Ayse Papatya Bucak’s new short-story collection, The Trojan War Museum and Other Stories, is getting a lot of praise for its storytelling, its eloquent and sometimes brutal detail work, and also its humor. Bucak, who teaches in the MFA program at Florida Atlantic University, has had her stories widely published in prestigious journals, and two of the stories in the book won O. Henry and Pushcart prizes.
And she’s got ties to Denver, too. She serves as a contributing editor for the University of Colorado Denver's literary magazine, Copper Nickel.
And it’s CU Denver’s creative writing program that’s welcoming Bucak to town on Monday, September 16, to talk to students and the public alike about her work.
Westword caught up with Bucak to discuss her new book, Turkish identity, and violence in literature.
Westword: You're reading from your new book, The Trojan War Museum and Other Stories, in association with CU Denver's Creative Writing program on September 16. How do readings and campus visits and the like play into the life of a writer? Distraction? Pleasure? Both?
Papatya Bucak: Much to my surprise, one of my favorite parts of publishing the book has been the opportunity to meet people: readers, writers, booksellers, publishing professionals, students, fellow teachers at various events. My second-favorite thing has been being able to connect to people I’ve known a long time and now have an opportunity to visit. I’m very much an introvert, but I actually like giving readings — it’s easier than conversation — so I knew I’d enjoy sharing my work, but I didn’t think about how the book would serve as a kind of calling card that allows me to meet lots of people who do work related to my work. With that said, the travel can be both distracting and tiring. I would love to stay home and read and write more. Also, I’m a professor, and the book came out the day my semester started, so I’m trying to do my job properly and serve my students while also serving the book. It doesn’t help that my campus was closed for a large part of last week due to the threat of Hurricane Dorian. I’ll be doing quite a bit of work to make up for missed time. Still, I feel lucky to do the work I do.
Talk a little bit about the new collection. How did all these stories come together under a single cover?
I wrote two stories – “The History of Girls” and “Iconography” – without any particular intentions, but once I had written them I knew I was writing stories for a book, and that book would be linked by intersections of Turkishness and Americanness (I am half-Turkish, half-American). So for me, each story has an origin point that has to do with that intersection. I think that fact is probably invisible to a lot of readers, and it’s only coming up because my bio is attached to the book. I suspect American readers notice the Turkishness a lot more than they notice the Americanness. If I have any Turkish readers, they might read it with the reverse lens. Though oddly I was at the post office the other day, and the postal clerk turned out to be half-Turkish, so who knows. Perhaps she is my ideal reader!
Aside from "exploring your Turkish roots," as many reviews are saying about the stories in this book, what other themes were you wanting to examine? Or are you a writer who generally eschews talking about theme?
I was conscious of exploring my roots, so to speak. But I hope each story has a couple of different themes contained therein. I think the book overall has to do with my own mixed identity — but, for example, “The History of Girls” is very much about how the world treats young women, while “A Cautionary Tale” is a story about how immigration doesn’t always go as well as the immigrant hopes it will. It’s also about Turkish wrestlers, authenticity, and the way other people can own your story.
I was quite conscious about taking on ideas in these stories. Lots of writers deny thinking about theme, but I don’t see why. The notion that I will unconsciously reach my deepest thinking — rather than unconsciously duplicating prejudice and narrow-thinking — seems unlikely. So I thought a lot about what my point of view was on these various topics. For each story, I would list a couple of key words, sometimes quite broad, and I’d think about how those topics had been covered in American literature, and I’d try to add to or argue with or at least engage with what had already been said. That was the goal anyway. But I also thought quite a bit about plot. I didn’t want to write stories where nothing happened.
Speaking of your Turkish roots, talk about your name. Not just how it's pronounced, but what it means, and how you go about explaining that to most American audiences. (As a Teague, I'm especially sympathetic to these situations...)
My big joke about my name is that I don’t pronounce it very well. I love hearing Turks say Papatya because it reminds me of my dad, who was the only person I knew who very comfortably said my name. I actually went through a period as a kid where it had been so long since anyone had called me anything but my nickname that I was no longer really sure how to correctly pronounce Papatya, and I came up with my own pronunciation. Once I was in a doctor’s waiting room with my father, whose name was Sureyya, and he said, watch this, the nurse will give a long pause before she tries to say my name. He said this as if I had not been experiencing the same thing my entire life. I gave him quite a look. I recently learned that a number of library systems are having trouble with the accent that goes under the s in Ayse. So in various library catalogues I am listed as Aye Papatya Bucak. Aye! I find that pretty funny. As an adult, I’m a little more insistent that people learn my name. I don’t mind if they mispronounce it. I just want them to try. Ayse is actually one of the most common names in the world, in various spellings. In Turkish it means "she." Papatya means "daisy" and was the name of one of my mother’s students; it was a name that my mother could pronounce without much of an accent.
In your fantastic essay "An Address to My Fellow Faculty Who Have Asked Me to Speak About My Work," originally published in Brevity, you mention, among many other details of your writing life, a novel that you spent two years on and then had to retire to a drawer. As sad as a story like that is, I think most of us have half-finished, if fully loved, manuscripts just awaiting our return. Can you talk a little bit about what it's like to shelve a project into which you've put so much energy? Is there both positive and negative?
Oh, it is not awaiting my return. It’s properly buried. But that novel operates almost like a draft in the larger project that is my writing life as a whole. I learned a lot from doing it, and though it will never be its own finished product, it served as a bridge toward better writing. I learned so much about writing by taking on a longer, sustained project. My agent and editor both seem to approve of the fact that I already have a drawered novel. They seem to view it like a line on my vitae — a useful experience — which I find really encouraging. Also on the technical level, the stories in The Trojan War Museum are as layered and large as they are because that’s what I learned to do while writing the failed novel.
In the title story from the book, you give voice to some of the gods of the Greek pantheon. What's it like to put words in the mouths of Zeus, Apollo, Athena, etc.? Have you always been a big fan of myth? Where did that idea originate?
I recently found an elementary-school project that I did which was little vignettes of rewritten Greek myths. I have no memory of doing this, but it isn’t that surprising that I was always drawn to those stories. But also, I really like retellings. In some ways, I don’t even have to care that much about the source material. I love the fun of revamping that material. I like having those original building blocks to move around into new configurations. Originally I had the idea to write about Troy, which is in Turkey, but then the title came to me. And that title basically dictated what followed. If you are going to write about the Trojan War, the gods have to come into it. Giving them actual dialogue was admittedly a bit odd. Apollo developed into quite a sensitive soul. He felt like a younger brother, so somehow that felt right.
So much of this book shows a deep love for research — either that, or you should go on Jeopardy immediately. Is the research part of the creative process for you, or is it just the starting point? What did you spend the most time reading up on for the stories in this collection?
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I really enjoyed the research, and I basically live my life doing research and writing at the same time. Partly because the main way I learn about Turkey is via research, and that continually interests me. But also I followed my nose a lot…whatever struck me as interesting, I followed it. So I know quite a bit now about Greek sponge-diving, hidden paintings behind paintings, burial practices in the Civil War, the history of Topkapi Palace — you name it...though I have also already forgotten a lot of what I learned.
This is a book that's full of both violence and humor. Can you talk about the relationship of the two?
That honestly didn’t occur to me; it’s interesting that you point that out. I guess we need the humor to stay sane. But it worries me, the way beauty can make violence tolerable, or the way humor can make violence tolerable, the way art can make violence tolerable. Maybe we should stop making violence tolerable.
Ayse Papatya Bucak will read from The Trojan War Museum and Other Stories at the University of Colorado Denver's Tivoli Student Union, Room 640, at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, September 16.