The Saint of Incipient Insanities

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

Award-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.

The 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…
August 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 10: Fikir 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.

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