Elif Safak's the Saint of Incipient Insanities as an "International" Novel

By Oztabek-Avci, Elif | ARIEL, April-July 2007 | Go to article overview

Elif Safak's the Saint of Incipient Insanities as an "International" Novel


Oztabek-Avci, Elif, ARIEL


The Saint of Incipient Insanities is Elif Safak's first novel written in English. It is also the first novel in English written by a contemporary Turkish writer. (1) Safak (or Shafak) has joined the growing group of international writers who write in English although it is not their mother tongue, and The Saint of Incipient Insanities has been shelved in bookstores among other examples of "the rapid, extensive and many-sided internationalization of literatures at the end of the twentieth century" (Dhardwadker 59). The aim of this article is to explore how Shafak's novel tackles the grip of nation on writers, especially on those from formerly colonized and/or so-called developing countries of the world, by focusing on the novel's publication processes and the writer's use of English in the novel.

In his article Vinay Dhardwadker draws attention to a paradox: nationalism, he holds, is "an essential ingredient in the contemporary internationalization of literatures" (63). He suggests this paradoxical situation is the result of the efforts made by ex-colonized new nations to define their "cultural identities" through literature (produced both by writers writing in their native tongue and by those writing in English):

    They have established local and national councils of the arts;
    provided state funding for writers and literary institutions in the
    form of fellowships and grants; subsidized educational systems,
    libraries, publishers, and literary media; instituted national and
    international conferences, book fairs, and literary awards; and
    funded programmes for lectures, readings, and tours at home and
    abroad. (62)

Looking at Safak's case, however, we can enlarge the paradoxical role of nation Dhardwadker describes in the sphere of international literatures. The novel's publication process as well as the responses it has received in Turkey and in the United States are indicative of the prominence of national and nationalist discourses in both of these spheres even if the novel belongs to the category of international fiction. In relation to the recent translation of Chinese-American and Chinese diaspora literatures in Mainland China, the Hong Kong-based literary critic K.C. Lo holds that "the Chinese translations of Chinese American novels are ... prone to stressing more their cultural and ethnic identification than their artistic achievement or creativity" (Qtd. in Dirlik 223). Lo's critique can be applied to the translation of The Saint of Incipient Insanities into a Turkish version, which is entitled Araf. Araf was published in Turkey in April 2004, while The Saint of Incipient Insanities was not published in the Unites States until October 2004. The Turkish translation of Safak's novel had already been widely read in Turkey when the American public began to read the original novel six months later. What is remarkable in this case is that The Saint of Incipient Insanities was not translated into Turkish because of its artistic achievement or creativity, manifested in the responses it received from English-langugage readers. Such an interesting reversal in the order of publication of the original and translation can be explained only by the fact that Safak is a writer of Turkish descent with a large group of readers in Turkey. The same explanation could be made even if the publication dates of the two books had been almost the same. Safak's novel's publication processes not only illustrate nation's paradoxical hold on "international" literatures but also the process itself maintains "the myth of national unity" (Lo 223) between the writer and her/his "home" country as well as between the writer's work and the "national" literature. Translations into the national language of a writer's home country are remarkable sites, I believe, to see the role nation prominently plays in the sphere of "international" literatures.

Responses of Turkish readers to Safak's novel in English can be grouped into two large categories: on the one hand, she was severely criticized by those who view her writing in English as being co-opted by cultural imperialism; and, on the other, she was highly praised and appreciated by those who consider her "success" (being published in the United States) a success for her country.

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