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Tales from the Expat Harem: Foreign Women in
who made literature happen. Their project is your ticket to a world you might
not have known.
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)
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.
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.
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
Tales from the Expat Harem: Foreign Women in
by Amy L Jenkins
How did the two of you
come to work to together on this project?
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.
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
was your vision of the project at the beginning?
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.
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
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!!
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
the anthology come out as expected? Were there any surprises along the way?
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:
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.
you compile another anthology?
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
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.
is your advice to other anthology editors?
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.
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.