INTERVIEW: “Literature is the Spice of Life”

“Literature is the Spice of Life”: an interview with Hatice Meryem
Hatice Meryem
By Amy Spangler and İdil Aydoğan

How would you describe yourself and your work to an audience that doesn’t know you at all?

There was something Fethi Naci said about Turkish literature. I do not totally agree with him but I like descriptions of literature which draw parallels with other areas of life. He said that Turkish literature was like Turkish football. But that Turkish football had recently left Turkish literature behind. This was back when they became UEFA champions. I think that they’re on about even footing now with Orhan Pamuk. It is difficult to talk about your own work. But I have always thought I resembled Turkey. I used to think this back when I was a child too. Where I stood in my class in school as a kid, my position in the places I worked, all my feelings of deficiency in my relationships, my lack of self-confidence, my weaknesses, lack of knowledge, I have always felt incomplete. And now that is how I see myself on the literary scene. I find myself insufficient and incomplete. But I’m now aware that all these deficiencies can be seen as a kind of unique flavour. I don’t really know. What I mean is; literature is something I do without really knowing. It’s not really something I do knowingly. When I worked in the bank I did that knowingly, that is the sort of work you do knowingly. I believe this is how real authors write. So I’m sort of flattering myself here. But I also know that I do it wrong, and that it’s incomplete. I mostly find my narrative ability insufficient. I want to tell someone’s story. I want to write about a friend, my mother, a cat, a dog, a bird, good and evil, all human feelings, and I find myself insufficient in describing all of them. But I force myself. And I know that this is exactly what pushes me to write. I have never been satisfied with my writing. And I don’t think I ever will be.

What were you like as a child?

My parents got divorced when I was five. I went to five or six different primary schools. We moved around a lot. My mother and father had a truly passionate relationship. They were divorced but they wouldn’t stop seeing each other and it wasn’t because of me. There was this constant tension because they just wouldn’t let go of each other. I was actually a lost child, amid all that tension. But I remember that I had turned that loss into an advantage back then. I was a curious child, I was interested in things. I remember back then that I had developed an extraordinary imagination. I went to boarding school from the age of five to eight. But then I moved in with my grandmother and in doing so met an extraordinary woman. My grandmother was the daughter of a Kurdish family and she was a treasure full of wonderful stories. And I was always special to her, perhaps because my mum and dad were divorced. She had seventeen grandchildren and I was her favourite. She would always say that she loved me most of all in front of everyone. Hatice is different she would say. And I loved her every bit as much as she loved me. She had this book which I haven’t managed to find yet, Turkish translations of surahs from the Koran. They were short stories or anecdotes that had been retold. She would make me read them every night. In Turkish. She didn’t speak Arabic herself. She didn’t perform salaat, she was Alawi, and never spoke a word of Kurdish. She was a thoroughly assimilated Kurd. She didn’t like Kurds but she was a Kurd herself. Anyway, she is someone I will always deeply miss. Not because she was my grandmother, but because she was a person so full of stories, the kind of person I wish I could be around all the time. She had this suitcase under her bed. And in that suitcase there was a sack, and in that sack forty other small sacks, and inside each small sack was a stone, and each stone had its own story. I haven’t written her stone stories yet, but I hope to someday. Each stone had its own tale of goodness, evil, treachery, in which virtues were praised and vices were condemned. She would tell me their stories. Once upon a time, each of those stones used to be other objects, say like, it was a grain of rice, but it had turned to stone, an olive seed, but it had turned to stone, because… well there are millions of stories which I won’t tell you now. Some of them were objects that turned to stone after a person had done evil to some other person. Can you imagine being eight years old and living with a woman who tells you stories like that? Before then, because I went to boarding school, I never knew what it was to play outside. Then I moved in with my grandmother, and she lived in a remote area on the suburbs of İstanbul, where then there were only empty land and fields. There were small houses on those vast fields. I was a talented child when it came to organising games and getting my friends to play them. I would tell the other kids stories, make things up, lie to them, trick them. Witch stories, Jinn stories… Stuff like, an old man used to live in that deserted house, he had a bucket full of gold coins… and after dark, we’d all go on an expedition to the house where the old man used to live. That period of my childhood was wonderful. I flew kites in those fields. They were the years when I felt free. But then on the other hand, there was the tension caused by my mother and father. They got back together when I was eleven. I always say this, and today I am saying it as a mother: sometimes, it is just better for parents to stay away from each other. When my parents got back together, I entered a very dark, depressing period. From the age of eleven until I graduated from college, I was in a state of paralysis, a sort of coma, I was numb. You know when you can’t see the world clearly, when nothing ever seems right, a truly unhealthy state. When I think about it today, I still get upset to think how that curious child who made up games and had a boundless imagination that allowed her to make up and tell all those scary stories disappeared and was replaced by this numb person. But I don’t know, maybe it was a necessary period in the process of my becoming who I am.

So when exactly did you begin writing? Did you write when you were young?

Well, I used to write poems when I was in secondary school. Very short, sweet little poems. I mostly wrote poems about nature. But I really started writing when I was in university. Suddenly I had this great desire to keep a regular diary, and so I felt the need to write in that diary until my arm just about fell off. I just couldn’t stop. I wrote everything in great detail. It was very tiring though. I just wanted to write simple diary entries, but I couldn’t. And then, in my last year, I started writing short stories, but I didn’t tell anyone, and I didn’t send them off to any literary journals or anything. To tell you the truth, I didn’t even know that such a world existed. But after I started writing, I felt this great sense of relief. For the very first time. Then I graduated and started working in a bank. I was living a life I had never wanted for myself. And then I met Metin. He is a caricaturist and a writer, a humorist, as you already know. I had him read my early stories. I’d ask him to have a look at them, and then we’d discuss them together. Afterwards, I sent those stories to a competition at the literary journal Varlık. And I received an honourable mention award. After I received that award, a process of recovery began for me. That’s what I would call it. And after that I quit my job at the bank. And then I went to the UK.

Yes. We were going to ask you about that. Tell us a bit about your experiences there.

I went as an au-pair. What I really had in mind was to stay there for a couple of months, and from there I’d go to France, and from there to Malaysia, and from there to New Zealand. I was going to travel the world. I worked as a cleaner in several different homes. I was unbelievably happy. I woke up early in the mornings, at seven o’clock. I’d do the cleaning until twelve. And then I’d take a shower and then, well I was in the countryside in north London where there were these huge parks extending as far as the eye could see, and so, I’d grab a book, like one of the novels in Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, and I’d just let go and lose myself in the deep love stories of Justine, or Clea. It was wonderful. I read a lot of books. I worked a lot. I had decided to become an author when I left Turkey. I felt that it was too late, that I was too old. But when I think about it today, I was only twenty-three. But I felt that it was too late for everything and that I was incapable, not fully equipped. I stayed there for six months. I can honestly say that it was the most productive period of my life. I was fascinated by the difference between mental and physical labour. Physical labour is truly amazing. When you’re physically exhausted and you take a shower to cleanse yourself, and then you turn your gaze to the world with those weary but keen eyes and return to your own tranquil or not so tranquil state of mind and begin to observe and analyse things again, this had made me extremely creative. I returned with a great number of drafts of short stories. And I was physically recovered. The process of my becoming a writer has been a process of recovery. Before I decided to become a writer, I was an unhealthy person. After I started writing, I could feel that I was getting better. I still don’t feel fully recovered but… I have managed to break free of all that chaos. I now feel a lot better.

Tell us about your first book, Siftah.

In Siftah there are several sacks, several stones that belong to me, and I feel as if I sometimes delve my hand into that book and pick one of those stones out. İnsan Kısım Kısım Yer Damar Damar is something I took from there. It was also the source for Sinek Kadar Kocam Olsun. I think it will always be my fountainhead. The stories in Siftah are amateur, not very well written, the language is perhaps a bit sloppy. But it is still my source and there are still a few things I think I could pick out from there and write. None of those stories are connected to each other and when I look back today, I can see that each was written in a distinct moment of delirium. Looking back now, I see them not as distinct stories but as distinct states of mind that all belong to me. They are all immanent, embedded in me, and the last thing to arise from there was Kozluk, and now other things will arise. I’m working on a few things now.

And then Sinek Kadar Kocam Olsun Başımda Bulunsun appeared in 2002.

Yes. Well, first I wrote this story which consisted of short paragraphs each on a different woman’s experience. They begin; if I were an Imam’s wife, if I were a butcher’s wife… and so on. It was published in the literary journal Varlık. After it was published, the editor Enver Ercan called me and said ‘Meryem, a few people have called me about this story, some of these people are prestigious authors, others are readers who said that they loved it.’ I had more to write anyway, so I decided to make that short story into a book. So I wrote more and when I had thirty pieces, I had it published as Sinek Kadar Kocam Olsun Başımda Bulunsun in 2002. It was published by İletişim. And something I could never have imagined happened. The book sold a lot of copies. In the first week it was reprinted three times. In the first month it was reprinted five times and this went on throughout the rest of the year. And I think it will always sell well as long as it’s advertised properly. But that’s not what really matters, the sales I mean. The women I wrote about in that book were all common people. The greatest praise I received for that book was something my friend who works in Arkadaş bookstore in İstiklal told me. He said ‘Meryem, you should see the women who come to buy your book, their hands are all sore and they look like they’ve just finished doing the washing up, and have stormed out to get your book.’ I was so happy. This was such great praise. Every author would want this. I mean, it’s not just about selling well; it’s about quality, who really reads your books.

So how did you get around to creating Kozluk?

I didn’t really do it consciously. I mean, I didn’t set out with the idea to write a book about the poor. But then again this was something in my unconscious that kept pestering me. Both because I have a background in magazine publishing, and because of my family background. My family is from Sivas, they immigrated to İstanbul in the 60’s and although it has been fifty years, and fifty years is a very long time, they are still divided amongst themselves as those who have managed to adapt and those who haven’t. You can’t really say that they are of the wealthier class. So I know all that I know from my personal experiences. Therefore I am familiar with poverty, and as magazine publisher, as a person who is socially responsible, as a person who has a point of view in life, and as a person who has a point of view that definitely leans to the left, I know that this problem exists in Turkey and I’d like to tell the stories of these people. I know these people and their problems very well. I know what they laugh at. I see you have a question for me there (peeping at our notes), who is Zümrüt, who is Elmas? Zümrüt is the common name for all the women I know that are like her, Elmas is the common name for all the young girls I know that live in the shanties. Cavit, the name for all the idle, unemployed, aimless, weak and feeble men. And his weakness is not just about money, he is spiritually weak as well, he feels feeble, and that’s why he keeps saying that he has no one to lean on. But I tried to write about them in blatant honesty, portraying all their cunningness and everything. I wasn’t trying to glorify poverty or trying to get the reader to feel sorry for them. I wrote about them clear and simple, showing all their cunningness and shrewdness, their slyness, and their cheerfulness. And the parts I enjoyed writing the most were chapters which showed how simple and ordinary objects were of vital importance to them. But I didn’t sit down to write a three hundred page novel. I started writing a story, as always, and it just kept going. It could have gone on forever. That’s why I found it so difficult to finish. They always say you need some understanding of engineering to write a novel, they say you need some sort of academic background. A novel is sort of like a project if you come to think about it. It’s a building with its base and roof, a beginning and an end. 

A construct.

Yes, a construct. And within that construct I became deaf and dumb. I wanted to finish it but I just couldn’t, and I didn’t know where it was leading to, their life just kept on running. It’s morning, it’s evening, they wake up, they go to bed, the baby cries, there’s the disabled girl… I could have gone on forever. There’s so much to write about in Kozluk.

We wanted to ask you about the relationship between translator and author.

I have to confess that up until recently, I had never given it much thought. Because since the publication of my first book, I have known and been told by everyone, that I write in a very local language. I have been told that my writing is so local and that I use so many Turkish idioms and proverbs that it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for my work to be translated into another language. A lot of people have told me that all the flavour would be lost; the text would no longer be the same, but a recreation of the translator. So I’ve only recently started thinking about this. I think it can be possible if the author and translator spend plenty of time together (of course this can only apply to authors that are still alive), get to know each other better and get a grasp of the daily language each uses. I’m saying this, but I have no idea if it’s true. Ok, the text has to be of primary importance, but the way an author expresses herself can be an assistive element for the translator. How the author speaks, where she looks and what she sees. Other than this, I really have no knowledge.

Well, the local language, idioms and proverbs you use do cause a certain unfamiliarity when translated. Or else the text loses its originality. I always ask myself what my mother would have said in that certain situation. But if I use the idioms that my mother would have used, then the text is something totally different.

I have thought about that, I haven’t come to any sort of conclusion, but I can tell you about what I thought. I could write the same story, any of my stories, plain and translatable. Any author could do that. This is a matter of preference. But when you’re in a tumult as you write, as you create something, sometimes you write in a delirium, real fast, and you read through it and do some editing afterwards. But when you’ve finished writing and all these idioms and proverbs have rightly found their place, you can’t go back and take them out thinking, ‘What if it’s ever translated?’ The moment you think this, you become a bank clerk making calculations, and I dropped out of that. The terms used in a bank are universal. That’s what makes Literature so valuable. I mean, it’s those idioms and proverbs that make the Turkish Turkish, the German German, the French French, and the Argentinean Argentinean. And I do believe it is possible. I mean, those idioms can be translated. Perhaps it wouldn’t be easy. But they do say that English is a language that has forty thousand words, whereas in Turkish we have far fewer words. So there must be some sort of equivalence. It’s impossible for there not to be. There has to be a saying in English for İnsan Kısım Kısım Yer Damar Damar. Something that means the more different people there are, the more different ideas and thoughts you get. Something that would give the same flavour. 

Are there writers in Turkey you think are not being given the attention they deserve?

There are writers in Turkey that I would like to see come to the forefront. They’re generally not found literary enough. Either because they are considered too marginal, or found to be too simple. Therefore, they are not believed to be worthy of respect. I see that there is wider diversity in European and American literature. On the one hand you have huge and heavy, serious literary texts, and on the other you have works in which marginal lives are told. We praise both. We love both Bukowski and any other important author in American literature. We accept everything when it’s foreign, but when it’s native, it’s a whole different story. When we come to talk about literature in Turkey, we begin with Tanpınar and end with Orhan Pamuk, and sometimes stick in Latife Tekin and Yaşar Kemal. This is literature. Well, no it’s not. There are such peculiar lives. Perhaps the only author who has told the story of how different and colourful lives are lived here in Turkey is Metin Kaçan, in his Dolapdere story, Ağır Roman, and I’m sure you’ll remember the tremendous impact that that novel made. There are people today who lead really different lives. Especially around Beyoğlu, there’s a seriously rich subculture. And I want them to be known. There’s the schizophrenic writer Sibel Torunoğlu. There’s Mehmet Kartal, the man is a murderer, a real murderer. Take William Burroughs for example, when he does it, we praise him to the skies, but when our own authors do it, we don’t see it the same.

How would you comment on the relationship between literature and society in Turkey today?

Literature played a primary role for us in the past, in the period that corresponds to my childhood. Then I grew up, I reached the age of twenty-five or thirty, and opened my eyes to a world in which literature flowed outside real life. As if it were some sort of sector. The butchers’ sector, the banking sector, the textile sector, and finally, the literary sector. There is no such thing. Literature is not a sector but something that embraces all aspects of life; it is the spice of life. This no longer exists, but I am one of those who believe it can be revived.

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