Turkish writer Defne Suman on her connection to Istanbul past

In an interview with Al Majalla, the Istanbul-born author of 'The Circle' reveals how and where she writes, what has inspired her to capture tales of memory and minorities and what she is doing next

Axel Rangel Garcia

Turkish writer Defne Suman on her connection to Istanbul past

Istanbul-born writer Defne Suman evokes the city and its changes in her novel The Circle and sets The Silence of Scheherazade in the Ottoman Empire. She has drawn parallels between an ethnic expulsion of old and the modern-day gentrification sparked by global capitalism.

In an interview with Al Majalla, she explains how she writes, where inspiration can come from, why it can be harder for women writers to get into a routine and how short stories are more difficult to put together than novels.

In your novel The Circle, the 75-year-old narrator tells the story of Istanbul's deteriorationstarting from the COVID-19 era and working backwards to the 1950s. Can you tell us more about the writing process of this multilayered novel, in which you discuss cultural identity, loss, and gentrification?

I wanted it to be a book of personal accounts—a way to witness the passing of time. The narrator, Mr Periklis—who is old in age but young at heart—is recounting his experience in the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic while recalling his past.

During the lockdown, he makes friends with his neighbours and even falls in love with one of them. They all join forces to fight against the gentrification of their neighbourhood and try to save their beautiful apartment building, which was constructed in 1922.

The first thing that struck me when I started taking notes for The Circle was the expulsion of Greeks from Istanbul in 1964. The Turkish nation-state has worked to expel Greeks since its inception, and this final attempt in 1964 was a real nail-biter. The Greeks, who held passports from Greece, were deported along with their families and relatives who held Turkish citizenship.

This was the final nail in the coffin for Istanbul’s unique cosmopolitan demography. In just 48 hours in 1964, the city lost 30,000 of its Greek residents.

The loss of such a vibrant community was tragic, but it gave me a perfect opportunity to write a novel about this tragic loss at the centre of the novel. It's incredible to think that 50-60 years later, we can still feel the ghost of once-upon-a-time-lived Greek lives in certain districts of Istanbul.

Abandoned buildings, empty alleys, weed-grown sad gardens, churches with no people on Sundays... It's a fascinating insight into what life was like for the old and lonely Greeks who stayed in town. Through my novel, I was able to reveal what's been going on there for decades.

The gentrification of Istanbul cannot be understood without considering the deliberate attempts to cleanse its population of non-Muslim minorities. This project aimed to transfer the wealth of the Greek bourgeois to the emerging Turkish capitalist class. Sixty years later, corporate capitalism has engulfed Istanbul, erasing all traces of a multi-religious past.

Your novel The Silence of Scheherazade provides a multifaceted view of life for people in the Ottoman Empire, spanning various social classes. How did you research and capture the nuances of daily life during that era? Also, why did you choose that title for your book, with Scheherazade known as the narrator in One Thousand and One Nights?

I spent two years researching The Silence of Scheherazade. I learned every detail of life in Smyrna between 1905 and 1922, when the book's story takes place. I was fortunate to find a great deal of material. I was living in the United States at the time.

I read the newspapers of the era and also leafed through the women’s magazines. I collected postcards and photos, and I read the letters and diaries of Greeks, Turks, and Levantines who lived in Smyrna at the time. I read every possible book about old Smyrna, collected insurance maps, and learned the names of the streets and squares.

I even managed to spot the locations of some of the long-lost churches and schools. I also found the addresses of the taverns, hotels, shops and bazaars. There’s a huge amount of oral history records too, which are really fascinating.

Many of them were kids then, who later told their stories about life in Smyrna before, during, and after the Great Fire of Smyrna. I read all their accounts. The destruction of multilingual/multiethnic Smyrna is a touchy subject in Turkey.

The Turkish official history does not acknowledge the significant loss in September 1922 when Greek armies retreated and the Turkish army entered the city. More than half of the city’s population—which comprised Greeks, Armenians, and Levantines—was deliberately erased from national memory.

To narrate this tale, I chose Scheherazade—a woman who is silenced or who chooses to be quiet to survive the dominant power structures. She quietly relays the story of a lost paradise—the story of her town’s destruction.

In 1001 Nights, if Scheherazade stops telling stories, she will be killed. Therefore, a quiet Scheherazade could be interpreted as a part of memory that is no longer accessible or perhaps as a piece of history that is dying before it is considered taboo.

Alternatively, it could be seen as an attempt to highlight the potential consequences of a nation’s dirty laundry if they are not confronted and discussed openly.

The exodus of Istanbul's vibrant Greek community was a tragic loss, but the novel gave me a perfect opportunity to recount this tale.

Defne Suman, Turkish novelist

The Lost Land is your short story collection themed on memories. Can you tell us more about this book?

After writing four novels, I wanted to challenge myself and try my hand at writing short stories. Writing novels is easier for me than writing short stories. Novels find their readers, and they're long enough for readers to bond with the characters and the plot. Short stories are a more refined form of literature, in my opinion.

You have to say what you need to say in a much shorter time and be concise and focused. That's how I began writing The Lost Land. Many of the stories in that book later gave me inspiration for The Circle.

You can find almost all of the side characters of The Circle in my short stories. Memory, minorities, old Istanbul, Smyrna, history and family secrets are my major themes in these short stories.

My favourite short story, Surname, is inspired by my own family. I wrote it very quickly; it was easy and enjoyable. I'm very humbled that two of my short stories in that book won international awards. 

Through your works, I have noticed your passion for old Istanbul and a desire to research its past history. Do you feel connected to the city's past?

Yes. In high school, I used to skip school and go to Beyoğlu Street in search of something old. I didn't know what I was looking for back then, but my feet constantly took me to Beyoğlu.

This was in the 1980s, and Beyoğlu was no longer a multiethnic neighbourhood that it used to be in the first half of the 20th century. Yet I could follow the traces of a long-lost cosmopolitan life there as I walked in and out of its arcades and buildings. Buildings connect us to time. Memory is linked to space.

The year I finished high school, my school was demolished, and a seven-story shopping mall was built in its place. Neither I nor my classmates could enter that shopping mall until years later. In our destroyed school were our memories, our time together, and our youth.

It's so sad to see all these beautiful buildings in Istanbul being torn down and replaced with ugly condominium complexes. It's like we're losing touch with our past. Of course, economic and political reasons exist for this, but we're all connected to our past.

When we disconnect from our past, we risk mental illness as a society. A divided society with no past to relate to. I, like Proust, am on a quest to find the lost time in the hope of rediscovering myself.

After Rain is a novel that discusses climate change, epidemics, pollution, and war. Can you tell us more about the writing process for this novel?

It all started one afternoon in Buyukada—a lovely little island off the southeastern coast of Istanbul, where I grew up. I was hiking around the island's hills with a group of my students from a creative writing workshop.

We passed in front of the old Greek Orphanage, a huge wooden building—the biggest in Europe—that has been abandoned since the 1960s. I have known and feared this 'haunted house' since I was a kid.

It sits on the hills of the island all alone, with the ghosts of many orphans inside still roaming. I told one of my students that I would like to write a short story set inside the building.

In response, he told me that during the Armenian Genocide in 1915, many orphaned Armenian children were sent here from the Eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire and suggested this would be a good way for me to begin the story.

At that point, I realized I didn't want to write another book set in the past. After The Silence of Scheherazade and At the Breakfast Table, I was tired of intensive historical research. I thought writing about the future would be easier because there was no risk of making a historical mistake.

So, I began writing After Rain as a story of friendship and loss. Because it took place 100 years ahead of us, the world I imagined was intense.

As I read more about climate change and all the damage the human race is doing to this planet, I decided on a more optimistic ending: the extinction of the human race from the face of the earth due to a virus that attacks the nervous system and kills all human beings. In many parts of the book, I tried to show how nature is finding life again as the human population dwindles on Earth.

As I was working on this book, the COVID-19 pandemic took place. Many people thought that I took my inspiration from current events, which is not true. My greatest inspiration for this book was Margaret Atwood's dystopic novel Oryx and Crake.

When I was younger, I followed the traces of a long-lost cosmopolitan life on Beyoğlu Street as I walked in and out of its arcades and buildings that connected me to the city's past.

Your master's degree is in sociology. To what extent did your studies contribute to dissecting Turkish society and researching its social changes?

I have always been fascinated by the relationship between space memory and history. My interest in how societies construct their identity around these themes led me to choose sociology as my major in university. Later, I stayed in the same department for my graduate work and worked as a teaching assistant.

With its esteemed professors, the sociology department at Boğaziçi University taught me many things: how to conduct research, distance yourself from the familiar— society, family or self—and reflect. They taught me how to think abstractly and look for hidden dynamics in relationships, structures, ideas and ideologies. All these traits later contributed greatly to my success when I began writing novels and short stories. 

Who are your favourite writers, and do you have a writing routine?

Female authors don't have the luxury of a routine like many male counterparts. We have to finish the morning work of the house, and then, if we are lucky, we can find a little time to write.

I write whenever possible—at coffee shops, at home, and on aeroplanes while travelling. The Indian author Arundhati Roy inspires me, as well as Salman Rushdie, Orhan Pamuk, Virginia Woolf, Ursula K. Le Guin, Grace Paley, Margaret Atwood, Shehan Karunatilaka, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Elena Ferrante.

Are you working on a new novel?

I've been trying to write a new novel for a while now. I'm not sure if I'll be able to finish it, but that's how I start all of them. It's also about memory—and friendship, too.

font change

Related Articles