The Mentor Series: Preti Taneja and Maureen Freely
The sixth installment of The Mentor Series is a feast of knowledge. It includes a blood pact, lots of a fatherly wisdom, and a compelling reason for why you shouldn’t be impressed by your own good press. There is also a discussion on translation, disrupting Anglophone culture, Orhan Pamuk, and how women writers can best support women writers.
Maureen Freely grew up in Istanbul in the Cold War years of the 60s and 70s. She is the author of seven novels and three works of nonfiction, and acclaimed translator of five books by the Turkish Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk. Her translation with Alexander Dawe of The Time Regulation Institute by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar, was awarded the Modern Languages Association Lois Roth Award for a Translation of a Literary Work.
Freely is also President of English PEN, and Director of the Writing Programme at Warwick University, where she founded the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation. She served on the jury for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize.
She is interviewed by Preti Taneja, award-winning author of the debut novel We That Are Young. The book went through years of rejections before being published by the UK’s prestigious small press Galley Beggar Press in 2017. Then Sonny Mehta at AA Knopf read it and brought it out in US hardcover in August 2018. It was released in paperback by Vintage/Anchor Books this July.
– Monet Patrice Thomas, Interviews Editor
Preti Taneja: I first read your novel, The Life of the Party, when I was twenty, on my first trip to Istanbul. I found it in the flat I was staying in and read it nonstop over a week. When we met fifteen years later, you were the Director of the Writing Programme at Warwick University, and I was a new appointment. My first novella was in proof with a volunteer press, and I also had what I thought then was the unpublishable manuscript of We That Are Young. I asked you to read my writing and you agreed, but I didn’t ask you about that summer I was twenty, although I wanted to. I’ve always wondered what you were doing during that summer, when I was falling in love with your city while reading you, before we met.
Maureen Freely: I would have been there in Istanbul. Back in the 1990s, I had trouble making holiday plans. I was freelance and I couldn’t stop working, so I made a deal with my sister and brother-in-law who lived at Robert College, in that lovely faculty housing right there in the woods overlooking the Bosphorus. They would go to Greece for the summer and we would take over their house. And I would work there, and then we would go out in the evening and take the children with us.
Taneja: How did you come to live there?
Freely: It goes back to my mother and father meeting. My mother had been secretly listening to opera as a child and wanting to travel because she thought the rest of the world was more exciting, like opera is. She got my father to make a blood pact with her, that they would marry and as soon as he got his doctorate, he would take her around the world. By the time he got it, he was working at Project Matterhorn at Princeton and they had three children. He was commuting to NYU for his doctorate and he had heard of Robert College, and had no family money, so they thought the best way of going around the world would be for them to take this job in Istanbul; that would be the first place. It had been featured in National Geographic in September 1957 because the founder of National Geographic was born on that campus, in fact in the building where our primary school was. So, my father knew it was very beautiful and that is where we went.
Most of the Americans at Robert College came from the elite schools: Princeton, Harvard, Bowdoin in Maine. In the early years my parents suffered socially because of those attitudes. Because we had no television, I remember every single discussion. It was never an expatriate community of the kind that we think of. There were very strong friendships and links with the artist groups downtown—not all of them because of the Anglophone language issue—but lots of writers, artists, translators, poets. And then of course there was Hilary Sumner-Boyd who wrote Strolling Through Istanbul with my father. He was my Latin teacher simply because he took pity on us. He was this very famous character. He was very, very slight, a homosexual as we used to say. He started the Robert Academy Drama Society in the 50s, and there was this whole group of really distinguished Turkish actors who came out of that. Turkish drama was already very strong, but there was this generation who came and worked with him. Engin Cezzar, the actor who brought James Baldwin to Istanbul in 1961, was the most famous.
Taneja: It sounds like the bohemian ideal we dream of as writers. But does it really exist?
Freely: Well it never exists forever; those things are very, very fragile. The Robert College post-war gang was wild. From 1960 to 1970 it was one of those spaces where you had a huge amount of freedom. We gave the best parties and I went to all of them; sometimes they tried to send me to bed, but I wouldn’t go. I learned to teach, or be with other writers, younger and older—I realize I learned it there in Istanbul. And it was because nobody knew we were there. Istanbul was geopolitically so not important; if people knew about Istanbul you knew they were a spook.
Taneja: But it was your father, a physicist, who had the biggest influence on your writing and politics. He loomed large for you.
Freely: Maybe too large!
Taneja: When you talk about him as a teacher, he sounds serious, but also fun and wild. I think of you like that. How much did he influence you? Are you aware of that?
Freely: I think I became aware of it once I started teaching and we had some space. It wasn’t just him; it was all of them—they would go to a fish restaurant and we would go with them, and travel with them. We were always at the table. We were exploring the world.
In terms of the actual relationship I had with my father, I was the honorary son. It’s a terrible burden but he took me seriously. There were very few fathers who took their daughters seriously in those days. Or even now. It’s more than being driven; it’s about not being able to imagine doing anything else. When I used to bring my report card home and it would be all As and one A-minus and he would say, “What happened here?”
Does that sound familiar? [Laughs]
Taneja: Oh, this is so familiar to me. This expectation, not pressure, but this investment in the life of the mind that fathers can have. There’s a beautiful scene you write in Angry in Piraeus, your translation memoir, where you are a child, standing on a dock translating for your father, and everything you’re talking about clicks into focus in that moment. You live in that space between things. Again, that feels very familiar to me. It’s a state of being for multilingual young people, children of migrants.
Freely: Yes. I was always translating impossible things. I don’t feel at home anywhere else; it’s where I live. The other thing growing up in Istanbul left me with was this feeling that the West was throwing culture over its shoulder at us and I really resented it. That was the first time I had an ambition, that I wanted to be in the center of things. I want to be there because I’m here, outside.
Taneja: Let’s talk about translation, and your work with Orhan Pamuk.
Freely: In the 1990s I was doing cultural translation for Orhan. He would publish a book and I would do his interviews and readings. I loved the books, and he was polite, very polite, in those days.
Taneja: Then he was prosecuted by the Turkish authorities for “insulting Turkishness,” and you were the translator of his books. Bet that wasn’t easy for you.
Freely: When Orhan was being prosecuted, I started writing all these articles and he said, “I feel like this little tiny person inside your article; you’re turning me into one of your characters.”
He is a difficult person at the best of times, and then he’d say things like, “Everything would be perfect if only you just translated and nothing else.” And I’d say, “Thank you very much.” His life was in great danger in Turkey, and lots of important people were going to see him. It was unpleasant for him that I had a public voice, that I was at PEN campaigning for other writers, especially Elif Shafak. Five books was quite enough. For him and for me. What I learned, through all those years with him, was that being in the middle of one of those things, you lose your privacy altogether. The freedom to not write about politics is really important—to write away from all of those eyes is really important.
Taneja: How do we, as women writers, maintain that freedom and keep going?
Freely: Keep talking to each other, keep reading each other and most of all, keep laughing. There are various things we have to keep reminding ourselves of. I remind myself of them often: “Thank God I am not married to him.” That one is so good—every time things got bad with Orhan I would think: Thank God I’m not married to him.
Then my mother’s lessons come in: You never want to be a man, because it’s so hard to have a male ego. Male egos are like airbags, they inflate so much they can’t get through the door! And they deflate and you can’t even fix them—they are very expensive to repair!
In my generation, they were little kids of twenty-one, twenty-two; they wanted to believe in equality, but they were brought up as entitled, precious bastards. And also, we as women have been brought up not to put ourselves forward. So, the whole time it’s been this long negotiation and conversation, and the good guys do learn.
Finally, not all women are supportive. Or not all women are supportive all the time. And so, as I have gotten older it’s for me to set the tone. If I have younger women colleagues who are out there just for themselves because they are angry at the world, I try to model something else. I think there is much more room for mentoring among professional women; that is a real gap and lack in our culture. Because when we were starting out there was no older generation who had lived this way, and now we are here. It’s learning how to live.
The gendered way of getting ahead is thinking only of yourself, not: How do I fit in with everyone else? And just ram-rodding your way through so you get taken seriously. That is the wrong way to be a colleague. Generally, people will change into that entitled mode because they have been brutalized themselves. And that is how patriarchal practices work: I suffered so you will, too. It’s larger than people, so it’s hard to fight.
Another thing would be about how privilege operates—people do things for themselves not to be against other people, but just because they are entitled.
Finally, I want to realize how blind I am. Despite my unusual position growing up, I must keep reminding myself how blind I am to the privileges I get for being American, for being white, for being middle class. I have to remind myself because I have seen how blind my privileged male colleagues are. Not to beat myself up for those blindnesses, but to be aware of them in a neutral way. If you are aware of them in a neutral way, you might be able to do something about it. If you beat yourself up or point the finger, you are not going to be able to do anything about it.
Taneja: Let’s talk about how that empathy informs your work to disrupt Anglophone culture. That seems to me the project of your life.
Freely: Anglophone culture, like patriarchal practices, fits very few people, but it presumes to fit everybody. For example, speaking English. There are as many Englishes as there are English speakers. And you prove that in the disruptions you make in your own work.
Living in translation, living inside other people’s books and imaginations, has a profound effect at least on my imagination, and on the way you imagine things through words. It turns you into your own Houdini.
Taneja: What are you trying to escape from, and what are you trying to discover?
Freely: It’s something I learned about Turkey, and I saw in Poland as well: The history is false. There is a danger in going to touch it, but there cannot be anything more important. If you are writing, it’s to find out something that is true. It’s what writers are for. You want to explode lies. And the lies that are most important to explode are the ones you tell yourself. It is dangerous to open up these things. You cannot know your history. You can try. But what does it mean to know your history? To think you know it is a curse.
Taneja: Aren’t you concerned, not only about the harm you might do yourself, but of state censorship, or violence?
Freely: I go back to my father then. He never respected the taboos; he’d say, “Yes, go for it, go for it—we will do soft time in jail together.”
When the prosecutions were happening, my mother would say, “I don’t know what this has to do with us.” And I’d say, “It has everything to do with us: those writers were educated in our schools to stand up like that.”
My father would wait until she had left and say, “Do what you have to do.”
Taneja: You say that to me when I want to take risks in my writing: Do what you have to do. But then, after the joy, monsters are provoked; critical and literary idols fall. You gave me some advice before my book was published. Firstly, don’t read reviews. Secondly, if you believe the praise, you have to believe the criticism.
Freely: And vice versa. There are too many people out there who really believe their own good press. If they do, they get hit later on. And if they don’t, they are just insufferable people, and good luck to them!
Taneja: You said if you do read them, remember they always say more about the reviewer than the book or the writer. It’s such good advice, but if it is true, what is the point of criticism?
Freely: The point of reviewing for me was to find things that might have gotten lost otherwise, and it’s the same in literary prizes. It’s just one opinion, backed up by my degrees, my reading, my taste. But I’m not God. The problem is that there is not enough fluidity. People have these sinecures. People read the New York Times and New York Times Book Review as if it’s the Bible. And that is dumb. There’s just one set of gatekeepers and that is not healthy. You come to understand that the public space is incredibly negotiated. If there is going to be an opportunity for privilege or unfairness it is going to play itself out in that literary space as it does elsewhere. So, if you figure that out, you can figure out ways through.
Taneja: After the long journey it took, I found being published for the first time incredibly intense. But maybe it only affects you that way once.
Freely: But the thing with the second book is that publishers want the same thing as the first. Which is why you shouldn’t be out there alone; you should have your friends and mentors. Unless they are your wonderful UK publisher, Galley Beggar Press—where indie presses can buy according to their taste—or AA Knopf, where an editor like Sonny Mehta can buy what he wants. Otherwise, publishers want the same thing. And how do you, as a writer keep from doing that? How do you refuse that? How do you keep a consistency of voice and vision so you create something different and still yours?
In your case, what you are setting out to do is so very different. I think that will make it easier for you. Because you are going to define your terms from the very beginning. Again, like your approach with We That Are Young, it’s a story that hasn’t been told. So if crashing through those barriers is what is consistent, what you don’t want to get in the way is all these hard-won lessons about public space. Your privacy. I’m talking about what Orhan needed, what I needed. You need some kind of place where you can do all of this work without the noise, just get rid of it. It will be waiting for you when the time comes. The imagination cannot operate without some kind of protection.
Taneja: What you’re talking about is how we think of “success.”
Freely: When you go on sales and mainstream, the work has to be taken seriously by an established, middle class, white audience. And if you want to circumvent that, just ignore them. They will come looking, but if they don’t it might be better. My background in Istanbul tells me it’s not always a bad thing if no one knows where you are, and if there are enough of you to do stuff. I think it’s great that UK independent publishers are doing so much now; I don’t know how many will survive but that is the nature of things. They are changing the picture by sticking together.
Photograph of Maureen Freely by Renate Schmidgall. Photograph of Preti Taneja by Ben Gold.
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