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On Translating Yalçın Tosun’s “Muzaffer and Bananas”

By Abby Comstock-Gay

Abby Comstock-Gay’s translation of Yalçın Tosun’s “Muzaffer and Bananas” appears in the October 2017 issue: What Unites Us: Turkish Short Stories.

When I first read Yalçın Tosun’s writing, it was summertime and I was in Fethiye, Turkey, where my partner was born and grew up. Every night that summer we took nighttime strolls along the seaside promenade where he would unravel stories and memories from his teenage years, when he would walk along the same promenade, getting into trouble, experiencing romance and drama, talking with friends for hours about the meaning of life and future plans, so immediate yet elusive in those years. Between our evening walks, and Tosun’s short stories, I, too, felt transported to those years—awash all at once in anticipation, hope, crushing loneliness, and confusion—and I felt immersed in the half-nostalgia, half-humiliation of memories of youth. Tosun is an author who articulates the darkness and melancholy of those years, and who frequently explores the themes of sexuality and love. In “Muzaffer and Bananas,” both characteristics are apparent: Tosun reveals the tragicomedy of teenage life, while also quietly yet willfully ignoring boundaries that define love, the body, and sexuality.

The narrator of “Muzaffer and Bananas” is at times a high schooler living in the moment of skipping class, and at times someone older, like my partner strolling along the promenade in Fethiye, remembering that day. While the memories are recounted retrospectively, his perspective is limited enough that he, as well as the reader, is surprised when he places that soft kiss on the corner of Ali’s mouth. In the translation, I tried to be deliberate about transmitting this combination of perspectives: the wisdom and eloquence of retrospect (“But I knew that Muzaffer was the only creature in the world that I envied, and I knew how much Ali loved him.”) and the naiveté of a kid (“I said that maybe there was a heaven for chimpanzees and that he shouldn’t be sad. I regretted it the moment I said it. What idiocy!”). The moments that mark the story, Muzaffer’s “suicide” and the kiss at the end, are imbued with the melancholy of nostalgia, yet are untethered to any consequences beyond those moments.

Emotions in Tosun’s writing are intense and melodramatic, and defined by the actions that punctuate them and give them shape. In a 2016 interview in the Turkish arts and culture magazine Artful Living, Tosun said:

I’m a closed-off person, and this perhaps predestines my stories. The characters in my stories don’t often explain themselves or their emotions, they just act. And maybe it’s thinking about the meaning of those actions that engenders that emotion. They scream their whys and hows by hiding them, because the more we hide something, actually the more we want it to be seen, I think.

In this story, too, the narrator’s actions at times cause the reader to rethink the narrator’s thoughts and emotions. Like the liminality of adolescence, in the space between action and emotions, labels and explanations are inadequate to tell the story anyway. Indeed, this quality of ambiguity between actions and narration is what makes Tosun’s stories unique as queer literature. Last year, when I had my college Turkish-language class read “Muzaffer and Bananas,” I asked the students, “What is this story about?” “Friendship,” one student said. “Growing up,” another said. “Loneliness,” another said. “Love,” said another. “Is it . . . a gay story?” one student asked hesitantly.

Tosun himself addressed this question when, in the same interview, writer Aslı Tohumcu asked him about the theme of sexuality in his stories. She noted that, as a Turkish author who gives particular space to queer love stories, Tosun is “persistent in underlining that love has no relation to the physical or the body, but the heart.” He responded:

Sexuality takes a central place in life. And because of that it’s part of everything, and stories can’t escape from it either . . . In my eyes, [my characters] are all just lovers who love each other, make love with each other, annoy each other, from time to time wish the other were dead then immediately regret it . . . Two men, two women, a man and a woman, it doesn’t matter. Whatever their sex or gender is, they’re trying to be themselves. In this crushing system, they’re trying to be and continue to be themselves. Mine are the dissatisfied heroes who search, question, and don’t fear their sexuality and themselves in a country of those who can’t.

I love reading and translating Tosun’s stories because, in their particularities, they lend themselves so well to universality. Like the unassuming teenagers they feature, they allow us to dig deep into emotions without talking too much about them, and to arrive at a place where identities don’t need to be labeled or defined in order to exist.

Published Oct 24, 2017   Copyright 2017 Abby Comstock-Gay

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