Turning Small Rebellions Into a Large Literary Revolution

Kenan Orhan’s short story collection " I Am My Country," illuminates everyday life in Turkey

Istanbul's Galata Tower with clouds behind
Photo by Osman Köycü on Unsplash

Kenan Orhan’s debut, I Am My Country, feels like much more than just a book of imaginative short stories set in and around the author’s ancestral homeland of Turkey. The powerful collection could be said to comprise a series of real “small rebellions” — enacted by its characters, prose, and the political implications of writing the book itself — which each add up and culminate into one large, literary revolution. 

Orhan’s characters — ranging from a woman, who uses her magical attic to house Istanbul’s discarded and forbidden musicians, to a teenager in Soma who dreams of escaping his predetermined future in a small mining town, to a muezzin who spies on a Turkish baker and her adulterous husband while the city floods with apocalyptic rain — pleasurably (and at times hostilely) invite readers to interpret for themselves what reality means and how to combat it when history isn’t on your side. 

Inspired by Italo Calvino, Jim Shephard, and Ayşe Papatya Bucak, Orhan’s fiction infuses melody, charm, and wonder effortlessly while excavating the real repercussions of an authoritarian regime. The last story, “The Birdkeeper’s Moral,” almost reads like a Gabriel García Márquez novel, complete with magical realism and a timeless decade-spanning, gut-wrenching romance, but instead of love being compared to a contagious plague, it is likened to a tragic pogrom, and instead of existing in a late 19th-century Cartagena, it belongs in Istanbul and to Turkish characters who have lost their voice and memories to a blanketed history. All in all, Orhan’s stories conjure that enchanted longing evident in García Márquez’s Spanish classic, though perhaps more aptly capture “Art in the Time of Repression” in this unique and dazzling collection. 

Throughout our interview, Orhan and I spoke about how geographical landscapes affect one’s identity, the risks of writing about Turkey’s government, and the convenience of a country’s selective memory.

Kyla Walker: Could you explain your relationship to Turkey and how it has possibly evolved in the past decade?

Kenan Orhan: We grew up, me and my brothers, in a half-Turkish household. But it was my mom’s side of the family that’s Turkish, and the stay-at-home parent was my father. We knew all of our maternal relatives were Turkish, but we didn’t grow up speaking Turkish. So when we went, which was just about every summer to visit relatives, it was this kind of weird, familial and familiar place that we were still kind of kept out of a little bit. And that also was exacerbated by being tourists, but like local tourists to a place. So you’re going to the local hangouts, the local restaurants, your tour guides are locals, but you’re still hitting Kapalı Çarşı, Sultan Ahmet Camii—all these, you know, famous places. And so you get a weird tour guide relationship, but it’s always from the relationship of the personal. So my answer would be like, “This is where we got mugged the other day, and this is where has the best marzipan.”

But that coupled with having to teach ourselves Turkish later in life and taking an interest in Turkey later in life, which has made it this sort of strange and precious thing and probably a little too precious at times because over the last decade, I actually haven’t been, we stopped going after the 2013 Gezi Park protests. I was young, so I couldn’t just go. And then as I grew up, and was able to afford my own ticket, my parents and relatives there were like, “No, you’ve started writing about it, so it’s not safe.” I don’t know how true that is. But it’s been this kind of weird attempt to hold on to a part of me that has always felt unstable. 

KW: I loved the Beyoğlu story, which was so magical and enchanting, but also politically relevant in terms of censorship and the limits of artistic expression that’s currently on the rise in Turkey. While I was reading the collection, something very jarring to me was seeing Erdoğan’s name in print in contemporary fiction. That’s something I don’t think I’d ever seen before. But, it makes all of the stories feel urgent and important and speaks to our generation today more than I think anything else I’ve read about Turkey. So, I’m curious, did you consider leaving Erdoğan’s name out of the stories or changing it in your fiction? And was this a tough decision to make or more of a natural one to involve the current politics of Turkey in this collection?

KO: It was kind of a gut instinct. And I don’t know if I ever considered not including his name in a lot of the current policies just because in as much as these stories are a way for me to explore and hold on to an aspect of myself, it was also a way for me to explore and get to know Turkish identity, what it is to be the country Turkey right now, what that “republic” means. And he’s been in power for 20 years, so it feels impossible to write a story about contemporary Turkey that doesn’t have him appear in some way, whether it’s his policies and he doesn’t stay named, or the AKP, his political party, it just feels impossible not to talk about it. One, because I feel like the Turkish people are generally very politically aware as a population. I won’t say the most politically aware, I’m trying to avoid generalizations, but there’s a history of rebellion and revolution and coups and all that in Turkey, and that’s for a reason. It’s a very politically minded country. And so to accurately represent that I feel like he would have to be there. 

As much as these stories are a way for me to explore and hold on to an aspect of myself, it was also a way for me to explore and get to know Turkish identity.

But it’s interesting you say that you haven’t seen his name. I didn’t really think about that until just now. But yeah, for the most part, I only see his name in news stories. And part of that, I would imagine, is because Turkish writers can’t really put his name in there for fear of reprisal. And American writers probably just don’t care. Which is unfortunate. And I hope that’s what this collection can kind of do a little bit, is both bring attention to Turkey’s unique political situation, but also a little bit lampoon the rule of one man nationalist populism that’s on the rise there and in other countries like Poland and Hungary and elsewhere. But yeah, he was very much a target for me. I set out to write a couple of these stories very much because I was very upset with his policies. “Soma” being the main one. I mean, it’s a national tragedy, really, that mine explosion. And they keep happening. There was another mine explosion recently.

KW: Yeah. I wanted to ask about that too, to provide some background for readers—on May 13th, 2014, the worst mine disaster in Turkish history occurred at Eynez coal mine in Soma, causing an underground fire that lasted two days and in total killed 301 people. And most recently, in October of 2022, a mine explosion occurred again in Soma and caused 40 deaths. So obviously, these are very tragic events and are very hard to write about. It seems like a fragile line to go into these perspectives of the residents there and to share them with the world, while also being respectful, not to misrepresent the facts and the trauma of an event like that. Did you feel more liberty and flexibility in fiction to add to these narratives that we hear in the news, or did you feel constricted in some ways to talk about something so serious and personal that actually occurred?

KO: I think fiction is liberating both for the writers and the readers. But you tread a very fine line. You’re balancing essentially taking advantage of a tragedy as well, or catastrophe porn, essentially, where it feels like you’re making light of a situation in which 301 people died. And so it’s a lot of revision is what that is. And you have to find the way into the story. If you just sort of sit down and say, “I’m going to write a story about a mining disaster,” it’s not going to go well because for the most part you’re essentially doing a fictionalized account of a journalistic thing.

I think fiction is liberating both for the writers and the readers.

But when you can find the human aspect of it, when you can, in the midst of chaos, find those small moments of humanity… Anyone can relate to somebody who desires something or who is going through grief or loss or probably not quite the scale of the catastrophes, although catastrophe is global. But you can sort of find your way in generally with a peripheral character. And that’s how that works for “Soma.” The narrator is peripheral to the disaster, mostly because it felt borderline disrespectful to try and get in at Ground Zero. And I hope I did it well enough because you don’t know. You try. There’s a lot of different ways contemporary publishing tries to set up situations so that they go well, whether it’s sensitivity readers or making sure that people get to tell their own stories rather than having those stories taken out of their mouths and told by other people. I struggle with that still, as someone who’s away from Turkey, someone who’s not living those disasters, I don’t know, with 100% confidence that I have any right to tell these stories. But I also know that their not being told in the States is kind of a shame. And if no one else here is going to write them, I guess I will.

And you also have to then say, can they tell these stories in Turkey? I’m in a very privileged position. I’m away from the problems and I’m also away from them. And so I’m trying to give voice to people who can’t write.

KW: Do you feel a sense of pressure or obligation to do that? And would you say that your stories are more geared towards Turkish audiences or American?

KO: I think my stories are very much geared towards people who know something about Turkey. During the editing process, when the collection is coming together, fortunately my editor helped me with this, but I had to be significantly more aware of people who have no exposure to Turkey. But I also didn’t want to sit down and write a story about Istanbul and pass perhaps the Grand Bazaar, right? And they say, “Oh, the Grand Bazaar, which has been here since…” It’s hundreds of years old. And it’s this icon of Istanbul identity. But you don’t have to say all of this stuff. And sometimes people can just walk by things. You don’t even have to reference them all the time. 

We’re learning which trains get you where, but it doesn’t really matter, especially for those of us like me who don’t live in New York City. It doesn’t mean anything.

And a problem I have right now with a lot of American fiction, especially set in New York City, is that we’re learning all about the subways in New York City, we’re learning which trains get you where, but it doesn’t really matter, especially for those of us like me who don’t live in New York City. It doesn’t mean anything. And so you’re constantly trying to figure out how much information is necessary so they have political awareness of the situation and how much information is too much to which someone who is in the know would be eye rolling. And it’s any time anybody who does stories of elsewhere or stories of something that isn’t common knowledge and you’re bringing an audience with you, hopefully. And I’ve always kind of thought of it like that, rather than having an audience in mind or trying to exclude people. I want these stories to be easy to get on board with, but not necessarily too cliche.

KW: Yeah, I agree. Do you hope for this collection to be translated into Turkish?

KO: I would be thrilled. I mean, that would be incredible. There are elections coming up and Erdoğan might be out this May, really as early as, I think, three weeks from now. But he might win or stay in power even if he doesn’t. And I think if anybody tried to translate and publish this with him in charge, it would not go well. I think they’d probably face jail time. I mean, he’s a very soft-skinned dictator. And I frequently have characters call for violence against him or express discontent. But many of these stories are very much against, if not the regime, the horrors Turkey has committed, maybe not as a country, but as its state, its rulers have committed. And that goes all the way back to the ‘50s. I have a story set during the Istanbul pogrom, which was an attempt to essentially just kill all the city’s Jews, Greeks, and Armenians. And I didn’t know about this at all. My grandmother and grandfather lived through it. Nobody talked about it. I had figured it out in 2015, 2016 maybe. And that’s a little bit on me, I’m not politically aware, but it’s not something Turks like to talk about. But that feels insincere to criticize the current government and not think about how we got here.

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