Writers & Company

Turkish American novelist Elif Batuman on finding — and losing — yourself in fiction

The Turkish American novelist spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about her latest book, Either/Or, the sequel to her semi-autobiographical novel, The Idiot.
Elif Batuman is a Turkish American novelist. (Beowulf Sheehan)

Selin is back! The bright and curious heroine of Elif Batuman's acclaimed debut novel, The Idiot, is now in her second year at Harvard, still hungry for experience. From awkward sexual encounters to depression to ongoing questions of how to live and to become a writer – in Batuman's new novel, Either/Or, that quest leads Selin to some uncomfortable places, but also to self-discovery.

Like her fictional alter-ego, Batuman is the daughter of Turkish immigrants and studied at Harvard in the 1990s, followed by a PhD in comparative literature from Stanford University. She's been a staff writer for the New Yorker since 2010.  Her first book, The Possessed — with a title borrowed from Dostoevsky — traced her passion for all things Russian. Celebrated for its intelligence, tenderness and wit, her novel The Idiot — again with a nod to Dostoevsky — was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and the Women's Prize for Fiction.

Batuman spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from London, England.

Contrasting experiences

"I gave Selin a lot of the experiences that I had growing up. So she's experiencing — I don't want to say she's trapped between two cultures — but she's experiencing two cultures. She's living in America. She goes to school in America.

"She has family in Turkey. Her parents are from Turkey. They go back and forth. She's very aware of there being different, mutually exclusive ways of describing the world.

This idea of being a writer was enormously appealing to me. It actually was a kind of salvation for me at an early age. It was what was holding together a potentially dissolving reality.

"I think that model of the writer as someone who can juxtapose all of the different voices and all of the different contradictory stories and can turn them into something that's a real gift for other people, because that's something that a child doesn't have access to.

"As a kid in a custody suit, you're just sort of a football being moved around and you don't really have the agency to tell a rich story that you can then share with other people.This idea of being a writer was enormously appealing to me. It actually was a kind of salvation for me at an early age. It was what was holding together a potentially dissolving reality."

Exploring self

"Both my ability to write The Idiot and to write Either/Or I attribute to many years of long and expensive — in both time and money — psychotherapy, which is something that I did not believe in. I feel so much better now than I did then. I feel like I've been helped by so many kinds of liberating ideologies, like feminism and queer theory and psychoanalytic thought.

"A lot of it I don't find helpful, but a lot of it I find incredibly helpful.

"But I didn't grow up under a rock, right? I knew that all these things existed. I knew that therapy existed. I knew that lesbians existed. I knew feminism existed. But I just didn't think they were for me. I really wanted to reconstruct what was it about my experience — about what I read and what I heard and what I felt and what I saw — that made me think that those things weren't for me.

"I did not think of myself as a person who really had a lot of shame or self-hatred or any of this stuff. I thought that I was fine. I knew I was depressed, but I thought it was just because the world was a sad place. And I didn't realize the extent to which I blamed myself.

"I thought that all of the bad experiences that I had were some kind of reflection of who I was or of something about me."

New truths

"I came to think of narrative as something that's informed by ideology — and something that could ultimately be very different from how it is. There's a way that I could challenge what I was trying to criticize about the novel from within the novel itself.

"Ideally, after reading that novel, people can question both what norms we all accept in novels — and the norms that we accept in our own lives, both in the past and the present and in our own earlier life.

I wrote this book trying to encourage people to be mindful of the scripts that we're in that might not be serving us.

"I wrote this book trying to encourage people to be mindful of the scripts that we're in that might not be serving us. To see ultimately how we can break free from them and not be falling through space, but rather building new stories and reaching new truths."

Elif Batuman's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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