Turkish novelist details online abuse as authorities crackdown on ‘obscenity’

As Turkish novelist Elif Shafak rode a train to a literary festival last month to deliver a speech on staying sane in the age of populism, her editor rang her up to tell her that police had come to her Istanbul publishing house asking about her novels, Shafak wrote in the New Statesman on Wednesday.

In one of the most prominent results of a broad backlash against free expression in Turkish literature, authorities took Shafak’s books to read them and determine whether she had committed a “crime of obscenity” by writing about problematic issues.

It all started last month, when a social media user sparked heated online debate after sharing a screenshot of a page from one of Turkish author Abdullah Şevki’s stories in which the narrator describes himself sexually assaulting a baby.

The outcry against Şevki developed into a broader wave against Turkish authors, spurring analysts and industry insiders to express fears that the issue could lead to extreme self-censorship in Turkish publishing, which has already been curbing free expression under the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

In late May, after a social media user singled out a passage recounting sexual assault on a child in Shafak’s 2000 novel “The Gaze”, the author received thousands of harassing messages on social media and a Turkish prosecutor launched an inquiry into her novels.

“Turkey has alarmingly high levels of sexual harassment, gender-based violence and child brides. But instead of dealing with the problem, the authorities prosecute novelists,” Shafak wrote in the New Statesman.  

After failing to follow her editor’s advice to stay off social media, she found herself inundated by online abuse.

“Hatred, slander, distortion,” said Shafak. “[My] books should be banned, they say, and their author should be imprisoned. Islamist and ultranationalist columnists join the chorus accusing authors of being ‘perverts’ or ‘degenerate’.”

In Berlin, at an event for her new novel, Shafak answered political questions, while in Hamburg she ended up teary-eyed with a group that includes Romanians, Bulgarians, Americans, Turks and Kurds. Afterward she met award-winning Turkish-German filmmaker Fatih Akin for a drink at a dive bar.

“For a moment I cannot tell whether I am in Hamburg or in the Istanbul of my youth, where we all smoked and laughed to our hearts’ content, hopeful that our motherland would one day join the EU and become a proper, pluralistic democracy,” wrote Shafak. “The next day, when I dare to check social media, the trolls seem to have calmed down, though the abuse continues.”