“Orients” of the Mind: Deviance, Sexual Enlightenment, and True Love in Fredericks’s Degenerate Empress, Vynnychuk’s Zhytiie haremnoie (Life in the Harem), and Parker’s Roxelana & Suleyman

Maryna Romanets


By focusing on the discursive spaces of the Imperial Harem as one of the biggest mystifications of Orientalism, which mirrored Western psychosexual needs and provided a space on which to project fantasies of illicit eroticism, this article examines three contemporary texts: David Fredericks’s Degenerate Empress (1968), Yuriy Vynnychuk’s Zhytiie haremnoie (Life in the Harem) (1996), and P. J. Parker’s Roxelana & Suleyman (2011). While employing Orientalism as a trans-historical constant, these historiographic pornofictions deal with the Süleymanic period of the Ottoman Empire, centering on a historical figure, Roxolana (ca.1504–1558), the most cherished concubine of Süley¬man the Magnificent who legally married the Sultan and became the first truly powerful woman in the Ottoman dynasty. By using Roxolana, who holds a special status in the Ukrainian collective imaginary, in the harem setting that she truly enjoys, Vynnychuk plays with the cult of Ukrainian cultural sym¬bols and creates a highly peculiar page to his “imaginary history” of Ukraine. Fredericks, in contrast, draws on numerous Western narratives that vilify the empress and pictures her with a proclivity for a lascivious venery so promiscuous as to border on the bestial, while Parker’s novel expands its scope beyond the Roxolana plotline to create multidimensional erotic vectors in a form that combines characteristics of sensation novel and romance. In spite of numerous differences, these texts generate complex responses and provoke illuminating and often unsettling discoveries related to previously unarticulated aspects of social identity, and in doing so, revisit, rethink, and reconfigure essentializing mythologies of erotic pleasure.

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