How to Write an Expat Novel Without Succumbing to the Old Clichés
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Nicholas Bredie on life in Istanbul, the start of an uprising, and subverting the tropes of the expat novel
After having spent a few weeks “living” in Turkey with author Nick Bredie and Nora Lange and experiencing the thrilling 2013 Gezi Park uprising alongside them and millions of Turks, I sat down to read Bredie’s new novel, Not Constantinople, with romantic ideas about revisiting the Turkey I’d seen and felt, and stepping into the fictional characters he’d created loosely based on his partner and himself. And so went those expectations. Bredie’s novel took me, instead, on a wild ride of disillusioned expats and the drama they attracted and created for themselves in contemporary Istanbul. It did everything but disappoint, and although I was hungry for more, I at least got to ask the author a bit more about how he conceived of the whole thing.
Maureen Moore: You’ve written a captivating story, an expat adventure, a chronicle of an American teacher in contemporary Turkey, with romance, intrigue, political drama…all to say a good part of which was inspired by your own three-year experience of living in Istanbul. Having walked some of the very streets you describe in the book with you, I couldn’t help but be transported back to magical, mysterious Istanbul. And yet, for your main characters Fred and Virginia, there seems to be more a feeling of disenchantment and disillusionment with the place. What were you hoping to say about Istanbul with this book?
Nicholas Bredie: As the book quickly diverged from the experience of living in Istanbul to what I guess you could call an expat adventure, I started looking at other expat novels as models for how the story might go. It’s kind of a genre, the expatriate story. You read enough of them and things like travel, romance, intrigue, and a privileged male protagonist ‘living all he can’ seem to reoccur. What befalls this guy can really vary: happy self actualization a la Chad Newsome or Midnight in Paris, total loss as in Tender is the Night or Let it Come Down, or what I’d term the Spanish solution, the sort of mild melancholy epiphany you get at the end of For Whom the Bell Tolls and Leaving the Atocha Station. This might be the most satisfying outcome. However, I didn’t really want to go in any of these directions. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to undermine these possibilities, along with a lot of the romantic orientalism which attends a place like Istanbul. I think this is something about the book that can throw readers expecting the magic of the east, or a love story. When you strip away that stuff, what you’re left with is a kind of disillusionment, which can be funny and absurd but also naked and unsettling. That’s what I was aiming for.
MM: Something that contributed to that unsettling feeling was seeing everything about the city written in its American English equivalent. I think I found that to be rare, finding these foreign names of places and things in English. Even one of Turkey’s most famous writers is referred to as Mr. Cotton. I’d love to hear it a little bit about this choice.
NB: I think it is connected to the idea of undermining or disenchanting. Having the names in plain English takes some of the exoticism out of them. There are some linguistic jokes in there too. For example Mr. Cotton’s neighborhood, Orhan Pamuk’s neighborhood, is Nişantaşı. He takes some care explaining the origin of that name in Istanbul, his memoir. It translates as “target stone,” because that was where the Ottomans set up their targets to practice archery and shooting. But Nişantaşı is also the Turkish word for “starch,” and it’s a kind of tony neighborhood, so I translated it as ‘The Starch.’
MM: For the reader, I also felt it further marked Fred and Virginia’s foreignness, as if they didn’t want to call those places by their Turkish names. It further separated them from the expected experience of the place.
NB: When we moved abroad, my uncle who was a foreign correspondent for a number of years said that the most important thing you can do is abandon analogy. To not try and compare, and make your experience fit some preconceived notions. How the characters behave and how they diverge ultimately in the book has to do with how they deal with their expectations of life abroad. In real life it is a situation of extremes: there is no family and no old friends and little language and a host of received notions about the place. Insert a Greek family who may or may not have the rights to your apartment and you have a real high-pressure fictional situation.
MM: That’s so true; I spent some time abroad as well in Portugal, living and working, and daily life is more complicated or sometimes stressful. People deal with it in different ways. There’s a quote somewhere that the narrator says about the character Fred: that he hadn’t left his own well-tamed country to play by rules abroad.
NB: Yeah and that is Fred’s particular maybe misguided understanding of his privilege of a foreigner abroad, later on he compares himself to a pirate, whether that’s a fair analogy or not, let the reader decide. But he certainly decided that what it means to be abroad is to be above rules.
MM: Right, take certain liberties, one of which is this elaborate scheme that he invents with the Greek. Are you interested in sharing that?
NB: Oh yeah, I think that’s even on the jacket copy. The essay-writing scheme. The essay-writing scheme is something that, I hate to say, was in part taken from life. There was an illicit essay-writing service at the university where we worked, and there was a certain amount of pressure put on teachers to try and discover the plagiarized papers. I mean this is common, it happens at Harvard too. After a while though you started feeling like you should be paid extra to play policeman, and you also felt bad for these kids who were doing an undergraduate degree in a second language. I could never do that. They’re under an enormous amount of pressure to produce and obviously that kind of situation drives people to cheat. And then you as a teacher heard about how much money they were paying for these papers, you started thinking, I mean, yeah, *nervous laughter.*
MM: So the other big event already mentioned is that this Greek family moves in to Fred and Virginia’s apartment right off the bat. Reading it, I couldn’t help but think: I was in your apartment in Turkey, and for a second I was like wait, did this happen to Nick and Nora in real life? Because I never heard about it, and I think I would have. Is this something that has happened, or could happen, in contemporary Turkey?
NB: To say that I have any expertise in the real estate laws of Turkey would be a lie. That said, we moved into a gentrifying neighborhood that was a mix of very hip cafes and these abandoned buildings. It took a while for us to understand that the buildings were abandoned because their ownership was contested. That it was a neighborhood where Greeks and Armenians and Jews had lived until the 1950s, when there were pogroms and other repressive measures which drove them from Istanbul. I don’t know if the ownership was contested for our apartment. But our landlord was like ‘don’t change the name on the electricity or the water bill, just link your bank account. This is what everyone does.’
MM: Link your bank account to a bill that’s in someone else’s name that you don’t know?
NB: Yeah, you just linked the account number of the bill to your account. At the same time, a building that was abandoned one day would be lavishly restored the next day, and you had to figure that somebody had received a deed or lease to it somehow. That was the seed of the idea of having the Greeks come back for their apartment.
MM: Did you have any contact with someone who had experienced something remotely similar to a family moving in to reclaim their property?
NB: I had heard stories of squatters ‘selling’ apartments and then reappearing later. Then around the time that I was starting the novel, Nora was teaching this great article by the scholar Amy Mills about the minorities, the Greeks and the Jews and the Armenians, and the void that they had left having been suddenly driven from the city, and it reminded me of stories of people trying to get their property back after the Holocaust, not only art or money but also property.
MM: In terms of the writing process, I was curious how much of that story did you write while living there versus here in L.A.?
NB: I wrote about three quarters of the first draft there, starting in 2012. In retrospect, what’s interesting was I was writing about real estate and development tied up in Istanbul’s history and minorities. Beyond the stuff in our neighborhood, I had heard stories about a historic Roma quarter near the city walls that had been demolished and replaced with what they called Ottoman style townhouses. That happened in 2008, and while I was writing the first draft there had been rumors that the park at Taksim Square was going to be replaced with a recreation of the Ottoman barracks that it had in turn replaced in the 1940s. It was one of these sort of absurd stories that you felt couldn’t be real. I mean there were like ten kids with flyers standing outside the metro station saying, ‘there are plans to change this park into a shopping mall in the form of the original artillery barracks,’ and you know you kind of shrug it off like ‘this is impossible.’ But then of course I was writing and I kind of thought, ‘well this would be a funny fictional story to explore’ whether it actually happens or not. And then lo and behold that plan turned out to be true. As you know, because you were there, the protest against the destruction of the park developed into this huge movement and protests and sometimes riots that consumed the city and also made it into the book. The book was headed towards some version of that event, the destruction of the park, before it became a reality. And so when it happened and we were caught up in it, I did have this incredible sensation of life imitating art. This led to a decision that I’m of two minds about. Since the book was already underway, I decided not to change the timeline of the narrative to fit the historical facts. So the Gezi moment in the book takes place in ‘mid-autumn,’ while the real event took place in May and June, 2013. I didn’t change it in part because I don’t want to claim ownership over the Gezi events, they belong to the people who put their lives on the line standing up to the powerful and the cops. At the same time, Gezi happened to be the perfect culmination of themes already at work in the book. And since there is no such thing as coincidence, Gezi also gave me a way to fill the hole I’d dug undermining the tropes of the East and expat romance, which was commitment, of a political nature.
MM: That’s pretty wild you had heard of some notion of this before it all unfolded.
NB: Yeah, well it was absurd on paper, which was what attracted me to it in the first place. But in retrospect nothing was out of the realm of the possibility considering what has happened since. I think what’s sadder is that in some ways that Gezi moment was a kind of high point and things have gotten a lot tougher after that politically and economically. And so in some ways the world that is portrayed in the novel almost a historical period.
MM: I remember being there with you guys. Literally the day after the initial uprising or revolt in the park, the Saturday after people had gotten gassed and everything, there was this incredible feeling of solidarity and unity and people of different generations, different walks of life. It was so fascinating to be an outsider, even with a superficial understanding of things. Just to kind of witness that moment.
NB: It was a special time and place.