By Women Writers Women Books
I grew up in Istanbul, The New York city of Turkey. Being immersed in the rich, layered history of my own town and in the imminent vibrancy of it at the time of my youth I didn’t pay much attention to Smyrna (Izmir), the third biggest city of Turkey. For me it was a nice seaside town which we passed by in our family car when we traveled for summer holiday.
I must have been 30 years old when I first (I say “first” because I read it countless times after that first round) read Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex. I was traveling the world with a backpack, and I found the book (or did it find me?) in a guesthouse in Vientiane, the melancholic capital of Laos. Having nothing else to do in the boiling hot of Southeast Asian afternoons I started Middlesex on my bed in the guesthouse which must have been a colonial mansion in the times of Indochina.
And where did I myself all of a sudden? Back in my own country! In Turkey. In Bursa, a town that is only a few hours’ drive from Istanbul. As I turned the pages the story moved on to Smyrna and all of a sudden I was in a new world that I never knew existed.
I didn’t leave the guesthouse that afternoon and kept reading until there was not enough light in my room. Back then electricity was sporadic in Laos and my room didn’t happen to have any. I took the book with me as I headed for Luang Prabang the next day. I was traveling on the backs of crowded pickup trucks with babies and chickens. Long and winding roads of Laos heading from south to north were making inexperienced travelers sick, but I was not there anymore!
I was in Smyrna. It was 1922. The month of September. I was with Desdemona and Lefty. I was in the quay of Smyrna. I was sharing a piece of bread with them. I was with the Greek villagers who were piled up at the waterfront of Smyrna waiting for ships from Greece to save them. They didn’t know ships were never going to arrive. I was sitting next to Desdemona who was sitting on a suitcase and smiling at Lefty. I saw her long black braids and I saw the fear in her eyes.
I kept on reading as the truck that took me from Vientiane to northern Laos kept winding around the mountains. I read the chapters on fire. Of course, I knew about the fire. It the “The Great Fire of Smyrna” which I learned at school. But this time the story was different. It was not what I read in the history books. There were civilian victims, children, old men and women drowning or burning in Smyrna. Desdemona and Lefty were trapped between the sea and the city that was burning and the flames were approaching to the people who were piled up on the shore, hundreds of thousands of them.
By the time I finished the Smyrna chapter, Middlesex was just beginning. The two main characters were saved from the Great Fire of Smyrna and made their way to Detroit, to the new world where the rest of the book unfolds.
I was deeply shaken by what I read. For it was the reversal of everything I knew. Turkish official history recognizes September 1922 as the emancipation of Smyrna from a three year long Greek occupation which had taken place from 1919 to 1922. History books in my country mention the atrocities of the Greeks against Turks but nothing was ever mentioned about the massacres against the Christian populations of Smyrna and whereabouts. I vaguely knew something about Smyrna being a “Greek town” during Ottoman times but that was long time ago.
The truth that I had known but never realized that I did, came back to me with Middlesex. There was once a beautiful harbor town called Smyrna. People of Smyrna spoke five languages and laughed a lot, four religions existed side by side and people enjoyed their rose smelling city. Smyrna was cosmopolitan, cultured, elegant. It was the pearl of the Levant. It was the Paris of the East. It was destroyed and killed by nationalism. It was reduced to a place where only one language is spoken and no more variety of religions living side of side. Here is what Eugenides describes it:
“And did I mention how in summer the streets of Smyrna were lined with baskets of rose petals? And how everyone in the city could speak French, Italian, Greek, Turkish, English, and Dutch? And did I tell you about the famous figs, brought in by camel caravan and dumped onto the ground, huge piles of pulpy fruit lying in the dirt, with dirty women steeping them in salt water and children squatting to defecate behind the clusters? Did I mention how the reek of the fig women mixed with pleasanter smells of almond trees, mimosa, laurel, and peach, and how everybody wore masks on Mardi Gras and had elaborate dinners on the decks of frigates?
I want to mention these things because they all happened in that city that was no place exactly, that was part of no country because it was all countries, and because now if you go there you’ll see modern high-rises, amnesiac boulevards, teeming sweatshops, a NATO headquarters, and a sign that says Izmir . . .” (Eugenides, Jeffrey. Middlesex: A Novel . Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.)
I kept traveling up North toward the Chinese border of Laos with Middlesex under my arm. As I turned its pages, I found myself dreaming about Smyrna, what it was once upon a time: Levantine ladies in lush gardens and Greek youth in small wooden boats under moonlight, Muslim neighborhoods with its narrow streets and the famous quay with cafes, theatres and its happy people. I wished there were more chapters of Smyrna in Middlesex but Smyrna was burned down to ashes and the story moved on just like life did.
Orhan Pamuk’s novel New Life begins with this famous sentence: “One day I read a book and my whole life changed.”
Same thing happened to me and the book was Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex.
Many years later when I was jutting down some notes for a new novel, Middlesex came back to me. At that time historical fiction was the last thing on my mind. And yet this is maybe one of the most amazing things of literary writing. You never know where it is going to take you. As you plan your chapters and plot, new characters pop out of nowhere. Even if you try not to follow them, they kept on “bugging” you in your dreams and daydreams until you let them guide the pen.
That is how Scheherazade came into my life. No, she was not the famous Scheherazade of the Arabian nights. She was just a distant aunt in another novel that I was working on. An old aunt who lives in a dilapidated mansion in Izmir. She didn’t speak and nobody knew her age. Yet she too, had a story to tell.
Then I remembered my wishful reading of Middlesex in the smoky mountain villages of Laos. I remembered how I wished there were more chapters of the old Smyrna before it was destroyed. Well then, it was my turn to create that world on paper. Because it was only through imagination, I was going to satisfy this deep desire. That is how I reconstructed the old Smyrna in a book. Through my writing and research, I managed to walk on its streets and went inside the houses and grand hotels, lived in it for a little while.
Then it was time to face the inevitable end. I had to destroy this beautiful town; I had to kill some of my characters because that is what history does to us. It was time to tell the loss. At that point all my characters started talking all at once. They all wanted to tell me the destruction of Smyrna, how war and politics took lives of loved ones and the harmony.
Some days my fingers got so tired from typing and inside my head the characters kept talking.
Other days I simply sat down and wept.
At the end from the ashes of Smyrna was born the Silence of Scheherazade as a distant relative of Middlesex, forever in gratitude for the inspiration.
Defne Suman was born in Istanbul and grew up on Prinkipo Island. She gained a Masters in sociology from the Bosphorus University then worked as a teacher in Thailand and Laos where she studied Far Eastern philosophy and mystic disciplines. She later continued her studies in Oregon and now lives in Athens with her husband. The Silence of Scheherazade was first published in Turkey and Greece in 2015 and is her English language debut.
Follow her on Twitter https://twitter.com/DefneSuman
Find out more about her on her website https://defnesuman.com/