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Interview: February 8, 2008

February 8, 2008

Alan Drew's debut work of fiction,GARDENS OF WATER, examines the clashes among cultures, faiths and families, and sheds light on the disparate perspectives of American involvement in Middle Eastern affairs.

In this interview with's Alexis Burling, Drew describes what initially inspired him to write the book and discusses how his experiences living and teaching in Istanbul fed his writing. He also explains the significance of its title, compares and contrasts the attitudes toward education in Turkey and in the U.S., and shares what he hopes readers will take away from reading his first novel. Can you share with us where the idea for GARDENS OF WATER came from?

Alan Drew: The earthquake was the primary influence for the book, but there were many experiences living in Istanbul that feed into the story. I grew up in Southern California and had experienced many earthquakes, but the Marmara quake was larger than anything I’d lived through and it caused a shocking amount of destruction. Depending upon where you get your numbers, either upwards of 17,000 people or more than 30,000 were killed by the quake. Whole towns were obliterated, and the shock of that level of destruction really stuck with me. I kept wondering how you go on with your life if you’ve lost your whole family, your home, your business, your whole way of life.

My wife and I worked in a tent city while we were there, and it was clear that the American group running the camp was proselytizing to the Muslim occupants of the camp. This is probably the germ of the book more than anything else. I wondered what a devout Muslim who had just lost everything would feel about having to take food and shelter from people who made it a point of telling him that his religious beliefs were inferior to theirs. With this in mind, I started writing about this man, Sinan Basioglu, a Kurd who had already experienced enough injustice to be primed with a bitter anger that would not accept such a situation. While the book is told through Irem’s point of view as well as Sinan’s, the book is really Sinan’s, and the conflicts and plot really grow out of his character, out of me trying to imagine how such a man would react in such a situation. 

BRC: You arrived in Istanbul four days before the Marmara earthquake. In the beginning of GARDENS OF WATER, a major earthquake strikes and devastates the city. How were your experiences different from and the same as what you describe in the book?

AD: As I mentioned above, my wife and I worked in a tent city, and that camp is the model for the tent city in the book. But our experience in every other way was completely different from that in the book. My wife and I lived in a well-built apartment on the campus of a well-funded private school on a hill on the Asian side of the city, and, except for a few cracks in the exterior mortar of the building, the apartment was unaffected. The vast majority of the people who were killed in the quake were poor, living in poorly built apartment complexes erected upon landfills, which collapsed as soon as the ground began to shake. Many of those people, like Sinan and his family, were displaced from their Anatolian villages by the war in the south, by a simple lack of economic opportunity, etc. and had come to Istanbul in hopes of finding new opportunities. Many news reporters spoke of the quake as though it were a disaster that struck the rich and poor equally, but while some wealthy people were killed in their summer homes in Yalova, the vast majority of the people killed were the poor, the displaced and the disenfranchised. The earthquake revealed the great chasm between the experiences of the wealthy and that of people living in poverty. The earthquake was not only a natural disaster, but a political and social one as well.

BRC: You tackle many themes in GARDENS OF WATER: religious imperialism, the treatment of women and their role in society, politics and war. And throughout the book, many of your characters voice their opinions about these various subjects. Do you think you could have written this book if you had not lived in Turkey as you did, but instead traveled through there as a visitor?

AD: No, I don’t think so. Living in Turkey was critical to the writing of this story. Much of what I wrote about --- the politics, the war, etc. --- could be found through good research in libraries or on the Internet, and I did a lot of that; but when you read about these issues in print, they remain abstract, distant. When you travel, too, as a tourist, the place, to a certain extent, remains abstract as well; you dive into the culture for a couple of weeks, eat the food, speak to some people, see some sights, but then you go home, back to the world you left behind and go on with life.

Living in Turkey --- and I imagine this is similar for anyone who lives in a foreign country for an extended period of time --- forced me to constantly step out of myself, to see things in a new light, to put away (as much as one can do this) my own preconceptions and prejudices and see the world differently. Much of this comes from having to learn the language, from having to understand and work within the philosophical framework of the society, and in doing so, gaining a deeper level of understanding. While I’ve traveled to China, I don't think I could write with any clarity at all about the experience of a Chinese man living in Shanghai. That said, I wrote this story in a genuine attempt to understand someone like Sinan Basioglu and his family, but I’m still a foreigner and not an expert on Turkish or Kurdish culture. While I hope I did these characters justice, I fear that maybe I haven’t, that I’ve missed something --- or many things --- that are critical and important. 

BRC: Marcus and Sinan have an incredibly relevant conversation as Marcus tends to Sinan’s bloodied foot. Marcus believes that the American government allows the Turkish military to destroy Kurdish villages because “you want to speak your own language, because you want your land, because the U.S. and NATO want Russia out of the Mediterranean.” Sinan's response is: “There will never be a Kurdistan because the Americans want the oil in Kirkuk.” This same conversation could be staged today regarding America’s occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan, correct? In your experience, are these accurate representations of what people on both sides feel regarding the U.S. preoccupation with the Middle East?

AD: I think so, but it doesn’t make the perception entirely true. While I personally believe there to be some truth in the above statements, and I think Marcus and Sinan would as well, I don't think they represent the complexity of the problems in that part of the world. I think to even begin to understand the modern problems in the Middle East, you have to go back to World War I and the destruction of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent carving up of the region by Western powers into arbitrary nation states that did not consider tribal and religious differences. It’s not simply about oil or political leverage, but a wider, more complex set of problems that are very difficult to sort out. There is --- and was even before 9/11 and the Iraq War --- great skepticism about American and other Western governments’ motivations in the Middle East.

I've heard many conspiracy theories about U.S. involvement in the Middle East, many of them involving Israel as a co-conspirator. What matters in the book, I think, is not whether or not what the characters say is absolutely true politically speaking, but that they believe it to be true. What many people think about the U.S. and NATO and other large political powers is not always true, but what they think reflects a larger truth, a truth of perception. The question to ask is, what’s feeding those perceptions? 

BRC: When Sinan converses with Marcus throughout the book, he often uses the phrase “You Americans,” thereby judging Marcus like he judges all other Americans, without exception. Did you hear this when you were there?

AD: I did not hear that very often to my face. Turks are extremely hospitable, and it would be the height of rudeness to speak that way to a foreigner while he is visiting the country. You do, though, occasionally hear this tone in newspapers or while listening to conversations about politics. But I don’t mean to suggest that Turks or Kurds are any more prejudiced than any one other culture. You hear this tone, this phrasing everywhere --- from Americans referring to people from the Middle East, from Greeks speaking about Turks, from Israelis speaking about Palestinians, etc. --- and every single one of these groups have good historical reason to be angry enough to generalize about other cultures. One of the things I wanted to get at in the book is the way that politics, governments and religions sometimes work to destroy our humanity, our individualism. When Sinan sees Marcus, he sees a political policy that has destroyed much of his life and his culture, not a man who may actually be sympathetic to his plight. Of course, Marcus isn’t directly responsible for these policies, but Sinan also sees a man who has the right to vote in a democracy, to choose his government, a government that has some culpability in the atrocities Sinan has experienced.

BRC: Sinan is so wonderfully complex and conflicted! When creating his character, what qualities were of utmost importance to you in terms of his personality? His value system? Did your vision of him change at all throughout the writing process?

AD: It sounds strange to say, but, despite the horrible things he contemplates doing, I love Sinan. He feels like he really does exist to me, even though he only exists in my mind and on paper. His conflicted nature and his complexity are what I love the most, because I think we’re all like that. No one is absolutely bad and no one is absolutely good; we all struggle with our conflicting natures, and that struggle can be exacerbated by outside influences --- war, poverty, loss, etc. I think, though, Sinan’s honesty, or his desire to be honest, is of utmost importance to me. Sinan wants to be a good man, he wants to love his children equally, he wants to understand people, but he is also powerless, angry, bitter and, above all, scared. It’s difficult for me to talk about Sinan in a way that will shed any more light on his character than the book already does, because he is confusing to me as well, just as he should be, I think. If I read the book today, I would still struggle with his character --- I would love him, be disappointed in him, be repulsed by him; but, in the end, I would still care about him because he does struggle, and there is nobility in that struggle. 

BRC: And because Sinan and Irem are so alike in some ways --- stubborn, passionate, conflicted --- I’d be interested in asking you the same question about her character as well. Also, what does her relationship with her family illustrate about the clash between giving in to the temptations of a modern lifestyle and practicing a traditional Muslim one?

AD: One of the things I enjoyed most about reading GARDENS OF WATER is thinking about and deconstructing the many paradoxes you present throughout the story. Sinan doesn’t trust the Americans, but Marcus’s wife, an American woman, dies saving Sinan’s son’s life. 

BRC: Sinan refuses to let Irem see Dylan despite their love for each other, yet Dylan shares similar views as Sinan when it comes to the Americans’ way of treating --- and trying to convert --- the Muslims. Why did you write the book in this way?

AD: To be honest, I’m not sure I was conscious of writing all these paradoxes. Sometimes these things grow naturally out of writing the story, and have more to do with staying true to a character's personality than it does out of planning and a hidden symbolic agenda.

Some of them I did on purpose, of course --- Sarah saving Ismail, for instance. This was important in terms of character because Sinan needed to feel beholden to Marcus so that their relationship could develop, but also so he would have to see these people as individuals and not just as those Americans. This thrusts Sinan into a deep emotional conflict, which drives much of the story.

Also, I liked the idea of Sarah --- the name of Abraham's wife in the Bible --- saving Ismail, the lost son of Abraham by Hagar, and the ancestor of the Arab people.

I wanted this to speak symbolically to the shared ancestry of Jews, Christians and Muslims. Also, I wanted that selfless act to play ironically against Sinan and Marcus’s failed friendship. Sarah’s sacrificing herself for Ismail is the only selfless act in the story, and, if you listen to Marcus describe her, she is also the least self-righteous character in the novel. As far as Dylan is concerned, it seemed only natural that he would chafe under his father’s conservative religious thinking just as Irem would against Sinan’s. In a way, Irem and Dylan’s situation is exactly the same, just from opposite ends of the religious spectrum. 

BRC: At one point, Marcus says to Sinan, “A man’s pride shall bring him low, Sinan, but honor shall uphold the humble in spirit.” What is the significance of this quote, and how does it illustrate some of the major themes in GARDENS OF WATER?

AD: At that point in the book, it isn’t only pride that keeps Sinan from going into the tent city. Marcus isn't wrong for accusing Sinan of that, but he misses the more important reason Sinan won’t bring his family into the tent city --- his distrust of Americans and his desire to honor his father’s memory.

Of course, Sinan does think of killing his daughter because she is “dishonoring” his name. Also, there is something very prideful to me about thinking that your version of religious truth is absolutely better than another man’s. When Marcus begins to proselytize to Ismail, it seems to me that he stops acting honorably and instead acts selfishly. This helps to bring about the ruin of a growing friendship and understanding. 

BRC: After the earthquake, Irem “wanted someone to hold her and tell her it would be okay, but now she knew the limits of her parents’ strength and she was terrified to realize that her strength surpassed theirs.” This is certainly a poignant observation about what it means to mature and realize your own mortality. Can you think of a time in your life when you've experienced something similar?

AD: Hmm. Well, divorce will do that to a certain extent, and I’m a child of divorce. Though we all have this kind of realization eventually, Irem is simply forced to realize it a little earlier than most when, despite her mature realization, she isn't actually capable of dealing with it yet. 

BRC: In the Koran, Heaven is roughly described as a lush garden environment with many rivers, streams and flowing water. Is this why the book is called GARDENS OF WATER?

AD: Yes, but also to play upon the irony that when, at the end of the book, Sinan describes “Kurdistan” as their “paradise,” he is speaking about an arid land. I wanted there to be a sense that he is very far away from “paradise.” 

BRC: It is clear that Irem and Dylan feel strongly for each other, despite (or maybe because of) their cross-cultural background; yet, when they find themselves outside the realm of the camp, their differences become almost too glaring to overcome. Without giving too much away, might you talk a bit about their connection, as you see it, and what inspired you to write this element into the story?

AD: I think this grows out of Irem’s character. She has this fantasy about Dylan’s life and about the life of secular, western-leaning Turks, but when she is presented with its reality --- at least the reality surrounding Dylan --- she is repelled by it to a certain extent. She is her father’s daughter, after all, and Dylan’s drinking, his cursing, his lack of decorum in general is difficult for her to accept. Even though their town has been completely destroyed, there is a certain amount of safety for Irem in the tent city, because she really can go only so far with Dylan.

People are watching her, making sure she doesn’t violate certain social mores, and even though she thinks she wants absolute freedom, it scares her when she gets it. One thing I wanted to present through her point of view was a certain spiritual emptiness in the lives of Dylan and his friends. They are free to do what they want, for the most part, but they choose to abuse their bodies, abuse each other, and there is a certain emotional desperateness to their lives, partly because they have few limitations that help define who they are and what they truly value. Irem sees this, although she wouldn't think of it in those terms, and that emptiness scares her. As for Dylan, he's an emotional wreck, a live wire, and I think he sees something solid and stable in Irem. He wants her stability, but he isn’t stable enough himself to realize he is destroying the thing he loves about her.

For me, this relationship works on a symbolic level. Dylan is attracted to Irem’s stability, but he disdains the conservative background that is the foundation for that stability. This strikes me a little like the way the secular world often views religious people in general, and while secularists often point out the violence and oppression of certain religious beliefs, they don't often like to point out similar repressions and violence in their secular freedoms. 

BRC: Toward the end of the story, it becomes clear that many of the relief workers (including Marcus) are preaching Christianity to the refugees in the camp in hopes of converting them. What is the significance of this fact, and why did you introduce this element into the book?

AD: I wanted this story to be tragic, maybe because I’ve been a high school teacher and the curriculum is heavy on tragedy. Also, the reality is that this kind of thing happens in the world, and, to my way of thinking, it is very detrimental to coexistence in a pluralistic religious world. To me, it is extremely tragic that the relief workers make the choice to prosyletize. If they had simply taken care of the people in the tent city without preaching, then many of the Muslim people of the camp would have had a positive impression of Christians and their work in the world, even some, such as Sinan, who held a prejudice against them at the beginning. Instead, they ruin their good work by demeaning a group of people who have already lost everything. It’s a sort of religious imperialism that also hints to a sort of cultural imperialism that I think is happening around the world with the growth of globalization. To me, to get at what’s happening in the Middle East you have to look not just at religion, but also at politics and how the two often work together to cause clashes between people who should otherwise be able to understand each other. We focus on the differences in our traditions more so than the similarities. Christians view Jesus as the son of God. Muslims reject the idea that God has a son, but view Jesus as a prophet. Regardless, both traditions view Jesus with great reverence. With all the other similarities between both religions, why should this be the major obstacle to both groups getting along? 

BRC: You taught English literature at a high school in Istanbul. What do you remember most about your time there? And what inspired you to choose Istanbul over, say, Tokyo or Florence?

AD: We ended up in Istanbul by chance. While my wife and I were teaching in San Francisco, we attended a job fair, looking for teaching positions in China and couldn’t find two English positions at any of the schools. After striking out with places such as Italy and Spain, I stopped to talk to the director of Uskudar American Lisesi. We hit it off because I knew a little about the capture of Ocalan, the PKK leader a few days before, and he offered us an interview that night. By the next morning, he offered us the job and we were feeling adventurous. 

BRC: At the end of your stint, what made you decide to return to America instead of staying in Turkey a few more years?

AD: My wife and I wanted to attend graduate school. We also wanted to start a family, and for whatever reason, we never really thought of doing that overseas. I think we will, though, live overseas again, at least temporarily. We want our children to have the experience of living in another culture, to expand their view of the world. 

BRC: What are some of the glaring differences between the Turkish school where you taught and the schools you attended in America growing up?

AD: The school where I taught in Istanbul is an elite private high school, attended mostly by very wealthy, often extremely intelligent Turkish students. I attended a well-funded, public high school in an upper-middle class town in Southern California. Both schools provided an excellent education, but the intellectual expectations were higher in the Turkish school, at least in terms of math and sciences. While my high school in California put a premium on sports and extracurricular activities, the focus at the Turkish school was solidly in academics, and the amount of work students were expected to complete was sometimes astonishing. In general, having taught both in Turkey and the U.S., I would say that the best students in my classes in Turkey were more intellectually curious, more cosmopolitan and less complacent about the education they were getting. (This is not true across the board, I should say, because with great wealth comes a great sense of entitlement, and some of the students I taught in Turkey were among the most selfish and spoiled children I’ve met anywhere.) These were students who were going off to Princeton, Harvard, Oxford and other such places, determined to come back to their country and work to make it a first-world powerhouse of a democracy. These students seemed to understand the value of the education they were getting more so than most American students. 

In America, it is expected that you be given a good public education, and that expectation is so strong that many people don't really want to pay for it through taxes or levies anymore, they just want it because they think it is their right. In Turkey, a high quality education, I think --- the kind that most American students are offered today --- is still seen as a privilege, and these students realized that. Because they realized that, they worked harder and learned more. 

BRC: What would you like your readers to take away from their experience with GARDENS OF WATER?

AD: Oh, man! Well, if I could adequately answer this question, I probably would not have written a novel. The book is my attempt to understand many frustrating, hard-to-grasp aspects of culture, religion and disaster. I guess I hope that people take away an understanding of the plight of someone such as Sinan Basioglu and his family, a measure of sympathy for their anger, pain, frustration and their desire to have that experience acknowledged.

BRC: In 2004, you completed your MFA at the prestigious Iowa's Writer's Workshop. What were your experiences there like? Would you recommend that program to aspiring writers?

AD: It's a fantastic program, but I think you have to be very serious about writing because no one is looking over your shoulder to make sure you keep working. I was very nervous my first year there, because I was sure someone had made a mistake by letting me in to the program. The other writers there were extremely talented, and I often felt my work didn't measure up.

I was, though, very determined to learn and to get as much writing done as possible, and the more I wrote, the better my writing became. What was great about the program was that it gave me tons of time to work, a lot of freedom, but it also offered great feedback and support. Because of that time, support and the rare opportunity to focus almost exclusively on writing, I could see my writing improve very quickly. In normal life, this is rare because everything else intrudes on that time and space. I’m indebted to many of the teachers there, but also to the other students and many of the staff. 

BRC: Do you prefer to read a specific genre of books? Might you have a few favorite books to recommend to your readers?

AD: I read a ton of nonfiction for some reason. Nonfiction is more relaxing to me than reading fiction, since when I read fiction, I often find myself thinking more about how the story is put together than simply enjoying it. I recently read Rory Stewart’s THE PLACES IN BETWEEN and thought it was fantastic. Nonfiction, but with a strong narrative thread. 

As far as fiction goes, I love most anything by Graham Greene. I think GILEAD by Marilynne Robinson is brilliant and beautiful. One of my all-time favorite books is ANGLE OF REPOSE by Wallace Stegner. I just finished THE BEAUTIFUL THINGS THAT HEAVEN BEARS by Dinaw Mengestu, which I thought was a very powerful debut novel. 

BRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it? 

AD: Norman Mailer said, “I think it's bad to talk about one's present work, for it spoils something at the root of the creative act. It discharges the tension.” I kind of agree with this, except for less intelligent-sounding reasons than Mailer states. As soon as I speak about what I’m writing before it’s done, it sounds stupid to me and I begin to doubt it. That said, I’m sort of feeling my way through a couple of things, waiting to see which one begins to feel more vital, more worth spending a couple of years living with.