by Andy Shi
Ayşe Papatya Bucak’s debut collection of short stories, The Trojan War Museum and Other Stories, is an eloquent and searching study of identity. Within the collection, an eclectic cast of characters, many of them women grasping for a sense of belonging, are torn between the diverging cultures of disparate geographies—here, East and West. In “An Ottoman’s Arabesque,” a narrator extricates a Turkish diplomat and his collection of art from an orientalist history which remembers him as decadent and perverted. In “Mysteries of the Mountain South,” Edie, a recent college graduate, re-evaluates who she is through her inchoate relationship with Michael, an African-American undertaker, when she discovers that she is part Melungeon—a people of white, black, and Native American ancestry once fabled to be the descendants of Portuguese and Turkish sailors. One story introduces you to a Turkish behemoth touring Europe and the United States as a champion wrestler who is seen as a mere brute in the eyes of his audience; in another, a troupe of Turks act the quaint village roles their western audience expects at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. This is a collection whose characters seek to understand who they are when they are removed from Turkey and relocated to the cultural West.
Bucak, 48, was born in Istanbul to an American mother and Turkish father but grew up in Pennsylvania and now teaches at the Florida Atlantic University MFA program. She understands how difficult it can be to appreciate, let alone express, a non-Western-European heritage within the overpoweringly assimilatory culture of the United States. So, too, is the Turkish identity already a confused one, geographically pulled between Europe and Asia and the inheritor of both secularity and political Islam. The Trojan War Museum and Other Stories is Ms. Bucak’s exploration of her own heritage and what it means to be Turkish in America, but these are stories that any immigrant or child of immigrants can recognize as their own.
These are stories about the power to speak and be heard, how both are tied to the capacity to articulate one’s identity, and the disadvantages both non-westerners—the “other”—and women have in being heard. Is “The Dead,” about Anahid, an Armenian refugee whose benefactors monitor her speeches in order to benefit their philanthropic organization; or is it about Harriet, the woman who hosts Anahid and whose own fatal illness is neglected in a story about her wealthy Turkish husband and Anahid? Indeed, Harriet’s whole history is manipulated—she in fact died years before Anahid arrived in America—to allow the narrator to tell this story. These are stories about how facts change with the speaker.
In the Pushcart prize-winning story “Iconography,” a Turkish student studying in America stops eating—which is interpreted as a protest against motley socio-political causes, even though she tells the world watching her that what she is protesting is nothing less than “everything.” Although not the titular story of this collection, “Iconography” is its essence. Is this a story about a student whose personhood is claimed by both Turkey and America as the “sacrificial martyr” and “liberal protestor,” respectively? If not about identity, is it a feminist story about body politics? As the starving girl lies in hospital, the world divides over whether she should be force-fed or allowed to die. In the end her doctor asks a group of journalists, celebrities, and intellectuals to decide. Absent are the wishes of the starving girl who, although complacent in her treatment, has expressed a willingness to die for her cause. As the narrator says, “Never does the starving girl think of herself as anything but hungry. It is the others who give her act drama, and meaning, which, in the end, she is happy to accept.”
The reader never learns whether the starving girl wants to live or die. Instead, the unidentified narrator cryptically tells us that “I know what she said. But I will not tell you. This is your story, not mine.” So, are these stories about tiptoeing love and the struggle to bridge the chasm that death creates between loved ones, of finding one’s way back home? Are these stories about voice, power, and identity? Yes, probably, to all of the above, but these are the wrong questions to ask. The real question is who decides the identity of these stories and, through allegory, ourselves? Bucak knows what she intended each story to mean, but it is the reader who ultimately decides what each story endeavors to share. Meaning is the interaction between reader and writer, subject and object, what is left when two forces pull at one’s personhood like children tugging at a shared doll. This collection is a commentary on how identity is formed and asks all of us to reexamine how much autonomy we truly have over our own identities and lives as social beings.
Bucak writes in unassuming prose self-assured enough to allow her exquisite ideas to speak for themselves. It is no wonder that two of the featured stories, “The History of Girls” and “Iconography,” won major literary awards. These are stories that have been allowed years to mature and collect meaning, that are at times hilarious, whimsical, and heart-breaking, sometimes all at once. Such deftness is unsurprising for a collection that distills so much into ten wonderful stories.
I had the opportunity to discuss with Bucak her collection, as well as her career as a writer, which provided an additional lens through which to interpret her stories
Andy Shi: As you know, Bloom focuses on writers who publish their first book after age 40. However, you have been publishing short stories, poetry, and essays since your mid-twenties, some of which are included in this debut collection of stories. How would you summarize the trajectory of your writing career thus far? Has your publication history tracked what you expected as an MFA graduate?
Papatya Bucak: When I finished my MFA I managed to hold in my head the simultaneous yet contradictory beliefs that I would immediately publish a world-changing book and that I would never publish a book at all. I wonder if a lot of young writers do this—hold the fantasy in our minds at the same time that we don’t believe it. But after grad school, I did steadily publish stories and eventually essays and even some poems. So I was doing something that I was trained to do in grad school—write single pieces, revise them, and publish them. I wish that maybe more people had talked to me about the process of writing a book. Apparently John McPhee tells his students to always be writing a book. I suspect that is good advice professionally, but it might be terrible advice artistically. My own undergraduate thesis advisor, Russell Banks, encouraged me to experiment while I could, and that helped my writing grow…I think that was the better advice for me anyway.
AS: Are there other authors whose careers you have looked to for guidance or whom you identify as having similarly established themselves through short-form writing?
PB: I am pretty sure I am legally required to mention Alice Munro. Aimee Bender, John Edgar Wideman, Amy Hempel, Lorrie Moore, Kelly Link, Steven Millhauser, Anthony Doerr, and Andrea Barrett were big short story writer inspirations. Recently the stories of Sofia Samatar and Jenny Zhang have been giving me a lot of life. I got to meet Joan Silber when I published the story “History of Girls,” and when I told her about my then-recent experience of putting a novel in a drawer, she told me, “I had my biggest successes with short stories.” She said the right thing at the right time and I will always be grateful. But I also take a lot of pleasure and inspiration in the fact that her recent novel Improvement has been a big success. I love the short story but I really want to write in every genre, including the novel.
AS: Do you consider yourself a late bloomer? Did not having a book publication weigh on you, either personally or professionally?
PB: No and no, but I imagine other people see me differently. There are a couple of fellow writers who started out around the same time I did who I have known all these years and who are having big, big moments right now—Rebecca Makkai, Tayari Jones, and Angie Cruz. And when I look at them, I see how much more they have written and accomplished than I have. But I don’t mind! I wasn’t able to do what they did when they did it. I am simply inspired by them.
AS: Do you think it is important for an author to publish a full-length book as a sign of their credibility or literary seriousness?
PB: I think you can be serious and credible without having a book. But…I have certainly noticed that I’ve gotten more readers in the past week than in the years prior. I am lucky that I work at a university that doesn’t fetishize book publication above all else, but they probably would have preferred that I published a book earlier. And it would be hard to get my job now without already having published a book. So it is important for your writing career. It probably is not important for your writing. And maybe things are changing. A writer like Jia Tolentino was obviously very well read and very well respected before her book of essays came out. And writers can have a single piece of writing that goes viral and has more impact than any book ever does.
AS: Turning now to the collection itself, how did The Trojan War Museum and Other Stories come about? The stories are thematically linked, but did you originally write the individual stories with a collection in mind?
PB: The bridge between the stories I wrote as a graduate student and the stories in The Trojan War Museum is the failed novel that I worked on for several years—and that made it to the stage of being agented and rejected by some of the greatest editors working in publishing—but ultimately and thankfully not further. It was during writing that novel that I learned to write with more scope, to write bigger, to care more about my content, to have more plot. And so when I went back to stories, I brought those new skills to those stories (I hope). I also had—thanks to my colleague Dr. Dagbovie-Mullins and her book about mixed race narratives—the epiphany that I didn’t have to write about being Turkish; I could write about the middle space of being mixed. So I started writing stories about the ways that Turkishness intersected with Americanness. The first two stories I wrote—“History of Girls” and “Iconography”—were not with a collection necessarily in mind. But after those two, I knew I was writing the stories to go together in a book. I guess I’ll revise my thinking on writing for a book a little bit— writing stories with a book in mind can be very beneficial, in the case of The Trojan War Museum it was, but you can’t force it—you need time to find the right idea.
AS: Could you tell me more about your failed book that served as a bridge between your work as a graduate student and the stories in your current collection? What was the novel about that it served as a bridge, and do you see it being resurrected in the future?
PB: The novel, which is rightfully and permanently drawer-ed, didn’t have anything to do with Turkey and in fact came out of my curiosity about my American ancestors (a very privileged bunch), but I don’t think it was the absence of Turkey that was the problem. It really just didn’t do enough. I learned a lot about writing while working on a longer project (and getting responses from book editors). I still believe that if I want to write a book that doesn’t take on the Turkish aspect of my identity in an overt way that it could be a great book. A long way of saying the things I learned from that experience were less about who I am and more about how I write.
AS: A prominent theme in your stories is identity, particularly concerning people of Turkish ancestry trying to understand their place and self in the United States. Do you consider these stories autobiographical in the sense that they reflect your own search for or difficulty expressing a unique identity?
PB: Search, yes. Difficulty, no. Most of my life it has been really, really easy for me to be American—I grew up surrounded by my American family and very far from my Turkish family. So unlike a lot of immigrants or children of immigrants I didn’t feel very conflicted. Maybe I was assimilated to an embarrassing degree? As an adult, I realized I was missing out on something by ignoring the Turkish part of my heritage, but it felt like a gift to realize that, never a struggle. I went on David Naimon’s podcast “Between the Covers” and he, disarmingly, identified “Mysteries of the Mountain South” as my most autobiographical story. And he’s right—it’s the story of a young woman who learns, and is excited to learn, that her heritage is more complicated than she knew. And she heavily romanticizes the whole thing. That’s me, but hopefully with a level of self-awareness that I am romanticizing. I live in fear of Orientalizing myself.
AS: One of the most curious and beautiful refrains throughout this collection is that the reader’s distinct interpretation of the text determines the meaning or identity of a story. In “Iconography,” for example, the world views the starving girl’s hunger strike as a protest against climate change, nutrition politics, and eating disorders, to name a few. The starving girl, however, simply says she is protesting “everything,” an ambiguous answer that leaves it to the reader to decide what the story is about. The philosophy of identity is one that cannot be addressed fully here, but what are your personal views on the generation of one’s identity? Do you think people possess full discretion over the determination of their identities or is it a negotiation with others?
PB: My gut says a lot of my identity has to do with things that seem inherent to my body and brain (I’m mellow, I learned to read really easily…) and a lot to do with my parents. So I guess I’ll go halfsies on nature and nurture. But the ways that other people see me probably has more to do with it than I realize. I only recently thought about how when I was a kid I had a nickname that hid the most Turkish thing about me—my name. And when I started using my real name as an adult, people viewed me as “foreign” or “ethnic” way more often. Interestingly the book has, as of late, almost erased my American half—which I think forms a lot more of my identity than my Turkish half does. I grew up under the influence of a pretty Puritan, stoic, WASPy extended family. It’s easy to get tangled thinking about this. (Throws hands up in air, and says, who knows!)
AS: Unique among bloomers, you are already a well-established writer who has earned multiple literary prizes. Do you have any advice or words of encouragement for those who are in their forties and beyond and are now considering writing with the hopes of publishing for the first time?
PB: First, I thought my age would come up a lot during the publication process, but it hasn’t. Neither my agent nor my editor, nor any magazine editor, has cared in the least about my age. Also, I live by “tortoise beats hare.” But one embarrassing and pivotal realization for me was that for a long time I was using tortoise beats hare as a justification for being slow. But the key fact about the tortoise is not that he is slow, it is that he is steady.
AS: May I ask what’s next for you?
PB: Working on a novel, but also writing a few more stories that I have some fantasy of convincing my publisher to slide into the paperback version of the collection. I haven’t actually mentioned that to them (nor have I finished the stories), so it is obviously unlikely. But these story ideas came to me, they tie-in to the collection, and I can’t seem to put them aside even though the collection is already out there.
Andy Shi is a recent graduate from the Columbia University-London School of Economics dual MA/MSc program in International and World History.
Homepage photo via Florida Atlantic University