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An Afternoon with Elif Batuman

Elif Batuman –– acclaimed New Yorker contributor, recent author of The Idiot (a novel set at Harvard in the ’90’s) and former Advocate member –– is every bit as genial, witty and inspiring as her Twitter page makes her out to be. It was truly a pleasure to have the chance to chat with her about her debut novel, The Idiot, Turkish heritage, and the 19th century Russian novel. She proves that it is, in fact, possible to be dazzlingly intelligent, publish two best-selling books and still be one of the warmest, most approachable people ever.

B- We're very excited about The Idiot. How did you decide on your subject matter, and how was it to transition from writing mostly non-fiction to fiction?

E- The Idiot is based on a draft that I wrote many years ago in 2000-2001; at that point I was in my early 20s. My freshman year of college, which is the subject matter of The Idiot, was something that I was still thinking about a lot at that time, as I was trying to finish my first year at graduate school. It was a more intuitive choice, I think, for a 22-23 year-old than it was for a 38 year-old, which is the age I was when I revised the manuscript. I worked on it for a while. I went to graduate school right after Harvard and then took a year off after the first year to try to write a novel - I wrote this very long document that had most of The Idiot in it, but it also had a lot of other stuff in it and it just didn't somehow add up to a novel, so I ended up going back to school. I stayed there for 7 years and I got the PhD and life sort of went in another direction. Then, around 2012, I started work on another novel, which was going to be about another Turkish American writer for a New Yorker-like magazine living in Istanbul, and it was in the middle of that, and with various formal and other difficulties, that I ended up revisiting the draft of this older novel and writing it then. Sorry for the long, convoluted answer - that's how it happened!

B - It's brilliant to know how the process unfurled. As a Turk, I wanted to ask you - how connected do you feel to Turkey? Particularly after reading The Idiot, I see that your protagonist Selin is constantly thinking about her heritage and her parents - what does it mean to you to be Turkish American?

E - I don't know, for a long time it didn't mean as much to me as well, but I can't really say that either. Growing up, I had a Turkish name, obviously, so that meant that there was a certain amount of explanation that had to take place almost on a daily level. I think, as with a lot of children whose parents are from a different country than the one that they're living in, it does put the child in an interesting situation from an early age. To an extent I felt that I was explaining the American school system and American childhood to my parents, and at the same time, when I would go to my friends' houses their parents would immediately ask me all these question about Turkey, viewing me as the spokesperson for all of Turkey. Whereas when we would go to Turkey every summer to see my grandparents, I was the spokesperson for America and everyone treated me basically like a Martian, which is what I was. So ,from an early age it was something that I wasn't really able to, or allowed to ignore because other people kept bringing it to my attention. At the same time, I had this idea that I got from my mother - that nationality was in the end quite a superficial facet of someone's identity, and that foolish people make a great deal out of it. Actually, we're all citizens of the world, and people when would ask her "what kind of name is Olcay?" she would get kind of impatient and say "I don't see what that has to do with anything." I had that idea, too, that what country you're from doesn't really have to do with anything. One of the things I write about in The Idiot is meeting international students for the first time who are from countries that have histories with Turkey, especially countries from the Balkans. Those people related to me completely as a Turkish person and brought to bear all their feelings about Ottoman occupation, so it was something that I had to think about in a different way in college. Then, all those thoughts changed again in 2010, because that's when I went to live in Turkey for the first time - it was the first time that I spent more than a couple of months there. I was there between 2010-2013 during the protests, and I left towards the end of 2013. I think that was a time, too, when the idea of Turkish identity was changing for people within and outside of Turkey.

B- Going back to what you said about having to explain certain things to your parents - how easy, or difficult, was it to tell them that you wanted to pursue writing?

E - I remember talking to a friend who couldn't tell his parents he was a writer, and had to pretend he was in law school because his parents would be very angry. That was not a difficult thing I had in my life. My parents had their own research labs, they had a lot going on, and they were both big readers. My mother was the bigger fiction-reader, now my father also reads a lot of fiction, though it wasn't always the case! There was some respect that surrounded the idea of writing. We didn't know any writers, but it wasn't the kind of household where all they cared about was making money. They were both researchers, and making money was never their main priority. If anything, I think I've become more aware of money as a concern only later in life through my own experiences, as opposed to anything that my parents taught me, which I do realise is an unusual experience, not for anyone, but particularly for people with parents from other countries. So, I was lucky in a way.

B – In another interview, you talked about the importance of narrative perspective. To what extent would you say that Selin's mind is a temporally and spatially equivalent to yours during your freshman year?

E - How much of me was in the narrator? That's an interesting question. The book I wrote before The Idiot was called The Possessed, and it was a book that I wanted to write as a novel, but for commercial and other reasons was persuaded to write it as non-fiction. I'd also been writing non-fiction for the New Yorker for a while, and I do the kind of voice where the first person is a constant, possibly annoying presence, interpolating their thoughts and experiences. Stylistically, I don't think that there's a huge difference between first-person narrative non-fiction and a first-person novel. I had the same kind of interest in the limitations of perspective, and in dialogue and describing scenes - I still thought of it very much in those terms. And yet, I did find that thinking about the character of Selin was different from thinking about the first-person narrator in The Possessed or in other non-fictions that I wrote, in a way that I found very freeing and fun, because I realised that writing nonfiction, I felt a lot of pressure and responsibility to present myself in a somewhat representative way that other people would agree with or recognise as forming some coherent part of the rest of reality. I didn't want to emphasise something and downplay other things - with fiction that wasn't a concern. This is probably the case with most novelists, I think that it must be very difficult to write someone feeling things that you've never felt before. Pretty much everything Selin feels and many of the things that she thinks are things that I've felt and thought before, but they're not a representative picture of what I think I'm like; they're a curated picture of a kind of person who I thought has certain overlaps with my own personality, but it was very freeing to think that she didn't have to be a mirror or portrait.

B - You wrote in several pieces about the impact Harvard had on you, especially your freshman year. To quote you, you also once said that "I do think that it's in the nature of education to be whimsical and haphazard." How do you think college shaped you and how does it come back to you in your life beyond?

E - One never really knows... those four years are so important. You think so much about where to go and what to do and every choice that you make, and it does seem true that there are some important decisions that have ramifications in your adult life. You can't really know how things would have been different without getting to live another life, which one doesn't get to do. One thing that was very important to me, career-wise, was my relationship with n+1, which was started by advocate members who I knew a little bit when I was an undergraduate. The first piece that I ever published was in 2006 with n+1, and that led directly to my getting to write for The New Yorker which was an amazing opportunity, so I do feel very lucky about that. Beyond that, I don't know - would I have gotten so into Russian Literature if I had been somewhere that didn't have such a good Russian programme, or where I didn't meet the same people? I can think of a lot of ways that might have affected and might continue to affect my life.

B- "Our dean says in every other speech that these four years are meant to be formative and transformative, and we're always pushed towards finding ourselves, finding and challenging our limits, which sounds easy?! In the novel, I think Selin grapples with a similar dilemma - the novel seems to lay out, almost in a Salingerian tradition, a sort of youth that is dazzlingly dynamic in thought, that's not confined by these guiding questions or manners in which we're taught to think and behave. She wanders and dwells on the minutiae that makes life colourful - is that something you bore in mind throughout the writing process? Was she always such a free-spirited character, from the very start?

E - The way I thought about Selin - again, it's not a 100% accurate picture of me - is definitely as an element of who I was. She has a kind of impatience and intolerance, and even just bewilderment with the most conventional formulae of language. She thinks that in some ways they're optional, and that there are some other forms of language that are not totally conventional. So, for all those speeches in which you're told these years are going to be transformative - well she just listens to those and thinks "well what does that actually mean?" She goes to all her classes, and whatever the professor has to say on that day, she says "so this is human knowledge," which is of course an absurd standard to put anything anyone says to. She doesn't really realise that - and there's a part where she goes to a job interview at Let's Go and they ask her "what do we miss out on if we don't hire you?" which is a standard interview question, but she's never heard it before, and she thinks "that's completely perverse, why would they ask me something that?" She's doesn't realise yet that there are all of these situations where people have to say certain things, and those things by definition cannot be of 100% perfect and truthful expression of something that actually exists in someone's soul. Therefore, there's all of this language floating around in the world that's just kind of an approximation or a symbol or token that doesn't actually stand for anything real and meaningful in anyone's brain. She doesn't know that yet, and can't accept and doesn't like it, so she's always in tension with the rest of the world because of that.

B- Needless to say you're a fan of Russian Literature; Tolstoy is one of my favourite writers. In Anna Karenina I always like to pick up on is the strong undercurrent of affection and imitation in the Karenin family with regards to “francophilia.” Do you think Selin's experience emulates that in terms of being a bridge between the American adolescent experience and her parents or friends?

E - When I went to graduate school to study Russian Literature, first my professors who were Russian would say "oh how interesting, one of our new graduate students is of Turkish descent," and then they would say "that makes so much sense, you must have been drawn to Russian Literature because Turkey, like Russia, is one of the few countries that's between Europe and Asia." In fact, Peter the Great and Ataturk were quite similar - their plans in terms of westernising reforms were quite similar; the position of the elite culture with regards to secularism, and the feudal village culture that's still in place long after the modernisation of cities are the same in Turkey and Russia... But I thought, "how sad it is that they have a nationalistic explanation for something in me that is so universal and transcends all of that." It's only now as an adult that I've realised, actually, that was a big part of what drew me to Russian Literature. I think of the novel as being a form about a person who has certain books that they really like, and wants their life to resemble those books, but it doesn't. The prototype is Don Quixote - he goes out and instead of a windmill he sees a giant, and collides with it; that collision is the productive space of the novel. I think that there's something about the situation of Russia in the 19th century - and maybe Turkey doesn't have the same novel traditions, but I think there's something in the Russian novel that also resonates with Turkish culture - which is somehow deeply novelistic, because the people were steeped in western literary culture in the 19th century and all spoke fluent French. They knew all of these novels; writers like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Pushkin all read French fluently and read French novels. In a way those novels described something they recognised very closely, but in another way, they were very foreign to them because they were describing a different reality, which is always the case in any novel, but it's exacerbated in the case of a country like Russia that's between the East and the West. I think it was kind of the same for me, in that in the 90s, going to college, I knew of fewer narratives about immigrant experience. You would hear about the Latino experience, but that was it. The experience that I was having with the kinds of nationalities that were involved, and the class dynamics were not reflected in literature or in movies, so I did have a very strong feeling of having an experience I hadn't seen represented for the most part. That was definitely a productive feeling for the novel, and I'm sure some of that went into The Idiot.

B- In another interview you mentioned that Haruki Murakami was one of your favourite living authors. Could you talk about that a bit, why do you enjoy Murakami so much?

E - I've wondered about that... I first read Murakami in high school; I remember I was taking violin lessons at the Manhattan School of Music, and I walked into the Barnard Book Store which was right near there, and upon seeing it’s cover I bought Dance Dance Dance - I thought it was amazing. There's this bemusement he has with everything that's humorous but also perplexed at the same time. Despite his hyper-normalcy, a lot of his imagery is unusual as well. There's something about his tone, mood, and voice, that I find extremely relaxing and compulsive - it's just a place I want to be. I don't think it has that much to do with his plots - I care about the mystic cats and the missing women, but it's really about being in that world with his first-person narrator.

B - What would like, if anything, your readers to gather from The Idiot?

E - I just feel very strongly is that one of the things that literature – the novel – can do is by conveying the irremediable specificity of any one person's lived experience, which includes all the facets of their identity, it gives you those details and allows for you to have a universal experience. I assume most of the readers will not share Selin's national background or her identity, but I hope that they won't feel pushed away by that, and that they'll recognise parts of their own experience in hers. Responses from readers that have made me the happiest have been about that - I have heard from readers with very different experiences who've said they recognised what it is to be young and lost. I think that a lot of those experiences are quite universal. I guess the paradox is that there are these universal experiences, but if you describe to describe them in a universal way and say "remember the time one was young and didn't know what to do, and stumbled into missteps?" it's hard to have that resonate with people when it's put that vaguely, but if you tell a specific story, even if the details are different, that somehow gives you access to more universal feelings. I think this is something the novel does that is so special, and I'll be really happy if the The Idiot has done that for my readers.

B - Thank you so much for this wonderful interview. One last question before I leave - which board where you on in The Advocate?

E - I was on the fiction board, but I wrote for the non-fiction side - already it was messed up!

B - Teşekkür ederim!

E - Ben teşekkür ederim, başarılar dilerim!