In her debut book, the graphic memoir Dare to Disappoint: Growing up in Turkey, Özge Samanci writes with unflinching honesty and humor about her childhood in a country under a military government, torn between Muslim fundamentalism and more Western, even secular, values. Though many aspects of this will be new and eye-opening to American readers, Samanci gracefully finds the universal elements in her story, packed with details and vivid memories. The starred Kirkus review calls it “a bright, perceptive bildungsroman with a distinctive setting.”
Samanci is also an assistant professor at Northwestern University. “I sometimes drag my feet to class,” she tells me, “and that same day a student comes up with an assignment that brings tears to my eyes with its articulation, cleverness, and elegance. Then I am filled with motivation to make art and teach.” It took her 10 years to create this memoir. (“I was afraid of making this book. It was perfect in my mind. I did not want to try and ruin it. But the idea was burning in me.”) In 2006, she created an online comics journal, Ordinary Things, and filled it with memories. She experimented with mixing drawings and collage, working with watercolor, acrylic, and three-dimensional materials. That journal was the very beginning of Dare to Disappoint, published just last month.
I talked to her via email about what it was like to mine memories both painful and exhilarating.
What made you decide to do a memoir for your first book?
The emergence of this book is a long story.
I don’t like store-bought presents. Fifteen years ago, I was living in Istanbul and working as a comics artist in a weekly humor magazine. For the birthday of my friend Tuna, I filled an entire notebook with my childhood anecdotes and entitled the story, Mothers and Daughters. I drew my anecdotes with quick drawings. It took one full week for me to create this present. That notebook became popular among our circle of friends. Friends of friends were photocopying it and giving it to others. Sometimes a person was arriving to a party and running to me, giving me a big hug, and saying: “I just read your notebook! I have so much to tell you about my childhood.”
That notebook made me aware of the power of lived stories. The notebook was making people remember their own past. Since then, I have wanted to create a graphic memoir, and I carried this idea in my mind for 10 years until I found time to pitch this book. Then it took five more years to produce Dare to Disappoint.
Living with a book in my mind that long was painful. It was like dragging a heavy suitcase wherever you go.
Was is emotionally trying to create a book that documented your childhood and teen years?
I like remembering the past. It is like watching a movie. There is nothing you can do to change it. In most cases, emotions attached to past events are not as intense in the present. I can look at the past with humor and some wisdom. It is hard to have humor and wisdom in the moment of a crisis. Dealing with distant memories was not usually painful for me, with the exception of one or two traumatic parts. Working on them gave me nightmares. As I reached forgotten parts, memories became alive, and I wished to face some of the characters from the past with the fearlessness that I possess today.Perhaps the book does that.
For me, there were challenges other than remembering. Making the cultural details understandable for the readers who are not familiar with Turkish culture—that killed me! I had to explain historical figures, like Atatürk, Özal, Kenan Evren; the workings of a complex and dysfunctional education system; the role of the military in Turkey; the impact of a military coup; etc. What makes this story enchanting and challenging is the same thing: it is taking place in another culture. It was hard to inject this factual information without making the story didactic.
Another challenge was that, obviously, my story involves people whom I love and respect. I am revealing details from their lives, too. While something may be totally okay with me to share, it may upset my family or my friends. I checked this as much as I could while making the book. I am going to deal with the heartbreaks if they happen.
Do you remember your childhood vividly? Or did it take work to recall details?
Oh, yes! Everyone has a hidden treasure, and remembering the far past is mine. I can travel past and stay there for hours. I never get bored. If I am trapped somewhere without a book, I stare at the wall and take a trip to my past for hours. If there is a pen and pencil, it is even better. Most of my remembering happens while talking to people. As I tell a story or as I listen to their lived anecdotes, I remember more.
Some days I remember a detail, such as my first artistic photo shoot, or the forbidden fruit tree in the yard, or the lion-shaped doorbell of neighbors (its eyes glowed in the dark). Sometimes these memories are something that I had forgotten for 30 years, and that newly-mined memory makes me happy for the whole day. I have a Google document where I write the titles of memories as I remember them.
I like how you don't flinch from the realistic aspects of some of the violence in your life, growing up in Turkey (i.e., the moment with the government SWAT team and Mr. Atif). Can you talk about the importance of showing those harsh, more graphic realities?
Once my friend Övgü was invited to Harvard University as a panelist to talk about the films of Zeki Demirkubuz, a famous film director from Turkey. One of the audience members asked: why is every character in Demirkubuz’s films smoking? Övgü, who used to be a smoker herself, replied: in Turkey, people smoke.
To me, it is impossible to tell a story that takes place in Turkey without including the violence. There is so much violence in traffic; there is so much violence toward women; there is so much violence in the history; and there is so much violence, still, in the current day. We don’t even hear everything happening in the east of Turkey, populated with Kurdish people. Friends living in the east of Turkey report to us all kinds of state violence, which does not receive media attention. Most of the violence is perpetrated by the state on its citizens. In 2013, during Gezi Park protests, 11 people died; more than 8,000 people were injured, many of them critically; 14 people lost their eyes because of tear eye canisters and rubber bullets; about 200 people received head and brain traumas. This is how the Turkish government handles a democratic protest.
I was living in the States, 10 or 12 years ago, and I was visiting Istanbul. I was at my friend’s apartment. We heard an explosion in the distance. My friend and his girlfriend said, that was a bomb. We followed the news. Yes, it was a bomb. There were so many bombings on those days in Taksim neighborhoods, and they became familiar with the sound of bombs. It is so absurd to be familiar with the sound of a bomb. They [referred to] it, like: this is rain, this is a plane, this is a bomb. Of course, the level of violence in Turkey is not like that in Iran where an Islamic revolution took over. It is not like Syria, where people are forced to live in the midst of war or forced to leave their country. On the other hand, Turkey is not as stable as Scandinavia, Canada, or the United States.
What's next for you?
I want to work on a new book, but the publicity for Dare to Disappoint is taking time. An interview published in Turkey went viral, and people there showed enthusiasm for Dare to Disappoint. I received so many emails from people who went through the same troubles. I continue giving interviews to Turkish and U.S. media. I am enjoying watching the ripples it creates.
I have three ideas for the next book. I have not yet decided which one to chase. One option is to focus on the surreal boarding science high school I attended. I used this high school in two chapters in Dare to Disappoint. There were very few women. It was a politically charged place, so the relationships among students and teachers were complex. The second concept is about binaries. It is a collection of lived anecdotes about oppositions. It is not a chronological story.
Lastly, I have never written fiction. I want to explore that at some point. It would be autobiofictionography, a term created by Lynda Barry.
DARE TO DISAPPOINT: GROWING UP IN TURKEY. Copyright © 2015 by Özge Samanci. Published by Margaret Ferguson Books/Farrar Straus Giroux, New York. Illustration used by permission of Özge Samanci.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.