“Narrative weaves through many aspects of our lives in ways we are often not even aware of,” says the Turkish-born writer Zeynep Özakat. Her first novel, which she is working on during her stay in Provincetown as a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center, is set in the imperial harem of Istanbul’s Topkapı Palace.
“The idea of a harem has been very sexualized, especially in the West, but the sultan’s harem in the Ottoman Empire wasn’t just about sex or about having a group of women from which he could pick every night,” explains Özakat. “It was much more complicated than that.”
Özakat, who writes in both English and Turkish, chose to set her novel in the 16th century during the peak of the Ottoman Empire and not long before its fall, she says, “because I am interested in the tension between what can be perceived as a ‘success’ for those in power and the cost of that ‘success’ for those who are not in power.” Özakat is particularly concerned with how power is wielded over women. “I have been pushing back against the patriarchy I’ve felt around me all my life,” she says.
The Topkapı Palace’s imperial harem comprised over 400 secluded chambers, hallways, and courtyards in the palace and was home to the sultan’s mother, wives, and children as well as a host of eunuchs, concubines, servants, and enslaved captives taken during various conquests. “It’s interesting that the harem was also a sort of boarding school for girls,” Özakat says. “Families would send their daughters to the harem as children to get an education so that they could later marry an officer or another man of high status.” The mother of the sultan, called the “valide sultan,” was “probably the most powerful woman in the harem, but power was always shifting,” adds Özakat. “It was really about who had the ear of the sultan.”
In the first chapter of Özakat’s novel-in-progress, the sultan’s taster, a young girl, is poisoned and dies. Her ghost haunts the remainder of the novel, questioning and correcting the story as it is told to the reader by an omniscient narrator. “I am interested in the language of government, the language of surveillance, and the language of propaganda,” Özakat says. “I am not only critiquing the Ottoman Empire, but also the idea of ‘empire’ in general and the way those in power frame our narratives,” she says. “The U.S., for example, is very much implicated in this as it is still an empire and neocolonial force.”
Özakat calls her project a “novel in protest,” meaning that it “protests against its own form.” “The ghost of the girl who dies in the harem doesn’t agree with the way the narrative is being presented to the reader,” explains Özakat. “She haunts both the characters in the novel and the novel itself by coming in and crossing out words where needed. Because she is dead, she can push back against any narrative she sees as propaganda and use her ghost powers in whatever way she sees fit.”
There is a long tradition in Turkish literature, Özakat says, “of weaving political commentary into narrative, from Nâzım Hikmet to Yaşar Kemal to Latife Tekin. I’m proud to be part of this culture of dissent.”
Born and raised in Istanbul, Özakat visited the Topkapı Palace many times growing up. “Any time we had a school trip, we always seemed to end up there,” she says. “I didn’t understand why I needed to see this historical place again and again, but I see the value in that repetition now. The past is very much a part of the present. With all those visits as a child, maybe I swallowed a seed and it grew.”
Özakat, who holds a B.A. in “narrating the self” from N.Y.U.’s School of Individualized Study and an M.F.A. in creative writing from Syracuse University, says that there is “an endless list” of things she misses about her home: “I miss the persimmon trees outside our window and the green parrots that come to feast on it. I miss the smell of walking under a fig tree in the summer. I miss the way my mother yells out of our window to the market. I miss the smell of roasting chestnuts in the winter.”
Most of Özakat’s writing contains an element of magic or fantasy, illuminating the political content and making it more accessible to her reader. “I think that if you’ve ever experienced a sense of real political turmoil, it can feel so destabilizing, almost as if the reality you know has been suspended,” she says. “Fantastical elements can feel emotionally truer sometimes. I seek magic in the world day to day, even in the most mundane things. I feel a lot of magic here in Provincetown. I was very sad one day, and I saw the most beautiful red bird in a tree. I whistled to it, and it sang back to me. I feel like this place is very haunted, too.”
To Özakat, “haunted” doesn’t mean “scary.” While she was studying for her M.F.A., she lived in a pink house that was haunted by a ghost who, like the character in her novel, was benevolent but liked to play pranks. This experience, Özakat says, as well as losing two close friends at a young age, played into her choice to create the ghost character, who is very young and seeking answers as to why she had to die.
“It has become a way for me to think about my friends, whom I miss,” she says, “to almost still talk to them and ask, ‘How would you experience this if you were a ghost?’ There’s been a huge comfort for me in believing that the people we love, who are not here anymore, are still around us.”
Footnotes in History
The event: A reading by Fine Arts Work Center writing fellows Zeynep Özakat and Laura Cresté
The time: Saturday, March 19 at 7 p.m.
The place: Stanley Kunitz Room, Fine Arts Work Center, 24 Pearl St., Provincetown; or online at fawc.org
The cost: Free