destitution.”

And Şafak hits back:

Enough already! Iskender, which I wrote in England, which my English publishers read line by line with great pleasure, which my English agency represents with great pleasure, will be published back-to-back in England and the U.S. in 2012 by Penguin and Viking, two of the best publishing houses in the world. Given all this, I don’t take seriously the accusations levied by a handful of people whose intention is to wear me down. As with all of my books, my hard work and imagination is evident in this novel. I’m fed up, we’re fed up with the reckless attacks against people who do different work. My reader knows me. Iskender is my eleventh book, my eighth novel. This is what I say to those dealing in slander, gossip, and delusional behavior.

August 8: Fikir Mahsulleri Ofisi, the blog that published the original review, addresses its old and new readers, reminding them that their original statement was simply that the book “might show influence to the extent that opens the way for an argument of plagiarism,” and that the real accusations were made by Smith’s translator. Like any hapless blogger who starts a shitstorm, they are gratified and bewildered by the new readership, alarmed by the repercussions, and disgusted by some of the comments. It’s as if internet shitstorms are the same in every language!

August 10Fikir Mahsulleri Ofisi publishes a timeline for new readers, a response to Safak’s response, and an epic polemic about the state of criticism in Turkey.

There was value in bringing this to light: plagiarism is serious to the last degree, and not a claim that can be made lightly. But it is not an insult or an attack. As far comments like [columnist]  Deniz Ülke Arıboğan’s tweet, “to accuse an author of plagiarism is no different than to curse them” — well, to curse someone is ill-mannered, it’s hitting below the belt. One refrains from responding to curses. As for plagiarism, when it is held up with concrete information, it is a serious claim that must be responded to with a cool head. It’s a criticism. Since this isn’t something that is well-known in Turkey let me spell it out again so that it’s well understood: CRITICISM.

Moving to the political, the post goes onto criticize people who use Şafak’s 2006 appearance in court for denigrating the Turkish state (Article 301) as a reason to excuse or discount the plagiarism controversy:

Just as Elif Shafak’s liberty to write novels in the face of conservative laws, the liberty of others to criticize her novels must be held sacred, too. What to do about one warning left by a commenter who calls him/herself Elif Şafak: “If you don’t erase this, criminal prosecution can be started against you?”

What indeed?

Without having read both Iskender and the Turkish translation of White Teeth, it’s impossible to weigh in on the validity of the claims, but it’ll be interesting to see what comes of this. We would love to hear from readers who have some perspective.

is the editor of The Millions. She lives in San Francisco and tweets sporadically at @lydiakiesling. You can read more of her writing at www.lydiakiesling.com.

18 comments:

  1. The other question, of course, is whether it is now possible to make a comparison of the two works, if reading them for the first time, with the charge of plagerism invariably nestled in the back of your mind.

  2. I think that bandying the word “plagiarism” about indiscriminately diminishes the instances of true plagiarism. Based solely on these passages (and I haven’t read Safak’s book, either), I’m not seeing it. Are we to determine that Zadie Smith (who is certainly a wonderful writer) now owns the sitting-and-musing-in-a-London-basement-living-room setting and has the sole right to use it, perhaps including the right to license that setting’s use to other writers? That would be silly. Isn’t it OK to be influenced or inspired by another writer’s work? I don’t know whether Safak was influenced or inspired by “White Teeth” when she wrote this passage, but if she was, it strikes me that she made it her own.

  3. Having read them both, I can tell there is no similarity. There are not many authors in Turkey selling around 200.000 copies in 1 month so obviously “jealosy” is what triggers all these talks. Her previous book sold more than 500.000 copies, people are dying to blame her for anything!

    Having a similar plot can not mean plagarism, then the whole world literature would depend on 50 books!

  4. If the “similarities” between the two passages (which amounts to no more than similarities of milieu) is the best the accuusers of plagiarism can present a “proof-positif,: then the accusation is ridiculous. I agree with Helen. Similarities of plot structure is very common in literature, and no one really “owns” a location..

  5. ‘Verbatim’ is not the issue here and when defining what plagiarism is literally, we may or may not detect anything tangible.However ‘too similar’ so as to extend itself to the boundaries of ‘adaptation’ in literature and to a writer of Safak’s disposition is quite an issue. Literature is not mathematics so as to seek for tangible evidence, if imagination is one of the essentials of this formula, a writer cannot add embelished nuances to the basics (the basics here may be extended to the plot and character similarities) of anothers like in the passage of the basement window. I do have a problem with the sense of dejavu that I have had while reading the book and I definitely have a problem with the advocation of playing through and around similar plots. A writer does not have the luxury of an idle imagination.

  6. Wow. I haven’t read either book but the paragraphs quoted in NO way constitute plagiarism. This seems ridiculous. Is no one allowed to write a scene from a basement window because Smith did? Or even weirder- is no one allowed to write about the immigrant experience in London because Smith did? Plagiarism IS like math for the most part-and from those two paragraphs, it’s not adding up.

  7. If that’s the best example, the accusations are completely ridiculous. Does anyone remember the old shoemaker Adjevitj? If not, google. He spent his days in a basement, observing the feet of people as they walked past outside. What individual who’s spent significant time in a basement hasn’t?

  8. Ideas are not copyright-able. If they were, our literary output would be dramatically lowered.

  9. My North London studio apartment is situated below the road. From the barred windows– two narrow rectangles– I can see the sidewalk. Today, as the sky fills with white clouds that threaten rain, I am struck by how much of what I see resembles the two paragraphs I just read about in this article.

    I see feet, car tires, and the tips of umbrellas, sometimes being tap, tap, tapped along the sidewalk. I try to imagine if any of these people skittering by might be Zadie Smith, or Elif Safak, doing research…. looking for more of the sights, smells and sounds that add such dimension to their novels.

    I wish my view were not obstructed by these darn metal bars.

  10. Just as Godard suggested:

    “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”

  11. That’s refference and allusion, not plaigerism! It deepens meaning by reffering to the other text. Has the blogger not read that TS Eliot said “Good writers borrow, great writers steal” ? That Bloom said writers must misread their literary forbearers? That Shakespear essentially revised the Hollinshead Chronicals?
    I was similarly upset when I saw 2 novels published around the same time about a fictional lost Vermeer, “The Girl in Hyacynth Blue, ” and “The Girl with the Pearl Earring”. But they are different, and probably boosted each other’s sales. % books about the last days of Cleopatra and the fate of her children were published recently, focussing on and spinning many of the same details. # are novels, 2 histories. And the Histories don’t say much different than a 1991 book on the topic, but don’t cite it as a refference. Still each has bits some future author may put together in a new way and write a Cleopatra book better than any one of them….

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