43.2 Feature: An Interview with Zeynep Özakat
Zeynep Özakat was born and raised in Istanbul, Turkey and educated at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. Her work appears in Glimmer Train Stories,where she won the December 2014 Fiction Open Contest, and in Gulf Coast Online Exclusives.
Interview by REEM ABU-BAKER
Black Warrior Review: One of the many things I admire about “Aviculture” is that it really exploits its fantastical premise. The two girls grow wings, which serve as a way for thinking about adolescence and the surveillance and commodification that comes with the female body. The wings also play into cultural/historical issues, as they’re an inherited political identity that evokes both some struggles specific to Turkey, like the plight of the Kurdish people, and more general issues of politics and identity across the world. How did you come up with the idea for the wings? What’s your process like for building a world in which fantastical things happen in a developed political/historical context?
Zeynep Özakat: I gave the girls wings as a way of symbolizing their otherness in a very literal way. It wasn’t that hard to come up with the idea, as wings and birds have long symbolized oppression and the yearning for freedom in literature. But what I struggled with the most while building this world was what the story’s repercussions could be in the real world (the reader’s world.) At first, the girls were of a real ethnic minority in Turkey, but the story ended up being bogged down by the history and exposition I had added in for the Western audience. I knew I needed to delete some of the historical facts, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. There’s been enough erasure of minority histories throughout the world, so it felt weird deleting parts of their history just to make a story sound better.
So I decided to make up a fictional ethnicity, the Parindians. Their name comes from the Farsi word parande, which often means, “bird.” It made sense for their name to derive from Farsi because I always imagined the Parindians to be indigenous to the Eastern Taurus and Northern Zagros Mountains in the Middle East. Fictionalizing the girls’ ethnicity also allowed me to (I hope) appeal to a wider audience. I want anyone who has been “othered” to be able to find a part of themselves in the girls.
I built the rest of the political/ historical context in the story on the bones of real historical and political events. I think this helped with the fabulism of the story. The most prominent historical context scene in the story is when the girls’ parents take a trip to the National Arts Museum in Istanbul and see miniatures left over from the Ottoman Empire where their people, the Parindians, are portrayed as being savages and villains. It was important to me to retell a majority of their history not through summary in the text, but through scenes that they experienced. Because I think that history is often told in summary and from the viewpoint of those in power, but it is not experienced like that.
BWR: I see a lot in this story about how information is disseminated, how different narratives are formed. One of my favorite moments is when we’re presented with a bunch of headlines about the winged girls, all these totally different framings of their existence. We see the same issues of framing and myth making happening in the story with art, with depictions of history, with definitions of terrorism, with family history and personal identity. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think one of the things this story is arguing is that all these different creations and perpetuations of narrative matter, that they have consequences for real people. How do you see fiction fitting in to this? What do you view as your roles or responsibilities as a fiction writer, as someone who creates new stories?
ZÖ: I think that people in general have a role and responsibility in what they perpetuate. Do I think that fiction writers have more responsibility in that? I’m not sure. In a way, I want to say yes, because as fiction writers we create what we want to create. There’s no one telling us to write a story about xyz, so why not pick what we write about and what narrative we perpetuate? But I wouldn’t say that fiction writers have more freedom in creation thus more responsibility compared to any other writers. I think the same goes for poets and non-fiction writers. It could be argued that non-fiction writers have to adhere to more rules because what they write needs to derive from fact. But they are still responsible for how they curate those facts.
In all honesty, I place writers on a pedestal. My own bias is that I think that writers, in fact all artists in general, need to do a better job compared to other people. But this is unfair. It’s wrong of me to think that someone else, say… a businessman has less responsibility compared to a writer. Why don’t I place a businessman on the same pedestal I place a writer? Imagine the influence a large company has with their constant advertisements and the marketing of their products. If they have a wider audience than I do, then should they be more responsible than I am?
I think that everyone has a part to do. And this means writers do have responsibility. I don’t understand writers who say that they are not political. Maybe it’s because I’m from Turkey, but I’m used to the idea of artists having a responsibility to society.
BWR: Much of “Aviculture” is scene-based, driven by characters’ interactions with settings and objects. However, the story ends on a moment of imagination—one of the characters fantasizing about something she might do. Why did you decide to end on this moment? What does it mean to you to end on the act of imagining, on thinking towards the future?
ZÖ: A lot of the story is so scene-based and tangible, that I wanted to end it on something intangible. To me, a lot of this story is about perception. It’s about how the girls view themselves, how their family views them, how the country views them, how history, biases, and media frames their narratives. One of my favorite moments of perception in the story is when it asks the question, “What makes a terrorist?” There’s a group of Parindians in the story that have, after years of oppression, run off and created a terrorist organization to fight for their rights. This group can be viewed as a group of rebel freedom fighters, or as terrorists. It’s complicated. The group’s definition changes according to who talks about them. And that’s exactly how it is in real life.
I think that as humans, we have this illogical want to categorize everything. We want something to be either good or bad, this or that. But the categorization of things usually depends on who is categorizing. Oftentimes, things are more complex.
I wanted to end the story on a moment that can be perceived in different ways. And I think that depending on who reads it and how, it can either be an optimistic or a pessimistic ending. To me, it’s both. And that’s how I think about the future I guess, both hopeful and hopeless.
BWR: There’s a scene in this story where the two winged girls run away from home. They both wear their evil eye bracelets, and one girl grabs Yasar Kemal’s book The Birds Have Also Gone. If you were fleeing in the night, what would you take?
ZÖ: Unfortunately, I’ve spent some time recently actually thinking about this. So I’m afraid my response to this question is less imaginative or romantic, and more practical. I would take with me, as much as I can, of a strong foreign currency—like the dollar or euro, and my passport. I don’t think there’s anything else of great necessity. We’re lucky enough to live in an age where our photographs can be stored digitally. I’d also try to take my cat with me, but I don’t know if it would even be possible. This summer during the coup attempt, the jets flying over us made sonic booms we thought were bombs. I tried to put her in her cage then, in case we needed to run, but couldn’t even find her.
BWR: What writers or books have you been excited about lately?
ZÖ: The books I’m most excited about reading, that I haven’t read yet, are Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh and Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. And from what I have read recently, A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James absolutely blew my mind. I’ve also recently really enjoyed reading poetry by Danez Smith, Murathan Mungan, Warsan Shire, and Fatimah Asghar.
BWR: What are you working on right now? Any upcoming or ongoing projects?
ZÖ: I’m currently working on a collection of short stories that all deal with the end of the world. The stories in this collection try to look at the end of the world from varied points of view. So for example, there’s one story where the world in its entirely ends in an apocalypse, where in another story it’s only the main characters who have died, so their world has ended. The weird thing is I didn’t even plan to write a whole bunch of stories about the end of the world, it just… happened. I guess current events have really influenced my subconscious.
BWR: What are your favorite nice, small things to do for yourself?
ZÖ: I take myself out on walks. I love walking around 11:00 pm, when it’s really dark, the moon’s out, and there aren’t many people around. I listen to some music and let my mind really roam free. What’s great about living in Istanbul is that I get to interact with stray dogs and cats along the way too. There’s no happiness like that of bonding with an animal. If I’m really lucky I’ll also spot the hedgehog family that lives around my neighborhood.
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