Tag Archives: writing about conflict

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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How to Develop a Character amid Large-Scale Conflict

16 Feb
Selin Gökçesu wrote about her honeymoon in Turkey and the Syrian refugee crisis in her essay, "Under the Aegean Moon." The essay was published at the Tin House blog "The Open Bar."

Selin Gökçesu wrote about her honeymoon in Turkey and the Syrian refugee crisis in her essay, “Under the Aegean Moon.” The essay was published at the Tin House blog “The Open Bar.”

Stories about large-scale conflicts like war can reduce the characters involved to the level of those faceless henchman found in action movies, characters whose only purpose in the film is to get shot and die. Did they have friends? Family? Personalities? Who knows? It’s not important. Yet if a story is to be dramatic and engaging, its characters must have lives and personalities that do more than reflect the conflict around them.

A great example of such characterization can be found in Selin Gökçesu’s essay, “Under the Aegean Moon.” It was published at the Tin House blog “The Open Bar,” where you can read it now.

How the Essay Works

The essay is about the author’s honeymoon in Turkey, where her family lives. The trip came amid the Syrian refugee crisis that continues to captivate the world’s attention. If you’ve heard any stories of refugees or seen photos, you’ve probably responded in a very human way: you felt sad, angry, and overwhelmed. As a writer, though, these reactions, though honest and real, don’t make for particularly compelling storytelling. An essay can’t say, “Like you, Reader, I, too, felt sad.” It must do more. (This is not just true of narratives about geopolitical conflict. Any story can exert a seemingly inescapable force of gravity on its characters. You can often identify such stories by the shorthand used for their characters: superheroes, spies, aliens, cops, drug dealers, etc. All of these characters can benefit from more idiosyncratic personality traits.)

For Gökçesu, that more is found by building up herself as a primary actor in the essay—despite not playing an active role in the refugee crisis. She didn’t help anyone enter Turkey or get a visa. She was like most of us, a witness, with the difference that she was witnessing the crisis from Turkey. It may seem odd to write about oneself in the midst of such overwhelming tragedy, but it’s actually a key to the essay’s power.

Here is the beginning of a passage in which Gökçesu describes herself:

In Aspat, we found the makings of a proper—if not perfect—honeymoon. Our bungalow, though too utilitarian to be romantic, was comfortable. We had blue skies, palm trees, and a blazing sun tempered by a cool breeze.

This may not strike you as particularly idiosyncratic. Anyone who’s taken a beach honeymoon has probably found something similar. This is important. Gökçesu is part of multiple stories at once. Yes, she’s witness to the refugee crisis, but she’s also a newlywed, a role that exerts its own gravity.

She does have interests beyond her honeymoon:

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 lounge in pursuit of it.

This desire to pick up litter leads to the discovery of a particular kind of item washing up on the shore, typified by this one:

A wallet holding 2500 Syrian pounds, a business card from a health and wellness center in Kobane, a letter, and the driver’s license of a very young man with a round face.

That wallet, and the many other items like it, introduce a conflict. On one hand, Gökçesu knows very well what is going on around her and understands what she is finding. On the other hand, she’s on her honeymoon and very understandably wants to savor this time with her new husband. It’s a conflict she states directly:

The tears that I so readily shed when I watched TV reports on the Syrian refugee’s plight were absent. Even the shame I felt over my indifference was mild. 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.

This conflict is never really resolved, though it does come to a head at the end of the essay with two powerful images. The images by themselves are arresting, but their power is accentuated because we see them with fresh eyes; like the writer, we’ve been looking elsewhere.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create character amid conflict, using “Under the Aegean Moon” by Selin Gökçesu as a model:

  1. Identify the major conflict and the gravitational force it exertsAs readers, we are immersed in information, narrative, and news, and we learn to recognize patterns. In a tragedy (earthquake, tsunami, war), the participants will be portrayed in a handful of usual ways. The same is true of all stories. In politics, you can almost predict what the candidates will say before they open their mouths. No story can escape these patterns completely. Instead, it’s important to understand that they exist and identify the ways they inform our own stories. So, what conflict are you writing about? How is it usually portrayed?
  2. Identify the character’s role within that conflict. Within almost every conflict, there is a predictable cast: victims, perpetrators, bystanders, heroes, villains, the innocent, and the guilty. For each character, there is also a predictable emotional response for the readers. We weep for the victims and feel anger toward those responsible. For your characters (or, for an essay, for yourself or whoever you’re profiling), what roles do they play? If their faces were shown on the nightly news, how would you expect the audience to respond? In “Under the Aegean Moon,” Gökçesu plays the role of witness.
  3. Give the character another role or story. It’s not a matter of destroying the character’s role within the conflict (victim, perpetrator, etc). Instead, you’re adding another role. No one is only a victim or only a perpetrator. In the Aegean, after the smugglers make good on their promises, they go home—and then what? For refugees, victimhood often temporarily flattens their hopes and dreams; it’s hard to think about a future career when you’re sitting in a dinghy in rough waves. But the dinghy trip is only a small part of the refugees’ lives, just as the worst or most dangerous moments of anyone’s life are often fleeting. Then comes the rest of their life. What happens then? What does your character hope for, dream about, fear, love, and detest? What does your character seek out during a free moment? If the conflict had never occurred, what path would your character be following? In Turkey, Gökçesu is following the path of a newlywed.
  4. Make that secondary role challenge the first one. In other words, put the major conflict into the background. If you know that readers will respond in a predictable way, there’s little need to dwell on the conflict. As soon as it appears, the readers will respond in the expected way. Instead, focus on the secondary role, the role that is more personal to your character. When this role collides with the conflict, when the character is forced to forget for a moment this personal role, that’s when tension is created. So, how can you summarize your story in terms of this secondary role. Gökçesu might do it this way: I was honeymooning on a beach in Turkey, picking up trash to save the sea turtles—and then I noticed something else.

The goal is to develop character and drama by giving your characters roles that exist independently of the conflict that surrounds them.

Good luck.

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