Buket Uzuner talks about her novel “Two Green Otters” to “For Books’s Sake”

How many Turkish women writers can you name? I felt pretty ashamed at my ignorance as recent events in Turkey have brought issues of media censorship to the fore and seen twenty-nine publishing houses closed down by President Erdogan’s government. It is at times like this that we should be looking to shine a light on the work that we can still access in print, or, we run the grave risk of enabling the Turkish government in, as the Turkish Publishers Association put it, ‘stifling…freedom of thought and expression’.

Buket Uzuner, is something of a national treasure in Turkey. Award-winning novelist and short story writer, eco-feminist, animal rights activist and environmentalist, she has been named one of Turkey’s seventy-five most influential women. Her internationally bestselling novels have been translated into 10 languages, one of which is Two Green Ottersa Turkish modern classic, which has sold over a million copies and is now in its 50th print edition. 

The story follows Nilsu and Teoman, two darkly passionate individuals both grappling with their identity in the wake of two kinds of parental neglect – divorce in Nilsu’s case and in Teo’s, his mother’s suicide. Uzuner explores sweeping and complex themes of love and self-love, death, self-expression and environmentalism, Nilsu and Teo’s fractured relationships with step-parents, friends, partners, and their relationship each-other – two broken, yet symbiotic souls. All of this, set against the backdrop of political and social unrest in seventies Turkey, summarisd by Nilsu, when she says, ‘sometimes I wonder if the political troubles in Turkey come from the fact that we went straight from the dark ages into modernity, without going through the Enlightenment”.

So loved is Buket’s story in Turkey, that she frequently meets readers who have named their children after Nilsu and Teo. ‘In the beginning, I thought it was just a lovely gesture, but this “gesture” has been continuing for the last 20 years,’ she tells me. 

Milet is one of several British publishing houses that have taken extra steps to show their support to Turkish writers, including publishing a new English translation of Two Green Otters. For Books’ Sake leapt at the chance of an interview with Buket.

Given the political unrest in Turkey, which rose to the fore again in recent months, Two Green Otters, though first published in 1991, still feels like a pertinent read. The characters are, in the main, restless, passionate and intermittently unreliable, did you consciously make them so to reflect the setting?

I am flattered with your words because I think it is a great joy for any writer to hear that her novel still matters years after it was first published. Two Green Otters has second-generation readers in Turkey now, and today’s young readers think that this is one of my recent novels. I do not know the secret recipe for staying relevant, but as you can imagine, I am definitely enjoying it.

In the book we are told, ‘It takes courage and compassion for a person to truly bond with another. Sometimes even bridges aren’t enough’. The protagonist, Nilsu, is constantly isolating herself, feeling herself undeserving of love. Why did you make her this way? Is human connection, do you think, the key to happiness?

If Nilsu had a loving mother and a self-confident father, and if she were not suddenly abandoned by both parents, she might have behaved in a different way in her relationship with the outside world. Aren’t our behaviour patterns and individual identities formed mostly by cultural codes and by our family? Yet Nilsu was not experiencing something common in her early teen years. While divorced couples and single-parent families are common in Turkey now, my novel is set in 1978 when divorce was quite a disgraceful matter among middle-class Turks.

On the other hand, aren’t “we human beings the only social animals on the planet?” This sentence was a motto in our biology lessons at all the public and private high schools in Turkey for decades until 15 years ago… It may be an ordinary statement for you, but [referring to] homo sapiens as part of the animal kingdom, even in a biological context, [is] a very brave statement in certain cultures! Evolutionary Theory at our public schools has gradually vanished.

Being “social animals”, we need each other, but what shall we do when that very human need turns into an addiction and/or an uncontrollable dependence? I think Nilsu is very much afraid of being left again until she meets Teo, the Green Party member.

Conversely, when the characters do open themselves up to love, they do so passionately, often to destructive ends. Nilsu’s blind adoration for her dad, destroys her relationship with others, her father’s relationship with Selen implodes, N.G. and Cahide are damaged in their own ways by forbidden love. The novel feels almost deliberately conflicted in this sense. Was that intentional?

As a feminist, I am not a great fan of Freud, but I believe he was not wrong about the Oedipus complex… [A] good and loving father is usually a daughter’s ideal man, and Nilsu is one of those daughters. She… mistakenly t[akes] her father as a model male for herself. And her father’s failures in his love affairs mislead her for many years in her own relationships with men. This story has been told to us mostly by male writers from the point of [view] of male protagonists. What I tried to do is [show] a female point of view – how a father’s failures affect daughters. Maybe it is time to stop blaming only mothers for the damage [in] their children’s lives. Men, as fathers have to face this.

I was a rebellious young girl, and while watching the unfair social and political system of Turkey, and of the world – racism, sexism, misogyny, despotism and in general most of the “isms” – I felt helpless and angry.The theme of life v. suicide is prevalent throughout the book. Nilsu sees her two lovers, Teoman and Mike, as representing the two sides of the coin. Is she right to do so? What fascinates you about this theme?

Suicide was one of the biggest dilemmas of life for me when I was teenager. I was trying to read and understand Nietzsche and Sartre in good translations in Turkish. Both nihilism and existentialism, as much as I was able to understand at that young age, were leading me to question the meaning of life. I was a rebellious young girl, and while watching the unfair social and political system of Turkey, and of the world – racism, sexism, misogyny, despotism and in general most of the “isms” – I felt helpless and angry. Also, some of the writers I most loved, whose literary works affected me most deeply, committed suicide, like Woolf, Hemingway, and the young Turkish woman poet Nilgun Marmara. All of this kept my mind busy for years. Was suicide a kind of rebellious action against authority? Writing Two Green Otters helped me to solve this in my mind to a certain extent. I decided to defend life as Nilsu.

A lot of the other characters isolate themselves in some way too. Nilsu’s father in his lab, Teoman in his environmental and political pursuits, Mike in his depression, N.G. in grief for her best friend etc. Do you view isolation as another form of suicide?

Self-isolation can be a slow version of suicide. The prison-cell punishment serves the same purpose, doesn’t it? I think we all have certain “shelters” or… “havens” in which we try to isolate and save ourselves from time to time. We use the word “escape” for a holiday. Adam Phillips wrote: “All of us lead two parallel lives: the life actually lived and the one we wish for and fantasise about” in his marvellous book Missing Out. His description is for the healthy and lucky ones among us, of course. We are not all that lucky to have control of our lives.  And sometimes the isolation zone or fantasy becomes real life, which is the case for some characters in the novel.

What does seem to bridge all the characters though, is literature – poetry, writing, letters – do you believe literature can be the bridge for human connection?

When Two Green Otters was first published in Turkey, there were debates about whether it was a “post-modern” novel like Orhan Pamuk’s works. Post-modernism was considered a false version of real literature by many literary authorities, who were all male. I was a young writer and did not really know much about post-modernism then. I wanted to say that literature and art – especially poetry and music – can save lives, using examples of cases when it did. So using the actual names of the writers and artists, I was accused of being an early post-modern Turkish writer! Yes, of course literature cures the soul’s wounds and one remedy is to create a bridge between human beings.

You studied biology and ecology, and are a keen environmentalist. This is also a theme in the book. Teoman is a passionate member of the Green party but becomes disillusioned with the cause as the novel unfolds. Why is this?

Mother Nature and all of her living creatures have been at the centre of my attention since childhood. My mother’s family comes from a tradition that holds a strong love for, and dedication to, nature and all living creatures on the planet, which is known in Anatolia as the Mevlevi and Bektaşi tradition. This tradition stems from the humanist poet and philosopher Rumi, who lived and died in Konya in Anatolia. My great grandfather was a Rumi poet and traveler in the Ottoman Empire. My brother and I grew up with the belief that all living creatures have souls and can hear us. So studying ecology was natural for me. I have another novel called The Sound of Fish Steps, and my latest series of novels are titled The Nature Quartet. I am dealing with Turkish Shamanism before the Islamification of Turks in those books.

The Turkish Green Party was very important for me but unfortunately it was not successful and it exists only as an NGO nowadays. [Like me], Teo… realises the disappointing end of the Green Party.

Two Green Otters is such an interesting title. Teoman identifies himself as an otter. Why is that? What is the significance of the title?

The original title is Two Green Otters, Their Mothers, Fathers, Lovers and the Others.  Maybe the longest title in Turkish literature! First of all, I love to use symbols, and, as… used in all mythologies, animals are the best symbols to reflect us. We have almost the same DNA.

I love Saki’s (H.H. Munro) witty satirical short stories. In one of his stories called “Laura” he mentions otters. My protagonist Teo is a witty and sarcastic person and I thought Saki’s humour fitted him perfectly. The combination of green and otter came together in my mind then.

Without giving too much away, the conceit of the book – a woman called Nilsu approaches a writer with the pages detailing her life and asking her to write it as a novel – leaves us with a lot of gaps. To a certain extent, we are left to create our own story out of the words you have given us. Is reading always a form of creating, do you think?

This is a good point to touch on because many readers thought that I was the writer in the novel and Nilsu left her life story in a nice file for me. There have been thousands of family trees of the novel’s characters drawn by readers and sent to me by email, or given to me in person at my readings. They all wanted to know who was actually who. Some of them took the novel too seriously. But I was really happy to be able to pull the reader into the novel and to do the work with me. I am a great fan of Cervantes, who was one of the first literary figures who dared to talk directly to readers, or maybe it was Laurence Sterne…

Two Green Otters is published by independent publisher Milet, a long-time publisher of translated Turkish literature. You can buy the novel here and find out more about Buket and her work here.

Buket Uzuner talks about her novel “Two Green Otters” to “For Books’s Sake”

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