On Thursday, September 22, Deputy News Editor Paulina Rodriguez and Staff Writer Frankie DeGiorgio attended a discussion with authors Elif Batuman and Mina Seçkin, hosted by the Sakip Sabanci Center for Turkish Studies at Columbia.
Although the first-day-of-fall weather was crisp and breezy, the small reception room in Buell Hall was packed tightly with guests eager to hear from the visiting authors about their newest novels.
To celebrate the start of the new school year, Columbia’s Sakip Sabanci Center for Turkish Studies welcomed Elif Batuman, bestselling author of The Idiot and a current Adjunct Associate Professor in Barnard’s English department, and Mina Seçkin (CC ’15, School of the Arts ’18), author of The Four Humors and managing editor of Apogee Journal.. Their discussion was moderated by Bruce Robbins, a professor in the English and Comparative Literature department at Columbia.
The event opened with both authors reading excerpts from their newest novels. As Batuman stepped up to the podium, the tiny room erupted in applause, and she began reading from the opening scene of her newest novel, Either/Or. Either/Or is the sequel to The Idiot, following the protagonist Selin as she begins her second year at Harvard University and explores her connection with her love interest Ivan, her own creative impulses, and her relationship with her family’s home country Turkey.
In The Four Humors, Seçkin’s debut novel, the main character Sibel grapples with similar questions of home and identity as she returns to Istanbul for the summer after her father’s sudden death, mediating her complicated feelings about his passing with an obsession with the four humors of ancient medicine and her attempts to use the humors to diagnose her persistent headaches.
After the reading, Robbins took the mic. His first question was about the extent to which both novels were addressing questions of nationality and politics. Seçkin’s quick retort was that, as she learned in Robbins’ class, all novels are political. “For all our loneliness, our lives are part of a bigger story,” she elaborated. The story of The Four Humors, Seçkin said, is not only a story of family but one of Turkey as well. Batuman chimed in by discussing whether Selin’s new Turkish love interest might also represent a negotiation along national lines for Selin’s relationship with Turkey. Both authors commented on Frederick Jamison’s idea of the postcolonial novel being doomed to act as a national allegory, questioning the extent to which their own novels are doomed in similar ways. The personal is political, Batuman reminded us.
The authors, both of whom identify as Turkish-American, shared their experiences writing about Turkey while negotiating their own space between the two cultures. Seçkin described her Turkish-American identity as one of the central tensions behind her writing, saying she is careful not to over-exotify Turkey in her writing. “I feel like if I’m explaining Turkishness too much, then I’m writing for the white American gaze,” explained Seçkin, “and I don’t want to do that.” For Batuman, addressing this tension, one which is explored extensively in Either/Or, involved accepting her experiences are not universal. “I had to become comfortable with my own experience being hyper-specific,” said Batuman, challenging the idea that a “great writer” must be able to inhabit many voices.
Both writers struggle with the phrase “coming-of-age,” which has been used to describe their novels. Batuman finds it both overtly gendered and quite annoying; Seçkin thinks it implies that there’s an ending to the process of aging and coming into your own, while to her this process is constant. Batuman noted that her own “coming-of-age” period was the one in which books meant the most to her: “When you’re 18, you read every book thinking about what kind of person you want to become.”
Seçkin and Batuman both lamented their newly complicated relationship with reading after going through the publishing process for their own novels. Seçkin described feeling “a bit ill” walking into a bookstore nowadays after herself becoming intimately familiar with the “horrors of the publishing industry.” But Batuman reassured Seçkin that her relationship with reading is slowly starting to return to normal, that she is becoming acquainted again with the familiar excitement of picking up a new book, and Seçkin should eventually expect to feel the same.
Robbins, who had been quietly listening to the writers address the audience questions, added one final thought at the end of the night, returning to Batuman’s reflection on reading coming-of-age books at age 18: “All you’re thinking is ‘What kind of person do I want to be?’ Well, being around writers makes me feel that way again.”
Counteracting the cold weather with a night of warm applause, Batuman and Seçkin’s panel discussion marked a bright start to what’s sure to be an exciting year for the Sakip Sabanci Center.
Event poster via Sakip Sabanci Center for Turkish Studies