Turkish author Buket Uzuner talks about her new book, and her love for Istanbul

Buket Uzuner is a microbiologist and environmental scientist, perhaps an unusual background for a fiction writer who has, over the decades, become a name to be reckoned with in Turkey. Author of several short stories, novels and travelogues, Uzuner, who writes in Turkish, has been translated into eight languages. She was in New Delhi on the invitation of the Turkish Ambassador Burak Akcapar. A reading was held at the Ambassador’s residence of her latest, I Am Istanbul, or Istanbullu. A work of fiction that encapsulates the spirit, history of mythology of this massive, turbulent, fast changing city, the book reads like a microcosmic introduction to what Uzuner fears is a fast disappearing world.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

It’s rare for an author to try her hand at several literary forms and emerge successful. You’ve written travelogues, short stories, novels, essays. Are the transitions smooth, effortless?

When you put it like that it looks really terrifying, but when you are in it you don’t think of it. It is like sometimes eating salty things, sometimes sweet. When I write a novel there are lots of short stories in it, but then in novels you have to be like an architect. Even if you do draw the prettiest windows and doors and walls, you need to know how to put them together, without which the work is useless. Of course, there is no school to teach you this. In the workshops I give in Istanbul, I tell young writers that no one can teach you writing, you are born with it. And to be a writer, a good writer, you need to have empathy.

I started as a short story writer, I always thought I’d only write those. But then I was tempted to see how I would handle writing a novel, the idea was really terrifying. I still have same feeling.

And it’s interesting to see that you’ve written a number of travelogues. A little about exploring that genre?

My third travel book was called The New York Logbook. I was living in New York then, a city I love as much as Istanbul because I think the energy is similar. That time, I asked myself who the hell was I to write a book on New York, how could I dare to write about it. I wasn’t a real New Yorker. And then I thought, if I write my book in Turkish, and write of New York like I see it, it will be my own New York I’ll be writing about. So, when I write travel books I always think that I’m writing experiences from my own eyes. I’m including my culture, parts of the Turkey I grew up in. I believe that nothing is untold under this sky, and even the most talented author, who for me is Oscar Wilde, writes about death and love, the two things that make human life and experiences what they are. What makes each book different, or each story different, are our experiences.

I published the New York Logbook years ago, but many Turks still buy it before leaving for New York. That’s not because it’s a guide book. It’s because as a book by an Istanbul woman in New York, they can relate to it, the references are similar. Right now, I’m working on a book on Spain, called After Cervantes Footsteps, and it’s a Turkish woman’s Spain I am writing about in that book.

You are fluent in two other languages, but you have chosen to write in your mother tongue.

Today, new generation Turkish authors are trying to write in English. I don’t like that because I think that they are trying to prove themselves. And your first cry, your first lullaby, your first human emotions are always expressed in your mother tongue. This continues later too. I may be orthodox about it, but I’ve met other foreign authors who feel the same.

And in I Am Istanbul, there’s a fine line you tread between fiction and travelogue. It’s a book that paints a picture of Istanbul, itspast and present, through fiction.

It is very different writing fiction. When you are writing essays, I call my travelogues essays or diaries, you give name and references. With fiction I feel freer. The characters are very important to me, and in this book, Istanbul is one of these characters, and she is talking. It’s an Istanbul who is worried, like me, that the old faces of the city are disappearing. The government is financially motivated. It’s always the businessmen, the men who are politicians. They are building new apartment blocks, new shopping centres. But the next day you see on social media that historical buildings, beautiful buildings that feel like a heritage, have been knocked down to make space for places that only the rich can have access to. As a writer, an environmentalist, a woman and a human being, I am worried that we are losing the spirit of the city. But the character of Istanbul is stronger, and she is also angry. She says that she will teach us a lesson, and this is that big Istanbul earthquake that, like in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Istanbulians wait for but it never comes.

I noticed that you have created a female Istanbul, and refer to those in power as men. Was assigning these gender roles a conscious, deliberate decision?

Yes, it’s never subconsciously. I have been a feminist for years, when feminists were supposed to be ugly, lesbian, men hating women. Even then I stood for feminism. I still feel feminism is supporting human rights of women. Of course we are different, we are not same, that’s what makes us wonderful. In my writing, I am also keen on exploring the gender bias in language. I didn’t pay it so much attention in the beginning, but now I do. For example, the word mankind excludes women. The Turkish language has no gender, and in that way it’s a wonderful. I wanted to make Istanbul a woman for this reason. I was initially worried that I would be falling prey to that cliché of poets referring to their beloved cities as women. But then I thought, there are so many cities that feel masculine, but Istanbul, with the sea running through it, and the immigrants making their way to it everyday, feels female.

You have a science and engineering background, not usually associated with fiction writing.

I think an analytical, scientific mind is very important to writing. I believe there is strong connection between Philosophy, Mathematics and literature. It lets you understand a story from all angles. I always find that in schools, science and mathematics shown as something difficult. It would help so much if they could make it enjoyable and easy for children to understand mathematics and for those mathematician minds were told to read literature. Otherwise you have either dry mathematics or romanticised literature.

This is your first trip to India. Tell us a little about what has stood out for you?

I was at Gandhi Museum today. When I was very young Gandhi was one of my heroes. In the comment outside the museum today, I wrote: Gandhi like Atatürk, has changed his own country’s fate. And if I may include John Lennon’s name who I think was another version of those men. I’m grateful that the world has seen such great men, thank you for that.