″Pressure on artists in Turkey is increasing″

Ozge Samanci is a graphic and installation artist. Her autobiographical graphic novel – which she presented in person at this year′s International Literature Festival in Berlin – was internationally reviewed. In interview with Ceyda Nurtsch she talks about growing up in Turkey and the situation of artists following the attempted coup

By Ceyda Nurtsch

You came to Berlin to the International Literature Festival to present your graphic novel ″Dare to Disappoint. Growing up in Turkey″. It is an autobiographical coming-of-age story describing the stresses of childhood and adulthood amidst the political and cultural struggles in Turkey. The book was published in 2015 and reviewed by the Guardian and The New York Times. What was especially difficult for you growing up in Turkey back then?

Ozge Samanci: I really wanted to know what I was going to do with my life. Some people don′t worry about that kind of thing, but for me it was a big deal. I didn′t have a clear answer, yet I was keenly aware of the expectations of my family, relatives, teachers and the entire nation. Back then, Turkey was a relatively militaristic, conservative, economically unstable culture. The prevailing atmosphere gave rise to certain expectations, which blocked my inner voice – the voice that would tell me what to do with my life. On the one hand, I wanted to please the people I loved and at the same time I wanted to do what I wanted to do, without knowing exactly what that really was, because of all the pressure.

What makes this book a uniquely Turkish novel?

Samanci: There are various aspects that make it unique to Turkey. One is that society in Turkey is extremely polarised. You have to belong to a certain way of thinking. You are either leftist, rightist, radical Islamist, a practising Muslim, this or that. People think in categories and they like to pigeon-hole others. Everybody expects everybody else to become like them. I see this as one of Turkey′s biggest problems. Other societies have done somewhat better in dealing with that issue. Turkey is still struggling.

Cover of Ozge Samanci's graphic novel "Dare to disappoint. Growing up in Turkey" (published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
″I really wanted to know what I was going to do with my life. Some people don′t worry about that kind of thing, but for me it was a big deal... I was keenly aware of the expectations of my family, relatives, teachers and the entire nation. This gave rise to certain expectations, which blocked my inner voice,″ says Ozge Samanci

Your book is often compared to Marjan Satrapi′s ″Persepolis″. Satrapi lives in Paris. You have been living in the USA since 2003. Regarding the latest developments in Turkey, does living in the US feel like exile to you?

Samanci: As far as Persepolis is concerned, I decided to write this book some 15 years ago and I hadn′t seen Persepolis then. It emerged from my desire to make a present for a friend and I drew some real-life anecdotes in a notebook. Then people photocopied it and that photocopied book became famous among my circle of friends. I discovered the power of lived stories. Rather naively I said I invented this medium.

In 2003 I came to the states and took a course in comics and graphic novels and the teacher put Persepolis in front of me. For me it was the proof that what I was thinking was doable. So Persepolis proved that one culture could be of interest to other cultures. Satrapi`s circumstances were harsher than mine are. She lived in a real war and then in exile. There was the religious revolution in her country. The circumstances in Turkey are harsh, but they are not that tragic yet. I can go to Turkey whenever I want. But we don′t know what the future holds.

How did engaging in art help you deal with your circumstances?

Samanci: People find different activities to engage in. For some it is sport, for others religion or reading. For me it is drawing and art. I have been drawing ever since can remember. That′s the place where I stop thinking and I can be in the moment. Sometimes it goes beyond that and I develop a critique or I make a statement. It turns into a way of expression. To say ″I want to escape reality″ would oversimplifying it, because I don′t want to escape from reality completely. It enables me to be in the real world, but not crushed by it.

You drew also for the satirical magazine LemMan. What was your motivation for that?

Samanci: The reality in Turkey is hard and there are so many absurdities going on. Satirical magazines are popular because they are a good coping and defence mechanism. Turks need humour in order to discharge the heavy load on their shoulders. Such publications provide the perfect outlet. But unfortunately they address high school and college age people. I wish there were a way of reaching a larger audience. My drawings for the weekly satire magazine weren′t directly political. They were rather anecdotal, moments from real life. My drawings have become more political in the last four years; they are political in a subtle way.

You have been living in the USA since 2003. But you still engage with Turkey′s politics. You recently published a drawing of the imprisoned writer Asli Erdogan in your project called ″Ordinary Things″. Looking at the cultural scene from a distance, what kind of changes have you observed concerning the freedom of artists in Turkey?

Samanci: After the attempted coup, a state of emergency was declared to figure out what had happened and punish those responsible. Now they are able to arrest whomever they want. I find that very difficult to grasp, since I am not one hundred percent sure that everyone who has been arrested was really involved in that attempted coup. Take Asli Erdogan, for example. She just disagreed with those in power. And now they are punishing her for that. Esra Mungan is another example. These are worrying developments. When the ruling party AKP started losing the support of its followers, its attitude got harsher and harsher, which is why Turkey is living in a state of emergency right now. There was always a concern that academics or artists and thinkers never felt completely free in Turkey, but the pressure has definitely increased. That′s obvious.

Do artists like you who are living abroad feel the pressure as well?

Samanci: We have less individual pressure; the possibility of being arrested is much less, for one thing. But everybody has friends and families in Turkey, so there is pressure on people living abroad too. I think we have a responsibility, but it has to come from within, otherwise it would feel fake or forced. If people feel the injustice and are motivated to do something, then they′ll do it. And if they don′t feel it, they don′t – I′m not blaming anyone. Visiting Turkey is always an option for me, but I have no plans to return there in the near future. Yet life is magical. It holds its own surprises. I don′t make rigid plans. Life dictates.

Interview conducted by Ceyda Nurtsch

© Qantara.de 2016

Ozge Samanci was born in 1975 in Izmir and is a Turkish graphic and installation artist. She teaches at the Northwestern University in the USA. In 2015 her autobiographical graphic novel ″Dare to Disappoint. Growing up in Turkey″ was published.