An Interview with Selin Gökçesu

18 Feb
Selin Gökçesu's essay "Under the Aegean Moon" appeared in the Tin House blog "Open Bar."

Selin Gökçesu’s essay “Under the Aegean Moon” appeared in the Tin House blog “The Open Bar.”

Selin Gökçesu is a Brooklyn-based writer with an M.F.A. in Nonfiction from Columbia University. Her work has appeared on the Tin House blog, Asymptote Journal’s Translation Tuesdays and in Gingerbread Literary Magazine.

To read an exercise about creating character amid conflict, inspired by Gökçesu’s essay “Under the Aegean Moon,” click here.

In this interview, Gökçesu discusses the challenge of writing about current events before readers lose interest, not holding back on personal feelings, and knowing how much analysis to provide in an essay.

Michael Noll

I’m fascinated by essays like this one because they’re not really about a story or anecdote—or, the anecdote at the heart of them is very quick. In this case, you honeymooned in Turkey and saw, from a distance, a dinghy full of Syrian refugees. The essay is mostly setup for this moment and a meditation on understanding your experience of it. How soon after your trip did you write this? Did you need to digest the experience for a while, or were you able to quickly organize your thoughts and feelings into this essay?

Selin Gökçesu

I wrote this essay about two months after the trip. Normally, I like to let my experiences sink in longer, but when you are writing about current events, waiting is not always a good strategy. When the topic no longer seems relevant, both the writer and the audience might lose interest in it.

At first, the essay was a chronicle of all my encounters with Syrian refugees in Turkey through the summers of the past few years and my reflections on how people react to the “crisis.” The first draft was more than four times as long as the final essay. As I edited the original version, I found that the moment of watching the boat take off was the highlight of the piece. It was a surreal moment, I liked how I had written it, and I felt that it was symbolic of what I was interested in: separate lives in geographic proximity. After I decided that the essay would build up to that moment, I trimmed everything else.

Michael Noll

The essay achieves something that I think is awfully difficult to do: it captures the moment when something large that is happening in the world overtakes our private experience of day-to-day life. To that end, I’m interested in how you created that private experience. You seem to do it, in part, with a line like this:

“Because I had recently watched a video on Facebook of a plastic straw being pulled out of a turtle’s nose, every time a plastic object flew past me, I begrudgingly left my chaise longue in pursuit of it.”

The refugee crisis was happening, but you were thinking about something quite different. As you wrote the essay, were you conscious of trying to convey that gap between what you thought about versus what was happening around you?

Selin Gökçesu

A personal essay has to start at a private point because that is what the writer understands or can hope to understand. The duality of the personal and non-personal emerges as the narrative shifts from showing to telling—you can only “show” what you have experienced first-hand.

The emotional gap between myself and what was happening around me was the heart of the essay. Emotionally isolating yourself from other people’s tragedy is both a callous way of evading negative emotions and an inevitable human response when your own life is not struck by disaster. Your day-to-day commitments, events that you are personally engaged in gain precedence over events that you are simply witnessing from the outside. I think of the essay as a partial analysis of the factors that contributed to this dissociation.

Michael Noll

You take a risk in the essay. It’s about something awful—the horrible plight of the Syrian refugees—and so I would think it might be tempting to portray yourself as caring deeply about it. And you do that, but you also do something else. For example, you write, “My mind and my body conspired to keep my honeymoon normal, one by being willfully unimaginative and the other by holding back the emotions that it so readily displays at home.” An Internet-troll type of reader might say, “Oh, well, your honeymoon was more important than the refugees.” But I don’t think that’s what saying. Instead, you seem to be writing about the complex way we interact with such news, which is usually safely at a distance. Did you worry about how people might read this essay?

Selin Gökçesu

I don’t think that goody-two-shoes, self-protective personas serve the personal essay very well. Although readers might not pick up on it when a writer fudges facts, emotional and intellectual dishonesty are very easy to detect. When I find that I am holding back in my writing to protect my ego or my privacy, I take it as a sign that I’m not ready to handle that particular topic yet.

I also don’t find predictable responses to events intellectually appealing—“I saw something tragic and I was really sad” is not an interesting premise for an essay. No matter what the topic is, I’m more interested in the unpleasant things that crawl under rocks. Especially when it comes to human nature.

Michael Noll

The essay in intensely personal, except for one paragraph, this one:

When large scale violence strikes, it’s a given that the victims suffer and die where they are; involvement of the nonvictims is usually optional.  The order of the things was disturbed this summer when Syrians fleeing the war in their country spread out into the world and started appearing on the Aegean coast—the affordable and sufficiently exotic vacation spot of choice for many Europeans.

It’s the one moment where you pull back and try to give context to your experience. Was this passage ever longer? Did you have more than you wanted to say (clearly, you’ve given the experience in the essay a great deal of thought), or did you always know how much explanation was needed?

Selin Gökçesu

This passage was longer, and there were more passages like it in the original version of the essay. Having gone through the nonfiction workshop in an MFA program, I know that most readers don’t care for the passages where the narrator steps back and analyzes her experience. So, I’ve learned to self-censor and keep these to a minimum. My strategy in this particular essay was to keep sight of the fact that I was building up to a specific point and eliminate everything that didn’t serve my purpose.

February 2016

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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