5 Questions: Professor Orhan Pamuk's New Book Traces the Life of an Istanbul Migrant

October 19, 2015

Orhan Pamuk, the Robert Yik-Fong Tam Professor of the Humanities and professor of writing in the School of the Arts, is one of Turkey's most prominent novelists. Titles (in English) include The White CastleThe Black BookMy Name is RedSnowIstanbul: Memories of a City and The Museum of Innocence. His work has been translated into more than 40 languages, and he has received many international prizes, including honorary membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2006, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. His eighth novel, A Strangeness in My Mind, will be published on October 20.

Q. What is your latest book about?

A. My new novel chronicles the life of a street vendor, Mevlut Karatas, in Istanbul for more than 40 years, from 1969 to 2012. He is someone who migrated to town, helping his father who sold boza, which is like yogurt, a fermented Ottoman Turkish drink, in the streets. In my childhood, yogurt was not a bottled product. The story is an attempt to see the details of city life, especially street life—shops, kiosks, restaurants, the culture of eating, the way men and women live. I’m paying attention to the struggle of people who migrated to Istanbul from the 1960s onward, recording their fight to make ends meet. The novel has an experimental edge. You may call it a post-modernist novel, but it is perhaps one of my most accessible and easily readable novels.

Q. How did you research the book?

A. I pay a lot of attention to the individuality and strangeness of my character, Mevlut, who by class and culture is not close to me, but by imagination and originality of his way of thinking perhaps resembles me a bit. The challenge to write about a lower-class character and see the whole history of the town through his eyes is also problematical because the history of the novel tells us that lower-class characters are always treated to the margins, their individuality and their full humanity rarely addressed. I gave a lot of effort to realize and fully describe the humanity of my character. I did lots of interviews with street vendors who sold boza, people who cared about the tables, waited at the tables, people who did small, petty jobs in the streets of the town. The book is heavily based on one-on-one interviews and research, but, of course, as in all my novels, I’m proud about its literary qualities and the time I spent to write it, the research to explore its possibilities.

Related: ‘A Strangeness in My Mind,’ by Orhan Pamuk, The New York Times, Sunday Book Review, Oct 23, 2015

Q. Istanbul has figured prominently in many of your books. Why do you keep returning to the city in your work?

A. I have lived all my life in Istanbul and wrote about its humanity. I consider myself the writer of the city, even as I am approached internationally. At some point, I was politically pressured too much, I needed some free speech, so I accepted the job offer from Columbia. I’ve been teaching here joyfully for the last eight years (Pamuk was also a visiting scholar at Columbia for three years in the 1980s), and my literary professor friends are asking, “Orhan, you’re writing about Istanbul all your life. We expect that you will write about New York, too.” And I always say, “Don’t worry. I’m not going to write a campus novel and make fun of you.”

Q. Can you describe the process of working with a translator?

A. One of the ironies of life is that I teach my English Department students or my creative writing students from the School of the Arts in English, but I write my novels in Turkish. Later they are translated into English. Then I work with the translator, checking the nuances, the length of the sentences and the inner music of my prose. I like that. And when they are published in English, I am fully assured that they correspond to the Turkish original.

Q. What do you teach at Columbia?

A. I teach the history of the novel, comparative literature, what I call the art of the novel. I wrote some parts of A Strangeness in My Mind in various Columbia libraries. I like Avery and, especially, on Sunday afternoons I love to go to Butler. My character, Mevlut, developed in my imagination as I worked in those libraries. I have strong memories of imagining him in the back streets of Istanbul as I was sitting there, sometimes at the same long tables as my students. That’s a joy to think of Istanbul and my little, petty hero, whose individuality is so full, and I paid so much attention and labor to develop him so fully. And as I did that I was also sitting next to my students who were reading or preparing for my class.

— By Eve Glasberg

— Video by Columbia News Video Team