I used to live in Istanbul on a street called Kazangu. In Turkish the word means “someone who makes cauldrons,” although there was no one around who quite fit this description. I was writing my new novel there, writing and sulking. The street was quite narrow and so steep that whenever it rained more than three inches, the water would accumulate up the hill and come down in a crazy gush. On such days it was a river more than a street and we the residents were like passengers on a boat. This seemed not like a place to settle down, but only to sojourn for a while.
The history of the street seemed to confirm this. Once this place had been a cosmopolitan hub of cultures and religions: Jews, Greeks, Armenians, Levantines, and Muslims of every sect had lived here side by side. Over the years, not feeling at home anymore, most of the non-Muslim population had left. But a few of them had stayed. And then in the early 1970s, a different cluster of people had moved in: transvestites, transsexuals, and also prostitutes. They had built a life here until they were driven out by the local authorities. But a few of them had remained. So when I moved into the street, one of my good neighbors was an old Greek lady in the opposite building, and the other was a middle-aged transvestite downstairs. Both of them were like relics to me, remnants of the past.
This is where I was in the summer of 1999, writing a novel called The Gaze. The story was different than anything I had imagined before, far more surreal. One of the main characters was an extremely overweight and tall woman and the other was a dwarf. They were lovers. But because they made such an impossible couple in the eyes of other people, they were also outcasts running from the gaze of society. So this was the story I was working on—but I had hit a snag with the plot, and the characters had rebelled against me. Even the side characters were not taking me seriously anymore. Naturally, I was depressed. The novel was sucking me in little by little. It seemed that I had only two choices: I would either put the book aside and take refuge in the real world, or I would put the real world aside, plunge deeper into the story, and start again. I chose the latter. I decided neither to leave my flat nor to let anyone in until I had finished the first draft.
My flat was tiny. It had one bedroom and a kitchen with a ceiling so low that if you were to make pancakes, for instance, you could not possibly toss them up into the air. The bathroom was so narrow that when you took a shower, the steam turned into a fog that wouldn’t dissolve for hours. But in one corner of the living room, if you put a stool in front of the window and stepped on it and craned your head in the right direction, you could, on a bright sunny day, glimpse the sea. You could watch boats sailing across the Bosphorus. So it was “a flat with a view,” as a real estate agent had once told me. This is where I decided to quarantine myself.
I should probably tell you that I am a rather restless person. Even when I go out with friends to a restaurant, I need to change seats a few times during dinner. And I don’t like silence. I usually write my books outside in noisy, crowded cafés, train stations, airports—always on the move. So the decision to confine myself in this little space was out of character. Nonetheless, I was determined. I called my mother, my close friends, and my boyfriend, and I told them, as calmly and as confidently as I could manage, that I wouldn’t be reachable for the next days, weeks, perhaps months. They asked me if I had lost my mind, and I said, “Look, everything is okay, but I need to make this sacrifice for my art.” And I told them not to call me unless I called them first. My mother started to cry and told me to get married and have kids and live a normal life. I said I didn’t have time for that, I had a book to finish for God’s sake. Now, to their credit, they all respected my decision and agreed not to call, not to come, not even to send a postcard. Thus satisfied, I unplugged the phone, pulled the curtains, and turned the radio up.
That summer, my favorite rock station used to play Santana at least ten times a day, particularly “Corazón Espinado” (“Pierced Heart”), and that became my personal anthem in this sublime endeavor. But I wasn’t completely alone. I had a smoky gray cat named Smoky. She curled up on my desk and watched me carefully, eyes narrowed to slits, as if she knew things that I wasn’t aware of. And in this state, I began to write the book from the very beginning.
The first day went well. I was quite productive and elated. The second day: not bad. By the end of the third day, I was having migraines and panic attacks, and the need to go out for a walk was overwhelming. By the end of the first week I had finished seventy-five pages as well as all the food in the fridge, which wasn’t a lot to begin with. I was feeding on salty pretzels and sunflower seeds—which I was okay with, really, as long as I had water and coffee. But, being a fussier creature, my cat was starving.
Across from the house was a little grocery store. The owner, a grumpy man, never talked to marginals and refused to sell alcohol or any newspaper or magazine he suspected of being even slightly liberal. Every day when he went to mosque, he would put a huge sign on his door as if he wanted the whole world to see where he was. Unlike his wife, who seemed privately spiritual to me, this man was publicly religious. Now, as I said, there was no food left in the kitchen, my cat was desperate, but I had made an oath. And also by now I had the psychology of a vampire. I dreaded daylight. I had not taken a bath in ten days. My hair had changed color. It was all oily and tangled. But most important, I didn’t want to break my promise just to go to the conservative grocer across the street.
Nowadays, of course, we have the Internet and can shop without going anywhere. Back then, the people of Istanbul had found other techniques. As those of you who’ve visited the city know, lots of apartment blocks have little shops at the entrance level. People who live on upper floors tie a string to a basket and lower it down. The shopkeeper puts the required items inside and you just pull it up. A substantial amount of shopping in the city is done in this way. But my grocery store was across the street, so I asked help from my Greek neighbor in the building opposite, and together we extended a laundry line between our windows. I sent her a basket, which she lowered down. Through this complicated mechanism, I was able to reach the grumpy grocer with a note that said: “Bread, brown, please. Cheese, feta, please. Cat food, with tuna, please. And a pack of beer, please.” And it worked seamlessly. The basket came back to me, with everything in it except the beer. No problem. My spirits raised, I renewed my oath never to go out until I had finished my book.
At three o’clock the next morning, I woke up and the whole world was shaking—the walls, the ceiling, the floor. Having had no experience with earthquakes, I was caught unprepared, like millions of others. I grabbed my manuscript and my cat, in that order, and ran out of the building. What I saw out there stopped me in my tracks. The conservative grocer sat on the sidewalk next to the transvestite, who was sobbing; lines of mascara streaked her face. I watched him open a pack of cigarettes and offer one to her. I sat next to them. That night my Greek neighbor, my transvestite neighbor, the conservative grocer and his wife, me and Smoky, we spent the night together. My cat was extremely nervous—as if she knew that more than eight thousand people had lost their lives.
Later on, as we listened to the radio together and realized the magnitude of the tragedy, I looked at the manuscript in my hands, and it seemed small, trivial. What difference did it make whether I finished this chapter, whether I found a twist in the plot? That night, in the face of death, we were all temporary brothers and temporary sisters. But the next day all of us would go our own ways. The grocer would stop talking to the transvestite and the same old prejudices would reemerge. I was sure that Kazangu Street would be back to normal but I wasn’t that sure that I could go back to my novel. It wasn’t writer’s block exactly, it was something like a loss of faith.
For me, to this day, one of the toughest dilemmas is to have the faith—to believe that stories matter, that words connect us across boundaries—and to ignore the sneaky suspicion that all art is in vain in the face of larger, darker world events. Between this optimism and pessimism, my heart is a pendulum: It goes back and forth, back and forth. In the weeks after the earthquake, I joined volunteers who were collecting blankets and food for the survivors. By the end of the summer, I was back in my flat again, writing again, and through the open window, I heard a thud. Someone had sent a basket to me across the laundry line and in it were two cans of beer. I glanced at the opposite building to thank my Greek neighbor, but to my surprise, the conservative grocer had sent them. He waved at me, a tired smile on his face. I waved back. And I understood that something remained of the experience we had shared. Perhaps this is what we writers want to achieve with our stories—something to remain, a spontaneous bonding, a speck of empathy, and also the possibility of change.