The Accidental Anthologist

My memoir was going to happen. It had to. It was the cornerstone of my survival plan.

 I moved to Istanbul in 2003 so my Turkish husband could take a job in mobile telecommunications. Even though I lacked a formal proposal for my high-concept travel memoir charting the peaks and valleys of what I was calling “an adventurous life,” I already had a literary agent waiting to champion it. My international move just required a defense strategy.

Meeting of Minds

In my mind, life in Turkey would be an extended writer’s retreat, free from the daily distractions of our “real life” in New York City, where we had met. I’d be an asocial expatriate writer who would one day emerge at the border clutching my passport and a masterpiece.  This exotic vision had been percolating since I’d last been an expat—in Malaysia. I’d spent five years rotting away in the tropics like a less-prolific—and more sober—Somerset Maugham.

Foremost to decay in the equatorial heat was my personality—the core of my writing voice.  In steamy Southeast Asia, language and cultural barriers prevented me from expressing even the simplest aspects of my identity. When I told people I was a writer, they’d reply, “Horses?”

Now I was all about the work.  Istanbul, a hilly metropolis of 12 million, made Kuala Lumpur look like the sleepy river town it is. I couldn’t envision navigating a car on its traffic-logged streets or squeezing into public minibuses or straying too far alone without a translator.

Upon my arrival, I joined an expat social club for some English-speaking company. There, I met an upbeat Michigan writer married to a Turk. Unlike a scolding librarian and a tassle-shoed socialite, Jennifer had no doubt I would write my memoir, and we created a workshop with a handful of other American women.

[pullquote align=”left”]Within weeks, my memoir stalled as I struggled to map my entire existence. My resistance to Turkey started to wear down.[/pullquote] Jennifer and I began playing with a proposal of our own: an anthology incorporating essays about our Turkish lives.

I was bursting with that kind of material: the cultural gauntlet I faced on my first trip to meet the family or my glitzy Istanbul wedding. Inspired by the original harem of the 15th century Ottoman sultans, where foreign-born women shared their cultural wisdoms and new arrivals compared notes with old hands, we formed a modern version: the Expat Harem.

The harem walls felt like they were closing in, though, when I contracted a mysterious and ancient ailment of the pharynx. I passed the whooping cough to Jennifer. For the next six months, we were both homebound, succumbing to every little flu. The only thing we were suited for was speechlessly working, and we only wanted to think about the anthology.

I vented to Jennifer about the dilemma of life abroad—even for those who want to blend in to local culture, it’s near impossible.

"Tales from the Expat Harem" - Check it out on Amazon.Com

“The Expat Harem is a place of female power,” she replied, linking us to an Eastern feminist continuum little known in the Western world.  Harem communities offered women the possibility of power.  In the imperial harem, they offered the greatest power available to women in this region. These women had the sultan’s ear, they were the mothers of sultans. Several harem women shadow-ran the Ottoman Empire, while others co-ruled.

We called for submissions from writers, travelers, and Turkophiles. Fascinating women from fourteen nations poured their stories into our inboxes, sharing how their lives had been transformed by this Mediterranean country in the past 50 years and moments that challenged their values and their destinies as nurses, scientists, Peace Corps volunteers, and artists.

Their tales were not universally known.  Many had never before been published, and all were minority voices in a Muslim country with a reputation for censorship.  Their struggles to assimilate nudged me to forgive my own resistance, and inspired me to discover the country, the culture, and the Turkish people.

Finally, I could use my suppressed editing skills of the child who returned letters corrected with red pen. From the comfort of my home office, I was able to shape other writers’ stories.

One late winter day, Jennifer and I stopped coughing and sold Tales from the Expat Harem to a prominent Turkish publisher.

Four decades’ worth of expatriate self-discoveries earned its shelf space more than my own 40-year life story would have.  The anthology became a #1 English-language bestseller in Turkey and was recommended as a social and cultural guide by National Geographic Traveler and Lonely Planet.

My literary career and conflicted mindset about life abroad gained a promising new cultural context in the expat harem.  I arrived afraid to be silenced, and instead Turkey raised my voice in the cultural conversation.

With Matt Lauer, from NBC's "Today Show"

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