In the penultimate week of Women in Translation Month, we’re very excited to present a guest blog post from Turkish journalist and author Ece Temelkuran. Here she tells us about her most recent novel, Women Who Blow On Knots, and the strange sensation produced by life imitating art.
You have probably heard millions of times that writing is magic. It is true. Writing has the capacity to make the writer disappear from the public sphere, and it can create characters like Anna Karenina – so lifelike that it is impossible to prove that they did not walk the face of the earth. However, what I am about to tell you is real magic, a strange business, almost creepy stuff.
I wrote Women Who Blow On Knots in 2012 in Tunis. As soon as I arrived in the city, I rented a small studio in Carthage simply because people told me that it is one of the few districts that a female stranger like myself can live undisturbed. My studio apartment had a small garden with pink roses. When they bloomed, I checked every morning if the branches were sturdy enough to hold their weight. As they bloomed, during the night, the radical Islamists were surrounding the districts, torches in their hands, threatening to burn down the entire district. I drank a lot of wine in order to dismiss my fear and to lose the border between reality and fiction, which at the time was already extremely blurry.
Amira, the dancer and journalist/activist in the novel, is not altogether a fictional character. She is the woman who sat at the bar I happened to enter during the Tunisian elections after the ‘Arab Spring’. It took me only a few minutes to tell her that I would be writing a novel set in Tunis, something about an island where only girls are born, an island called Rokolan. The night I met her, after a few drinks accompanied by our ‘I-feel-like-I-know-you’ euphoria, I got back to my hotel to find that there was a big welcome party for me, organized by giant mosquitoes. I started thinking whilst smashing at least 20 whining partygoers. All of a sudden, I found my new story; Amira, Maryam, Madam Lilla, a road trip. At three o’clock in the morning, I announced to Amira that she was now a literary character. Most probably she did not believe me and did not, could not have guessed what was about to happen to her.
Becoming friends with a person that you are turning into a fictional character is an interesting experience. She does not know what you see in her, you don’t know how much one should ‘edit’ the real person. The joyful tension between us kept on going during the year I wrote the novel; her curious and at times nervous jokes were followed by her periodic self-soothing suspicion, ‘Maybe she is lying and not actually writing anything’.
The novel was published in 2013 in Turkish. I kept giving her good news about the book’s reception. I kept her updated on the international journey of the book, “Today it came out in Germany!”, “It is now being adapted for the stage”. Bosnia, Croatia, Poland and many other countries and languages followed, leaving Amira to wonder about her fictional self.
At some point when she was having a beer in Berlin, she came across a man from Turkey, she told me once. The man was amazed, and probably partly fell in love with her when he heard that she was ‘that Amira, the one in the book’. Yet still, the novel was not in a language she could read.
Finally, it came out in French, one of the languages that Amira could read. As those who have read the novel already know, the opening scene is set on a terrace in Tunis and Amira has come back from New York. In real life, Amira has never been to New York. When she finally put her hands on her fictional self, however, she was in fact in New York. She wrote to tell me that she had goose bumps when she read the first pages; how could I have known? This was the first abracadabra. Then I am in Paris, doing the first event of the book launch for the novel and talking about how writing can make things happen, Amira, New York, etc. A woman from the audience could not stop herself and interrupted me, “Amira is a friend of mine. I didn’t know she was my Amira and she doesn’t know I am here, and right this second she is texting me from New York!” There was a second of silence in the audience.
I started writing and publishing books at too young an age, and since then have been subjected to the clichéd question inquiring about why I write. Throughout the course of my writing life, I made up and memorised several cool-sounding answers. But at this point in my life I know the answer for good. One writes to create a distance between the self and the earthly reality. This need of distance mainly comes from three basic human conditions; fear, anger and the need for beauty. Women Who Blow On Knots was written in one of the most difficult periods of my life, where I was in dire need of magical beauty and when I was obliged to learn that nothing and nobody else does the magic for you but yourself. One’s faith in humanity depends on the determination to believe in it, despite the fact that reality is there to damage such faith constantly. Only when you try hard enough to create magic, will life herself, with an elegant and insignificant twist, in the most royally reluctant way, grant you moments of real magic – like Amira’s voice reaching me over the ocean in Paris when I was talking about her. Strange, right?
Women Who Blow On Knots was translated by Alexander Dawe and published by Parthian.