MEMOIR - INTERVIEW - Anatolian Days & Nights - A Love Affair with Turkey:
JOY E. STOCKE on Writing, Traveling, and Friendship
“So you want to learn about Turkish coffee,” says Joy Stocke, turning to me, her enthusiasm giving way to a wide smile. “Did you know that the first coffee house was in Istanbul?”
We are meeting in another coffee house many miles from Istanbul, Rojo's Roastery in Lambertville, New Jersey, an unofficial office for staff members of the online magazine, Wild River Review, of which Stocke is Editor in Chief.
Stocke quickly details coffee's history for a novice such as myself. "Legend says that coffee was discovered in Ethiopia by a shepherd who noticed his sheep perking up after eating a certain berry. The shepherd tried it and the rest is history, adding that "Coffee made its way to Anatolia with Syrian traders and was adopted by the Sufi order of Dervishes so they could stay awake as they practiced their meditative turning."
Stocke's knowledge of the culture and history within and beyond Turkey's borders informs her latest work, a travel memoir entitled Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses & Saints, co-written with and illustrated by Angie Brenner, Wild River Review's West Coast Editor.
For over a decade, Stocke and Brenner have been traveling through Turkey, a complex, fascinating and often misunderstood country. Their memoir opens when the two women meet on the balcony of a rundown pension. As their relationship develops, Brenner and Stocke move further into the ancient land of Mesopotamia and the Kingdom of Pontus on the Black Sea. Whether they are among the Whirling Dervishes of Konya or tribal women of the Fertile Crescent, Stocke and Brenner discover aspects of themselves mirrored in the faces of Turkey’s people and their traditions. Inspiring and heartfelt, Anatolian Days and Nights is a testimony to friendship and the power of country to take hold our imaginations.
Turkey, I muse, I have to go there.
Icon of Madonna and Child
WRR: First, I want to commend you on your new book. As the cover states, you have a “love affair” with Turkey and it shows in the general care and craftsmanship of the memoir. When I was reading Anatolian Days & Nights, I wondered about the form, because you co-wrote the memoir with Angie Brenner. 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?
Joy Stocke: Thank you for your kind words regarding craftsmanship and for your excellent question. It boils down to this: How do two people take their shared experiences and shape them into a narrative arc that tells a gripping story for 250 pages? The short answer is that it takes years of false starts to find the right form.
As Angie and I were traveling and writing the book, we spent hours working out its structure. Early on we tried to write the book in a blended voice, essentially using the word "we" in place of I. That attempt turned into a stilted mess because we didn't have the opportunity to run free, so to speak, with our own voices and perspectives.
We weren't sure how the book would end until we were more than halfway through writing it. But when our beloved friend Bekir got married and invited us to meet his wife, the shape of our narrative fell into place. Although we were writing about a country, ultimately the people we met and how their stories entwined with our own became the heart and story.
From the beginning, we each took on separate chapters and wrote the first drafts. Angie was the first to arrive in Kalkan to run the Sun Pension, so we thought it was a perfect place to start. Her bus pulls into a parking lot, she waits for her host to pick her up, he never arrives, and when she finally gets to the Pension, it's a rundown second-rate backpacker hostel. The story spins out from there.
Since we lived the experiences in the book, we would discuss what we wanted to achieve and go off to our own corners and start writing a first draft.
WRR: Was it difficult collaborating on a booklength work when Angie lives on the West Coast and you live on the East Coast?
Stocke: The biggest difficulty wasn't so much the distance between New Jersey and California, nor the three hour time difference. (Angie and I are early risers, so by the time she was up and ready to work, I had completed a few hours of my own work.)
The real difficulty involved our work schedules. In addition to writing the book, we both have full time jobs and when we began the process, my daughter Sarah was in Middle School. Angie works in a charter school, so she was on a school calendar as well. We also needed to coordinate our travel times with my husband's work schedule, so we would travel and write during traditional holiday breaks. Because of this, it took us longer to research, write and finish the book.
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?
Stocke: In addition to our travels, Angie and I spent years researching every aspect of Turkey we could think of: history back to the time of the first inhabitants in Mesopotamia, the matriarchy of Catal Hoyuk, the Hittites and the Code of Hammurabi, the Epic of Gilgamesh; the story of the Prophet Abraham, the establishment of the first Christian Church, Byzantine and Ottoman history, the story of Kemal Ataturk and the rise of modern Turkey, the history cuisine, decorative arts and rug-making to name a few.
While you won't find all this research in the book, we needed to become experts so that every line of our story rings true for our readers. Our dream was to write a book that takes our readers on a romantic journey, not a book that fills one's head with so much history you don't really remember any of it.
WRR: You meet a lot of people in your travels, 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?
Stocke: One of the greatest blessings of traveling in Turkey has been the friendships we've made with people like Bekir who have become part of our families. What is not in the book is that Bekir came to the States to visit Angie and me a few years ago. When he stayed with my family, he gave us cooking lessons and grew quite close to my parents.
But Bekir has not read the book. He's seen excerpts, particularly the chapter in which he brought Angie and me to the Festival of the Whirling Dervishes in Turkey.
A number of Turkish friends who are not in the book have read it and expressed deep enthusiasm, which was how I had the opportunity to speak to the members of the Turkish Women's International Network.
WRR: The book spans a time period of a little more than a decade. Because you have such a long-standing relationship with the country 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?
Stocke: Writing this book was very difficult. I've lost count of the number of revisions that went into each chapter.
In the first drafts, we tended to include everything including long passages of research that took the reader very far from the narrative arc. Angie wrote the first draft of Lycian Days (Original title: Kalkan Days & Nights) and I wrote the first draft of The Steamy Side of Istanbul (Original title: Harried in the Hamam).
Once we finished our individual first drafts, we would exchange them and either add or subtract content, working in Track Changes. From there we would have phone meetings in which we talked about what should stay or go and why. After that, we rewrote each other's chapters with me assuming Angie's voice and Angie assuming my voice. Over time an alchemy occurred in which I could channel Angie and she could channel me.
Here is a story we kept in the first chapter for a very long time until we realized it absolutely didn't work: We had friends and family members visit Kalkan on that very first trip. They were so appalled by the pension's lack of amenities that we spent a frantic few days finding them a new hotel. We wrote a very long scene describing the hijinks involved with all of this. We initially thought it was very funny, but it became so long and the narrative so bogged down that we had to cut the entire story.
An opposite example is the story of the Diva who comes to Kalkan to give a performance. The scene is very little changed from Angie's first draft. I still laugh every time I read it.
WRR: In many ways, I felt that you and Angie 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?
Stocke: I think the chapter, although very short, is crucial to understanding the bonds of friendship that Angie and I developed with our Turkish friends. How those bonds and our trust in people like Bekir overruled fear.
I was and still am profoundly affected by the events of September 11. As a kid growing up in the Midwest, I knew I wanted to be a writer. New York City was a mythical place for me, a place where aspiring writers with dreams went TO BE writers. Just after I turned seventeen, my father got a job that brought our family to New Jersey and I finally saw New York City for the first time. We drove up the New Jersey Turnpike and just beyond the Statue of Liberty, I could see the Twin Towers and the Empire State Building and I felt a flush of light and energy, which I still feel when I take the train into the City.
I now live an hour and change from New York. So, when Angie called from California on September 11 and told me to turn on my TV, and when the magnitude of what was happening began to sink in, I knew instantly that people would become afraid, particularly of Islam and any country associated with it. It became clear to Angie and me that Turkey or Anatolia, a secular Muslim Republic, was and is a key player in the region. It only made us more determined to write our story.
WRR: You dedicate this book to your daughter, Sarah. If Sarah, or young women like her, could glean anything from this book, what would you want it to be?
Stocke: I don't separate my work as a writer from my role as a mother. Sarah was born when I was in my twenties and still trying to find my way as a wife, mother and writer. She is now a young woman with a career path of her own and what I hope she sees is that her mother remained true to her vision and true to her.
That is my message to all young women. Deep within you is your vision. Trust it. Find mentors. Share your vision and dreams with them, so they can offer advice and guidance.
And now for the cliche': Life is messier than you can ever imagine. Accept that as truth and continue to follow your vision. And if that vision includes marriage and a family, make sure your partner is clear about your dreams and that you are clear about your partner's dreams as well. Raising young children in addition to a career path requires time and energy. Be as clear as you can be about what you want and go out and live your life.
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.
Stocke: Recem, or honor killings, are a tribal practice that goes back thousands of years. Therefore, for many girls and boys raised in this tradition, honor killings are a part of life no matter how horrifying the consequences. Young people need to be educated about the damage honor killings cause to their families and society.
KAMER, its founder Nebahat Akos, and organizations like hers are crucial players in raising consciousness and educating parents, grandparents, young boys and girls about the insanity of this ritual and the way a patriarchal society holds horrifying practices as part of everyday life. KAMER's work has been profound. Because of work like theirs and outside pressure, Turkey has a law on its books that forbids and punishes honor killings, so you need the support of the government as well.
WRR: There are incidents both in America and in Turkey where men, specifically, ask you why you are traveling without your husband. Did these inquiries surprise you? What do you think are the expectations of women in regard to traveling? As a mother and a wife, do you think there were more expectations on you to stay home?
Stocke: Every time someone asks that question (and it's still asked of me) I'm surprised. I think it's more about power and control than whether I'm a woman or not. I also think it has to do with traditions that say women are the property of men and should be subordinate.
There are women in all strata of society and in all societies who have combined marriage, motherhood, career, and travel, and my hope lies with the younger generation, young men and women, who have seen their mothers and fathers forge a path.
WRR: Throughout your travels, there have been certain events (particularly religious) where you and Angie had to wear headscarves. In America, there seems to be a stigma for the more conventional practices regarding Muslim women wearing headscarves. Was there ever any reservations on your part to don the headscarf? Why or why not?
Stocke: My first thought is to repeat something that Angie said to a group of students when we were visiting a school on the Black Sea. Americans treasure personal freedom and so the idea that a woman would be required to cover her head in a mosque or on the street, is anathema to our values. Yet, if we value personal freedom, then covering one's head is a personal choice and no one else's business.
That being said, no matter where I travel, I take the time to learn the customs and requirements of my host country be it wearing a headscarf or taking off my shoes when I enter a friend's home. This is simply following protocol.
WRR: In the book, you traveled to many religious sites featured in the Bible and heard wonderful stories about those sites that differed from the Christian tellings. You mention during your Turkish WIN reading that you don’t understand “the conflict between religions.” I think that this is a really important statement and I was wondering if you could speak to that.
Stocke: It seems to me that the conflict between religions boils down to power and not spirituality. It's easy to use dogma to prove your point. Who can trump God?
During the first Crusade to the Holy Land, Pope Urban declared "Deus Volt," God wills it. What God willed was that young men would march into the Holy Land to wrest it away from the Muslims. There, they could take whatever spoils they wanted including women. And if they should die in battle, they would receive a "Get into Heaven Free" Pass. Beautiful women would be waiting there for them as well. In modern times, the promise of beautiful women waiting in paradise remains for Muslim suicide bombers.
So, logically I understand the conflict. Basically, "We're right and you're wrong," and we'll kill you to prove it. God wills it."
It's the dogma of religion that causes the conflict, not the practice of faith and deep well of love and support places of worship provide for their communities.
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?
Stocke: The first thing to realize is that Turkey is also called Anatolia named for the great mother of Mesopotamia - Anat.
I was raised in the Roman Catholic faith, which means I spent a lot of time in church. I always sat by a niche that held the Virgin Mary and her son. When I was young, I had no thought about goddesses at all, but I loved Mary because she was a mother and I thought my mother and also my grandmother were the end all and be all of womanhood. So, they were my first goddesses.
To make a very long story short, I had an experience as a young woman on the island of Crete in a cave in which resides the stalagmite shape of a bear that looks as though it's praying. I knew nothing about the cave when I entered it, but as I stood inside it was as though I could hear a voice inside me saying, "I am here for you. Everything will be okay."
I'm not prone to mystical experiences of that sort, but I absolutely trusted that voice and it gave me great strength as if a larger maternal presence was watching over me.
It turns out that the cave has been a holy site since Minoan times. In modern times the cave is considered sacred to the Virgin Mary, but in the years before Christianity, the cave was sacred to the goddesses Artemis, the great she-bear and protectress. I learned that Artemis was worshipped as a goddess at Ephesus, Turkey up to the time of the Apostle Paul.
It seemed natural and important to follow these threads across the Aegean Sea into Turkey. There is a larger history of human faith that needs to be told and the best way in my mind to do it is to go to the source.
WRR: One of the biggest pleasures reading your book was to share in your friendship with Angie. You make a strong case for women traveling together.
Stocke: I hope we make a bigger case for the deep bonds of friendship, particularly among women. It's wonderful to travel with our families, but when women travel together, the world opens in new ways.
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 Angie. Has Turkey changed at all throughout the years?
Stocke: Turkey has changed in so many ways. Its economy is booming as its tourist trade. Istanbul is consistently listed as one of the most sophisticated destinations in the world with a thriving restaurant scene. Turkey has also expanded its trading partners to include countries like Brazil.
Turkey also has a conservative government in place that is dealing with some difficult neighbors. It is the first secular Muslim Republic and my great hope is that it continues to be a beacon to the Middle and Near East.
Illustration by Angie Brenner
To read Leesha Lentz's interview with Angie Brenner, click: Anatolian Days & Nights/AngieBrenner
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