There is a growing population of people in America who fit into the definition of so-called “Third Culture Kids”. Third Culture Kids are identified as people who do not identify with one nationality, but rather, have cobbled together an identity which merges two or more cultures, a “third culture” identity. They have created community around this self-identification. There’s even a whole magazine written by TCK writers for TCK readers. Full disclosure: I identify as a Third Culture Kid myself as a first-generation Dutch American with dual citizenship. So I was intrigued by Ayşe Papatya Bucak’s essay, “Eight Questions You Would Ask Me if I Told You My Name”, because I see this growing multiculturalism as something which is significant in contemporary art, a defining hallmark of the current artistic period on the evolutionary continuum. This generation’s artists often do not fit into clearly delineated categories, neither in style, nor in genre, nor in cultural tradition or identity. I would argue that the current generation of artists across all disciplines is the generation of hybridization, and Bucak displays this in both theme as well as form in this essay.
I love that Bucak chooses to frame the essay with an exploration of her name, because what is more connected to identity than one’s identifier- one’s name? Using this micro issue, Bucak essays the larger theme of identity and borders. Bucak writes about the failure to communicate with both Americans and Turks, though she alternates between affiliation with either group. She’s fiercely protective of her Turkish name and heritage (You: What Are You? / Me: My father is Turkish / Me [to audience]: As if I am not). She denies the attempts to Americanize her name to “Patty”. Yet she also cannot connect to her Turkish side, as she does not speak the language and admits “I’m afraid I’m not a very good Turk; I don’t know much about it.” She inhabits an identity somewhere in between the two, not accepting attempts to exoticize her or push her out of the parameters of “normal American”- You: “Do you like having an unusual name?” / Me: “It’s not an unusual name.” Ultimately, she decides the middle ground, what I would call a “third culture” identity, is acceptable and completely valid as a place to plant one’s flag: “a Turk who doesn’t feel Turkish, an American who isn’t only American, a writer who likes to ask questions but not to answer them.” I like this (non)conclusion as an answer to the essay’s questions about identity, because to me it encapsulates what people in the 21st century are really grappling with in an era of widespread travel, the Internet, and exposure to ever expanding possibilities: an erasure of borders. Bucak rejects the definitions of the old school of thinking where Bucak is an “unusual” name. In an interesting way, she creates a new baseline definition of a contemporary America that reflects the actual inhabitants rather than those of the old world. From this baseline definition she makes her arguments, with a modernistic rejection of a divisive, dichotomous “reality” where names like Smith and Jones are “normal” and “Bucak” is exotic. Bucak rubs that chalk line out and says she’s not sure what she is, but that’s simply not the line anymore. Somewhere in the muddled mixture of dirt and chalk is where she is, where we all are.
For me, the old adage “form follows function” is a sacred truism that I often find myself judging experimental forms through. What I appreciate about Bucak’s piece is that the straying from a linear narrative style makes absolute sense and supports rather than detracts from her theme. Each structural choice is made for a reason. She displays the same erasing of borders and hybridization that is explored in the essay’s content, in her form. She slips into the format of a play, borrowing across boundaries from ancient Greek tragedies to make the Greek Chorus new, now playfully identified as a Turkish chorus to explore modern themes. I think her play format works well here, because it forces the reader to engage as the “you” in this essay, literally as an actor in her play/life, whether willing or unwilling. The reader is placed into the center of this sticky mess of multiculturalism and hybridity and identity, so I think the appointment of that role by the essay’s author carries some interesting implications and adds a layer of meaning to the essay that would not have been there had she written it in straightforward prose. Further, the different variations on each question the “You” character asks (Question 1, variation A; Question 1, variation B, etc.) once again enhance this idea of multiple identities and possibilities rather than a black and white dichotomous world where there is one simple question and one simple answer. Now, the “You” isn’t just inhabiting one role, but several simultaneously, and Bucak isn’t inhabiting one role, but several. Instead, we get variations, an interesting and pointed word choice in and of itself- "the state or fact of differing, e.g. from a former state or value, from others of the same type, or from a standard".
The Turkish chorus deserves a few more lines than I afforded it above, I realize. On a second read-through, I see again how well they complicate and deepen the essay, the tension they provide the essay with as another voice in addition to the “You” (thus also removing that dichotomy in the essay of merely “Me” and “You”). The Turkish chorus belligerently (and humorously) champions the Turkish identity at all turns, wanting to push Bucak back into a clearly delineated box where muddiness of identity doesn’t exist- Me: “Where are you from?” / You: “Philadelphia” / Chorus: “She’s lying” / Me: “…I answer Philadelphia because it is the city of my upbringing, the city of my American side. And because, sometimes, I like to remind people that while my name is foreign, I am not.” / Chorus: “She is.” In a way, it’s pretty apt that the chorus in the piece is borrowed from an ancient, clearly-defined, old-school play format because they represent old-school thinking in the essay, the traditional dichotomous thinking that the essayist is pushing against. I suspect the chorus may represent the older generation of Turks and an older generation in most cultures, in fact, who fear or resent what they perceive to be a loss of cultural identity as new generations of immigrants and an increasing globalization begin to blur boundaries and hybridize. I appreciate Bucak’s use of them to interject humor and an argumentative voice, as I do her choice to create a “You” character to put us as readers into a role. Bucak wins high marks on form following function in my book.
Of course, this essay is about far more than a name. It speaks to concepts of cultural identity, the urge to define or to be defined, borders, hybridization, the influence of a surrounding culture on one’s development, and more. I could easily write another 1000 words about this short piece, address the political issues and Bucak’s conflicted statements about being a writer in America versus being a writer in Turkey. But I will leave it at this: I really like what this piece says about contemporary society. Bucak really embraces the theme of hybridization, this word that I think is absolutely the most exciting thing about this era. I think it’s a fine essay, worthy of further examination for its freshness and representation of a new era of writers and 21st century-relevant themes.