MEMOIR - INTERVIEW - Anatolian Days & Nights:
ANGIE BRENNER Embraces the Writing Life
Angie Brenner sets a tulip-shaped glass of amber-colored Turkish tea and a plate of hazelnut baklava before a visitor and settles into a wicker chair. Beyond her dining room window, her neighbor's apple orchard is in bloom sending pale pink petals adrift in the breeze. Her affable dog, Sam, a shepherd mix whom she rescued from the San Diego streets curls up on her day bed and falls asleep.
It's hard to imagine a more domestic scene. But take a minute to admire Brenner's collection of rugs and kilims gathered from across Turkey, or an intricately beaded necklace she bought in the Masai Mara of East Africa, or perhaps a gorgeous image of Istanbul's Blue Mosque painted by her friend, the artist James Hubbell. Peruse her well-tended collection of books, many of them devoted to travel and two shelves devoted to her years of research about Turkey, and you begin to glimpse the depth and breadth of her life.
Along with Joy E. Stocke, Wild River Review's Editor in Chief, Brenner, WRR's West Coast Editor, embarked on a ten-year journey through Turkey, one in which they reached all of Turkey's borders and Brenner realized a lifelong dream to see the famed Dervishes of Konya, whirl.
"I'm one of five children," says Brenner, who was born and raised in Michigan; and when my siblings and I would get a bit rambunctious, my mom would say, 'Slow down, you're acting like Whirling Dervishes.' That stuck with me. When I learned that the famous poet and mystic, Jelaluddin Rumi, first turned - as the Sufis call whirling - in Central Anatolia, something inside me said, Go."
Angie Brenner and Joy E. Stocke in Central Anatolia
WRR: The title of your book, Anatolian Days and Nights, states that you have a “love affair” with Turkey, and it shows in the care and craftsmanship of the memoir. Your story unfolds in alternating chapters. Did you decide beforehand who would write what chapter, or did you freely write down your own stories and combine them?
Angie Brenner: There were so many stories that we wanted to share with readers about this amazing country and to showcase the hospitality so ingrained in Turkish culture. We originally thought of writing a series of vignettes. From the beginning some stories were a favorite of one or the other. Finding our “voice” was a long and often painful process. We were told by “experts” that a two-voice book would not work, so we spent countless hours trying to force the stories into the collective ‘we’ voice and wrote several chapters in a third-person voice - which neither of us could even stand to re-read! We tried to “kill off” one of us and let the other take over the whole narrative, but that didn’t feel right either.
By the time we realized that our stories were best told as a complete narrative written in alternate voices, it was easy to decide which chapter each of us would take on. The chapter outline came fairly easy, then it was a matter of each of us writing our first draft and letting the other edit. The last chapter worried us the most. A pet-peeve of mine is to read a wonderful book only to get to the last chapter and realize that the author, so absorbed in the story, just didn’t now how or when to end the book. We always saw this book as a labyrinth that spooled out from a central story and back, so we knew the we needed to start and end at the pension. Once the book was almost complete, the last chapter flowed effortlessly. We used to laugh when we heard authors say how something “wrote itself” as it really is a long, often boring process, yet this is how the last chapter came about. It was our gift.
WRR: You owned an independent bookstore devoted to travel for many years. Why did you close it and what were the challenges and rewards?
Brenner: I’ll start with the rewards as there were many. Most of my closest friends today are a result of the store, all people who love books and travel. Also, there was a tremendous amount of satisfaction in creating a beautiful place where people could be transported to far away places just by entering the shop.
The biggest challenge, like most small retail businesses, was how to create enough sales to pay the rent. I had great products and employees, and was even in the right location, but ultimately I had to close a viable store because the landlord kept raising the rent. Whether you are selling hairbrushes or travel books, its all retail in the end and I couldn’t see myself staying on and going further down the economic rabbit hole. Also, I needed to follow my writing dream as well. No regrets.
WRR: You say that when you closed your bookstore, one of your dreams was to become a writer. You've become one. What do you recommend to anyone wishing to embrace the writing life?
Brenner: Run for the hills! You truly have to want to do it. You must have something inside of you - stories, life events, ideas - that need to come out; and you have to be willing to devote yourself to the craft of writing. Giving up is not an option. I would recommend that a person start by simply writing for themselves. Don’t try to edit the work too soon. There is plenty of time for revision. And you must embrace the revision process. I remember something Annie Lamott said in a workshop: “Write really shitty first drafts.”
Just get something on the page.
WRR: You also draw. How is that process different from writing?
Brenner: If writing is the main course, drawing is the dessert. For me, an untrained artist, drawing comes from a different place. Starting this process late in life (only 3 years ago), I let go of worrying about “what something should be” and just did it for pleasure. I would make sketches and show them to friends. I made a lot of sketches when Joy and I were in Turkey and would show them to her. She would say, "Do more. I love these." So you could say she was my first fan since she insisted we use the drawings in our book.
Angie Brenner in Cyprus
WRR: Was it difficult collaborating on a book-length work when Joy lives on the East Coast and you live on the West Coast?
Brenner: We spent a lot of time and money ferrying between California, New Jersey, and Turkey, but we are disciplined and goal-oriented, so we never thought of giving up. Both of us had other full-time work and always had to negotiate time to meet face to face, which was important especially during the final edits.
Joy and I are blessed to live in beauty. I live in a rural mountain community near San Diego. Joy lives in a rolling, gentle landscape above the Delaware River in New Jersey near an early 18th century church. But Joy has longed to see "my" Yosemite, and she has promised to take me to see the Delaware Water Gap near her house, or we'll spend a couple of days playing in New York City, which I love. The truth is that we spend most of our time inside our homes with our computers, research books, and endless cups of tea or glasses of wine. Joy’s husband Fred (our Muse) would leave us to our writing at 7 a.m. and arrive home at 7 p.m., only to find us in our pajamas still writing!
After long days, we’d decompress by cooking Turkish food and reviewing our work-in-progress. Often, it was at this time when some problem would be resolved. That couldn’t happen by telephone.
WRR: The book sheds much light on Turkey, which is a country that I feel most Americans know little about. When you were writing, did you feel pressured to honor all the aspects in order to enlighten readers who may be ignorant of that culture?
Brenner: The fact is, we wrote this book BECAUSE most Americans we talked with only saw Turkey as a dangerous place. It was what I was told before I even traveled there. I still wonder how so many people - who have never stepped foot in the country themselves - could have this opinion. Whether is was about Turkey’s history or our own stories, it was of utmost importance to us, and I might add imperative, that we "get it right."
WRR: Could you talk a little bit about Habib whom you met in Kalkan? Many women and men have relationships in foreign countries, but in Habib's case even though your relationship with him didn't work out, you became a part of his extended family and remained good friends with his niece Ebru.
Brenner: While Habib wasn’t what I’d call ‘marriage’ material, he was connected to me on a deep level that I can’t quite explain. The first time I saw him I knew that we would be together. Later, he confessed that he had the same feeling. When our friend Wendy told him that I would be coming to help run her pension, he said, he simply knew he was destined to meet me. That kind of connection has only happened twice in my life, and neither time was it meant to be a permanent relationship. Habib and I had a pact, however, that when we turned seventy, and if we were both free, we’d get married. It was silly, but sort of kept us connected. His niece Ebru would let me know from time to time what was happening in his life, but we never saw each other again after the last meeting in Istanbul, which I write about in the book.
WRR: You meet a lot of people in your travels and keep in contact with them, one of whom is a man named “Bekir.” Have you let him read the book? How do you think the book will be received in Turkey as opposed to America, if you anticipate any differences at all?
Brenner: Bekir was the first person who phoned Joy on 9/11 to ask about her safety and offer his concerns for both of us and America. While he’s not read the book, we think he will be touched to see how important his friendship has been to us. He and our friend Ebru have been our constant friends no matter how little we have seen them during the past few years. From the comments we’ve already received from Turkish friends who have read the book, including the acclaimed author Elif Shafak and her male assistant Ughur, we believe that Bekir will be excited and touched to learn how much we understand and love his country.
WRR: You dedicate the book to your nephew Jackson. Why?
Brenner: I have several extremely talented nieces and nephews but Jackson is the only 17-year-old I know who still adores buying hardcover books. That alone, I think, deserves a dedication. He’s expressive in imagination and writing, and inspires me to encourage other young writing talent.
WRR: The book spans a time period of a little more than a decade. Because you have such a long-standing relationship with Turkey and its people, was it hard to craft your experiences into single chapters? In other words, what was your editing process? Is there any particular story that you wanted to include in the book, but ultimately had to cut out?
Brenner: Oh how difficult to let our favorite “babies” go! Joy has explained the writing and editing process very well below in her conversation with you. I’ll only add how painful it was to exclude scenes we felt so close to. We’ve learned through this process that writing is not about chronicling every fact - that is the job of journalists - but to be able to take readers to another place. And you simply cannot do this without editing with a scalpel. It was a tough balancing act of blending not only our voices but every aspect of history, politics, storylines to entertain as well as enlighten readers. We still enjoy reading every story that made the final cut.
WRR: In many ways, I felt that you and Joy have crafted a memoir that shares narrative ties with books like Eat, Pray, Love and Under the Tuscan Sun. But your book goes a step further in that it addresses concerns about Turkey and America’s perceptions about a secular Muslim Country.
For instance, you wrote a chapter about the moment you learned of the 9/11 attacks. After the attacks, many Americans developed a fear of travel and voiced concern over Turkey’s close proximity to Iraq. How important was it for you to include this chapter?
Brenner: We fought against the idea of writing as female victims. We wanted to change that paradigm. But travel does change the way you think and feel, and writing the stories is a wonderful way to make sense of profound experience. You have to get to the emotional truth, and it often takes many drafts to get there.
The 9/11 chapter was not originally in our plan, but ultimately we believed it was important to show this connection, not only with us but with the people of Turkey and our friends. Like most of the world sentiment after 9/11, people in Turkey were outraged by the attacks. In my opinion, Turkey is not any more or less religiously fanatical then the U.S. Joy and I have found that in Turkey, we've been accepted for who we are, not by our country’s leader of the moment.
WRR: For me, one of the most moving sections in the book was about KAMER, the women’s organization against recem, honor killings. I was wondering if you could speak about that experience and what exactly it meant to you as both a writer and a woman.
Brenner: It is a shocking subject, unbelievable to comprehend - one of the shadow sides of a culture. Yet, it is a reality for some uneducated, tribal families. When I first read about the KAMER organization, I knew we had to go there and talk to these women. You cannot imagine how strong these women are, how they have devoted their lives to create change. Their actions have saved lives and caused the government to enforce laws against such horrific customs. Our friend Mustafa and his brother were impressed by the women’s organization, but we didn’t talk about this with them afterward. It was their chance to make their own changes, maybe in the way they might influence their own children.
WRR: Throughout your travels, there have been certain events (particularly religious) where you and Joy had to wear headscarves. In America, there seems to be a stigma against the practice of Muslim women wearing headscarves. Were there ever any reservations on your part about donning the headscarf? Why or why not?
Brenner: I personally don’t like wearing a headscarf, anywhere, but as Joy has said, when we travel out of respect we follow the customs of our host country. So I would never go into a mosque without covering my head and removing my shoes.
The headscarf is a very powerful symbol in Turkey and not easily understood by those of us who have grown up in a western culture. In Turkey, it is still illegal for women in government institutions - which are most universities, hospitals, and political positions - to wear a headscarf.
Our secular Turkish friends who were college students in the 60s and 70s regard the wearing of a headscarf as anathema to the concept of Turkey as a modern nation, as if the women who wear headscarves have no respect for their own freedom and intelligence. Our friends see wearing headscarves as backward thinking.
On the other hand, doesn’t true democracy allow for this personal freedom? It is an easy argument from our point of view, but we know how the symbol of a headscarf can creep into the consciousness of a culture and become a political flashpoint. That is the fear. Secular Turkey is hanging on by its hands and there is too much at stake to let religion be the rule of law.
WRR: There are many references to goddesses in this book and even in the title. What does the role of the goddess play in your own life and how did this affect you in your travels throughout Turkey?
Brenner: Joy’s studies of the divinity of women in the form of the goddess in various cultures and religions intrigued me as I never quite understood why women held a lesser role in our own society than men. I mean, after all, aren’t we the ones who can grow a life inside of us? That seems like an exalted position from my vantage point. References to the mother goddess are everywhere in Turkey, and through our travels it became clear that the rise of the patriarchy had its seeds in greater Mesopotamia, part of which is in Southeastern Turkey. We found that under old mosques, there were remnants of Christian churches built inside caves, and in those caves we found fresh-water springs that were once dedicated to the goddess. It became clear that there is a story about our history as spiritual beings that has not been told.
WRR: One of the biggest pleasures in reading your book was to share in your friendship with Joy. You make a strong case for women traveling together.
Angie: Most of the time we feel like modern day Lucy and Ethels from the old I Love Lucy show! But we often wonder how different our lives would be if everything had worked out well when we first met at the pension. It was through adversity that our friendship deepened. Joy has this wonderful way of diffusing conflicts on the road by giving in. We will be discussing whether or not to do something or go somewhere, and if I have a strong opinion, she'll say, “Whatever you want to do is fine with me,” and really mean it. Of course, this means that I'll agree to something she wants to do later, just to be fair. It makes for a good friendship and I’ve learned to be a better person, well, some of the time.
WRR: You’ve visited Turkey many times over several years. At the end of the book, you revisit the same location where you first met Joy. Has Turkey changed at all throughout the years?
Brenner: Kalkan, where we first met, has expanded and has much larger influx of tourists since were were first there. Most of our favorite places are gone, but the bones of the town are still there. I’m also grateful that I got to know Istanbul before the influx of tourists in recent years. Boutique hotels were first opening when Joy and I began traveling to Istanbul, so we had the opportunity to meet and befriend the owners and staff, and watch them achieve success. And I'm still surprised that Turkey is no longer the bargain destination I knew in the early 90s. At the same time, there are still pockets within neighborhoods throughout the country where you can find remnants of an old Ottoman Turkey.
Recently, I was at a party and a woman who had not been to Turkey came up to me and asked how I felt about what is happening in Turkey today. Assuming she was referring to Turkey's economic advances, I mentioned how sophisticated Istanbul had become, and commented on the current surge in cutting-edge cuisine. She gave me a blank look and said that it was Turkey’s rise in Muslim fundamentalism that she was talking about, and wasn’t it going the way of Egypt and Syria?
My opinion, that because of all the strife and change in the Middle and Near East, Turkey must remain a strong, independent, secular nation, a bridge to reach both west and east, fell on deaf ears. She wanted a more dramatic answer. It's easier to fear what we don't know rather than accept what is different.
WRR: And, finally, why was it so important to you to see Dervishes whirl?
Brenner: Who wouldn’t want to see dervishes whirl? I remember first reading about them in a Lonely Planet guide book on Turkey. Like much of my travel plans, I use my instinct. The first time I went to Konya, I learned that Dervishes whirl in December. Joy was the only person I knew who would travel so far in the dead of winter to see the ceremony. We were not disappointed. I believe in following your instincts and passions, and sometimes you are rewarded in unexpected ways that can change your life.
To read Leesha Lentz's interview with Joy Stocke, click: Anatolian Days & Nights/JoyStocke
To join us on our book tour: Click here.
To order a copy of Anatolian Days & Nights, click: ORDER.
To learn about the Anatolian Days & Nights tour to Turkey, cick here: Join us in Turkey.