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Capturing the Questions of Our Time: An Interview with Fatma Aydemir

by Canan Marasligil

Image of Capturing the Questions of Our Time: An Interview with Fatma Aydemir

Fatma Aydemir will be appearing at the Festival Neue Literatur in New York City this weekend. She will be giving a reading with other featured German-language authors on Friday evening at the Goethe-Institut. On Saturday evening at Powerhouse Arena, she will be discussing “The Lives of Others: Stories from Outside Our Bubble,” a panel moderated by WWB’s Karen Phillips. And on Sunday afternoon, she will be featured in “The Author’s Voice” at the Deutsches Haus at NYU.

I met Fatma Aydemir in Amsterdam, where she was a writer in residence in February, at a presention of the Dutch translation (by Marcel Misset) of her debut novel, Elbow. The novel has received critical acclaim both in Germany and the Netherlands. It is one of those works that punches you in the face, and makes you think long after you finished reading the very last sentence. I loved Elbow and I regret that my level of German is not good enough to be able to translate it because my translator urge kept kicking in every time I turned a page: this novel must exist in English and in French (two languages I work in). I was excited to follow up on our conversation, which started in Amsterdam, as Fatma prepared to appear at the Festival Neue Literatur in New York City this weekend. 

—Canan Marasligil

Canan Marasligil (CM): I’ve been following your Instagram stories since you landed in NYC and I’ve been dying to ask you about all the places and art you’ve seen, both in museums and public spaces. Can you tell me about a piece, a work, or a moment that spoke to you and why?

Fatma Aydemir (FA): Honestly, I was so caught by the buildings and their energy, I could hardly focus on the art in the museums. Probably I was concentrating more on the excited children taking photos in front of Basquiat’s “Untitled, 1982” than on the work itself. And at the Met I was so haunted by the daylight falling onto the pool in the atrium, I didn’t even take a closer look at the ancient Egyptian Temple of Dendur. New York is just so overwhelming and I enjoy being a participant observer of the city’s movements and sounds. I absorb people’s conversations and outfits on the subway as though I have to solve some kind of mystery about this place. And that’s very tiring but also so much fun. I feel like a kid staring at a giant TV screen, eyes wide open.


CM: I want to stay in America for a bit before we move back to Berlin and eventually to Turkey . . . In your acknowledgments (in Elbow) you cite Joan Didion—she is one of my favorite writers—so I am curious about your relationship with her writing. Can you tell me more? Is she an influence? Someone you like to read often? Do you have a favorite book of hers?

FA: I enjoy Joan Didion’s writing a lot. I definitely have to have a Didion book with me whenever I travel for a long time, whether it is fiction or nonfiction. She is a brilliant observer of places and relationships, and her style is so magnetic, it pulls me into her way of thinking immediately. It’s funny because, actually, the worlds described by Didion are often so upper-class and so elitist I can hardly identify with their circumstances. But then—and that is Didion’s powerful voice—the stories dig so deep into human existence, our inability to make sense of life, our constant struggle with being a stable person, our need to be loved. So, the fancy dinner party or the luxurious hotel rooms are not more than shiny and glamorous settings contrasting the very dark feelings inhabiting all of us.


CM: You have been working as a journalist and editor for years, what made you turn to fiction? 

FA: The urge to look at life through a different lens.

We both were basically fact-checking our idea of Turkey at the same time. That can be hurtful, since reality is much more complicated than the anecdotes our parents choose to tell us.

CM: You told me you went to Turkey to write parts of the novel. How was that process for you? Did you feel the need to be in Turkey to better understand your characters? Especially Hazal, who lives in between cultures—German and Turkish—like many of us children of immigrant families, I would say. 

FA: Well, first I went to Turkey in order to concentrate and have some distance from everyday life, since it was my first work of fiction and there was so much I needed to teach myself. Then it was very hard to concentrate there because I was actually starting to explore my relationship to this country that I only knew from holidays—because I grew up in Germany, but my parents always identified Turkey as “homeland.” That process was important because my protagonist, Hazal, also goes through it, though at a much younger age. But we both were basically fact-checking our idea of Turkey at the same time. That can be hurtful, since reality is much more complicated than the anecdotes our parents choose to tell us.


CM: Many people like to focus on the fact that your novel tells the story of Turkish immigrants in Germany, but to me it is a novel about Germany too, not only about the Turks who live there. Readers who do not identify as “multicultural”—for lack of a better word—tend to look at it from “outside,” whereas their gaze is part of the story. Am I overanalyzing or is that something you were trying to convey—that this is a German novel, because Turkish-German is German too? 

FA: Well, for me, those are labels I can’t really identify with because I see myself as an antinationalist, and that is also how I see my novel. I am also not really bothered by it—same goes for the label “Immigrant Literature” that Germans love to use. I don’t care. But yes, I do think this kind of labeling has to do with a lack of a multicultural perspective. If that’s necessary in order to speak about books, I feel like we should also start using the label “Old boring white man literature” then.


CM: Elbow is set during a time of political turmoil all over Europe, including Germany and Turkey: the refugee crisis, Charlie Hebdo, the terrorist attacks in Turkey, the Kurdish issue, and, finally, the coup attempt of July 2016. Your novel shows the different levels of complexity of such events and how they affect people. In these times of polarization, I think your novel is a most welcome addition to the discourse we hear. Was it difficult for you to include those elements in your narrative or did it come naturally? 

FA: It was very natural because Ellbogen is very much a book of its time, even if it touches on timeless subjects such as estrangement, discrimination, violence, adolescence. I wanted to know what it was like to live through all of these universal phenomena at this particular time and place—the summer of 2016 in Berlin and Istanbul. The events you mention are just inevitably shaping our thinking right now.


CM: And talking about complexity: you smash all sorts of stereotypes in your novel, and I love that. Does it come from your personal experience? Did you always have to fight against certain stereotypes—both in Germany but also in Turkey?

FA: Yes, totally. But I also find stereotypes interesting because it’s not like they are completely detached from reality—indeed, they all tell a certain truth. But the problem is they are too simplified, too stencil-like, too general. And I like to play with those stencils, to see where they fit and where they don’t. I like to smash them, yes, but I never pretend like they don’t exist. Because they do, for all of us. And stereotypes are always part of our communication. 


CM: Hazal is angry, full of rage, like many women and marginalized people today. I love this article by feminist Mona Eltahawy. She writes, “I am an angry woman and angry women are free women.” Do you think Hazal is seeking freedom through her anger? And are you—Fatma—angry? Do you feel freedom in being angry?

FA: Of course I am angry. And I think women, nonbinary people, marginalized groups all have more than enough reason to feel angry. Anger can be really empowering and also productive—I wrote my whole novel out of that feeling. But it’s important to gain control over it. Because your rage can also harm your freedom. Of course, it is OK to be weak sometimes. And still rage shouldn’t drive us into a constant frustration, where we lose our energy. We need it, in order to roll up our sleeves and smash the patriarchy!


CM: You touch a lot on popular culture and film throughout the novel—the Turkish TV series, for example, are omnipresent in any Turkish family’s life (whenever I go visit my mom in Brussels, I get to catch up with all these shows on Turkish TV), and they are part of Hazal’s life. She looks at the series more critically than her parents, but they also play a role in her building a romanticized image of Turkey, right? 

FA: Yes, I mean, popular culture is powerful. Products and works we can relate to are naturally more influential on us. But if you keep watching those Turkish soap operas, even if you are critical of them, they will have an impact on your thoughts or language, whether you like it or not. There is a very bad adaptation of the US series Big Little Lies right now on Turkish TV. I watched it with my mom last month and I hated it. It is so misogynist and flat. However, I keep thinking about a scene in which two ex-lovers meet by coincidence and exchange looks. Because it was a powerful scene that I recognized from my own experience.

I also constructed my protagonist in response to a lack of layered and complex German-Turkish women characters in popular culture.

CM: You also include a conversation about Fatih Akın’s film Gegen die Wand. I recognized myself and many conversations I have had about that film (it honestly changed my life and opened a whole new horizon of possibilities to me). How did you personally feel about the film? 

FA: It was very important to me. I mean, it was the first film ever to have a protagonist going through very similar problems to me. And it features a complex character, too. I just think Sibel Kekilli did a marvelous job. I refer to that movie because I also constructed my protagonist in response to a lack of layered and complex German-Turkish women characters in popular culture. Sibel is really the only exception so far, I would say. I wanted to pay homage to Fatih Akın.


CM: I could see Elbow as a film or a TV series (a multilingual one!). Can you? 

FA: It would be great to see how a talented multicultural director would adapt the novel for the screen. I am actually talking to some people right now. We will see where that goes.


CM: It is so important to become visible in public spaces, in culture, through books, films, series . . . I think your work achieves that. You make the rage of many women and young people visible, you make the multilayered experiences of “Turkishness” in a European setting visible, and you also show that identity is fluid—that we don’t have to remain in one box. I like this complexity, which you convey so well through your writing, the rhythm of your language, and the narrative. Was that one of your purposes when you started writing?

FA: It was definitely my intention to present positions and perspectives that have been underrepresented so far. I wanted to make visible what it is like to grow up as a poor, nonwhite woman in one of the richest countries in the world. Germany has the tendency to make problems such as racism or classism invisible, but at the same time, the dominant discourse on migration is not only conservative, it’s openly racist and classist and gives voice only to the more privileged members of society. I am so tired of hearing the same resentments over and over again, and so I definitely support the visibility of minorities in literature and also in the media through my journalistic work. 


CM: Going back to Joan Didion, who writes “We tell ourselves stories in order to live”—do you think writing fiction is a means of survival? Is it that for you? And do you think readers also read in order to live? 

FA: Well, survival is maybe too dramatic—I just need to drink enough water to survive! But writing and reading fiction definitely helps me to cope with reality—to see uncomfortable situations in a different light, to create stories out of experiences in order to give them meaning. Life would probably be possible without them, but it would be so boring and so empty.


CM: What are you reading at the moment? 

FA: I am reading This Is How You Lose Her, a short story collection by Junot Diaz. It’s about love, intimacy, identity—basically everything that interests me. Diaz’s writing is just incredible, and I am laughing all the time and sometimes my heart aches from the vulnerability of the characters.


Fatma Aydemir was born in Karlsruhe in 1986. She read German and American studies at Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt am Main. She lives in Berlin and has been an editor at the daily newspaper taz since 2012. She also writes articles for numerous magazines, including the music magazine Spex and the feminist Missy Magazine. Her first novel, Ellbogen (Elbow), was published by the Carl Hanser Verlag in 2017. Ellbogen has been adapted for the stage by several theaters and was awarded the Klaus-Michael Kühne Prize at the Harbour Front Literature Festival, Hamburg.

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