My Own Third Blended Thing: An Interview with Ayşe Papatya Bucak

Though our 2020 Literary Debutante Ball has been postponed, we’re still promoting the work of our incredible 2020 Debs. We hope you consider supporting Ayşe Papatya Bucak, and all the authors who are releasing books during this challenging time, by purchasing their books.

The Trojan War Museum is a collection of short stories that explores myriad imaginative intersections between East and West, history and memory, myth and fact, and collective and personal identity. In “Good Fortune”—also published in One Story’s issue #255—a birth-tourism destination hotel in Florida is plagued by a series of threatening letters. The displacement and pain of an Armenian refugee is “performed” for an American fundraiser audience in “The Dead,” and in “The History of Girls,” a group of dead girls buried under the rubble of their school communicate with the ones still living. Each of the collection’s ten stories portrays a distinct and rich world, told with both grandness and humility, humor and grace.

Talia Aharoni: Where were you when you found out The Trojan War Museum was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Ayşe Papatya Bucak: I was at a writing residency, Willapa Bay AIR, which is on the West Coast. My phone rang really early in the morning and it was my agent. My heart pretty much stopped. After she told me Norton wanted to buy the book, I tried to call my mom, but she wasn’t home, so I wandered out of my cabin and over to the main dining room. Another writer, a poet named Amy Sailer, was there and she will forever be the first person I told and the first person to give me a big hug. The other residents, who I consider dear friends now, bought me sparkling soda and a chocolate bar and made me a card. It was actually kind of amazing to be among near-strangers and away from home, yet amongst a group of people who absolutely understood how important it was for me and who made it a big deal.

TA: There’s a fascinating confluence of both East and West in many of these stories—a meeting point between civilizations and worldviews that seem to be very much at odds. How did you attempt to treat the “clash” of cultures in this collection?

APB: Because I’m half Turkish and half American, I don’t consider it a clash, I consider it a blend or an intersection. I don’t have two cultures at odds inside of me; I’m my own third blended thing, so I tried to write stories like that. Each of the story ideas came to me when some moment of Turkishness popped up in my very American life (like when I read a newspaper article about a Turkish girls’ school that had exploded). But as I wrote more and more stories, I started to see way more similarities between East and West than I did differences.

TA: Another major theme that seems to stem from the East-West dichotomy is the idea of displacement—from the Turkish wrestler interrogated by a border official in “A Cautionary Tale,” to the Armenian genocide survivor whose story of misery is paraded around Key West in “The Dead.” These stories seem to challenge the notion that emigrating West, specifically to the U.S., is an inherently fortunate thing, despite its often “desirable” status. (See: the parents in “Good Fortune” for whom the other stories might act as a sort of cautionary tale?)

APB: I think anyone who is the child of an immigrant knows that emigrating West involves a lot of sacrifice and loss. My father was extremely assimilated, and he spoke brilliant English even before he came to the US, but he was still apart from his extended family, he was still held back from pursuing the career he had held in Turkey. And he had a good experience compared to a lot of people. Generalizations are always risky, though. Lots of people immigrate due to circumstances that are far more difficult than my father’s were. And refugees are in a totally different situation, of course. But I don’t think anyone who leaves home considers it to be without loss. Even someone like me, who left Turkey when I was four, I know that I lost something—I don’t know what exactly, but something.

TA: Each story embodies a particular, brilliantly-wrought world—but there are certainly some common threads. For one, there’s a grandness of narrative in which the stories take on a quasi-mythical quality. Can you elaborate on the significance of mythology in this collection, in terms of both plot and form?

APB: At some point I decided to see just how much a short story could fit. And I suspect that desire to write bigger, to make stories that were quite large in scale and scope, led to my embrace of mythology. Myth is a natural way to tell an epic tale in a small space. And the voice of myth—that omniscience—was useful to me. I also recently found a school project that I did around second grade that was a retelling of Greek mythology, so perhaps it’s just something I was always drawn to. Not to mention a lot of the Turkish literature that was first available to me consisted of Turkish fairy tales—those tales have long been an influence.

TA: The stories feel thoroughly researched—from the incorporation of Greek and Turkish mythology and lore, to the artwork of French painter Ingres, and even the history of the sponge diving industry. Can you tell us about the extent of your research, and what you were most surprised to discover in the process?

APB: As someone who doesn’t feel very Turkish (my mother is American and I don’t speak Turkish), Turkey, or my own Turkish identity, has long been my research project. So, to some extent, the research process has been lifelong and cumulative. But the big surprise was that I love doing research. I have some regrets now that I wasn’t a history major. For nearly every story I read dozens of books—Appalachian literature to help me write a story set in Western Virginia, books on carpet motifs, books on modern art, books by genocide survivors, the list goes on and on, but I loved doing that. For a while I had almost 200 books out from my university library. I’ve got it down to about half a dozen now—but only after a librarian looked at my account with one eyebrow extremely arched. 

Talia Aharoni is a fiction writer living in NYC. She completed an MFA at the New School with a focus in fiction, and is the recipient of the Provost’s scholarship and the 2019-2020 Teachers & Writers Magazine Editorial Fellowship. She served as an editorial intern at One Story literary magazine, editorial assistant for LIT magazine, and editorial associate for Teachers & Writers Magazine. She’s at work on her debut novel.

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