Looking From the Outside
With Selim Özdogan

Turkish-German author talks politics in the U.S. and Turkey

A prolific and cross-cultural Turkish-German author, Selim Özdogan recently made the temporary move to America, working in residence at the University of Michigan. While in the U.S., he made time this past week to fly to Austin to speak about his new novel, in which a Turkish-German teenager journeys to Istanbul to understand his roots.

Selim Özdogan (Photos by Katarina Brown)

Özdogan wrote most of the book in Istanbul after receiving a grant from the University of Cologne. In his application, he stated he wanted to “translate the Turkish satire to the German novel.” The result was Wieso Heimat, ich wohne zur Miete (translation: Why Home? I live through rent), a novel that deals intimately with the relationship between Turkey and Germany, the East and the West, and the racism and misunderstanding that has developed between the two. Despite the frequently tense subject matter, the novel is full of humor. The main character's complete naivete of identity politics, culture shock, and religion make him an endearing narrator no matter the language.

Özdogan's recent visit was to speak at UT-Austin on the novel and his own relationship to East and West, but the prize-winning author also talked to the Chronicle about writing, American politics, and that curious German idea of homeland, Heimat.

Austin Chronicle: Have you always known you wanted to be a writer?

Selim Özdogan: When I was in elementary, I remember thinking: If I don’t learn when to end a paragraph, I can't be a writer. But it was when I was 14 years old that I knew I definitely wanted to be an author. That was when I read Beautiful Losers, by Leonard Cohen. It was like a whole new world. I had read so many books before then, but when that book came along, it was like, "Why didn’t anybody tell me that literature was so much more than the books I had read until now?" Literature was something else after that.

AC: You’ve been writing in Michigan since August now. What do you think of America?

SÖ: I consider this "My Experience in America," but it’s not; it’s my experience in the bubble of the university town Ann Arbor. The first time I was in America, I was 20, and my friend and I bought a car and just drove around. I remember talking to people at gas stations. I haven’t seen that kind of people this time around. Maybe it’s because it’s 25 years later, but back then, I didn’t meet anybody who studied at the university or was faculty, so it’s just a different kind of experience.

AC: And what do you think of being in America during our election season?

SÖ: Because U.S. elections are a big thing all over Europe, you always see them from the outside. Now I get a different kind of perspective. Everybody is shocked and shaken, but the nation seemed divided even before that. It was true back when Bush was elected, and now the gap seems even bigger in a way. At the moment, it looks to me like nobody is trying to understand what happened and why it happened. If you want to change things, you should be able to understand that.

AC: Do you like the way that politics is organized in Germany better, with the multi-party system that’s set up?

SÖ: It looks better, but I think it’s basically the same. It’s basically a misunderstanding or a very deep-rooted misconception of what democracy is, where it’s all about elections. It’s becoming more and more about "I need to get votes," and not "I need to have content." We have to speak about what’s the meaning of being a human being in this society. What’s the meaning of being a minority? What’s the meaning of having a voice? Not just a voice for voting. That would be my understanding of democracy. But you don’t have that. The system in Germany at first sight looks better, but we don’t have that either.

AC: One of your characters in Wieso Heimat says, “Without satire, there’s no hope.” Do you believe that?

SÖ: Well, it sounds nice, but I don’t think it’s entirely true. It’s true to a certain extent, but it’s not that one-dimensional. Satire can die, and you still can have hope. It’s possible.

AC: There’s no one thing that indicates no hope, you think?

SÖ: No. History shows there’s always a chance. Looking from the outside in Turkey nowadays, it’s like there isn’t any hope left. People are in fear. People don’t speak that openly anymore, but I spoke to a guy when I was there in the summer, and he said, "This is such a chaotic country that anything can happen anytime. The current regime can break down. It is possible, because we are a chaotic country." And it’s true, in a way. It might be wishful thinking; it might be too optimistic, but it was a view I consider worth thinking about.

AC: How did you and your family react to the events in Turkey over the summer?

SÖ: Relatives and friends I still have there are in fear now. That really changed this summer. Before that, people involved in culture and at universities were afraid of the system, but ordinary folks weren’t. Then the coup attempt happened, and now everybody is afraid.

AC: Does it make you think about your kids and their future relationship with Turkey and identity?

SÖ: I didn’t want my kids to have my last name, because they’re growing up in Germany. My wife is German, so they have her last name. I give my children the opportunity to learn and speak Turkish, but they won’t be attached to that country. I’m not, in a way. Yeah, I am because I went there as a kid, and I speak the language, but I’m not that emotionally attached.

AC: The main character in the book, Krishna Mustafa, can also be emotionally distant. Rather, he doesn’t seem to get offended by anything, no matter how racist or unfair.

SÖ: He doesn’t really judge, and he doesn’t get upset, but he’s a book character. I don’t think - I can’t think - of anybody who would be like that in real life, but it works in a piece of fiction.

AC: So you wouldn’t say you’re like him at all?

SÖ: I learned while writing the book how to be a little like that, but only because I had a hard time writing from his perspective in the beginning. Once I got how he reacts, whenever I was about to get upset in my everyday life, I would ask myself, “Well, what would Krishna Mustafa do now?” That was a nice experience for me, because normally it’s the other way around. You as the writer influence your main character and put parts of you in there.

AC: What do you hope readers will take away from the novel?

SÖ: I want people to make contact with another person. And I don’t want to shape this contact, because that would be kind of teaching, and that’s not what I consider precious about literature. It’s just the mere contact you can have without judging. There are many different ways to read a book, and each one of them should be okay.

AC: Is Heimat a theme that comes up often in your life?

SÖ: No. It’s just a strange German word, with lots of myths and emotions to it. My example for this is always, if you define it as a limited space, where you feel secure, and you know your way around, and you have most of your social contacts, it would apply to your smartphone. And you wouldn’t call that home, but you would say that definition is right to some extent. How come? Heimat is such a mystical word, and people think too much of it. But maybe I’m talking like that because it doesn’t really work for me. Because it has to be a place where you really feel safe, and growing up in a place where you get othered doesn’t make you feel safe. The usual concept of Heimat doesn’t work for me, but if we define it as a way of making contact with people, with music, and with literature, it works.

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