& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, December 08, 2018

'When you write about the past, there’s plenty to invent and discover': Loren Edizel

Loren Edizel 
You have written three novels, one collection of short stories – all in about five-six years. How do you choose the stories that you want to tell, and how do you ensure an evenness of texture and tone in your work?

Actually, it’s been about a decade, I think. The Ghosts of Smyrna was published in Turkey, in Turkish translation, in 2008.  Adrift was published in Canada in 2011, Ghosts of Smyrna in its original English version 2013, the collection of stories in 2014 and Days of Moonlight in the spring of 2018. In between I wrote some short stories which are sitting in a file and will hopefully become part of another collection once I am done with the novel I am currently working on.

I don’t know to what extent I choose the stories, I believe perhaps they choose me, through some sort of unconscious process. A rudimentary form of the story appears, and this could be a character, an idea that doesn’t go away.  It sits there, a bit like indigestion, demanding attention. I take notes, do research, think about the character’s traits. With Days of Moonlight, I knew I wanted to tell a story that had to do with the population exchange between Turkey and Greece after the Lausanne Treaty in 1924, and about Cretan immigrants in Izmir, specifically. I find that part of the history of the Aegean region fascinating, and not much discussed.  I did some research on the epoch, the events. This coincided with a personal story.  My mother had been trying to reach her friend in Izmir by phone, for months, unsuccessfully. Then her phone got disconnected.  Mom got worried. She started asking around and finally got word that her friend had passed away months before.  I remember the day she found this out. We sat in her darkening room as the sun was setting, quietly, both of us feeling so sad. This lady had always lived alone, had never married. She had never told mom she was sick, when they spoke. It’s as if she wanted to leave this world without a fuss, the way she had lived in it.

I didn’t know much about her life at all. But it got me wondering how a single woman’s life would have been in those times, in Izmir. I knew I wanted it to feel intimate, deeply emotional, the story of a strong woman with a richly-textured secret life. It seemed that the best way to do that was to have her as the narrator, penning a journal, writing bits of an autobiography, letters and her account of her parents’ migration from Crete, whatever she remembered from the stories she was told as a child.  Once I felt I knew her and the other characters well enough to tell their stories and had a strong sense of the larger overarching story of her entire life, it all unravelled. The myth of the Minotaur, a Cretan and particularly, an Aegean story, was there from the beginning. It is a powerful myth, and held me captive as I imagined the story of Mehtap’s life.

Maybe the texture and tone tend to evolve with the characters. As I write, I want to see through their eyes, know what they like to wear, the music they listen to, movies they watch, their random thoughts as they sit on their balcony, annoying habits, all those details. I want to live in their world with them, become them.  I know I am in that universe, when I can describe it effortlessly. The songs, the view, the smells and sounds are there. I’m there.

Your latest novel, Days of Moonlight is a broad sweep encompassing several decades, and Ghost of Smyrna was a historical novel. Do you prefer historical genre rather than narrating stories of the present? A corollary to this question is whether immigrant authors prefer to write about their past than their present?
I don’t feel that I have a preference for the historical genre but maybe I unconsciously do, I don’t know.   I’ve wanted to write a futuristic story for a long time. I haven’t gotten around to it yet. My husband laughs and shakes his head at me, because as soon as I finish one novel, I announce to him that I have this idea for a futuristic type of story for my next one. Then I go and write something else. Maybe the time is not right for it yet.
In a way, when you write about the past, there’s plenty to invent and discover, and you have the clear framework of historical facts to guide you. I like to invent, go elsewhere, get out of myself, when I write. Writing about the past also requires some research, which I enjoy.  The Ghosts of Smyrna is about a city which burned down long before I was born. I reconstructed it in my mind, through research, photos, maps etc.  So, in a way, even though I was writing about a real place, there was an imaginary dimension to it.  
Days of Moonlight, as you say, sweeps numerous decades, starting in the 1920s and ending in 2010. It covers Mehtap’s entire life. The focus of her journals is the 60s and 70s in Turkey. Aside from research, I went deep into my childhood memories to bring up how things smelled and looked and felt to me; the look of the city, how people behaved.
To write a story that takes place in the present is possible as long as it’s something I can dig into, something that excites my imagination and somehow leads me to say whatever it is I want to say. The challenge with the present is that we are all immersed in it and there is no perspective. Unless I’m certain of my signposts, I fear the present could be a little tedious to write about because of that lack of distance. 
You were an immigrant in Turkey and you are an immigrant in Canada. Does the status of an outsider give you a better perspective, a more nuanced understanding of cultures and more because you can observe with detachment?
I was not an immigrant in Turkey. My ancestry in Izmir goes back four centuries. I was part of a very small cultural minority. My father was an artist who felt like an outsider all his life. To a certain extent I’ve always carried that outsider/insider feeling, I suppose. Migration is not the only requirement for feeling this way, although if you’ve never felt like an outsider in your life, you would, as soon as you migrated. There is no question. I came to Canada as a teenager, and that did change my life and my perspective. Opened it. Made me see things differently. I always wanted to feel like a citizen of the world and I think this move set me in that direction.
When I was a small child, maybe four years old, I was convinced I was dropped into my family by aliens from another planet. I would wrap myself in the curtains of the living room and wait for them to come and get me, or give me a sign, explain why I was here and for how long.  They never did, as you can imagine and I eventually got bored of waiting and had to accept I wasn’t going anywhere except to bed, for a nap. Plus, mom didn’t like me playing with the curtains. I still don’t know why I’m here.  But I am reconciled to the fact that I will always feel somehow outside of the larger context, looking in, sideways.  I don’t believe this is strictly my experience; as individuals we all have circumstances that lead us to feel somewhat on the outside. Being part of a group is a necessity for feeling safe and good. But our ties to the  group are defined by a few things only – we may suppress our differences for the safety or expediency of belonging. Often individuals are made to suppress their “otherness” by the state, by society, religion, ideologies etc.  I wanted to touch upon that in Days of Moonlight - the existential dissonance of feeling pressured to fit into acceptable molds.
How much of your life is reflected in your work?
Not much really. When I write, I want to be exploring, learning something new, discovering other possibilities than my own world and life. At the same time, I excavate whatever I can from my own life experience, thoughts and emotions to understand lives that are not mine. I think actors probably do something similar when they get into a character. They jump into the unknown using everything they’ve ever learned, felt or thought about as tools to find their way, I suppose.

Excerpt from Days of Moonlight- p 121
Neither Mehmet nor Maria ever returned to Crete for
a visit. They were afraid of travelling and remained profoundly suspicious of Greek and Turkish border officials. In the late fifties, when trips to Greece became possible for Turkish citizens, the couple categorically rejected the notion from fear that something would go awry between the countries during their visit
and prevent their return to Turkey. Disputes between the two neighbours always seemed one island away. They imagined being stuck in Crete with nothing but a suitcase, having no friends, no acquaintances to take care of them, strangers to their birthplace or adrift in the Mediterranean, unclaimed by either country. “Worse
than strangers,” Mehmet would insist, with that particular shade of bitterness that infects the memories of those who have suffered profound injustices in their youth. He never spoke of enemies; he seemed to have none. Although he knew himself to be Greek and Turkish, he could acknowledge neither fully in his mind and he felt like a mongrel that had been groomed to pass for an acceptable breed, thus living his days with an omnipresent sense of dread which, like a gas leak, permeated his universe, emanating a deep suspicion of ideas, governments, convictions, and neighbours. Obsessed by the thought of toeing the line at all times, Mehmet would become taciturn, self-effaced among friends.

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