US storytellers paint portrait of Anatolian days and nights

Angie Brenner (L) and Joy Stocke think Turkey is one of the world’s most fascinating and misunderstood countries.

May 06, 2012, Sunday/ 12:27:00

Upon a short visit to İstanbul in 1906, a young Virginia Woolf commented with certainty that “No Christian, or European, can hope to understand the Turkish point of view.”

Over a century after Woolf’s observations on what she saw as a yawning cultural gap between the East and the West, a reading of Joy Stocke and Angie Brenner’s recently published joint memoir, “Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses, and Saints,” would be more than a good starting point for those seeking to gain an informed insight into a nation deemed by the two authors as one of the world’s “most fascinating and misunderstood countries.”

“Angie and I didn’t plan to fall in love with Turkey,” Stocke notes in the introduction of the book. Yet throughout the course of the American pair’s frank narrative of over a decade of exploration in Turkey -- an experience that took them anywhere and everywhere, from the flourishing cosmopolitan heart of İstanbul to rural Anatolian villages and the borders of neighboring Syria, Georgia, Armenia, Iraq and Iran -- it becomes clear that fall in love with Turkey is just what they did.

Travel memoirs of Westerners in the Middle East have been written before and will be written again, yet the honesty and storytelling finesse with which “Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses, and Saints” is related sets it a shelf apart from more idealistic counterparts. The memoir took a total of three years to craft with the two seasoned writers -- Stocke is the founder of the online literary magazine Wild River Review, while Brenner is the West Coast editor of the same publication -- identifying themselves more as storytellers than authors.

“Storytelling is a long-drawn process,” Stocke told Sunday’s Zaman during a cross-Atlantic Skype interview last month. “There is a narrative arc within the wider arc of writing so it takes longer; each story needed to be crafted like pearls on a strand.” Despite their writing experience, putting pen to paper and writing a memoir with two voices proved an unexpectedly difficult conundrum for the two writers. “We have very different writing styles, so it took us a total of three years to get the voice of the book right,” Stocke related. “First it was going to be narrated in the third person, then it was going to be one character and one voice and then finally it came to us writing alternating chapters,” she said.

“We have different skills in language so we also edited each other’s chapters. Joy can get caught up in literary flights of fancy and get lost in the story and language, whereas I like to get to the punch line. Joy is in the air, and I am in the earth,” Brenner added.

Speaking with Sunday’s Zaman in the lead-up to a 10-day Turkey tour in late May that will see the US-based duo take part in a number of events in Cappadocia and İstanbul, Brenner, who once upon a time had a long-term Turkish boyfriend whom she describes simply as being “no prince,” said that despite the authors’ status as outsiders in Turkey, that the two were under no false illusions about Turkey.

“We all have views of other places which we shape through our own prisms, and of course when we first came to Turkey we viewed it through rose-tinted glasses. This was one of the reasons we took so long to write to write the book,” Stocke explained. Indeed whilst the two authors weave enchanting tales of summers by the Mediterranean Sea, the delights of Turkish cuisine, the mesmerizing beauty of a whirling dervish ceremony in Konya and the warmth of curious locals, they similarly record the headache of bizarre and impromptu marriage proposals, their experiences meeting members of a women’s rights organizations in eastern Turkey fighting against the practice of honor killing and a face-off of sorts with armed soldiers on the Syrian border.

Yet ultimately the two writers praise the warmth of Muslim culture and reflect that contrary to the not uncommon Western perception of Turkey as a dangerous and conservative landscape, that they never felt unsafe there.

“This was actually one of our main inspirations for writing the book,” Brenner said, explaining that they had long since grown weary of concerned questions as to the safety of their favorite travel destination. “After 10 years my mind is so boggled by the questions from friends asking if it is safe to go there,” she said, adding that the pair decided to include a chapter on reactions following 9/11 to highlight that like in most countries, people in Turkey were outraged and saddened by the attacks. “I knew instantly that many people would be afraid of Islam and any country associated with it, and this only made us more determined to write our story. We are American women and a product of this country, and we hope we can be a role model, let more of us do this,” Stocke added.

Indeed the subject of women was one the two writers were keen to discuss. “We do believe that there are advantages to travelling as women in a Muslim culture. When we go to small villages we can hang out with the women there in situations men would certainly not be able to, so we get a privileged glimpse beneath societal constraints. We met so many strong women in such situations,” Brenner said adding that the culture of hospitality and curiosity made the pair feel safe in Turkey, “It’s nice to feel somebody has your back, and that is how we feel in Turkey,” she said.

Commenting on the writers’ experience meeting with founding members of the pioneering women’s rights organization the Women’s Consultation and Solidarity Center (KAMER), a Diyarbakır-based body dedicated to raising awareness about the crime of honor killing, Stocke said that she strongly believes that when talking about honor killing, it is important to remember the tribal nature of the tradition and the fact that it exists not just in the Middle East, but across the world. “Many people have the bad habit of lumping religion with culture when in reality these are two completely separate things. We do hope we are writing from a proactive point of view,” she said, adding that while it is a mistake to judge any country on a single component of it, that it is very important to address such issues if change is to take place.

Writing as women

On the subject of writing under the label of “women writers,” Stocke said that to make a political statement she would describe herself as a woman writer, but that she likes to think of herself as a writer first and then a woman. “This is always an interesting discussion, and the way I like to look at it is that I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was 8 years old, a kid, a girl but still not formed as a woman. On my tombstone, to my husband’s horror probably, I would like the order to be writer, mother and then wife,” Stocke mused.

Brenner was similarly hesitant to prescribe to the label of a woman writer, “When writing this book I don’t think we ever thought of it as a work of ‘women writers’; however, interestingly, when people see two women writing together there is often an assumption that this is in some way a ‘girls only’ affair, which is very much not the case,” she said. Stocke added that while there can sometimes be the perception that women must have experienced trauma to want to travel, she and Brenner took to the road to learn more about the world and find their own answers. “We wanted to feed our souls, which is something that I think is universal for men and women,” she said.

Hailed by Turkish author Elif Şafak as a work that will “change your perspective on contemporary Turkey,” “Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses, and Saints” strikes a satisfying balance of accessibility coupled with evocative storytelling artistry. Stocke and Brenner begin a 10-day tour of Turkey on May 19 that will include a lecture on “Peace Building through the Art of Storytelling,” at İstanbul’s Boğaziçi University on May 22.

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