Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk Talks Novels and Istanbul

Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk answers questions from Duke Professor Erdag Goknar Thursday at the Nasher Museum. Photo by Les Todd/Duke Photography

Sitting before a full auditorium in the Nasher Museum of Art, Turkish author Orhan Pamuk smiled playfully. He had just been asked about his writing process.

“I revealed the entire plot of my new novel on the first page,” Pamuk, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, said. “For me, the plot is never the most important part of the novel. A novel is a galaxy of little details that the author wants to talk about. The plot is the tree that holds together the details, which [ultimately] motivate the writer.”

Pamuk added that he obsessively collects these details in all of his novels, and his latest release, “A Strangeness in My Mind” is no exception. It follows Mevlut, a street vendor of boza, a fermented wheat-based drink, and his life in the rapidly growing Istanbul of the past four decades. Along the way, of course, Pamuk “collects” various details from Istanbul’s transformation from a city of 2.5 million to today’s global metropolis of 15 million.

Earlier in the week, Pamuk participated in a public Q&A with Duke University Middle East Studies Center (DUMESC) director and Turkish Studies professor Erdağ Göknar. .The week’s other Pamuk-themed events included a screening of Grant Gee’s “The Innocence of Memories” and a panel discussion with Duke faculty at the Franklin Humanities Institute.

Göknar’s conversation with Pamuk encompassed a variety of topics, from the author’s experiences living in Istanbul to the process of researching a novel. Following Göknar’s prepared questions, Pamuk answered questions from the audience.

Like many of Pamuk’s novels, “A Strangeness in My Mind” is deeply rooted in the social and historical context of Istanbul, where the author has lived his entire life. Göknar, who also translated Pamuk’s acclaimed historical novel “My Name is Red”into English, said “A Strangeness in My Mind” is particularly relevant to those who wish to understand the historical roots of Turkey’s ruling religiously conservative Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) voter base.

“I find Pamuk’s novels fascinating because they open up new literary sub-genres,” Göknar said. “For example, ‘A Strangeness in My Mind’ doubles as a social history of Istanbul and the urban lower middle class that formed the AKP’s voter base beginning in [the early 2000s]. At the same time, he is able to step away from the social history and focus on pushing the boundaries of the novel form [through a] variety of literary techniques.”

Pamuk said the background research he conducted for this novel, which included interviewing street vendors, was especially enjoyable, as he took great pleasure in combining these firsthand accounts with his own experiences in Istanbul. Ultimately, Pamuk observed, writing traverses the space between the author’s memories and his imagination.

“When you start writing a novel, you cannot see a tree with thousands of fully developed leaves,” Pamuk said. “You can maybe see some of the trunk and branches. The leaves come from your memory [and] the limits of your memory determine the limits of your imagination.” 

And despite living in Istanbul for more than six decades, Pamuk still finds that the best way to nourish his memory and imagination is to explore the city.

“Cities do not have essential attributes,” Pamuk said. “The only thing about Istanbul that has never changed is the breeze and vitality of the Bosphorus [strait]. Everything else is changing.

“As a novelist, I have to keep my tentacles open to all the details of [these changes] and constantly write them.”  

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