March 14, 2012 | PEN American
The transcript below is adapted from a conversation between Buket Uzuner and Amélie Nothomb that took place at the 2011 PEN World Voices Festival. It appears in PEN America 15: Maps.
KIRA BRUNNER DON: Both of you write about your personal lives. Is there a limit, something you won’t talk about?
BUKET UZUNER: There is a difference between writing about yourself and about your personal life. Nowadays—not only in Turkey, but wherever I travel, mostly in Europe—young writers want to turn their lives into books, into novels, because they believe their lives are that important. Mostly I tell those kids who want to be writers that you have to have your own ideas. Of course, I myself am in my novels and books, but I strongly believe that you must distinguish between your life and your ideas.
AMÉLIE NOTHOMB: I can write all I want about myself—no problem, I am raw material. But when others are involved in your life, you don’t know if they want to appear. When others appear in my books, I make sure they cannot be recognized by anyone but me.
DON: Buket, you said at one point, “Love is the indispensable must of an Istanbul novel.”
UZUNER: Actually, that was written by my editor. The Turkish edition says, “In an Istanbul novel, there must be love.” But in every novel, there must be love, because it’s connected with life! Literature helps to tell us that we are not alone wherever we are—and literature has no borders for me. I was very much fed by European literature when I was growing up: German, French, Russian literature. I count Goethe as one of my literary grandfathers and Victor Hugo also. Hugo says, basically, that there are no cultural boundaries between literatures. There is only one literature, written in different languages—Turkish, French, English. That’s why literature is so important: It connects us. We are here because of that today and it doesn’t matter if she’s writing in French or I’m writing in Turkish; we are all writing about love and death.
DON: Amélie, you’ve also written about love, in Tokyo Fiancée—
NOTHOMB: Yes, but I tried to do the opposite. I tried to write a novel only about hate, avoiding any love, as an experiment and, well, I finished it, and it was totally unreadable. So, I mean, chemically, you need to bring love in. It’s part of writing.
UZUNER: I’m laughing because I’m one of her fans in Turkey. Several books of hers are translated into Turkish, and especially when I visited Japan, she became my soulmate in many senses, because we share feelings about Japanese culture.
NOTHOMB: Thank you.
DON: Going back to what Buket was saying about literature—that we are all connected by reading these different books—in your novel The Sound of Fishsteps, you actually make all your characters great literary figures, or the great-grandchildren of literary figures or historic figures. There’s Joan of Arc, there’s Anaïs Nin, there’s Galileo.… I’m wondering what you think about the responsibility we have to that past and that artistic lineage.
UZUNER: I believe we have no chance to choose our relatives, our nations, our color, language, religion, whatever. So, since childhood—that little girl who wanted to be an astronaut and a submarine captain—I always wanted to create my own family. I run a workshop with young readers in Turkey, and I ask, “If you were to create your own family, who would you choose?” And it doesn’t matter if they come from the literary world. If they are fans of football, they could choose those relatives. The main point is that it’s a psychological test. I have a small studio in Istanbul, a little tiny place, and on one wall you see some of those writers who appear in The Sound of Fishsteps, like Romain Gary, the great French writer. I dedicated that novel to him actually, to his memory. And then you can see Anaïs Nin and Victor Hugo, some Turkish writers like Attilâ İlhan.
“The Other” is a very fashionable term these days. The Other is my neighbor, the Other is me. Literature must, in my opinion, bring us together, not force us apart, because we are the same. When I travel, for example, to North Africa, and I sit and have tea with a Bedouin in the desert, and he tells me—well, first, he asks me questions like, am I single, he has three wives and he wants me to be his fourth wife, since I come from the Islamic culture I should understand this and that, and so on. And the next thing he says is that he hates Atatürk, because he brought secularism to Turkish culture. I’m sitting there almost naked in his eyes, even in clothes, and then he offers me nana, the mint tea, and we talk and talk and I tell him that I have only one husband, but I can take him as my second husband—and he is shocked. “What is this? Are you Turkish? Are you Islamic?”
Yes! I come from the Middle East. But we have this identity problem in Turkey. Are we Western or Eastern? And this problem sits in the middle of all Turkish writers’ novels—maybe inside the book or maybe on top of it. The Turkish culture is unique in that we are Balkan, Mediterranean, Caucasian, Asian, Middle Eastern. And if there is a culture belonging to those six, seven cultural geographies, of course the identity problem must be in the spines of our novels. I feel it will take more time, but we have to tell our friends in the Western world that we belong to all those cultures. Yes, we are European, too, I always remind my friends—especially when I’m in Europe. And when the Ottoman Empire was falling down, the Ottoman Empire was called the sick man of where? Europe. Unfortunately, you will see this identity crisis in Turkish novels for maybe twenty years more or so. But then maybe literature will help us to come together—as we are doing today.
DON: The problem that you bring up leads to another—which is the situation of being a woman writer in Turkey.
UZUNER: I think being a woman is difficult everywhere. I am a biologist and environmental scientist by education, so women’s problems remind me of environmental problems: There is pollution everywhere. And women’s problems are everywhere. I lived in Norway and Finland for several years—because I wanted to travel, and the only way for me to travel was to get scholarships. That’s why in my biography you will see five nice universities: I wanted to get the scholarships and travel the world. And I’m still trying to travel.
Even in those Scandinavian countries, women are beaten by husbands and put in shelters. But being a Turkish woman doubles the problem: the so-called honor killings. I tell Western journalists who interview me that the biggest problem of Turkish culture is the women problem. Five women in one day are killed in Turkey in the name of honor. We women are getting stronger in Turkey and pushing the government to change the laws against those men. I believe men are stressed, too, because they have to do the killing.
DON: You think it’s a game they don’t want to play themselves.
UZUNER: No. No, and I’m glad you asked me this because this is as important as the freedom of speech—the women’s problem in Turkey.
DON: And, Amélie, I read that your own family expected you to marry, have children. Getting pregnant with these books and giving birth to them was not what they expected from their daughter.
NOTHOMB: Yes, of course, though my problems are nothing compared to what we have just listened to. But even in Belgium it is still more difficult as a woman. I come from a very traditional family, a very Catholic family, and in my family, a woman has to get married and have children, or, if she wants, maybe publish a book. But only if, first of all, she is married and has had several children, which didn’t happen for me. So I am the social case of the family. But that’s not so important.
You told me earlier—I hadn’t heard—about a rumor that I’m not writing my books. So I would like to know: Who writes my books?
DON: Let me explain the rumor. I read this on the Internet—it’s posted a lot of places. To me, it immediately seemed false. But there is supposedly a mysterious older Italian man you corresponded with—you never met him, but he gave you all the ideas for your novels. There is something very eighteenth-century about the idea that you didn’t write them, as though you found them in an attic or something. When I mentioned it, you were shocked.
NOTHOMB: I’d never heard about it. There were several very different rumors that you pointed out to me. The only consistent point was that my books were not written by a woman. It had to be a man. And an older one.
DON: An Italian.
NOTHOMB: I would love to meet that man. At last!
DON: Yes. They claim this all happened in the ’80s and ’90s. Now, can you also speak a little bit about your persona? You have a very public persona in France. Your hat is part of it, your appearance.… You play a particular sort of intellectual, public role. Can you talk a little bit about that as a responsibility?
NOTHOMB: Well, I don’t feel it at all like that. I know that it used to be said about me but it’s not my feeling. The fact is that I became a writer. That was a miracle for me. Of course, I hoped for it—but I didn’t know I would succeed. And I became a very successful writer, which was even more surprising to me. And, nowadays, when you become a successful writer, you have to appear. This is still a problem for me. I was not brought up with the idea of appearing. It’s difficult—it’s difficult for everybody, not only for writers. I hated my physique, so I wondered how I could appear without people vomiting. So this was the only solution I found—it’s not so awesome, I’m just wearing a hat, you know. If you take off the hat, it’s normal. But this means something: It means that nowadays, at least in Europe, it’s easy to seem eccentric.
DON: You told me that in France, during interviews it becomes a big conversation piece. They have to talk to you about it, and sort of take it apart—who’s the real you, and so on.
NOTHOMB: Yes, I wonder about those questions. They could be asked of everybody. It is difficult for everybody to appear everywhere. When I was a schoolgirl, it was difficult to go to class.
DON: And we all present ourselves all the time.
NOTHOMB: Yes. Yes.
DON: Both of you, in different ways, have lived very international lives. Amélie, your whole childhood you moved from place to place to place, and Buket, you have traveled extensively for your travel writing. You sent me something that I hadn’t read about New York, where you talk about different cities as different characters—Paris as the ex-husband, Istanbul as the soulmate, New York as the passionate lover.…
DON: Yeah, I know, it’s really good—I think that makes a lot of sense.
UZUNER: I had Madrid lately.
DON: Oh, yes? And what is Madrid?
UZUNER: Future husband.
DON: Right! I also remember Amélie saying at one point that if you hadn’t lived internationally—if, say, you had just been born in Brussels and lived there your whole life—you might not have become a writer.
NOTHOMB: How can I know? We will never know.
DON: Well, that’s true. This is going to have to be a hypothetical conversation. Buket, what do you think?
UZUNER: Well, when my writer friends say that they never knew they’d be writers, I am shocked. Because I knew it from the very beginning. My mother is very much involved in literature, and she was the first person who told me that everything has a story. So if I didn’t like to eat a certain food, say, she would make up a story about it. Or the thing that I didn’t want to wear, because it was old and I wanted something new, my mom would say, “Oh, you know the tailor somewhere in this small town in Russia, he was sitting there and he had to have a needle and he didn’t have any needle,” and I would start to like my clothes then—because they have a story. In the late ’60s and ’70s, when I grew up, there were stamps. She showed me one of the legendary Turkish woman writer Halide Edip Adivar—she was on the stamp, and my mother said, “Look at her! She’s on the stamps!” I thought, “Oh, I must be a writer and I must be on the stamp, my mother would like it.” But for God’s sake, there are no stamps anymore.
So I always knew that I would be a writer, whatever else I did—being an astronaut and all those things. And I still believe in telling stories and making stories, which is the most human thing that brings us together. This week there was a wonderful panel discussion about e-books and the future of books. I’m not one of those who are scared that we will have all digital books, no—because the story will be in it. But I’m scared that writers in the future might think that fame and money comes from literature—that is scary for me. Because everybody wants to be a writer, and who will read those books? Being genuine and courageous—that makes you a writer, especially if you’re a woman.
NOTHOMB: Of course this is the thousand-dollar question: What would I be if I were born in Belgium and brought up in Belgium? How can I know? I’ve got an older sister and a brother, both of them had the same life that I had, and they are not writers—so you see it is not a magic formula. I changed countries when I was a child and a teenager about every three years, and every three years it was, for me, the end of the world. I had to begin everything again in another very far-away country. So, of course it was difficult. Very soon I noticed that the only thing I had that was my own was language. It was the only thing I didn’t lose every three years. Every three years I lost my home, my friends, my nanny, my dog, my school, my life—the only thing left over was language. So I suppose this was why I became so obsessed by language. I didn’t know I was supposed to become a writer—of course, I read a lot, but I revered literature so much that it seemed unreachable. You know, “How can I become a writer? It’s such a temple, how can I enter that temple?”
When I finally arrived in Belgium, my very first time in Europe, I was seventeen years old, and I studied philology—but not at all in order to become a philology teacher or a writer. At that time my only ambition was to become Japanese. When I turned twenty-one, I bought a one-way ticket to Tokyo and I went back to “my” country believing that all my problems would end when I found my way back to the native soil. And of course when I arrived in Japan, big problems began. So I wrote about them in several novels. But at that moment, believe me, I didn’t know I was supposed to write them down in a novel. I wrote them years later. My Japanese experience was a tragedy and a failure, and two years later, when I was twenty-three, I escaped Japan. And I went back to Belgium thinking, My goodness, what am I going to do? How shall I work? How shall I earn my living? Well, I had already begun to write several manuscripts—without any real idea about them. I began to write manuscripts when I was seventeen years old, only because I was feeling so bad that I didn’t know what to do. But being twenty-three, feeling so humiliated because in this Japanese company, I ended up working in the bathroom—
DON: Right, you started working for the company, and slowly went down the line until you were cleaning toilets. This is a true story.
NOTHOMB: This is a true story. As I cleaned toilets for seven months, I was already so humiliated that I couldn’t be afraid of anything. Even if I wrote novels and no publishers would want them, it wouldn’t be important.
DON: It’s not as bad as toilet cleaning.
NOTHOMB: Yes. I wrote my eleventh manuscript and it was published in Paris. I don’t know if this answers your question, but it’s a kind of answer.
DON: Yes, thank you. All right, why don’t we open it up for questions from the audience.
AUDIENCE: This is facetious, but, Amélie, do you think you wear that hat because you actually are an older man?
NOTHOMB: Yes, of course. You got it. Indeed, the hair is fixed to the hat and it makes me look female. Otherwise I would seem to be a man, of course.
AUDIENCE: I want to ask each of you about the experience of reading yourself in English translation. Is it the voice that you recognize? Is it a shift from the voice you recognize?
UZUNER: With English, I don’t have that problem. English is my second language, so it’s familiar for me. And French is okay, I understand un petit peu. But with Greek and Hebrew, I’m unsure—even the alphabet is different.
NOTHOMB: Well, for me to hear myself, to see the text in English, of course there’s a change of music, but most of all I must tell you, the first thing is that for me, it’s the sound of success. Especially for a Belgian writer. It’s definitely the sound of success.
AUDIENCE: I have a question for Amélie. You’ve written so many manuscripts, you write so many per year, how do you do it, physically, do you spend all day in front of a computer, or—
NOTHOMB: Oh, no, I don’t even own a computer, because I am unable to use it. I am a very old-style writer. I write every day, without exception, even when I’m ill, even when I have huge problems, from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. So this is a discipline. But I know that I need it in order to survive.
AUDIENCE: In your books you express a big love of Japan, but it comes with a dose of criticism. How were your books read in Japan?
NOTHOMB: Well, what was wonderful is that they were read. If I would write such books about China, they wouldn’t be read in China. They were read and were bestsellers in Japan. Like any other people in the planet, the Japanese don’t enjoy being criticized, but they care. Of course, I love Japan, and we all know, when you love somebody, you criticize him. It’s always the same.
AUDIENCE: I just finished reading Tokyo Fiancée and very much enjoyed the book. Your books have not yet begun to really inundate readers in the United States. What can you say about that?
NOTHOMB: Well, you know, everything needs a beginning. Of course, it’s the beginning of a very long love affair.
AUDIENCE: This is also a question for Amélie. One of the things I find most fascinating about many of your books is their philosophical engagement with readers—you take them into almost an oppositional, argumentative state, where they’re somehow included in the experience. A reader thinks, How would I behave in this situation? How would I behave when confronted with this?
NOTHOMB: You know, I don’t publish all that I write, but of course, if I publish a book, it is for the reader—the reader is the most important character. Each reader is the main character, and it’s fascinating—but it’s also a problem for me, because when we share the book, and it’s no longer mine, I am in danger. Believe me, it is true: I am in great danger because people feel so much at home in my novels that some of them have the feeling they own me. And it’s difficult to put up borders.
DON: There’s something very personal about what you write, so that readers feel that we know you. And, Buket, your writing, on the other hand, I’ve seen it compared to Borges, and I think that’s very accurate, at least in my reading of it. For example, I just finished The Sound of Fishsteps, a novel where the characters are in an asylum, maybe—but it’s also a dormitory, and then you think maybe they’re in heaven, or maybe they’re in hell. And it’s a large labyrinth of complicated characters whose histories are larger than life. And yet, the whole time, there’s an actual plot which you can follow completely. I think that’s brilliant—to have this philosophical conversation in terms of how you set up the novel, and yet also have a story run through it. How do your readers relate to your novels and to their characters?
UZUNER: Well, in the beginning I was controversial in Turkey. The old critics I grew up with hated me because the language I used was, for them, not very “literary.” But now everybody’s writing that way. This was about twenty years ago. And, of course, writers cannot describe or summarize their own writings. So when journalists ask me, “What are you writing about?” I get nervous because I don’t know what to say. I say, “I write about life.” Is that all?
It doesn’t matter if you live in America or Istanbul or Paris or Brussels, life is so complicated, and often we feel that we are so small, very small, and that the earth is a small planet, and we don’t know when we will die, and we all expect to be happy, and this concept of “happiness” is actually a nineteenth-century invention—until then there was no expectation of happiness. When I discovered that, I was so happy! Because people were really trying to survive then: There was no penicillin and no birth control and so much water pollution, people were dying and dying and suddenly the technology and the antibiotics and all those things came and we are alive and then we survive, so what then? We want to be happy.
And what is happiness? Buy more. Buy more. And this makes us even unhappier. And that’s why my books are like life, as I said. It’s very complicated, we don’t know if it’s real or not. I mean, I can easily write this room into my novels, and I can turn it into a dream—maybe I am dreaming now. One of my psychiatrist friends says if he cures you, you can’t write. So reality and fiction—there is a very thin line between them. And maybe you shouldn’t get any cure. Writing is the only solution.
AUDIENCE: You’re both here participating in the PEN festival. Are you gathering material, either about what you experience in the street or in the festival? Are you writing? Are you inspired?
UZUNER: Well, life is a laboratory for a writer, I believe, and if you are a good observer, you can use anywhere. Last night I participated in an event called “A Literary Safari.” It was wonderful. We were invited—Amélie was also there—to a special building where artists are living.…
UZUNER: Yes, Westbeth. It was difficult for me to get there and it took one and a half hours. Anyway, we were sitting in a real house, and young people were coming and going from the rooms, and we were reading and talking with them, and there was a beautiful sunset behind the Hudson River, and there was a lovely cat—I miss my cat, it’s been a week that I’m away. So I was thinking that this is not really real what we are doing—it’s so abstract: I am here from Istanbul and my grandmother, if she was alive, she would think, What the hell are you doing here? You don’t have any kids, you don’t have a husband, and you are somewhere called America sitting and talking about your dreams? What is this? It’s only three generations, you know. Last night exchange students came, and they were maybe expecting to see an American writer. And there I was, a Turkish woman writer, and there are all those prejudices about the Turkish, about Islam, and I was sitting there talking to them about my travels. It was so absurd and abstract to them, but I was part of it, and it was like a game, but it was reality—so I think it will be a good story, if I can make it.
NOTHOMB: Basically my answer is the same.
Read more from PEN America 15: Maps.