Meet Novelist and Essayist Buket Uzuner: ‘The Margaret Atwood of Turkey’
The Turkish academic and scholar Serpil Oppermann introduced this blogger to Buket Uzuner earlier this year and helped make this blog post happen. A big thank you to Dr Oppermann.
This post first appeared in English in a 3,000-word profile, and appears here in an abbreviated form now for reasons of space. In a few weeks, the original interview in English will be translated into Turkish and published in a Turkish literary journal in Istanbul.
In a series of email questions, I asked Buket Uzuner — a well-known Turkish novelist and literary figure who is in many ways “The Margaret Atwood of Turkey” — a question to get our conversation going.
“As a Turkish novelist who tackles environmental issues and a global eco-critic and intellectual on a par with such luminaries as Margaret Atwood and Amitav Ghosh, do you think novels about climate change issues like Barbara Kingsolver’s ‘Flight Behavior’ can help change public attitudes about the very real risks of future global warming impact events?” I asked her.
I think ‘cli-fi’ is an ingenious term, and my admiration of it may come from a selfish reason because ‘cli-fi’ — in some way — summarizes most of my literary work of 25 years, Dr Uzuner replied. “As my very first novel ‘Two Green Otters’ was related to the Turkish Green Party, my eco-dystopian novel ‘Sound of Fisteps’ and the latest novels ‘Nature Quartet’ (a tetrology) deal with climatic and environmental issues. That could be one of the reasons why I fell in love with the term ‘cli-fi’ at first sight.”
“And, thank you for putting my name up there with one of my literary heroes, Margaret Atwood, along with other notable writers Barbara Kingsolver and Amitav Ghosh whose novels are significant in the cli-fi literary genre,” she added. “And, yes, I do think novels, basically stories, are the best key to open the locked consciousness and blurred conscience of most adults. Stories are the finest way to search deep inside of one’s soul and let her/him digest the new and/or old but forgotten lessons. Maybe that’s why all monotheist holy books are full of stories in order to explain to the believers what is moral and immoral. Yet, very similar fantastic stories can be found in all mythologies in different cultures and traditions while mythologies are considered ‘dead-religions’ by some researchers like Joseph Campbell. Stories are capable of making us understand ourselves and the planet because they teach us to empathize with ‘the others.’ And nature, all trees, seas, earth, all animals, air, even bacterias and viruses are ‘the others’ beside the minorities and misfits on this planet. In my humble opinion, human civilization started to destroy our home planet Earth after starting to play the role of the ‘lords of nature.'”
“Flight Behavior” is translated into Turkish now, so I asked Dr Uzuner what its title is in Turkish.
‘Yes, several of Barbara Kingsolver’s books have already been translated into Turkish but ‘Flight Behavior’ has not been translate yet,” she said. “Right now my Turkish Publisher Everest is in touch with her copyright agency and hopefully the novel will be soon published in Turkish. We have different ideas for Turkish titles for “Flight Behavior.” My suggestion is “Butterflies are not Flying Here Anymore” (”Kelebekler Artık Burada Uçmuyor”).
Turning to other topics, Dr Uzuner told me that one of her dreams is to shoot a documentary film about Turkish daily rituals that come from shamanic traditions which are similar to some similar traditions among First Nations in Canada.
“I want to refer you on my blog as ”The Margaret Atwood of Turkey.” Why? Because I know that Margaret Atwood has been one of your literary heroines since 1990 while you were reading her novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” in Montreal where you were living then.”
I added ”In fact, many people outside Turkey don’t know that you were the person who suggested “The Handmaid’s Tale” to a Turkish publisher in 1991 and it was you who suggested a clever title in Turkish [”Damızlık KızınÖyküsü”] — which is still on the literary market there but with the title (”Damızlık Kızın Öyküsü”) which in English might mean “The Tale of a Breeder Girl”.
Dr Uzuner replied: “I am honored to be called “The Margaret Atwood of Turkey.” I am proud to share the same literary era with her. Thank you.”
She added: ”I started to read Margaret Atwood in the early 1990s when I was in Montreal. Her brave, wise and humorous literary voice attracted me immediately. She is a master of setting a dark and sometimes dystopic atmosphere and putting her readers in it, but never leaving them alone and hopeless there. She was one of the earliest eco-critical and eco-feminist writers of our times. That year when I was back in Istanbul I talked to some publishers about “The Handmaid’s Tale” getting a Turkish translation. It was the AFA publisher that first got the copyright and meanwhile I suggested the title “The Breeder Girl’s Tale” to the Turkish translators. Such a strong and striking title, especially then.
“Another thing most literary people outside Turkey probably don’t know is that in 2018 you attended the Toronto International Film Festival [TIFF] and heard Margaret Atwood give a talk about Shakespeare and later you asked her for a signed copy of her Shakespeare novel “Hag-Seed” there. You even have Margaret Atwood’s favorite coffee from Coffee Balzac’s and a mug in your Istanbul house, you told me in an email, so it’s fair to say Margaret Atwood has a real fan in Turkey — you! — and that you see her and appreciate her as ”an international treasure.”
Dr Uzune replied: “Oh yes, Margaret Atwood is a living legend not only to me but to many of her readers all over the world where I travel for the literary festivals from Spain to India and Denmark to New York City. Last time when I was in Toronto I visited my favorite bookstores there: Type Books and Ben McNally Books and in the both bookstores I mentioned how I like Margaret Atwood’s literary work. The responses were almost identical: “We all love her!” “She is the mother of Canada!” I really do wish to see her receive the Nobel Literature Prize this year.”
“I would say also that you are an international treasure, too, for your work as a writer and an intellectual writing in both Turkish and English. Has your life turned out the way you envisioned it when you were 20? Please explain and tell me any anecdotes about your past,” I asked the Turkish writer.
“My own story began with my mom who taught me the names of the stars and told me that everything; all visible and invisible things on the Earth has its own story, when I was only four or five. When I was at college I discovered John Berger’s great book called “The Way of Seeing” and he wrote there that “The first story tellers were those who named the stars in the sky.” Yet the other great writer was Ursula Le Guin who unveiled the truth about the first female story tellers in a very similar way. It seems that my mom started from a very right point,” she replied.
She added: “I was already writing short stories and got published some of them on the main literary magazines on my early twenties, while meeting with the leading writers and poets of Turkey, and hungrily reading the world classics from Dostoevsky to Hugo, from Kafka to Woolf, Cervantes to Steinbeck. During that early period of my literary years Turkish poet Attila İlhan and Yashar Kemal had personally taken me in as a young friend and that influenced my writing.”
Another story: “When I was six years old my mom took me and my brother to the theater to see ”Peter Pan.” A young Turkish actress was playing as Peter Pan, therefore I thought finally I found a heroine who had real adventures including flying, too! Super! Such a happy and joyful day it was in my life! My greatest discovery ever! Then it was explained to me that actually Peter Pan (too) was a boy and in the 1970s almost everywhere in the world only young actresses were playing Peter Pan because girls were lighter than boys therefore easier to fly in those days’ back stage technologies.”
“As you may imagine, most of my female protagonists are strong and adventurous women, and I myself don’t easily give up of my goals, ideals, and dreams in my life in spite of the cost is usually very expensive,” Dr Uzuner told me.
A serious question: “You were born in 1955, I was born in 1949. In the course of your life, did you ever think that global warming and climate change would become the enormous challenges that all nations face today? What has most surprised you about the challenges of climate change in your nation and other nations? And what has not surprised you at all about all this?”
“Meanwhile the older I get, the younger my readers became,” Dr Uzuner said. “I do not know the secret of it but I enjoy having young fans and friends around. I love to learn from young people and they are mostly easier to have fun together. I experienced a similar case while I was on the book signing line for Margaret Atwood at her TIFF talk in Toronto last year. There were more younger people than older fans, but she was the youngest among us as it took more than an hour of signing after one-hour reading and Q and A session.”
“I am not a happy optimist about climate change, but as an biologist I believe in the power of micro-organisms. We may find ways to solve the carbon emission, plastic and nuclear waste problems with the help of certain micro-organisms — only if we start working immediately and all together — all nations — but I am afraid most of the human population, even educated ones, are not really aware of the urgency of the situation.”
What’s next? “One of the Turkish film producers asked me last month, what I would think about a Netflix series of the my books in “Nature Quartet” ”It may be interesting.” I said. So, sure, why not, whatever will be will be.”
By the way, about her name, Buket Uzuner, she told me that Buket means ”a bouquet of flowers” in Turkish. It’s fitting.