Excerpts from a joint interview with Zeynep Kilic of the Bosphorus Art Project Quarterly and my Expat Harem coeditor Jennifer Gokmen. See full interview here. Q: What inspired you to start this project? What is your vision?
AA: Jennifer and I created a writing workshop with a few other American women in Istanbul and soon realized we were all writing about our lives in Turkey. We thought if we collected the stories we might begin to piece together the puzzle that is Turkey. It was a ripe idea and the floodgates opened. We heard from more than 100 women from 14 nations whose lives have been touched by Turkey in the past 50 years – and we’re meeting more women of the Expat Harem every day!
Q: In every country in the world the equality of women and men is skewed in at least one or more of these categories: economical, social, reproductive and human rights. What did you find were the greatest challenges for women native to Turkey? The women expatriates? The greatest triumphs?
AA: What’s interesting is to me are personal perceptions about equality. Turkish women have taught us and many of the expatriates in Expat Harem what strength there is in being a woman. Western culture seems to have stripped the power from femininity; it has confused us into thinking that to be taken seriously, we must dress and act like men. The ancient wisdom of Anatolia’s goddess culture is alive and well in Turkey, and in Turkey’s women.
A challenge for Turkish women seems to be attaining the independence many expatriates enjoy. Turkish society is so inter-dependent there are few acceptable lifestyle options for the loner, even in the most modern families.
Q: Your book has become a bestseller in Turkey, was this something that you expected or did it come as a surprise?
AA: The book’s strong performance probably has less to do with our gender than the fact that it taps into an interest great numbers of people have…Turks want to know what foreigners are thinking of them, while expatriates want to see if their fellow foreign nationals have had similar experiences. And people who have left the country (including Peace Corps volunteers who were here 40 years ago) are eager to relive their Turkish memories!
Q: Is there an underlying theme other than expatriation that links all of these stories? What do you hope the reader takes away from this reading experience?
AA: Besides exploring the land and culture, these women are exploring themselves. They’re on journeys of self realization. Turkey happens to be the backdrop. Their tales show how Turkish culture has affected their lives as they navigate their way into friendship, neighborhood, wifehood, and motherhood in Turkey.
AA: Perhaps readers will understand how much another culture can show you who you are, and how you can change, if you want to.
Q: What do you think about how Turkey is represented in today’s world? What do you think can be done to extend the reach of Turkish arts and culture across the world?
AA: Turkey has a dark and contentious reputation, with conflicts like historical ethnic and geographic rivalries dominating news coming out the country. Although it has a rich creative heritage, that’s not the first thing people think of. A fictionalized Oliver Stone movie from the 1970s comes to mind, or a sad report they heard on NPR. Many of the writers in our anthology have had to defend their choice to live in Turkey since friends and relatives back home were worried for their safety – and their sanity!
AA: In this same way, extending the reach of Turkey’s art and culture is a matter of enticement. Enticing people to learn more, and making the introduction as accessible as possible. In Tales from the Expat Harem each writer acts as a guide into her world, and the Turkey that she knows. Readers will go along with her to meet an art gallery owner in Ankara whose ancestors were fortunetellers of the sultan; they’ll whirl through the streets with Gypsy dancers; they’ll be invited into the ritual bath of an Anatolian bride.
Q: What is your favorite thing about living in Turkey and the least favorite?
AA: For me it’s the same thing: the close observation of my life by family and neighbors. For an independent Western woman it can be disconcerting to feel every move is watched – and reported! What time I went to sleep, who came over to the house, things like that. But on the flip side, this very scrutiny is what makes me feel safe and cared for, especially since the motivations for this are not malicious, or even necessarily having to do anything with me. People-watching seems to be a national pastime. If I need help from my family or neighbors I know I can count on them, and perhaps they would even know I needed help before I told them myself. One tale in our book is about that very phenomenon: an ill Australian is rescued by her neighbors who notice she hasn’t left the house in days.
Q: Do you have any recommendations or advice for people planning a move to Turkey or another country?
AA: Take extra care to supply yourself with what you need to be happy, wherever you are. Feeling light-hearted and productive is important when you suddenly are surrounded by so many new situations. You’ll need that inner strength in order to remain flexible about things you can’t control or don’t understand. Try to get up to speed on what life might be like in Turkey. When we were brainstorming the anthology’s concept we imagined it could be a cultural primer for newcomers to the country. It will be wonderful if people actually use it that way. Women about to wed Turks have said the book made clear which aspects of their relationship have to do with the culture and which are individual to the couple.
Q: Do you have any projects planned for the future?
AA: We’ve been asked by our Turkish publisher to consider doing a male version of the anthology. That would elicit a very different set of views on the country… Currently I’m at work on a collection of my own cultural essays Berkeley to Byzantium: The Reorientation of a West Coast Adventuress, a travel memoir charting the peaks and valleys of my life, from mean elevators and subways of Manhattan to the gilded palaces of Asia Minor -- and Southeast Asia, where I lived for five years.