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PEN World Voices 2011: Amelié Nothomb in conversation with Buket Uzuner, Friday April 29th

By Emma Garman

Here’s a tip for writers eager to cultivate a rarified air of eccentricity: regardless of the weather, wear a big hat! According to Amelié Nothomb, whose outré headgear is her trademark—today, at La Maison Française’s panel discussion with Turkish novelist and travel writer Buket Uzuner and moderator Kira Brunner Don of Lapham’s Quarterly, she wears her usual tall black top hat—that’s all it takes. “It’s not so much,” she laughs. “You do the smallest thing, it’s enough to appear eccentric. I didn’t know it would be so easy!” Her original motivation, she reveals, was a desire to distract from her appearance, which she “hated”—entirely irrationally, as anyone who’s seen the Belgian author’s china-doll visage on her book covers knows—but to her astonishment, the hat became a major part of her public persona (and was quickly adopted by her legions of devoted fangirls known as “Nothombophiles,” who not only devour every word Nothomb writes but also dress like her).

Even more astonishing for Nothomb was the “miracle” of becoming an author in the first place, let alone the hugely successful one she is now. When she was in her teens, making a living as a writer felt “unreachable, a temple, how could I enter that temple?” Yet it seems the die was cast by her famously peripatetic upbringing, when every three years her diplomat parents would uproot Nothomb and her two siblings, from her native Japan to China, to New York, Bangladesh and Burma. “Every three years it was for me the end of the world, and I had to begin everything again in another faraway country. The only thing that was my own was language, the only thing I didn’t lose. I lost my home, my friends, my nanny, my dog, my school, my life, the only thing that was leftover was language, so I suppose this is the reason I became so obsessed with language.”  

An intimate link between writing and geography also exists for Buket Uzuner, whose prize-winning novels, stories, and travelogues have appeared on Turkish bestseller lists since 1992 and have been translated into seven languages. Her writing career has enabled her to visit, and live in, many different countries—far from the destiny expected for a middle-class Turkish girl born in the fifties—and she conceptualizes her relationships with cities in romantic terms: Paris is the ex-husband, Istanbul is the soulmate, and New York is the passionate lover, a list to which she’s now added a new contender: “Madrid as the future husband!” (Sidenote: in typical passionate lover fashion, New York is being kind of a jerk at the moment. Uzuner’s latest novel Istanbulians, from which she reads a dazzling excerpt, doesn’t have a US publisher, to the dismay of attendants at this standing room-only event who are dying to get their hands on a copy.)

Uzuner never had any doubt about where her future lay: “When my writer friends tell me that they didn’t always know they were going to be writers, I’m shocked because I knew from the very beginning. I always knew I would be a writer, I had a strong feeling inside.” Such certainty was necessary given the obstacles she faced: firstly, simply being a woman, which she points out is “difficult everywhere…but doubly so in Turkey,” and secondly, the grim fact that when she was starting out, writers were regarded as enemies of the state. “Things are getting better,” she says, “but nowadays we are still having problems…just three weeks ago two journalists were put in jail for books that weren’t even published yet.”

Still, Uzuner maintains great faith in the power of books, of narrative, to make the world a better place: “I still believe that telling stories is the most human thing, the thing that brings us together.” In her eyes, the biggest threat to literature is the growing trend for writers to write about themselves at the expense of other subjects and, relatedly, for aspiring writers to seek fame and fortune via publishing. Even though Uzuner’s own life has entered into her work, for example in her travelogues, she firmly distinguishes between writing about “your personal life and your personal ideas.” Recently, she’s been finding that she and her friends keep running into the same phenomenon, “that young writers are wanting to write their own lives as a book, and they believe that their life is that important. I tell them you have to have your own unique ideas.”

Nothomb, of course, has written prolifically about her life—in such novels as, to name just a few, Loving Sabotage, Fear and Trembling, and The Life of Hunger—but no one could accuse her of being anything other than unique, both off and on the page. She admits she is her own “raw material,” but stipulates that “when others are involved in your life, you are not sure that they want to appear in your work, so this is what I pay attention to. I make sure they cannot be recognized.” Of the many books she chooses not to share with readers—publishing them all, she feels, would be “obscene,” given that she is now on her 71st, having released around 25—sometimes she holds back stories that are too private, and not necessarily in the way you’d expect: “They are more personal, but because of my obsessions. I have some obsessions which I believe are understood only by myself!”

Uzuner says she gets nervous when journalists ask what her novels are about, for a different reason: “I don’t know what to say! I write about life.” For the record, in The Sound of Fishsteps, a UN-orchestrated gathering in a mysterious environment, maybe heaven, maybe hell, includes the late French-Russian novelist Romain Gary—whom Uzuner claims as a literary grandfather, along with Victor Hugo and Goethe, among others—and the descendents of Anaïs Nin, Joan of Arc, and Nehru; Istanbulians features the city herself as a speaking character. (“I, daughter of Poseidon, miracle of Argonauts, Empress of medieval cities, the harbinger of a new age, whose star shines anew in the 21st century.”) Notwithstanding such literary adventurousness, Uzuner insists that all novels, including her own, are inevitably about love and death.

Nothomb concurs. “Love is in writing itself. I tried to write a novel only about hate, as an experiment. I finished it, but it was unreadable.”

Published May 3, 2011   Copyright 2011 Emma Garman

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