Tuesday, December 3, 2019

In Conversation with Ayşe Papatya Bucak!

On Thanksgiving 2019, my family drove to Inola, Oklahoma to spend the holiday with my brother-in-law’s family. There were long drives through New Mexico and Texas. We stopped for coffee, for The White Sands National Monument, and for aliens in Roswell. There was a lot of quiet time in the car.

(I personally love this part of any vacation.)

Though I had preordered Bucak’s debut collection, the Trojan War Museum and Other Stories, I really only dug in on the road. I fully admit that the hypnotic presence of Mexican-influenced architecture, Native American artifacts, small town desolation, and random landscapes of unprecedented beauty mingled with Bucak’s somehow historically grand stories, and made for a contemplative mood. Bucak’s fiction put me in a certain frame of mind. I was ready for universals, for connections between one era and another, for the relevance of small moments.

Consider her prose: “Words are the worst thing to tell the story of war, but how else to make myth?” Bucak meddles with ancient history and legendary Turks and fallen empires and Greek gods (and “normal” stuff in our ordinary lives too). I was—as I usually am, in truth—aching to write as we traveled through this one American pocket—but I was intoxicated by Bucak too. Bucak said to me, in so many words, How Do You Capture Any Of This? All You’ve Got Is Words.

Elsewhere, she writes of a plot twist: “The ordinary consequence of an endless accident.” I love this so much too. This is one of my writing preoccupations: how one thing leads to another.

I wanted to talk to her. Ayşe Papatya Bucak, Turkish-American, Princeton and ASU grad, teaches at Florida Atlantic University. This is her first book, though she’s an accomplished writer. For more information, please visit her here. There’s a lot of great info available, as well further reading on her site.

Jennifer: I’m literally writing up questions at a YMCA in Catoosa, OK on my phone because I’m here for Thanksgiving. What this means, mostly, is that I just read your book, I love it, and I want to ask you questions about it. 

We were both in the same MFA Program, but I believe you graduated the year that I entered. Jewel Parker Rhodes, a faculty member, once said to me that I was a novel-writer and not a short story-writer. I thought then, Okaysure. I didn’t really understand what that meant. Now, years later, I still don’t entirely know what it means— but I think it’s true. I AM a novel-writer, and not a short story-writer. Are you a short story writer and not a novel writer, and what does that mean?

Ayşe: I actually graduated the year before you entered—I'm pretty sure we met at AWP one year, through Mary Kenagy (Mitchell). I have yet to write a novel that works, but I still hope I can be a novel-writer. I guess we'll find out. I understand what Jewell was saying—to write short stories you have to be willing to think on a different scale than for novels—or vice versa. I previously wrote a novel that didn't work out but it taught me to think on a different scale for plot, structure, theme . .  . which ironically I believe helped me write better short stories. My grad school stories were too slight, I think (a lot of short stories are, in my opinion). But I like writing at all different scales—flash, story, longer. By the time I wrote "The Dead," I think my mind was already leaning toward writing bigger and longer, so hopefully I'm ready to do a better novel now.

Jennifer: When I entered the MFA program, I remember hearing right away that you were the really hot writer. This is your first book. I’d like to be as candid and not-weird as possible. You kinda got an awesome pub deal (I think). Was this a deliberate move on your part . . . to wait a while? And, um, what took you so long? I mean, I’m not trying to be nasty here, but...

Ayşe: I reject the premise of the question. What is the correct number of books to have written in that time period? I've never read a book and thought I wish the author had written it faster. I have, however, read some books and thought the author probably should have taken a little longer. With that said, because I already had tenure at my job, I could take my time to write the best stories I was capable of in the hopes of landing an agent capable of selling a book of stories. It should probably also be said that, if I was trying to make a living from writing, I'd have to write a lot faster and a lot differently (my advance was 10K for a book of stories that took ten years to write . . . we can all do that math).

[insert Jennifer gasping because a 10k advance sounds AWESOME. Though Jennifer can also the math and realizes the importance of day-jobs.]

Jennifer: What role does teaching play in your career? Do you see your teaching as serving your writing? I’ve been known to say, privately but now publicly, I teach to write. Teaching is secondary; it serves my writing. Kinda lousy to admit? You?

Ayşe: I understand what you're saying (and I'm sure you're a great teacher); for me, teaching certainly pays the bills which allows for the writing. But I also consider teaching my primary job; it offers the kind of immediate satisfaction and sense of a larger purpose that writing only sometimes provides.  But I probably wouldn't be a teacher if I wasn't a writer, and I definitely wouldn't be a teacher if I wasn't teaching writing. I think the two jobs serve each other—I like teaching the thing that I do, thinking about craft has definitely helped me as a writer, being a writer has definitely helped me teach from a place of first-hand experience. I'm very sure that teaching certain of my favorite short stories over and over again made me think differently about what I wanted to achieve with the short story . . . teaching and writing feel very interwoven for me.

Jennifer: Which is your favorite of the short stories in this collection and why?

Ayşe: I'm fond of the "The Trojan War Museum." I feel a lot of affection for poor Apollo. I liked making huge jumps in time. I liked letting poetic technique dominate the story.

Jennifer: Are you, would you say, experimental? I think, as I read this, I felt that all of your stories shared linguistic finesse, but there might be a mild distinction in kind here. Some are realist, grounded in character. Others seem almost ethereal, maybe a tad magical realist, somehow historically profound. What are your, um, thematic obsessions in this book? What ideas does your prose worry over?

Ayşe: I consciously tried to write stories I hadn't already read.  At some point, I also decided to see if I could write a story-in-stories, and to see how many stories I could fit inside of a story. The whole book is based on the premise of representing how Turkishness pops up in my American life (I suspect only I can see that). I also like to retell tales. Most of my obsessions were stylistic. I kind of let themes go where they would depending on the story.

Jennifer: This is probably a very stupid question. Are the exhibits that you listed for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair in “Little Sister and Emineh” real? Were they actually there? It’s a wild list.

Ayşe: Yes. They are all real.

Jennifer: What inspired my two favorite stories, “Mysteries Of The Mountain South” and “Good Fortune”? [These seem the most character-centric and contemporary realist.]

Ayşe: "Mysteries of the Mountain South" came from the real history of melungeons, which my mother told me about after she read about them in a Barbara Nadel mystery novel. [These are individuals who are of mixed ancestry—black, white, Native American. In Bucak’s story, a character intriguingly suggests that Elvis and Tom Hanks are melungeons.] I also had a friend/colleague at FAU who wrote a book about how tech can be used to support environmentalism and how literature wasn't really representing that—so I decided to try to represent that. I also wanted to write a story that was about being mixed (I am half-Turkish, half-American) though that turned out to be less of a theme than I planned.  By the way, in the first draft the dog lived . . . still kind of regret killing the dog.


I’m joking.

Ayşe: "Good Fortune" came from a real life experience in which a hotel owner tried to get my dad to help him with having a baby in the US, and from a newspaper article about birth tourism, as well as a real hotel that does long-term stays in New York City. I also wanted to write a story set in Florida—which seemed like a place where birth tourism would likely happen (though I don't know if it does actually). And my parents told me a story about one of my dad's hotshot friends from grad school who was in a terrible car accident.

Jennifer: May I ask about your family’s origin? Spill your guts on your Turkish ancestry. I mean, my own ancestry—while a big deal—doesn’t live and breathe in my prose. Yours does. So why? [She’s answered this question a gazillion times.]

Ayşe: My mom is American and I grew up with my American family from the time that I was four. So I know almost nothing about my Turkish ancestry really. I did a ton of research for each of these stories, asked a lot of annoying questions of my parents. And only then did I feel allowed to write stories that were at all Turkish. But I don't write realist or contemporary stories about Turkey because my experience of Turkey is grounded almost entirely in stories (which I have to access in English, by the way) and not in firsthand experience. So I suppose I ended up writing the stories as a way to learn more about Turkey and Turkishness. But as I said above, I see the book as equally American, as mixed, though I can see why the Turkishness dominates the reading experience.

Jennifer: I’ve always loved Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist.” Did this influence you?

Ayşe: YES. I love that you recognized that. "Iconography" is the most directly influenced, but "The Hunger Artist" gave me permission to be weird and not explain. Also, I love the voice (credit to the translators, I guess).

Jennifer: Do you have any formal training in Classics? You sound freakin’ smart.

Ayşe: No. I do a lot of self-educatin'. I got complimented by a classics scholar and was embarrassingly proud of myself for it. But I live in fear that both Turks and classicists will one day point out everything I got wrong.

Jennifer: I’m told I “list” things a lot in my prose. You seem to, as well. Is this deliberate? Do you know what I mean? Listing attractions at the World’s Fair, listing dishes at the birthday party...

Ayşe: Yeah, I had to self-impose a ban on list-making at some point. I was going to that well too often. I love lists. Or at least I used to until I published a book and then became aware of how many lists book reviewers make (most anticipated books, best books, etc.) and how that ends up giving all the attention to a very small subset of books that have been published. Now I kind of hate lists.

Jennifer: I’m this kid who grew up going to art museums, knowing some of these guys you mentioned in “An Ottoman’s Arabesque”—we even  mention the same artist once— but I was slightly awestruck: what’s true? What’s not? And what inspired this strange fiction?

Ayşe: "An Ottoman's Arabesque" came from an entry on Origin of the World in 1001 Paintings to See Before You Die (see previous question on loving lists. . .).  It mentioned Khalil Bey and his collection of "erotic art" so I did an Internet search on him and went down a lot of rabbit holes due to clicking links . . . which created the structure of the story.  When I saw how orientalized Khalil Bey was, I knew I had a theme I wanted to investigate. But I couldn't find out much about Khalil Bey (mostly because I can only research in English), so I didn't end up writing about him as much as I thought I would. I had to invent a little of his life, but mostly I just wrote around him. Almost everything is true. I made up the story about the harem girl trying to escape Topkapi. Pretty much everything else is a retelling of a true story (so not entirely true but grounded in facts).

Jennifer: So, I know I hate when someone asks me to explain what I mean in my fiction . . . but can you, um, help me navigate “The Trojan War Museum”? I’m trying to put my finger on it thematically . . .

Ayşe: This story caused my mother to roll her eyes and say "you're very smart." It was not a compliment. It's not for everybody. I think the story is about how we memorialize war in such a way that often glorifies it. It's really hard to honor soldiers, honor the sacrifice, and not glorify war.  It's also really hard to write about violence and not turn it in some way to "art –to make it pretty somehow.  I've been struggling with that, so I see the story as being in part about that struggle.

Jennifer: What’s next?

Ayşe: Working on a novel, some stories, some essays . . . I like to have a lot of things going at once.

Jennifer: Who are your favorite writers?

Ayşe: I once set my online security question to "who is your favorite writer?" and that was a mistake! I tend to have favorite books or favorite stories more than favorite writers.  But my general pantheon: Toni Morrison, Michael Ondaatje, Don DeLillo, Jamaica Kincaid. In short stories: Andrea Barrett, Steven Millhauser, Sofia Samatar, Kelly Link.

Thank you, Ayşe!

We’ll end with this beautiful passage:

“Each night for 379 nights, Anahid had taken the shadow that filled her each day, and folded it and folded it until it became a tiny black seed inside her, which she delicately coughed into her hand. Each night, so that she could sleep, she placed that black seed in a glass cup she kept by her bedside. Each morning, she tipped the seed back into her palm and swallowed it, where inside of her it unfolded and unfolded, so that once again it became the whole of her, and she began again the process of refolding it and refolding it and refolding it, so that it wasn’t the whole of her.”

If you see aliens, offer them Dunkin' Donuts coffee . . .

Can you believe the White Sands National Monument?

There was a pretty cool exhibit at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa. Check out this editorial cartoon. 

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