Expat Harem, The Book

Scroll down for images related to five years of book events... FIND A COPY You can get this book as a Seal Press paperback through Amazon here, numerous online retailers and actual bookstores, the Kindle edition here, for Sony eReader, and as an Apple iBook. For the visually impaired we have a large print version here. It's also stocked in 186 libraries in 7 countries around the world.

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MEDIA COVERAGE  Since 2005 Anastasia Ashman, her coeditor Jennifer Eaton Gokmen and the Expat Harem anthology and contributors have been featured by more than 200 mainstream and independent media sources across the globe in news, travel, literature and culture. Includes New York Times, San Jose Mercury News, International Herald Tribune, NBC TV Today Show, Globe & Mail, Daily Telegraph, National Geographic Traveler, Lonely Planet, Frommer's, Rick Steves' Istanbul, Cosmopolitan (TR), Travel + Leisure (TR), Time Out Istanbul, Mediabistro, Expat Focus, Guardian Abroad and Voice of America Radio. See a list and links here.

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[18 months, 2 expat writers, one feminist travel anthology with three editions. Our first book! A bestseller. How'd we do it? Read the story of making Tales from the Expat Harem]

+"An excellent holiday read." – Lonely Planet Turkey (10th Edition)

+"Beautifully written, thought-provoking and inspiring. Be ready to book a flight to Istanbul afterwards." – Daily Telegraph (UK)

+"Insights from women who learn to read the cultural fine print... Valuable today as an antidote to bigotry, it will serve as an even more valuable corrective to the blinkered historians of tomorrow." – Cornucopia

+“Comic, romantic, and thought-provoking.” – Cosmopolitan (Turkey)

+“Not only aesthetically pleasing but instructive. A great read! Don’t miss it.” – Journal of Middle East Women's Studies

+“Rip-roarer of a guide to understanding Eastern and Western social values.” – The Gulf Today (United Arab Emirates)

+“Charming, warm-hearted and vivid…a definite must-read for everyone pondering the question of what it is we call 'home'.” – NRC Handelsblad (The Netherlands)

Tales from the Expat Harem (Seal Press, 2006)
Tales from the Expat Harem (Seal Press, 2006)

This anthology  "successfully transcends the cultural stereotypes so deeply-embedded in perceptions of the Eastern harem.” -- from the foreword by Elif Shafak (Turkish editions only) November 2010: Turkey’s most-read author Elif Shafak picks Expat Harem as one of her best five books on Turkey

+Edited by Anastasia M. Ashman and Jennifer Eaton Gökmen

 

As the Western world struggles to comprehend the paradoxes of modern Turkey, a country both European and Asian, forward-looking yet rooted in ancient empire, this critically-acclaimed collection invites you into the Turkey that thirty-two women from seven nations know.

ASSIMILATION STRUGGLES

Australian and Central American, North American and British, Dutch and Pakistani, our narrators demonstrate the evolutions Turkish culture has shepherded in their lives and the issues raised by assimilation into friendship, neighborhood, wifehood, motherhood.

[Hospitality] Delirious with influenza, a friendless Australian realizes the value of misafir perverlik, traditional Turkish hospitality, when she’s rescued from her freezing rental by unknown Anatolian neighbors bearing food and medicinal tea

[Family] A pregnant and introverted Irishwoman faces the challenge of finding her place in a large Black Sea clan

[Cultural Taboo] A Peace Corps volunteer in remote Eastern Turkey realizes how the taboos of her own culture color her perceptions about modesty and motherhood

[Femininity] A liberated New York single questions the gallant rules of engagement on the Istanbul dating scene, wondering whether being treated like a lady makes her less a feminist

AMBITIOUS STORYTELLERS

...from a Bryn Mawr archaeologist at Troy to the Christian missionary in Istanbul, clothing designers and scholars along the Aegean and the Mediterranean coastlines, a journalist at the Iraqi border, Expat Harem's writers revisit their professional assumptions.

SPANS COUNTRY + 40 YEARS

Humorous and poignant travelogue takes you to weddings and workplaces, down cobbled Byzantine streets, into boisterous bazaars along the Silk Road and deep into the feminine powerbases of steamy Ottoman hamam bathhouses. Subtext illuminates journeys of the soul.

ANACHRONISTIC TITLE = WESTERN STEREOTYPE + KINSHIP

Expat Harem notes the erroneous -- yet prevalent -- Western stereotypes about Asia Minor and the entire Muslim world, while declaring the writers are akin to foreign brides of the Seraglio, the 15th century seat of the Ottoman sultanate:

Expat Harem writers are wedded to the culture of the land, embedded in it, yet alien.

Dogan Kitap 4th edition, with foreword by Elif Shafak
Dogan Kitap 4th edition, with foreword by Elif Shafak

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From the introduction:

Threshold to worlds both East and West, Turkey is itself a unique metaphor for transition. Forming a geographic bridge between the continents of Europe and Asia and a philosophical link between the spheres of Occident and Orient, Turkey is neither one of the places it connects.

EXPAT HAREM WOMEN RECLASSIFY THEMSELVES

Foreign women on Turkish soil are neither what nor who they used to be, yet not fully transformed by their brush with Turkey. Aligned in their ever-shifting contexts, both Turkey and the expatriate share a bond of constant metamorphosis.

Expat Harem women are challenged to redefine their lives, definitions of spirituality, femininity, sensuality and self.

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One editor's story behind the book: THE ACCIDENTAL ANTHOLOGIST by Anastasia Ashman

+++++ HAREM GIRLS: THE MAKING OF EXPAT HAREM By ANASTASIA ASHMAN and JENNIFER EATON GÖKMEN

Eighteen months.Two expatriate American writers in Istanbul.We created a feminist travel anthology, landed a North American book deal and dual language editions from Turkey’s strongest publisher, while winning representation at one of New York’s oldest literary agencies.

How did we do it?

THE SHORT ANSWER:

  • We recognized our project’s potential.
  • We created a compelling brand.
  • We requested counsel, material, and support from family, friends, business acquaintances and complete strangers.
  • We refused to let doubts impede our trajectory, infecting naysayers with our enthusiasm.
  • We shared every success with a growing contact list, sustaining a positive buzz.
  • And we hunted unique marketing and publicity opportunities.

This is the story of Tales From The Expat Harem: Foreign Women in Modern Turkey.

RECOGNIZING OUR POTENTIAL

editors speaking at Assembly of Turkish American Associations, Washington D.C.

Writing full-time since 2001, California-born Anastasia’s arts, culture and travel writing appeared in publications worldwide, from the Asian Wall Street Journal to the Village Voice. Soon after she moved from New York to Istanbul in 2003, she met Jennifer, a ten-year expat with a degree in literature and creative writing whose writing career had been on a slow burn since her move to Turkey. The Michigan native had been a staff writer for a popular expatriate humor magazine and contributed to other local magazines. To advance our professional aims we established a writing workshop in Fall 2003 with a handful of other American women writers.

Interaction during bi-weekly workshops revealed our compatibility and vision: within two months it was obvious that the writing group could spawn our first book-length project. Most pieces critiqued revolved around each woman’s Turkish experience and what it revealed about her personally.

By the 2004 Spring thaw we elicited the curiosity of a new Turkish/American publishing house in Istanbul. That was the trigger that launched us into high gear. Translating the small publisher’s casual interest into a writing exercise, we charged the group to fashion a book proposal, but our enthusiasm for the potential project quickly outstripped our group colleagues’ as we targeted what we knew could be a hit.

We had to act fast. World attention was increasingly focused on this much-maligned Muslim country as its new conservative religious party government enacted sweeping reforms to speed the country towards European Union membership. This was heat we could harness for our book.

Although Anastasia had worked in a New York literary agency and was somewhat familiar with the elements of a book proposal, we sought further guidance from published friends and writers’ online resources. Consumed with pushing the project forward, we covered ground swiftly, passing the ball when ideas slowed, inspired by each others’ fresh input.

BRANDING

Expat Harem envisioned by expat designer Leslie Dann...the book has had at least 5 covers!

Since we didn’t have established literary reputations to lend recognizable names, the title of the anthology needed immediate appeal, palpable impact. Something born of the literary circumstance we would collect: atmospheric travelogue; tales of cultural contrast and discovery in the streets, at weddings and workplaces, hamams and bazaars; and journeys of assimilation into friendship, neighborhood, wifehood, motherhood, citizenship, business and property ownership.

To decide concept and brand, we spun favorite motifs of female culture in Turkey, snagging on the quaint rural tradition of marking one’s visit by weaving distinctly colored thread into a friend’s carpet. But the earnest New Thread on the Loom: Outsiders in Turkish Culture sounded too woolly, academic, unmarketable.

Not a title we ourselves would snatch off a shelf or cuddle up with in bed.

Instead, the theme had to elicit strong response with a tempting metaphor that could withstand scrutiny. We hit on a conspicuous and controversial tradition of the region, provocative enough to intrigue or enflame book buyers worldwide. We created the Expat Harem.

We were banking on the title ruffling feathers. Anachronistic. Titillating. Bound to provoke reaction. We decided to co-opt the word harem, with all its erroneous Western stereotypes about Asia Minor and the entire Muslim world.

Infusing ‘harem’ with new meaning, we declared our foreign-born contributors were modern reflections of the foreign brides of the Ottoman sultans: wedded to the culture of the land, embedded in it even, but forever alien. Adding to the title’s seduction, we mocked up a book cover with an iconic Orientalist painting by Ingres, a reclining nude looking over her shoulder.

THE FIRST SALE

within 3 months, Expat Harem went to #1 at national bookseller Remzi

“We’d love to do this book!” said the owner of a new, young local publishing house, herself an American expat.

She bought the slim proposal composed in six weeks: a brief introduction to the Expat Harem concept, a list of chapters and proposed contents, editor bios, and an essay by Anastasia about a meet-the-parents trip to Istanbul which gave alarming Turkish connotation to her Russian name and urge to belly dance.

Despite the publisher’s limited resources and fledgling distribution network in Turkey and America, that overcast day in April 2004 we were thrilled to have our first book deal.

Undeterred that we bore the onus to propel the project to our envisioned heights, our adrenaline would compensate for all.

DOGGED PURSUIT

Between Anastasia's industry experience, drive, and efficiency and Jennifer's marketing background, local connections and knowledge of the Turkish language and culture, we complemented each other seamlessly.

Having a hands-off publisher was a blessing: it forced us to learn the ropes of book-making.

We called for submissions and publicized the project, set up a barebones website, posted flyers around Istanbul, and announced the book on bulletin boards and online communities of expatriates, writers, women writers, travelers, Turkey enthusiasts. We wrangled free listings in local city guidebooks. By July 2004 we convinced one of the top Turkish newspapers that the project was newsworthy and received a full page in the weekend lifestyle section, the first in a long line of local and international media coverage.

Responses began streaming in from the worldwide diaspora of eligible contributors. From West Africa to Southeast Asia to America’s Pacific Northwest, more than a hundred women sought to recount their sagas. We were overwhelmed with positive reactions to the project, and braced ourselves for darker interpretations. A few people chastised the title as unthinkably Orientalist while others were baited by our sexy cover.

“Wow, I wish I were an expat!” declared an airport security screener in New York.

ASKING FOR HELP

Joe McCanta, creator of the Expat Harem martini 2007

We brainstormed all of our personal and professional contacts—people who might assist us. We approached friends who had published books for their advice on the agenting process and targeting publishers. We sought mentoring from corporate friends on image and branding, marketing strategies, potential blurbists, and press contacts. We requested aid from family members with expertise in promotions and press relations.

With a few ready essays we began sending requests for blurbs to prominent people who had a strong connection to Turkey, like the author of the international bestseller Harem: The World Behind the Veil, and a prominent news correspondent for Le Monde and The Wall Street JournalPositive quotes spurred reviews from increasingly higher profile experts. In September 2004 an international design team began to construct a cover for the book as a personal favor, including the raves that were rolling in from experts in expatriatism, women’s studies, the Ottoman harem, and Turkish society.

By the Frankfurt International Book Fair in October 2004, it was obvious to more people than just us that Tales from the Expat Harem was a hot property. Our proposal had expanded to 28 pages with seven essays, including tales from an archaeologist at Troy, a Christian missionary in Istanbul, a pregnant artist in the capital of Ankara, and a penniless Australian stricken with influenza in the moonscape of a wintry Cappadocia.

Unfortunately the Istanbul publisher’s catalog for the German fair revealed that our hot property was not being handled the way we thought it deserved. Calling a meeting with the Istanbul publisher, our priorities and expectations didn’t jibe with theirs. Amicably, we decided to cancel our contract.

Meanwhile, we reached out to a literary agent who had been following Anastasia’s writing career, since it was clear the book could benefit from professional representation. Within a month, his top New York literary agency agreed to represent us.

speaking at Population Action International, an NGO in D.C.

Suddenly several Turkish publishing houses approached us after reading about Expat Harem in the local media and we explored their interest even though we had already set our sights elsewhere. Freed from the limited resources of our first publisher, we aimed for the best Turkey had to offer: Dogan Kitap. The strongest publisher in the country, Dogan Kitap is part of the largest Turkish media conglomerate of television and radio stations, newspapers and magazine holdings and a nationwide chain of bookstores. But we didn’t approach the publisher first…

Instead, we contacted the owner of one of Dogan’s television stations who is known for her active involvement in promoting the image of women in Turkey, which dovetailed nicely with the theme of our project. Through professional connections we also requested aid from the head of Dogan’s magazine holdings. By the time Dogan’s book publishing branch received our request for an appointment, they had already heard about us through those two executives and had seen coverage of the book via three of their news outlets and at least two of their competitors. Our follow up call secured us a meeting with the publisher’s general manager in December 2004.

“You’ve come to the right address,” he declared. Then we didn’t hear from Dogan again.

THE SUBMISSION PROCESS

Expat Harem signing for a Munich-based expat group 2007

The vast potential of the project began to dawn as our agent compared it to accessible personal stories of life in the Middle East, bestselling titles like Reading Lolita in Tehran and The Bookseller of Kabul. He began submitting the growing ms to U.S. publishers.

“What could be more timely than an insider’s view of women’s lives in the Middle East—as told by resident Westerners?

We asked this in our November press release, generated in four languages and sent to foreign press correspondents in Istanbul, followed up with phone calls. Agence France Presse, one of the world’s largest news agencies, interviewed us before an important European Union vote on Turkey, while in February 2005 Newsweek International published our letter to the editor, exposing the upcoming anthology to more than a million readers across Europe.

Meanwhile, in New York, an editor at a publishing house known for its anthologies effusively praised the manuscript but her editorial board demurred.

Turkey was too small a subject they felt, suggesting we expand the book to other Muslim nations like Sudan, Kosovo, and Iran. We countered with a franchise series of Expat Harem books. Too large a project, they said. Editors at ten other New York houses also were split in their reactions, recognizing the appeal of the Muslim setting and the foreign female focus, yet unconvinced that a collection by unknown writers would draw major audiences. By February 2005 all the top New York houses had passed so we targeted more independent houses, university presses and those which had published our blurbists.

STAYING POSITIVE During the excruciating winter months of ms submissions, sustaining enthusiasm wasn’t easy. Doubts began to multiply. We hadn’t heard back from Dogan Kitap, they weren’t answering our emails, and U.S. publishers weren’t biting. Taking inspiration from a chapter in our own book, one devoted to Turkey’s shamanistic roots and methods of banishing the envious evil eye, we created a ritual to cast off negative energy.

We wrote down fears we had discussed as well as those we would not openly admit to having: ‘We will not find a publisher. We will not finish the book. No one will read it. It will be embarrassing to promote…’

Then we burned the list – and not just anywhere. Since the Expat Harem co-opted the image of the Ottoman harem, we headed to the Topkapi Palace, visited the chambers of our namesakes, and asked their blessings. In an outside courtyard, we literally reduced our fears to ashes.

We also considered the mindset of our agent. It can’t be easy to break bad news to clients so we never expected our agent to be our cheerleader. We responded to his rejection emails with the successes we were achieving on our front.

We invested no energy in the negativity of others. Without rebutting critics, we would smile and say, ‘we’ll see’ as if we knew something they didn’t.

Naysayers couldn’t argue our continued success when they-- along with all our contacts-- received bubbly email announcements every time we appeared in the media, received a new blurb, or made another advance.

MARKETING

the two Turkish editions discussed on a national literature TV program

We both have professional experience and a personal predilection for marketing and turned our attention to finding every opportunity to get the word out. Before we had one page of the manuscript, we had already perused John Kremer’s 1001 Ways To Market Your Books, were tracking academic conferences in which we might participate, researching comparable books, and compiling lists of audiences and organizations that might like to host us as speakers.

Even so, the book was rejected by fifteen publishers before we tackled the daunting official marketing plan. Most editors commented that they liked the idea but didn’t see the market. Was Turkey truly too far from the U.S.A. to matter to American audiences?

We needed to make our case and identify potential markets American publishers might not traditionally consider.

In January 2005 we defined our main audiences as having something in common with the contributors:

  • travelers
  • expatriates
  • women writers
  • travel writers
  • those interested in women’s and Middle Eastern studies
  • people whose lives were linked with Turkey

 

We noted the 1.2 million Americans who’ve traveled to Turkey in the past five years, the 87 Turkish American associations serving more than 88,000 Turkish nationals in America plus tens of thousands of Americans with Turkish heritages, women’s and Middle Eastern studies programs at hundreds of North American universities, and specific Turkophile populations like the alumni of the Peace Corps who served in Turkey. We also compiled more practical subsidiary audiences. Multinational corporations with operations in Turkey, embassies and tourism organizations might use the book as a cross-cultural training tool or a promotional vehicle.

We imagined the book developing a positive image of Turkey abroad, addressing the unvoiced but deep concern of many businesspeople, travelers and diplomats: will our women be safe?

SECOND AND THIRD SALES

meeting of potential Expat Harem contributors 2004

Unsure how to interpret Dogan Kitap’s silence, we wondered if they had been serious about our book. After our visit in December, why didn’t they call? Why didn’t they answer our emails or those from our agent? Staying positive, we phoned until we secured follow-up appointments by the end of January, and at that meeting they acted as if the project were already theirs. Contrary to our gloomy speculation, their behemoth operation had slowed their response. Reluctant to misstep, they seemed hesitant to start negotiations until our agent sent them a draft contract in English. Though Dogan originally planned to publish only in Turkish, on the strength of our marketing plan we convinced them that the local English language market was large enough to warrant two editions. In February 2005, Dogan bought the Turkish world rights and the English rights for Turkey.

Success snowballed. On Valentine’s Day, the feminist imprint of Avalon Publishing Group, Seal Press, offered us a publishing contract for the North American rights! When Seal’s marketing department presented the book at a June 2005 presales conference to book distributors from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and others, everyone was ‘flushed with amazement’ at our detailed marketing plan.

SPAWNING CONTINUED MARKETING OPPORTUNITIES

Expat Harem panel, Istanbul Book Fair 2005

The marketing never ends! In April 2005 we produced at our own expense 5,000 promotional postcards with our book cover, photos, website address and reviews from scholars, journalists and diplomats, distributing them via our worldwide contributors. When the postcard found its way into the hands of the producer of Publishing Trends, an American book industry intelligence newsletter, Tales from the Expat Harem garnered nearly a page of coverage in the June 2005 issue, winning us the attention of a highly influential international publishing audience.

Our website consistently delivers a stream of queries from people identifying themselves as future book buyers while our web-tracking reveals the growing global audience we’ve created in the past year. Thirty-five hundred visitors from 90 countries have dropped by since we began tracking site activity. To tap into this ready-made market, our publishers set up pre-sales via internet bookstores, while our local speaking engagements have generated offers for additional receptions and book signings. We kept the pressure on once the book was released in Turkey, using the printed books to seek new media coverage and fresh blurbs in September 2005. Stephen Kinzer, the former New York Times Istanbul bureau chief, offered us a quote for the cover of our Seal Press edition. We also turned our attention to the official launch party scheduled for November.

Since our publisher’s launch party budget didn’t cover our starry-eyed fantasy of an event at the Topkapı Palace harem, we looked for a sponsor.

Though we didn’t exactly end up with our fantasy, through fearless soliciting we did land a prominent hostess for our 200 person cocktail at a 5-star hotel—the owner of a Dogan television station who initially paved the way for our book deal. A woman concerned with Turkey’s image abroad, and in particular with the perception of women’s lives in Turkey, she invited her own A-list guests as well as our growing list of international press correspondents, blurbists, supporters, and many of the influential people we hope to cultivate.

The event was broadcast on television news for several days, and featured in newspapers, their glossy weekend supplements, and magazines.

HARD WORK PAYS OFF

At the Istanbul International Book Fair in October 2005, where we headed a panel discussion and had a book signing, our Turkish publisher promoted Türkçe Sevmek, the translation of Tales from the Expat Harem, on a 15 foot illuminated display alongside its translations of Umberto Eco and Julia Navarro.

After hitting the Turkish bookshelves, both Dogan editions sold out within six weeks, with the English edition debuting on the bestseller lists at several national bookstore chains and making its way to the number two spot – beating out two J.K. Rowlings, a Michael Connelly and three Dan Browns.

We have appeared on a handful of national television stations, including three different CNN-TURK shows which were simultaneously broadcast on CNN-TURK radio, and have been invited to appear on several other stations; we were featured in all the top national Turkish and English newspapers, with one providing three consecutive days of extensive coverage during one of the country’s highest circulation weeks; we are sitting for interviews with specialized media; we’re fielding requests for review copies from international culture journals; and, quite edifyingly, we are meeting readers as well as our expat peers in cities throughout Turkey on weekend book tours.

[This article first appeared in a slightly different form in ABSOLUTE WRITE, 2006]

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