A Conversation with Frances Kazan
Q: What inspired you to write this novel?
A: At the turn of the twentieth century, Constantinople, now Istanbul, seethed with intrigue and discontent. The five hundred-year-old Islamic Empire was on the brink of collapse and the Ottoman world was about to disappear forever. I wanted to write a novel that captured this moment of history. Halide Edib was the perfect protagonist. She was the most famous woman of her time. To this day, she remains a controversial yet revered figure in Turkey. I was intrigued by her paradoxical upbringing and the family tensions caused, in part, by the chaotic political climate. Raised in a traditional Ottoman household, Halide was imbued with the values of a faithful Muslim. Yet her father, an otherwise conventional man, wanted her to have a Western education. What did Halide want?, I wondered. Were her hopes and desires, her deep religious beliefs altered by her education?
Q: How did you discover Halide?
A: While studying for a master’s degree in Turkish studies, I read her memoirs. They were charming, but felt restrained before the Young Turk revolution. Subsequently, I read her novels. They were, by contrast, passionate and emotional–quite different from her memoir. In the introduction to her novel Shirt of Flame, Halide claimed that her fiction was born in “a creative fever” and with “a desire to express life’s forces.” I read everything Halide wrote in English. She became the focus of my studies, and the subject of my thesis. Yet I still was not satisfied. This was a woman who was torn between two radically different worlds, and I was fascinated by her contradictions.
Q: What inspired your initial interest in Turkey and the Ottoman Empire?
A: My husband, Elia, was born in Istanbul. As he got older, he identified himself with the values of the country and culture of his birth. In 1990, he took me to Kayseri, in central Anatolia, where his ancestors had lived for hundreds of years. Walking in the streets, I was struck by the fact that he blended in like a native. He belonged there. This was his home. Elia had always thought of himself as a Greek–a Byzantine Greek, an Anatolian. Then I knew nothing of nationalist policies and the population exchange, but Turkey’s complex, layered history began to attract me, right there in the bustling streets of Kayseri.
Q: In your novel, you endow the fictional Halide with a supernatural gift that has been passed down from her mother. Why did you make this choice?
A: The fictional gift represented, in part, the Ottoman-Sufi sensibility. Halide, Teyze, and Halide’s grandparents were devout Muslims. I wanted to explore the ways this almost mystical predisposition was changed by Halide’s education. The Sufi brotherhoods are an integral part of Turkish society. Their traditions of mysticism and nonconformity characterize the nature of religious belief.
Q: Can you give some background on the novel’s setting?
A: My novel takes places between the years of 1889 and 1902, during the long reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II. Though he initially instituted many reforms, he became increasingly oppressive. He began to crack down on the so-called Young Turks. He shut down parliament and established an informant society, which was quite corrosive. He was so desperate to retain power–and so convinced that he had enemies everywhere–that he created a stultifying spy network, magnified all censorship, and deported any opposition.
Q: Halide’s father, Edib Bey, is a fascinating figure. In part, he is a modern man who wants an advanced education for his daughter. Yet he exercises the ancient privileges, one of which is taking a second wife.
A: Edib Bey was the hardest character to write because he was such a contradiction. He was pro-British and forward-thinking. He risked his whole career to educate his daughter–all of his daughters; he ended up having five–and yet he took two wives. I can’t say that I actually understood that, but I tried my best to convey his humanity.
Q: There’s a marvelous range of female characters–Granny, the guardian of tradition; Teyze, the beauty; Mahmoure, the revolutionary. Do you have a basic philosophy or technique for creating such rich characters?
A: I do not have a conscious philosophy about my writing. Essentially, I try to adhere to the truth as I see it. Fiction is, in part, an exploration of the self, and sometimes things that occur surprise me. With Halide’s Gift, I knew how the story would begin and end, but I wasn’t sure what was going to happen in between, although I had the outline of Halide’s life to follow. What happened to Granny, Teyze, and Mahmoure was made up. The real-life Mahmoure married a pharmacist and had five children. Teyze lived into old age. A friend of mine encountered her in the late 1930s; she was living with her son, Halide’s half-brother. Teyze was apparently tiny, silent, and heavily veiled–not at all how I describe her.
Q: One of your characters contemplates suicide, yet you ultimately didn’t eliminate her. To what extent do your characters guide you?
A: I intended for her to kill herself, but I finished the scene and found that she hadn’t. It was a very mysterious thing. It was as if she took on a life of her own. To me, if you plot a novel chapter by chapter, or strand by strand, it would be like painting by numbers. There are so many things you just have to let go freely, once you begin writing.
Q: What became of the historical Halide?
A: She fell out of favor with Atatürk in 1923 and was exiled. She went to live in England, and visited America several times. In fact, the book I did for my master’s degree was about a speech she gave at Williamstown, Massachusetts, in 1928, which (for the first time anywhere) framed the notion of the new republican history of Turkey.
Q: Has your relationship with your husband, the famed director Elia Kazan, or your understanding of his work influenced your creative process in any way?
A: Elia taught me the importance of generosity and unequivocal support. He has been steadfast in his encouragement of my writing. He showed me how to be generous with myself, less critical, and to allow for human error. He has always been a very generous person–not just with me, but with all the artists he’s worked with.