Buket Uzuner is a Turkish writer with a large number of novels to her name. She is an intrepid traveler and environmentalist whose activism ranges from nuclear power to freeing dolphins. She talks to Dan Bloom about her works and the connections between literature and environmentalism.
This interview was first published in the 5511hour.
Dan: You have heard a little about my promotional work with the rising new literary genre that's been dubbed cli-fi. 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 Flight Behavior can help change public attitudes about the very real risks of future global warming impact events?
Buket: 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. As my very first novel Two Green Otters was related to the Turkish Green Party, my eco-dystopian novel Sound of Fishsteps and the latest novels Nature Quartet (a tetrology) are dealing 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. And, yes, I do think novels, basically stories, are the best key to open the locked consciousness and blurred conscience of adult Sapiens. 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 emphathize 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 his home; the planet after starting to play the role of the “lords of nature.”
Dan: And is Flight Behavior translated into Turkish now, and what is its title in Turkish?
Buket: Such a happy coincidence! Yes, several of Barbara Kingsolver’s books were already translated into Turkish but Flight Behavior is not yet to be. Right now my Turkish Publisher Everest Co. 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)
Dan: In Turkish publishing lists, are there many [or any] Turkish novels that could be called ‘'cli-fi'' novels that you can recommend to my international audience on this blog?
Buket: Yes, there are some books that I can mention in this context.
Let me start with a radio show called Botanitopia on Acik Radyo – a very environmental-conscious public radio-in Istanbul. I was talking about eco-critical and cli-fi novels in Turkish literature just last week on that show and said:
“Turkish literature must emphasize more of the rich bio-diversity of Anatolia: the mainland of Turkey which is basically the origin of world’s agriculture, as a part of Mesopotamian civilizations and the biblical Hittite State and basin of Eastern Mediterranean cultures. Yet, two of the main botanical characters of both Eastern and Western Mythologies: “Olive” and “Daphne trees” have their original land in the Southern Turkish cities Hatay and Mardin. What I am trying to say is that the climate change which is mainly the result of selfish human consumption and endless power struggles has now a very negative affect on this great land’s natural resources and precious endemic species, unfortunately. Therefore it is time for more cli-fi in Turkish literature!”
So, I indirectly mentioned about you on Botaniatopia show last week even though the term of cli-fi (“iklim-kurgu” in Turkish) although the term is not yet a common term in the Turkish language or media.
Here is some suggestions of Turkish books:
Yashar Kemal- who was nominated several times for the Nobel Literature award- has written quite many ecocritical novels rather than cli-fi genre. “The Birds Have Also Gone” (written in 1968- Harvill Press in 2015) is one of them. [Ed. Read our review of this book here]
Sait Faik- (honorary member of Mark Twain Society 1953) who spent all his life on Istanbul Island (Prince Island) wrote many short stories in which the narrators are plants, fishes, trees in 1950s… [Ed. there is one collection of Sait Faik work in English read about it here.]
I must mention the name of Hikmet Birand who was a nature writer and forest engineer by profession, and his essays and stories “Talking with the Hawthorn Tree” is one of the best among others. (1966)
Latife Tekkin’s Berji Kristin Garbage Hill Tales (1990) can be mentioned, too. [Ed. Read our review of this book here]
Dan- And in your tetrology, two novels Water and Earth have appeared in translation in English, are the next two novels set for translations, too? When?
Buket: NatureTetrology (a Quartet) -- the four novels are basically named after the elements of Shamanism, (or animizm / paganism) which all cultures have had the roots in before monotheism. Water, Earth, Air have already published and I am now working on Fire. “Air” is in the translation process, and will be published in November this year. I write all my fiction work in Turkish.
The reason I’m interested in the pre-Islamic Turkish tradition of Shamanism is mainly because of its nature-friendly and strong eco-feminist cultural aspects. What fascinates me in Shamanism is the belief of that humans are just one of the living creatures among the others, only a part of Mother Nature not the patrons/ boss nor the Lords or Ladies of the Nature.
Turkish Shamanism has many similar features and even shares words with Native American cultures and First Nations of Canada. For example “Yurt” means tent and country in all these languages, just because when Turks were nomads- thousand years ago- their country was wherever they set their tents. Some historians claim that before the Bering Strait was still connecting Asia to the North American continent, a group of Siberian Shamans moved from South Siberia who were the ancestors of Native Americans. Some of those nomads moved to Anatolia as ancestors of Turks. Even it sounds like a magical story. I love to collect the cultural footprints of this ancient saga.
One of my dreams is to shoot a documentary film about Turkish daily rituals that come from Shamanic traditions which are similar to the some First Nations in Canada.
Here a very recent paper is published about my novel “Water” in “Routledge Handbook of Ecocriticism and Environmental Communication” book with an attractive title:
“Novelist as Eco-Shaman: Buket Uzuner’s ‘Water’ [Su] as Requesting Spirits to Help the Earth in Crisis”* by Prof.Pinar Batur and Ufuk Ozdag
*Routledge editors Scott Slovic, Swarnalatha Rangarajan, Vidya Sarveswaran February 2019
Dan: I want to refer you on my blog, as the headline of this post, The Margaret Atwood of Turkey. Why? Because I know that Margaret Atwood is one of your literary heroines since 1990 while you were reading her novel The Handmaid’s Tale in Montreal where you were living then.
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”.
Buket: I am honored to be called “The Margaret Atwood of Turkey.” I am proud to share the same literary era with her. Thank you.
I started to read Margaret Atwood in the early 1990s when I was in Montreal. Her brave, wise and humoristic 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 is one of the earliest ecocritical and ecofeminist writers of our times. That year when I was back in Istanbul I talked to some publishers about “The Handmaid’s Tale”s 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! Since her Turkish publisher has changed, but the title is the same.
Dan: 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.''
Buket: 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.
Dan: 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.
Buket: How lovely to hear such flattering words from a literary person like yourself.
My own story began with my mom who taught 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 the 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 Ursula Le Guin 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.
I was already writing short stories and got published some of them on the main literary magazines in my early twenties, while meeting with the leading writers and poets of Turkey, and hungrily reading the world classics from Dostoyevsky 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.
But stories were not enough to understand the life and to discover the the secret behind the human history for me. So I started to study science; biology, ecology, environmental sciences.
Meanwhile I really needed to find a way to make real my passion for travelling the world. And the only way for that was to get academic scholarships from different universities in the different countries. My first acceptance was from a Norwegian University. Then came the U.S. (University of Mi), Finnish universities, and so on... I travelled by trains, ferries, planes, hitchhiked, studied science and wrote stories. Have I mentioned that I have written several travel books too? One of them is called New York Log Book I maybe the one of the earliest “solo woman travellers” of my generation?
(In the 80’s travelling without smart phones and internet was like living before the invention of wheel)
Science, especially biology and ecology opened a wide perspective for me to understand how every living thing are connected to each others from the cell level to the social life. It was not only Shamans but John Lennon was talking from the same perspective though.
Yet there was, and still is something missing in all stories which irritated me all my life long is the female part of life! All the heros who had adventures and fun were boys and men in the books, movies and in the real life then. That was so discouraging for the young girls all over the world!
When I was 6 years old mom took me and my brother to the local state 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.
That was not the last heartbreak though! When I read Madame Bovary and Anna Karanena translated in Turkish in my high school years, I saw those great writers Flaubert and Tolstoy were punishing even killing their heroines who only wanted to have adventures…
As you may imagine. Most of my female protagonists are strong and adventurous women and I myself don’t easily give up my goals, ideals, and dreams in my life in spite of the cost is usually very expensive.
And now my latest heroine, my female protagonist Misfit Daphne Kaman (Shaman) of the Nature Quartet has many dangerous and romantic adventures in her adulthood without being killed by her woman writer.
Dan: 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?
Buket: You mean we both were born in the last century, oh yes! Aren’t we lucky to see the other side of the moon?
Meanwhile the older I get, the younger my readers became. 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 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.
Dan Bloom an American freelance writer and blogger who lives in Taiwan and edits The CliFi Report at www.cli-fi.net.