Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and The School of Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2014.
Brett Rawson, on behalf of the The School of Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Meline Toumani about her book There Was and There Was Not (Metropolitan), which is among the final five selections, in the category of Autobiography, for the 2014 NBCC awards.
Brett Rawson: First, I wanted to begin with what first compelled me: the title, There Was and There Was Not. It so perfectly sets up the tone, purpose, and placement of this book—somewhere between this and that, that clashing of narratives that, as you say, “confuses outsiders, frustrates officials, stifles economies, and warps identities.” When did you know this would be the title, and were there ever any other titles you were considering?
Meline Toumani: This title came to me by accident--but as soon as it did, I knew it was "the one." I was in Yerevan, Armenia, with my parents; I was living in Turkey at the time, and I had flown over from Istanbul to join them. One day, we were sitting at a sidewalk cafe in Republic Square, across from the government buildings, and my mother was showing us some old books she had bought at the "vernissage," Yerevan's outdoor art market and bazaar. She opened a collection of folktales by Hovhannes Tumanyan and began to read aloud. The first sentence was (in Armenian) "There was and there was not..."--which is like our version of "Once upon a time." I had heard this traditional opening for Armenian stories a thousand times before, but this time it stopped me cold: just a few days earlier, when I was still in Istanbul, in my Turkish language class we had read a little story that had also started with those words (in Turkish): "There was and there was not..." I told my parents about this, and nobody needed to state the obvious: how much, including this quirky narrative habit, was actually shared by these two cultures who behave as enemies. Suddenly, my father said, "That's your title."
It was a profound moment for me because I immediately saw so many layers in the phrase. We joked about how we could manipulate the font size on the cover to make it clear that the point was that "There was" and not "there was not" a genocide. My father started to worry that it would be misunderstood, and seemed almost regretful that he had made the suggestion! But I knew I had to accept the risk inherent in this title. Central to my project was a feeling that had been growing within me for years--that if Armenians wanted Turks to acknowledge what happened, hitting them over the head with accusations was not proving constructive. So I felt that we had to take a chance, to move away from the monotonous argument that "Turkey denies the genocide" and instead accept the fact that, even though we know what happened fit the definition of genocide, there was a functional reality to the fact that Turks had been so deeply steeped in a different version of the story. And that we would not make progress until we met them at their starting point. Of course, this is what I, individually, tried to do when I moved to Turkey. (And, spoiler alert: it didn't work. The book is in part about why it didn't work.)
By the time we "discovered" my title, I'd been working on the book for a few years already. I had sold it under the title "Silence and Madness." Just like "There Was and There Was Not," "Silence and Madness" sought to explore a duality; not only the fact that Turkey's silence fed a kind of madness in the Armenian diaspora, but the other way around--that the Armenians' state of madness over not having their trauma acknowledged only bolstered the silence in Turkey, galvanized the Turks' defensiveness around this issue. I wanted to explore the relationship as a "dyad," to use a psychotherapy term. Some people liked "Silence and Madness," and some thought it sounded too bleak. At the time I was innocent of--no, defiant about--the demands of the market, and I felt just fine about putting forth a book with a miserable, depressing title. One editor who considered my proposal said it sounded like a dissertation about Victorian-era bodice-ripper romance novels!
One more thing: over the years, everyone who heard the title "There Was and There Was Not" would say: "I love it! But you're going to have a subtitle, obviously." And I would say: "No, I'm not. A subtitle would ruin it." And I tried--oh, how I tried--to hold to this. Out of devotion to my wonderful publisher I will not expound any further on the prolonged argument we had about the subtitle issue. The term "nonstarter" figured prominently in this argument...
BR: I am also curious about the actual writing of the book. This book is so much about both place and people in time, and so I am curious if you wrote portions in Turkey or if you made the choice to wait until returning home? And if, after returning home, were there ever times that you doubted your own experience, narrative, or the project itself?
MT: I tried mightily to write the book while I was in Turkey, from 2007 to 2009 — and during that time I did draft at least two-thirds of the raw material that became the final manuscript. But it was extremely difficult to see the bigger picture — to understand the emotional and intellectual arc that I was in the midst of, and that I ultimately needed to carry the reader through. In Istanbul, every time I left the house I'd have another interaction that seemed important or revealing. "Is that a scene?" I would wonder, whether I'd attended some violent protest or simply stepped out to buy milk. I had a habit of making the digital equivalent of file cards — empty documents that had filenames meant to jog my memory about particular moments. They could be very simple: "That poster near the bar" or "Gloria Jeans woman." Much, much later, I fleshed those out into scenes and grouped them into themes. Later still, I started to understand the larger story they told about what I'd done and why.
While living in Turkey and reporting there, I was on the one hand highly attuned to those bits and pieces of experience that would have resonance in a story; at the same time, I was extremely emotionally defended, which meant that I couldn't go deep to write about why those bits and pieces mattered, to really spit it out. My time in Turkey was so chronically stressful that I took up chain-smoking to hold myself together — this after a lifetime of being a militant anti-smoker! — and piled up more and more of these placeholder notes.
I continued to feel blocked for at least a year after I got home; I couldn't access--didn't want to access--the emotional state I'd been in while in Turkey. It was painful and embarrassing to think about how I'd contorted myself to ingratiate myself to Turks, to think about how lonely I sometimes felt, how my lifelong shyness was pushed against its limits nearly every day. How I felt truly comfortable with so few people I met, and how much suspicion my presence provoked in the people I tried to interview and understand.
One day, back in New York, a breakthrough: I had plans to visit a friend in Washington Heights, which would be an eternal subway ride from Brooklyn. She was an American friend, a scholar, who had also lived in Turkey and had been a close friend to me there. At the time, my iPod was filled with Turkish music that I loved, but it had been at least a year since I'd been able to listen to any of it. And in general, I'm not one to listen to music on the train. But somehow I got the idea that on this hour-long train ride, it was time for me to stick in some headphones and force myself to listen to that Turkish music that I had loved so much. Well! I bawled all the way to 175th Street. (Fortunately it was mid-afternoon and the train was mostly empty.) The Turkish music — a mix of romantic pop, leftist folk anthems, a film soundtrack, even a cabaret album, which I'd discovered when it was blasting in a convenience store near my Istanbul apartment — cracked something open that I'd kept tightly closed until then. It was a cathartic crying jag, and it took me so completely by surprise that I suddenly understood how much I'd been holding my "Turkey emotions" back, and how necessary it would be to enter into them in order to finish writing my book. The feeling of access I got that day would slip away again and again, and I'd have to force myself back into it. But that day on the train taught me something that I think I will always need to remember as a writer, something about going into the feelings rather than around them.
As to the second part of your question: did I ever doubt my experience, narrative, or project? I doubted everything — except for the fact that I would finish this book if it was the last thing I did. In a way, I think you could say that I incorporated all my doubt into the narrative itself, overtly. When I realized that that doubt was an essential part of the story — and when I allowed myself to "go there" and admit to all the different kinds of doubt I lived with — it was an essential shift toward turning the book into what it ultimately became. A note, though: this kind of wallowing in ambiguity needs to have a very good reason behind it — needs to be very closely related to the nature of the topic. Otherwise it's simply irritating for the reader, who could be forgiven for thinking, "Could you please make up your mind and then get back to me?"
BR: A quick confession: I am obsessed with unwords—words that begin with un. They intrigue me because they seem to orbit around the idea of undoing—unthinking, unseeing, unlearning, unknowing, and so on. And they are different than dis—they are not the state of something not, but they are a retreat from something that is. There were dozens of unwords scattered throughout your book, which makes perfect sense, as you were pulling apart perception—your own and others’—which requires a great deal of undoing. I am curious if you were conscious of the inclusion of these words, and what they might mean to you? Some of my favorites that you used were: unmoved, unbroken, unpious, un-edgy, unsmiling, and unreality.
MT: This is a fascinating question! I had no idea that I have a habit for "un" words. I will be thinking about that going forward. But I can say, on a related note, that in the very late stages of revising my book I started to discover all sorts of particular words that would appear ten, twelve, fifteen times across the course of 300 pages. I'd notice one or two repetitions, then do a "command-F" keystroke and discover so many more of the same! I wondered if they were some kind of heavily encrypted code to something essential about my brain; but I could find no pattern in the types of words I tended to overuse. I changed most of them to avoid repetition. The copyeditor occasionally pointed out ones I'd missed, like using "corral" as a verb in three different, unrelated scenes — which is the kind of kink in the works that makes a close reader sit up and remember that a fallible human created the book in their hands; one tries as hard as possible to avoid those kinks so that the reader can remain absorbed by the text. I guess in the best case, as with the "unwords" you pointed out, the reader may weave such observations into a reflection that the author never saw coming.
BR: At one point, you mentioned that with the Internet, “curiosity is now as cheap as breath.” In the context of global awareness, do you think the Internet has a numbing effect? In that, do we become less aware of other how others live because now instead of seeking out knowledge through experience, we simply sit back and watch passively?
MT: Yes; I think the joy of encountering other cultures is deadened in many ways by the Internet. I recently took a long trip -- my honeymoon -- to Corsica and Sardinia. In planning the trip, we were able to see absolutely everything on our various flat screens: the crumbling rocks on the notoriously scary roads of Corsica; the view from a train ride through Sardinia's interior; the signature dishes of a rustic village restaurant; the mildew in the grout of a shower stall of a hotel in some remote coastal town. By the time we arrived, there was no mystery. We already knew that the previous fifty visitors to our agriturismo had been treated like family by the lovely old proprietors; we already knew that after a couple of days, Gesuina, the benevolent matriarch of the house, would bring out a tray of her famous culurgiones (potato-and-mint-stuffed dumplings in tomato sauce) and that people would applaud; we, too, would know to applaud because we had read that this is what other people had done. What's left to discover when all this comes before the trip? The more research I did about these magnificent destinations, the more I felt a kind of numbness about what lay ahead. This was the first big trip I had planned since returning from Turkey in 2009, and in just those few years, the availability of this kind of granular information and photography about remote places had expanded incredibly. Along the same lines, I'm traveling to Armenia soon, for the first time in a few years, and I'm a little bit heartbroken by how easy it is now to book a hotel, to get a Google view of every location. It becomes almost inevitable that arrival is a disappointment. The photos online are always brighter, sharper than what you see when you get there. The weather is always great in photos. I'm not talking just about comforts or pleasures, but about the loss of the kind of spontaneity, including the mishaps, that you'd have to sign onto back when you couldn't plan every last detail in advance. All this extreme planning is a head-buzzing addiction that saps your visceral senses. What to do about any of it? I have no idea. Even as I share this luddite's lament, I'm constitutionally incapable of not taking advantage of all these new research tools.
BR: I am curious if you could talk a little bit about what you meant by “beyond” in your subtitle. I could read it in two ways—in the sense of the future relationship between Armenia and Turkey, conflict between other borders—say, for example, between Ukraine and Russia. How do we see this book interacting with these two different beyonds?
MT: Although I resisted having any subtitle at all, I did ultimately embrace the one I came up with. And the "Beyond" of the subtitle means several things: most concretely, it refers to the diasporas of Armenia and Turkey, the people beyond those national borders for whom all of that "hate and possibility" is still so relevant. But more importantly I meant for "beyond" to hint at all the similar cultural divides in the world. In other words, the themes of my journey, and of this book, are universal: the tension between belonging to a group and finding a sense of individuality beyond the group; the challenge of going beyond the received wisdom you were born into. The discoveries that lie beyond the boundaries of your own prejudice.
Meline Toumani is a writer based in New York City. She has written about politics, ideas, books, and music for The New York Times, Harper's, The Nation, n+1, Salon, The Boston Globe, and other publications. As a foreign reporter, she has worked in Turkey, Armenia, Georgia and Russia. She holds a bachelor's degree in English from UC-Berkeley and a master's degree in journalism from the Cultural Reporting and Criticism Program at NYU.
Brett Rawson is a writer, teacher, and translator. He is currently receiving an MFA in Non-Fiction from The New School in New York. His work has appeared in Narratively and, as an outlet for his mild obsession over unwords, he runs www.unalphabet.com. You can follow him on Twitter: @unalphabet.