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from the October 2017 issue

The Importance of Stories in an Era of Division

On an early evening in the spring of 2014, I had just settled my two young children into bed when I heard a commotion outside my apartment in Bebek, a neighborhood in Istanbul. I went to the window, and below me I could see a protest gathering in the park, which abutted the Egyptian consulate. Megaphones, whistles, forceful speeches, the noise escalated as more and more people gathered to voice their solidarity with members of the Muslim Brotherhood who had recently been imprisoned in Cairo. In short, this wasn’t really my crowd and they had come to Bebek, a liberal riviera on the Bosphorus, to wave their flags and chant their chants. Regardless, I was curious and wanted to take a closer look.

As I grabbed my keys off the hall table, beneath them was a novel I’d been reading earlier that day. I can’t say why, but I took it with me. My apartment’s long downhill driveway spilled into the park where the protestors had gathered. I stopped at a row of shops on the edge of the park. Like waves that looked less intimidating to a swimmer from the shore, the protest felt more formidable now that I was at its level. It wasn’t long before a few hard glances were thrown in my direction. So, to seem less threatening, I pretended to read.

I lingered at the protest for only about twenty minutes, but since then I’ve often thought of that night and the few people who pointed curiously at my book. In the years since, Turkey has, sadly, passed through a crisis of governance as profound as any it has known since the founding of the republic in 1923. In a referendum this past spring, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan created an executive presidency that has granted him unprecedented powers and has made Turkey a democracy in name only and more akin to an authoritarian state, one like Egypt, whose excesses the crowd protested that night. Erdoğan’s consolidation of power has come about while Western democracies such as Britain and the United States have seen a rise in populist and nationalist movements, which have called into question the innate primacy of liberal values.

After this spring’s referendum a deep pessimism spread through much of Turkey. In Istanbul, it seemed as if the lights had gone out. Restaurants were empty. People stayed at home. The police were ubiquitous. A similar pessimism has descended upon cities like London and New York. After the Brexit vote and the US presidential election, deep internal divisions within major democracies have been laid bare, divisions that threaten to undermine the social fabric of these nations. In Turkey, the US, Britain, and in other countries, there is no shortage of politicians and pundits telling us whom to blame, whom to fear, who our political opponents are, whether on the left or on the right.

The stories in this collection, however, serve a different purpose. They show us how we are similar. When reading Yalçin Tosun’s funny and poignant “Muzaffer and Bananas,” translated by Abby Comstock-Gay, I was drawn into the world of two chubby Turkish boys and their insecurities as they make an outing to feed forbidden bananas to a favorite chimpanzee at the zoo, and that story’s ending, which lands so elegantly, resonates across cultural and social divides. Other stories in the collection are more political, like “The Canary” by Deniz Tarsus, translated by Ayça Türkoğlu, which transports us into the desperate lives of Turkish coal miners—like those who perished in the May 2014 Soma Mine explosion, an event of great political significance inside Turkey—and raises familiar and controversial themes around coal mining in the U.S.

With much of our world deeply divided, stories such as these become more essential than ever to ease our collective pessimism. Art works through a process of emotional transference: artists—whether writers, filmmakers, painters, et cetera—feel something as they are creating their art. How many times have you watched a film teary-eyed, or gone into a museum and seen a painting that overwhelmed you, or—as is the case with this collection—finished a story that left you moved? If you’ve had that experience, the artists have transferred their emotion, or at least a fraction of it, to you. This process of emotional transference is an assertion of our shared humanity, that we can understand one another across cultural boundaries. Such an assertion is, at its core, an act of profound optimism. It is the antidote to the borderless pessimism that now besets much of the world.

If our politics divide us, stories such as these unite us; perhaps that’s why many years ago I instinctively took a book with me on that evening in Istanbul. As I lingered in the park, of the several people who came up to me, the majority had one question once our conversation turned to the book that I carried: they wanted to know if it had been translated into their language.

© 2017 by Elliot Ackerman. All rights reserved.

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