In the shadow of war


Ghosts book cover

Loren Edizel was born in Izmir, Turkey, formerly Smyrna. In The Ghosts of Smyrna Edizel deftly interweaves the small and the large: the story of a single family with that of a community; a description of the neighbourhood where they live, Aya Katerina, with that of the city; and the political events that overwhelm Smyrna with the march of time for the region as a whole. And Edizel does so to craft an intelligent and compelling novel.

Though the novel could be classified as historical fiction, unfurling as it does under the shadow of war, gives it contemporary currency. Right at the beginning we meet Niko, a war orphan who would be around 10, and discover that his honourable father, Jacob, served and died in the First World War. (Niko’s mother died while giving him birth.) Jacob’s death haunts not only Niko, but also his grandmother Marie, the pillar of the family, and his artistic aunt Elena, who throws herself into painting to deal with the pain, while Jacob’s eccentric brother Polycarp becomes even more introverted as a result.

Another factor that comes through is the multicultural, multi-religious nature of Smyrna. The author has this to say about Jacob: The Italians called him “Devisani”, the French “Devision,” the Greeks “Devetziannis” and the Ottomans “Deveciyan.” But the cosmopolitanism (“Here you could start a sentence in one language and finish it in another…”) becomes tarnished and Jacob’s Armenian identity — “Devision” — becomes his bane.

Half way through the book the Greeks invade Smyrna, spilling blood. The inhabitants now live under occupation: “They ventured outside… With each outing they discovered that their world had vanished a little more…” When their neighbour, Nazim, a writer and resister, as well as Elena’s lover, is forced to flee, the family leaves the house and goes to Marie’s brother’s house, for fear of interrogation. They return, but stability eludes them. The Turkish army of Kemal Atatürk enters the city on September 9, 1922, followed by the Great Fire that destroys much of the city, four days later.


Against this dramatic backdrop unfold the lives of Niko, Marie, Polycarp, Elena, Nazim, and Manolis, a Greek family friend. Their actions draw the story forward, and their thoughts and feelings keep the reader engaged. My one criticism is that a couple of times I found Niko’s reflections far too adult for such a young boy.

Despite the upheavals, Niko still goes to school and pulls pranks, Marie still ensures that her family is fed, Elena still finds an art dealer for her work, one who encourages her to copy Old Masters as a sideline. And Manolis goes from being somewhat vain and self-centered to a man of purpose (though you may disagree with his ends and means). There is also the doomed, poignant love story of Elena and Nazim, holding hands in taxicabs and dreaming of escape, but finally trapped by circumstance.

There is living history here — legends, names, rituals, places– but to her credit, Edizel does not meander or show-off. Rather, she integrates it all, seemingly effortlessly, into the main narrative. This complex work, written in a fluid style, replete with humanism, breaths life into Smyrna and its inhabitants between the years 1914 and 1922. Edizel turns an unflinching gaze on the devastation and tragedy that war wrecks, leaving the reader shaken, wishing whole-heartedly for peace.

Apart from The Ghosts of Smyrna (TSAR Publications, 2013), Edizel has authored two other books: Adrift (TSAR Publications 2011), and Confessions, a book of tales, (Inanna Publications, 2014).

Loren-Edizel author photo

“and the Greeks were poured into the sea”


Loren Edizel talks to Veena Gokhale about her inspirations, the challenges of getting The Ghosts of Smyrna published, her writing process, and how she nourished her vocation despite a full-time job and family responsibilities.


VG: What was your reason for telling this story of Izmir/Smyrna, apart from the obvious fact that you were born in this city? Why did you set it the Aya Katerina neighbourhood?


LE: I grew up with stories about the way Izmir was before the fire, how the fire affected the city, its inhabitants and my parents’ families. It was a life-altering trauma, woven into the fabric of every story told. My grandmother on my father’s side was a great storyteller, so were my dad and his many siblings.  Colourful people with fascinating stories — maybe because they lived through great hardships and survived them — and an ability to make it all come alive in the telling. I was the youngest child, still at home while my older siblings were at school, and there were these peaceful moments spent in my grandma’s room, sitting on the carpet, playing with cubes and puzzles, while she would tell me about her life. She’d point her finger and say, “One day, you will write the story of my life.” I didn’t quite, but I hope I told a story she would have enjoyed. Aya Katerina was her neighbourhood. After the fire, that whole area was transformed into a large, lovely park, at the centre of the city. The inhabitants of Izmir are deeply attached to Kültürpark and its beautiful trees. I played there as a child and often thought about the neighbourhood it replaced, where my father had spent his early years.


VG: Can you tell us something about growing up in Izmir? Did the name change from Smyrna to Izmir mean something to you?


LE: The name didn’t actually change per se, both names Izmir and Smyrna coexisted for centuries; but Izmir became the official name. People may still refer to Izmir as Smyrna, Smyrni or Smyrne depending the language they speak or their generation. Izmir was the name of my city and I knew it was also called by its ancient name growing up and it made no difference to me.

Izmir was a modern-looking city. There were no visible signs of what it went through in 1922, except for the notable absence of the typical, two-storey Smyrnian houses, which were the architectural norm at the turn of the century. There were a few neighbourhoods and streets where a few old houses were intact and stood out as remnants of another time. The War of Liberation (aka the Greco-Turkish War) was taught as part of a nationalist narrative in schools. There was a phrase I remember reading in my history book in elementary school about the victory, which culminated in the Turkish Army led by Mustafa Kemal, entering Izmir.  This phrase that gave me pause was “and the Greeks were poured into the sea.” I remember reading it over and over, trying to get a visual grasp on it, with the innocence of my 7 or 8 years. It was a terrifying sentence. How do you pour people into the sea? What happens when they are in the sea? Did they die before or after they were poured there? How many? Who? There were no further details.

Another such sentence was the description of the aftermath of the Greek occupation. “The sea was the colour of blood.”  Everything about that time seemed rather vague, except for the slogans and charged emotions. There were tensions between Turkey and Greece for a good part of my childhood. There were many people who spoke Greek in Izmir, still. People who came as a result of population exchanges from the islands — Crete mainly — and local Levantines and remaining Anatolian Greeks. My parents were fluent in Greek, so were my aunts, uncles. You didn’t have to be Greek to speak Greek.  But it didn’t seem like a desirable language to speak when I was a child. The same was true on the other side of the sea, I presume.

Other than that growing up in Izmir was a time of many fond memories for me. The warmth of having a large extended family, close bonds with cousins, friendships that in some instances began as toddlers and have lasted to date, summers spent on the beach, the pleasure of walking through the streets and smelling the sea, first loves, and all that.


VG: So this novel was first published in Turkish, in Turkey, in 2008, right? Please tell us about that whole process. I’d expect a difference between reader response there and here. Was that the case?


LE: The book had an unusual trajectory. I wrote the novel in English. I sent the manuscript to Roza Hakmen, who, in my opinion, is one of the most talented translators in Turkey. She’s from Izmir as well and lives there. We both graduated from the same school, and although we had never met before, we had common friends and acquaintances. That’s how we connected. She read the manuscript and loved it. She said she wanted to translate it to Turkish and actually sought and found the publisher who made it all happen. I owe the Turkish edition to her efforts, entirely. She did a marvellous job of translating the manuscript as it was then. This was in 2008.

At the same time, I was trying to find an agent for the original English version, knocked on many doors in the US, Great Britain, Ireland.  Sent queries all over the place. A hundred or more, maybe.  I thought I had to get an agent first.  Got some lovely rejection letters. Finally, after a couple of years of fruitless searching and spending a small fortune sending the manuscript around the world, I realized that casting such a large net was not necessary; I should simply focus on publishing the novel in Canada and for this, I did not need an agent.

Getting a first book published is maybe like having a first baby. You have no clue what you’re doing, even though you want to do all the right things.  While I was doing all this increasingly frustrating work to get that one published, I continued writing, another novel, some short stories.  One of them, The Imam’s Daughter, got published by Montreal Serai in 2010 and that somehow led me to TSAR Publications. To my great pleasure they published both my novels, Adrift first and The Ghosts of Smyrna afterwards.

The Turkish reception was warm. A lovely review came out in Cumhuriyet, one of the most respectable newspapers in Turkey, a few months after its publication. The book touches upon a most difficult and tumultuous time, from a slightly unusual perspective – that of a member of a cultural minority. The article praised that and the way the novel focused on the lives of ordinary people in the larger framework of the historical events.

I think it was well received in Izmir; that is my impression.  There was no mistaking the love when I went back a few years later and had a book signing. So many people came… Childhood friends, relatives, acquaintances, people who read the book and wanted to meet me. My publisher who organised the event was delicately trying to warn me that not a lot of people may show up and I may be disappointed. It was in July, one of the hottest days when most people are at the beach and would not even dream of staying in the city.  It was a very moving, lively reception, contrary to his fears, and I will cherish the moment for as long as I live. The reader response there is more visceral because the story touches the very city, and its unfortunate moments resonate with everyone whose families were affected somehow. It was like returning into the open arms of a loving family.

Here, the focus is on the universality of such themes – war, destruction, love.  And there is the added benefit of discovering something about another place, another time through the story. A few people who read it told me they were reminded of Louis de Bernières’ novel Birds Without Wings, which is also about the same time, takes place in a village not far from Izmir.


VG: It seemed to me that you were trying to bring out the multicultural, cosmopolitan aspect of the city, while at the same time some of the characters seemed restricted by their environment, at least the women, Marie and Elena. There’s this almost provincial quality of their lives. Comment?


LE: Yes, there was the multicultural and cosmopolitan aspect to the city.  The story unfolded at the beginning of the 20th century. Was cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism then what we understand it to be now? I don’t believe so.  We are also looking at the death of an empire, one that had gone through many wars and miseries since the early 19th century and lost a lot of territory and human power as a result.  There is the doom of a dying empire casting its shadow, and there is not much wealth left of the bygone era of Ottoman opulence. Already this lack of means creates that provincial quality you speak of for all the inhabitants and more so for women who were not only socially restricted at that time, but also suffered the decimation of their families and ways of life because of all that hardship.


VG: Did you undertake a lot of research for this book? Do you go back to Turkey often?


LE: I did undertake a lot of research many years before I wrote this book, more than a decade before. I had done the research for a screenplay I had written, which was about the time of the great fire as well. I had received a Canada Council grant to write that screenplay. Entirely different story and characters. So it sat there for a lot of years. I wasn’t happy with it. When I decided to write the book, that research filtered its way into the story in a very natural way. All that baggage stuffed into my memory laid itself out as the background; I already had a clear vision of how things looked.


VG: Here is that inevitable question that writers are not too keen to answer, but which interviewers love asking! Were some of the characters in the book inspired by real people?


LE: Yes, the inevitable question! It is hard to answer this one, I’m not sure why. Probably because characters may have some qualities or traits of people we know and may be composites of those traits and imagined ones. Surely there are pieces from stories I heard mixed into this dough, and the characters, imaginary as they are, have inherited some attributes of people I’ve known or heard about.


VG: There is a quirky factor in the book: Elena meets Hemmingway, even flirts with him! The Internet reveals that the writer came to Smyrna in 1922 and wrote about the Great Fire and the war. What were you trying to achieve with this interlude?

When I was doing my research, I fell upon a very short story Hemingway wrote on the great fire of Smyrna. It was poignant.  He was a correspondent at the time, for a Toronto newspaper, if memory serves. When I was doing my research, the information I got was that he wasn’t in Izmir when the fire happened; the event was related to him by a friend who witnessed it and he wrote the short story as a result. He may have come to Izmir at some point, before or after, who knows. When I started writing the book I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting if he did go to Smyrna before the fire and met some locals… Wouldn’t it be interesting to have this very young Hemingway at the start of his career, engage in a brief encounter with Elena, a Smyrnian woman painter?  This encounter grew and grew in my mind and became part of the novel. Here’s a young American reporter/writer who has left the New World to be where the action is, where the wars are changing the face of Europe and the world, he wants to be “anywhere but in Chicago, because Chicago is not enough” to quote from the book, and Elena, a woman painter, who’s weighed down by her life, her circumstances in this Old World with its history and its old ways, profoundly unfavourable to a woman seeking artistic and social freedom, and who feels that “Smyrna is too much” and she wants to recoil from it. I thought it was an interesting encounter between two very different lives.


VG: And so it was! You write in Turkish and English? What are the differences and similarities between writing in Turkish and English? For that matter, are there any differences and similarities between writing about diaspora themes and stories set in Turkey?


LE: I haven’t written in Turkish in a very long while. I was a teenager when I left so my command of Turkish did not grow with the language as it continued to evolve over there – and it did evolve a lot. I speak a few languages; some of those from early childhood, so technically I have a few mother tongues and each language has its wealth and its very particular beauty. It would be lovely to write in jumbled up sentences, using the words I want from each language. In my immediate family this is how we speak. Turkish has fewer words than English. But there is a precision to Turkish words that is quite unique. For instance there are many words for “love” in Turkish. Or different words to express sadness that have a sensual quality to them. Hüzün which is a word to describe a kind of melancholic, nostalgic sadness – and Orhan Pamuk (who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006) speaks of that a lot in his work – comes with a certain sensual signature, which I could perhaps recreate in a few sentences in English. Reading Pamuk in Turkish is a beautiful thing.

My writing language is English. I love how malleable it is, I love its plasticity. When I write a story set in Turkey I think perhaps there is a kind of subconscious conversation between English and Turkish and the other languages from my childhood in my mind and hopefully I’m able to transpose the resulting textures and feel into my use of English.


VG: Your novel Adrift, which is what they call a Diaspora story, is set in Montreal, and you lived there for a while. Why the move to Toronto? Do you find any change in your writing because of the move?


LE: I lived in Montreal longer than anywhere else in my life, so far. I moved to Toronto because my partner got a job here. I started writing novels here in Toronto. It was a perfect move for me. As much as I love Montreal because I have friends and deep bonds to the place, life in Toronto has had an energizing effect, creatively. Professionally too, my career just took off here. Maybe it suits my personality better. It’s a bigger, busier, crazier place and demands more from me and therefore I also produce more, perhaps. It also has this vibrant multicultural, cosmopolitan feel which I love and cherish daily. And moving here has given me a long-view of my time in Montreal, which led me to write Adrift.


VG: I believe you work full time and at the same time you have published 3 books in 4 years. How did you mange that? What are you working on these days?


LE: Yes, full-time work, busy family life, all of that. What is the alternative? I thought about that deeply when I decided to get serious about my writing.  I imagined living my entire life without ever acknowledging this need I have always had, without giving it a voice, room to flourish, permission to exist. It made me feel sad, like I had let the best part of me die of neglect. So, whenever I said to myself, “I don’t have time, I have a demanding job and three kids, this is nuts, I can’t be a writer” I countered it with: “Can I forget about it and move on?” The answer was No. I had to find the time; I had to be disciplined. If you write at least a paragraph every day, after 365 days you’ll have written a lot. I woke up at 5:30 every morning to have time to write before the kids woke up, before I went to work. Another excuse was, “I don’t have a room to write in — a room of my own. Surely every writer needs one, complete with bookcases, a comfortable desk, swivel chair etc.” It turns out I can write in my tiny unfinished basement, surrounded by the furnace, the washer and dryer. This room of one’s own that every writer needs is inside my head. It also helps that I have a most encouraging and supportive spouse and children who have understood and respected my need to disappear into my writing for a certain time every day. They give me plenty of room and I’m grateful for that.

These days, I’m finishing another novel — also set in Izmir — and I have a couple of ideas for new projects, but it is all still quite nebulous.

Veena Gokhale started her career in the mercurial world of print journalism in Bombay, in the 1980s. She first came to Canada on a journalism fellowship, returning to do a Masters. After immigrating, she worked in communications for non-profit organizations. She lives in Montreal.