The literary fusions of expatriate Istanbul

MATT HANSON
ISTANBUL
Published
The literary fusions of expatriate Istanbul

Istanbul's vivid literary life hosts expatriate writers and translators with their unique experiences in the cultural life of the city. American novelist Elliot Ackerman and writer Katherine Belliel are two important examples of Istanbul's expat intellectuals

Istanbul is one city where writers have incessantly and voraciously swarmed from the ends of the earth to pursue and immortalize the latest fusions of contemporary literature. Throughout the innumerable local bookshops, from Balat to Kuzguncuk, Kadıköy to Beşiktaş and beyond, prim shelves and dusty piles are ready for unique mixtures of intercultural perspectives driven by multilingual narratives that blur every sense of worldly definition, from political borders afar to the ethnic neighborhoods of the inner-city.

American novelist Elliot Ackerman sauntered into Pera Palace Hotel Jumeirah on a late summer afternoon with a smile on his face. He ordered tea in the Orient Bar, sitting beside 18th century wood-carved Ottoman furniture and a library holding antique books on Istanbul, many by expatriate writers who have famously graced the legendary neighborhood of Pera throughout the ages, Ernest Hemingway, Knut Hamsun and Agatha Christie.

His reputation preceded him as the author of a highly praised debut novel, Green on Blue, which he published in 2015 after serving five tours of duty in the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Writing from the perspective of an Afghan orphan immersed in post-9/11 conflict had impressed the likes of Khaled Hosseini, not to mention the international press establishment.

"I like to say I'm like a dilettante journalist, I do some on the side and I write novels," Ackerman said, with a sly sense of humor. "Shortly after spending lots of time down in Gaziantep, I moved to Istanbul. My next novel which comes out in the U.S. in January, Dark at the Crossing, is all set in Antep."

Living in Turkey for the past three years, Ackerman has now spent about the same time between Istanbul and Gaziantep as a successful writer as he had in Afghanistan as an American Marine. Reporting on the Syrian Civil War for The New Yorker, The New Republic, and The Atlantic among many other media outlets, has led to the much-anticipated release of "Dark at the Crossing," his new novel published by Knopf, set to appear in the U.S. on Jan. 24, 2017, and early next year in Turkish by April Publishing.

"Whether it's what's going on in Afghanistan or the Arab Spring, you can really see a straight narrative line from the early 2000s up to everything that's happening politically today," says Ackerman, whose work demonstrates common threads in the literary fusions that inspire contemporary writers working in Istanbul. "Having spent my twenties fighting in those wars, you can come over here, particularly if it's southern Turkey, whether it's what's going on in Syria or seeing how U.S. involvement shapes current Turkish policy, a lot of that narrative through-line informs my writing when trying to add some simplicity to what are very complex issues."

As exemplified by Ackerman, literature is a potent means for both writers and readers to empathize with the victims and perpetrators of global conflict. On the other side of the spectrum, Katherine Belliel expatriated for purely personal reasons, over love. As an expatriate writer who has lived in Turkey for over a decade, most significantly in Istanbul from 2003 to 2012, she has fostered and now leads a prestigious literary community of women who have been inspired by Turkey and the creative freedoms of international movement.

"I came to Turkey as a single woman in my early twenties. I know what it's like to be a single woman living here, a married woman, a mother, and now a divorced woman," Belliel says, light for her sense of humor.

The identity of an expatriate is, by the verbal form of the word, a conscious redirection away from birthright nationalism.

In the process where the expatriate relentlessly seeks to redefine and transcend the stereotypes and bonds of national identity, more essential human identities are emphasized, such as gender, exemplified in the women-centric publishing philosophy of Belliel and her colleague, fellow American writer Rose Margaret Deniz with a new anthology of expatriate writing by women in Turkey titled Expat Sofra.

"Istanbul reminds me a lot of what you can say New York is like. Nobody is from here but everyone pretends they're from here. My Istanbul is very different than what a lot of Turks' Istanbul is," says Belliel, reinforcing the value of expatriate perspectives in literature and in society generally, when, for example, Turkish people exchange knowledge of expatriate ancestry more comfortably with foreigners, especially Americans who often express pride in Old World roots. "I see a lot of Istanbul that most Turks who are born and bred here don't know."

Originally a transplant from the American Midwest, Belliel now lives with her son in the neighborly university town of İzmit, where she sometimes compares the flatlands of her birthplace to the Anatolian cultural landscape, fusing creative literatures in the process. Under her keenly perceptive editorial pen, Expat Sofra seeks to contribute to the newly emergent "foodoir" genre, as in the combination of food writing and memoir.

"In a way, in Turkey you can't really define Turkey, you can't define even yourself as an expat in Turkey. The book ['Expat Sofra'] is like that, it can fit into so many different niches. Since we started 'Expat Sofra,' people have been contacting us to find the Turkish version of 'Expat Harem,'" says Belliel, confirming the hunger for expatriate literature among Turkish readers while sitting in Karabatak cafe, one of the iconic locales of the Istanbul cultural aesthetic, aptly situated in the lively pedestrian narrows of Karaköy. "There are a couple of stories of people who lived in Turkey and then moved back to their respective countries, and they are writing about that, so like a re-pat table. That wasn't something that was part of 'Expat Harem.'"

Led by publishers Samer Qadri, an internationally exhibiting painter, and his wife Gulnar Hajo, writer of children's books, the Syrian expatriate literary community fosters unprecedented cultural interaction between the Arabic-speaking world and Turkish society at Pages, the first Arabic-language bookstore in Istanbul. After leaving Syria three years ago, Qadri has hosted weekly events with authors and musicians for over a year as the founder of Pages. The bookshop is tucked away in the Golden Horn district of Fatih, near Chora Museum, behind two open-air cafes in an unassuming alleyway.

One among many fellow expatriate Syrian intellectuals is the leading literary figure of his community in Istanbul, Yassin al-Haj Saleh. His articles are characteristically dense with philosophically conviction and newsworthy analyses. In a recent piece titled, "The Just Oppressors" published on June 9, 2016 by Al-Jumhuriya, and translated from Arabic into English by Palestinian-Jordanian researcher Abdul-Wahab Kayyali, Saleh exemplifies the self-determined humanism of expatriate literary freedom in Istanbul.

As proven by the expatriate literary communities of the greatest Turkish metropolis, the cultural life of Istanbul transforms and diversifies through direct and mutual relations within, and alongside the neighboring societies in the region, and globally. Expatriate writers working in Istanbul unite over common narratives toward new forms of literary creativity and through dialogical processes that are increasingly critical as so many individuals, and even entire peoples, are oppressed to silence and remain unheard around the world.

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter