Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Books, The Orient Express and The Quest For Truth About Historical Fiction

My walk today turned out to be a literary tour of sorts when I came upon the train station that was the terminus of the Orient Express. These days halls of the station evoke not the mysteries of Agatha Christie, but those of the whirling dervishes, who give performances in this elegant old building. The station faces the Golden Horn, the "inlet" that in some respects bisects part of Istanbul north and south. I cross this body of water by tram on the Galata Bridge en route to my language classes. This bridge, according to Wikipedia, has been referenced or depicted in theater, poetry and novels.

Near the Orient Express station is a warm book nook called Polat Kitabcilik Ticaret Ltd.

Children’s books covered the surface of a bookshelf, which stood in the center of the store. Hopeful to meet local children’s book writers, I asked the clerk, whose name is Ilkay, if there were any children’s authors living in Istanbul. We had trouble communicating, but I believe her answer was yok, no. Browsing among the titles were several from the late Turkish writer Omer Seyfettin, such as Diyet and Verman, who died in 1920. I kept searching, hoping to find a living Turkish author whom I could meet. But the other titles were translations of Harriet Beecher Stowe, R.L. Stevenson, Charles Dickins, and Alexander Dumas The Three Musketeers. I bought the latter, hoping that I might be able to read phrases or even whole sentences from this novel when I have finished my course.

Finding all these historical fiction books brought two thoughts to mind. One was Govenor Sarah Palin’s recent comment to Joe Biden during the vice presidential debate, "There you go again Joe, talking about the past." To which Senator Biden replied, "I like to think of history as prologue." My other memory was the discussion last spring on the Cooperative Children’s Book Center list serve. Someone made the comment that much of what is published in the U.S. for children that is set in the Middle East is historical fiction, which offers little help in understanding the region today.

As a writer of historical fiction I was surprised by this CCBC and Palin’s comment. Like Biden, I believe there is a direct relationship between past and present. Part of the solution to a current problem lies in knowing what caused it. Perhaps if Govenor Palin traveled to a city like Istanbul, she would see tangible evidence of how the past and present co-exist, particularly in the architecture, such as Christian cathedrals, turned mosques, turned museums. Or old Ottoman wood homes turned into souvenir or convenience stores. Istanbul is a palimpsest of traditions and eras all influencing each other. The city’s history of cultural intermingling has produced a positive outcome in everything from cuisine to music to the good-natured people themselves, who appear remarkably unstressed for a city of 10 million. It’s most evident on their subways, the place where one would expect to witness coldness or impatience or belligerence. This relaxed behavior seems everywhere. Men are often seen laughing with one another or relaxing and drinking tea outside their shops. I even saw a waiter inside a bank—just one week after the news of the Wall Street collapse—walking among the office desks serving cay to employees as they chatted quietly among each other.

I believe historical fiction has much to offer contemporary readers, particularly as a comfortable vantage point from which to learn about events and circumstances that happened long ago, which directly apply to issues today. Topics that have not gone away from century to century, such as war, abuse of women and children, love, loss, and discrimination. My novel Anahita’s Woven Riddle, a story about marriage customs in roughly 1900 Iran, is relevant to women around the world today. Muslim or not, the tension between tradition and progress, as well as the notion of choice are topics with which all nationalities struggle, including the United States. I was pleased to learn that Anahita helped a young woman I had taught in Doha, Qatar, when she was considering her predicament of wanting to attend college outside of Doha. She said that after reading the novel she began to think of ways in which she could respect her tradition and yet work out a solution with her parents about her education. "It’s never about throwing out all of the past," she said. "That won’t help change things, but only cause more resistence."

While exploring the bookstores of Istanbul, I decided to get the Turkish perspective on the matter of historical fiction. First, from Ilkay, an obvious booklover. It involved a bit of work. I sat on a on a stool and looked up each word I needed to say to her in my newly-purchased, OVERSIZED, Turkish-English dictionary. After about ten minutes, during which time dozens of people stopped in the store to talk with her and buy books, I had my words for her to decipher: Ben yokluk gorussme sen kakkinda tarihi roman. Bin soru. Bir gun sonra (Turkish punctuation and accents omitted). I want to interview you about historical fiction. One question, someday soon. She knew I meant with a translator from our previous attempt at conversing. Ilkay took my note pad and read it twice, consulting her co-worker. They furrowed their brows and scrunched up their faces. Then Ilkay looked up. "Does anyone speak English?" she asked. I knew this because I recognized the word Inglizce and was fairly certain I must have scribbled gibberish. After several inquiries, one highschool girl said yes. So, I said to her, "Back home some librarians feel that historical fiction offers little toward understanding issues of today. I would like to hear Ilkay’s opinion."

Through my young translator, Ilkay said, "Historical fiction is read here much, it is becoming a...a fashion."

Since I am not sure my question was put forth accurately, I plan to interview Ilkay and several other booksellers along this stretch of the cobble stone road beside the old Orient Express with a transaltor. For now, their thoughts on the matter must remain a mystery.

1 comment:

Margaret said...

Hear, hear! on the crucial importance of understanding the past before we can truly understand the present!