Interview: Buket UZUNER

Long before her successful stories and novels such as ‘Two Green Otters’, ‘Mediterranean Waltz’, ‘Gallipoli’ and ‘Istanbullites’, we knew Buket Uzuner from her travel writings. Uzuner, who has turned those travel memoirs into stories in her latest book, ‘On the Road’, takes the reader on an exciting journey in a mix of fact and fiction.

I met Uzuner at her home-cum-office in the Istanbul district of Moda on the city’s Asian side, “the place where I escape and hide from everyone”, as she says. On the walls are photographs of everybody from Dostoevsky, Virginia Woolf and Salvador Dali to Atilla İlhan and Sevgi Soysal, a family of artists and writers she dubs “my self-chosen relatives”. On the desk, unusual and colorful objects she has collected from all over the world. There is no doubt that years of travel and seeing different cultures and fresh new lives has played a major role in Uzuner’s prolific output as a writer. We talked with her about her passion for travel and she shared with us her plans for stories and the new novel she is working on with great enthusiasm.

You have said that travel is an addiction. Do you write to travel, or do you travel to write?
I always compare it to the pleasure of drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette. I take notes on most of my travels, but I never think of turning them into stories later. When I wrote up the trips I took on Interrail, which enables young people to travel all over Europe by train, an agency contacted me and said, ‘Look, you’re the first Turkish girl to tour the world by Interrail on your own and write it up.’ I was young and I really ate that up. Traveling and writing make a very enjoyable combination. What’s more, it gives people a model to emulate. We’re a country still in need of prototypes. People need an example; they need to feel, ‘Hey, if she did it, so can I!’

Everyone who reads the stories in ‘On the Road’ has the same question: How come we never encounter such interesting incidents and people in our travels? The writer’s story-telling skill comes into play here of course. How did those travel stories come about?
Except in one case, I changed the names of all the characters. The stories were mostly four or five sentences long, but it was at that point that I challenged myself as a writer to turn them into short stories. The stories are made up of narratives collected from countless trips. I’m not one of those people who are very garrulous on trips and turn to the person next to them and strike up a conversation. In fact, I prefer to read or, if it’s a long trip, to sleep or listen to music. But every now and then I end up next to an interesting person.

It came to me when I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘Twelve Pilgrim Tales’: I’ve got a whole slew of memoirs, Why don’t I turn them into short stories?
My purpose was to get the reader to understand the foreigners in the countries I went to and to see those foreign cultures in a new way. It was crucial too that one of us, a Turk in other words, tell it. I confined my stories to the road; they all take place inside vehicles. When you’re traveling in a vehicle you are in an enclosed space. You have an opportunity to confront yourself; many things that you’ve put off come back and rise to the surface.  This can sometimes be painful but it’s a good kind of pain. It’s necessary to accept certain things in order to grow. I think that travel in that sense is an activity that has a major impact on growth. All of us have very simple lives; we are actually very ordinary people. The good thing about literature is that it shows us what special people we all are within all that ordinariness.
I think these stories also have such a side to them. The road is the place in my life where I feel the best. You’re completely alone with yourself. The best part about it is being with people you did not choose to be with.

Do you have a clearly defined readership, or do you address your books to everyone?
I wanted to be Turkey’s writer since my childhood. I never thought of being a spokesperson for any particular ideology. I wanted all Turkey to read me and like me. It would be very juvenile to deny there is something Freudian in this, of course, but I have always longed to be a writer everybody appreciates and respects. I also learned over the years that a writer can never choose her readers. It is always the reader that chooses the writer. On the other hand, we are a country with a very rich culture. We have a state structure in which the concept of a union of multi-ethnic communities came into being for perhaps the first time in the world. My concern has always been to be able to speak to everyone without making any distinctions and to be read with pleasure by all.

In ‘On the Road’ you’ve included a recipe at the end of one story. Is that another way of taking the reader to that country?
Yes. Someone living in Malatya (eastern Turkey), for example, is perhaps never in his life going to go to Hawaii, or even want to go there. I wanted that a woman, or a man, reading that recipe would make that dish and visit that country through the taste on his/her palate.

You are a student of the famous writer and poet Atilla İlhan. What place does İlhan have in the formation of your character as a writer?
Everything we heard from him was of great value for us students. We listened to him at the university with our mouths hanging open. In a period when all the emphasis was on ‘village literature’ and writing anything about the city was considered almost shameful, Atilla İlhan brought us European and urban culture. He was a breath of fresh air for me since I didn’t grow up in a village and a person can only write about the thing he knows best. But in some periods a person can feel under so much pressure, especially if he’s young, that he might think he has to conform to fashion just to be appreciated. It was at that point that Atilla İlhan came into my life. He was very urbanized and he told us that being bourgeois was not a crime either. I would like to remember Atilla İlhan not just as a master of literature but also for his contribution to my lifestyle.

Are you working on anything at the moment?
Yes, I have three different projects going. The first is a novel entitled ‘The Great Escape Plan of Misfit Ms. Daphne Turker’. I can never come up with short titles for my novels! The protagonist is making a journey in time. The story takes place in four different times: the Tulip Era of Ottoman history, the Renaissance, 1968 and the future... I’m not a particularly nostalgic person, but some people are always going on about ‘the good old days’. As a counter to that attitude, I sort of want to show that every period actually has both good and bad things about it. At the same time I have a plan to write a sequel to ‘On the Road’. I’m also working on a cross between a short story and a novel called ‘I’’.

What do you feel when you finish a novel?
When a novel ends and its characters leave you, you’re devastated. They just take off and go away, never to return again. And yet, you were closer to them than you are to your lover or your child and those closest to you. You know everything about them, who they are, their inner worlds... Writers probably start their next novel without finishing the last so they won’t be unbearably lonely.