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Tales from the Expat Harem: Foreign Women in Modern Turkey

Featured Authors:

 

 

Two writer-editors who made literature happen. Their project is your ticket to a world you might not have known.

               Eaton Gökmen (L) and Ashman(R)
 

 

 

 

 

Anastasia M Ashman

              and

 Jennifer Eaton Gökmen

 

 

 

 

                                      

 As the Western world struggles to comprehend the paradoxes of modern Turkey, Tales from the Expat Harem reveals its most personal nuances. This internationally bestselling anthology spans 40 years and the entire nation, providing a window into the country from the perspective of twenty-nine expatriates from six nations—artists, entrepreneurs, Peace Corps volunteers, archaeologists, missionaries, and others—who established lives in Turkey for work, love, or adventure. Poignant, humorous, and transcendent, essays of cultural conflict and discovery take readers to weddings and workplaces, down cobbled Byzantine streets, into boisterous bazaars along the Silk Road, and deep into the feminine stronghold of steamy Ottoman bathhouses. The outcome is a stunning collection of voices from women suspended between two homes as they redefine their identities and reshape their worldviews. (Seal Press 2006)

 

 

 

 

   

A cultural essayist specializing in tales of personal adventure, Anastasia M. Ashman’s writing on art, society and culture has appeared in publications worldwide, from the Asian Wall Street Journal to the Village Voice. Tales from the Expat Harem (Seal Press 2006) is Anastasia’s first anthology, adding a new facet to a decade of experience evaluating and editing creative material in New York and Los Angeles media and entertainment, working for literary agents and producers of film, television, and Broadway theatre.

Her essays appear in two other anthologies: the women’s travel humor collection The Thong Also Rises (Travelers’ Tales 2005) and the New York-themed The Subway Chronicles (Plume-Penguin 2006). An expatriate for 9 years in three countries, she currently lives with her Turkish husband in Istanbul where she is at work on a travel memoir Berkeley to Byzantium: The Reorientation of a West Coast Adventuress.  Born and raised in Northern California, she holds a degree in Classical Archaeology from Bryn Mawr College.

Jennifer Eaton Gökmen is a writer captivated by the people and customs of Turkey, her home for the past twelve years. A proponent of the integrated, adventurous expatriate life, Jennifer began hers as an exchange student in England, later returning to the UK as a chef’s assistant working her way through the silver service dining rooms of London’s financial district before extensively backpacking Europe. A native of Michigan, she has a degree in Creative Writing and American and British Literature from Western Michigan University. Jennifer’s literary career began with an expatriate humor magazine where she served as staff writer for two years. She is a regular contributor to TimeOut Istanbul magazine and Today's Zaman national newspaper. Her writing has appeared in the Strange Intimacies anthology exhibited at the 9th International Istanbul Biennial.  Jennifer is currently penning her Turkish adventures in a comical transcontinental confessional Elective Brain Surgery and Other Tales of a Reckless Expat.  She lives in Istanbul with her husband Bilgehan.

A Brief Interview With Anastasia Ashman and  Jennifer Gökmen, editors of

 Tales from the Expat Harem: Foreign Women in Modern Turkey

 by Amy L Jenkins

How did the two of you come to work to together on this project?

 Anastasia Ashman: In an international women’s writing group in Istanbul, we realized we were all writing about our Turkish experiences. Collected, they might become the first compendium of foreign female experience in Turkey.

 Jennifer Gökmen: When we called for submissions (from expatriate groups, writing groups, women’s groups, and foreign groups associated with Turkey, like the Peace Corps alumni) we heard from over 100 women in 14 nations. It quickly became obvious how much interest there was with people from 6 continents all wanting to share their very positive and heartfelt impressions of their Turkish lives.

 What was your vision of the project at the beginning?

AA: We played with motifs of female culture in Turkey and were quickly drawn to the anachronistic, titillating concept of an Expat Harem. We decided to hijack the potentially inflammatory word harem, with its connotations of erroneous Western stereotypes about Asia Minor and the entire Muslim world, while also infusing it with new meaning.

JG: We knew it was important to create a compelling literary metaphor to make the collection cohesive and witty. Publishers often consider anthologies unmarketable since the writing quality and tone can vary, and the writers are often not well-known.  We decided to overcome this prejudice by maintaining a strong editorial vision and influence throughout the making of the book.

  How did you know when a piece was just right for the anthology?

 AA: We worked with everyone to fashion a personal tale that revealed as much about the woman and her own culture as the country she uncovered. There are no first drafts in the book. Most writers endured 5 to 10 editorial rounds to finish their tales. And Jennifer likes to tell people I put her through 20 rounds on her essay – but that was her own perfectionism!!

 JG: With many of the stories we felt an instant resonance—the tale showed that the writer had actively engaged the Turkish culture and was able to pinpoint either humorous or poignant realities. As most of the contributors in this collection are not professional writers, some stories had an element of what we were looking for and just needed coaxing to bring forth the most relevant or immediate aspects. And then there were some submissions that illustrated an intentional isolation from the culture. Nevertheless, we worked with all the writers, asking them directed questions to develop their stories. Those who didn’t want to do the necessary soul-searching effectively eliminated themselves.

 Did the anthology come out as expected?  Were there any surprises along the way?

 JG: We are very proud of the result. We did expect to have more stories from repatriated Turks to include a chapter of their unique experiences, but perhaps that’s something that the next edition will address. In terms of surprises, we are constantly amazed at the power of the book to draw together people with similar experiences; through our website and tours we continually meet people who are shocked and happy to find that they aren’t the only ones out there who share a deep affinity for the country.

 AA: I think the surprises keep on coming for this little book filled with love. After hitting the bookshelves here in Turkey in 2005, both Turkish and English editions sold out within six weeks. In that time the English language edition also debuted on the bestseller lists at several national bookstore chains – beating out two J.K. Rowlings, a Michael Connelly and three Dan Browns!  Of course there were lots of surprises about the industry when we were completing and selling the book’s three editions. You can read more about them here: www.absolutewrite.com/novels/harem_girls.htm

 How has the anthology been received by the literary community?

 

 AA: I am still eagerly awaiting an in-depth literary review.  I think the effort we put into making it a literary work has made it not only a book people tear through in two days – “Can’t put it down” is what they say – but also a collection that holds up to much closer scrutiny.  We crafted evocative chapter titles and descriptions, as well as summaries of each tale which set the story in time and place, hint at the background of the writer and the tone of her tale. For instance, “From the Hip”, an essay by Sally Green in the Darbuka Drumbeat chapter, is described as “A professor compares the synthetic, salacious approach to belly dancing in a Colorado recreation center with the spirited communal event she recalls from Turkey”.

JG: There are other literary aspects implemented as well. For instance, the chapters are arranged in a progression of assimilation to allow the reader to ride the arc of understanding from the first hesitant steps in a foreign land to the plunge into personal epiphanies surrounding love, sexuality, religion, etc.  US and Canadian universities are using it both for courses in Turkish society as well as literature classes, and the anthology is a top 10 US and UK bestseller in a variety of categories besides just Turkey, which indicates that the readability of the text is as compelling as its informative content. It’s also been recommended by National Geographic Traveler, International Herald Tribune, and Lonely Planet, as well as a host of Turkish and international experts in politics, expatriatism, travel, gender studies, and business.  

 Will you compile another anthology?

 JG: We will most definitely be creating another anthology—in fact we are starting the sequel to this one in just a few months. Though we are also looking forward to our individual projects in the future, it has been incredibly rewarding to collaborate with so many writers and share in the collective success.

 AA: We’re also aiming to bring the Expat Harem experience to new audiences by developing other platforms and ways to access the material. We’re developing a narrative documentary of the book for American television, and building a cultural festival based on the historic and modern views  of foreign female experience in Turkey.

  What is your advice to other anthology editors?

JG: Obviously financial compensation isn’t what draws writers to contribute to anthologies. It’s about being read and being associated with a successful project. Imbuing team spirit can be a win-win situation for anthology editors and contributors.

 AA: Don’t stop creating value for your anthology contributors. You can include them in the promotion process; thirty motivated heads are better than one! We encourage our writers to join us at readings, we’ve shared templates of how to approach booksellers on their own for solo readings, offered press releases they can personalize for their hometown newspapers, invited them to relevant press interviews, applied to academic conferences for them….we do what we can to share the prestige and ownership.

 

visit: http://www.expatharem.com/ to learn more about the anthology and find a book club guide.