Thursday, March 17, 2011

Two Papatyas (on Ayse Bucak, posted for Rebecca Epstein)

Two Papatyas

"Eight Questions You Would Ask Me If I Told You My Name" is, reduced, a clever package tied neatly, a script with elements that fall into their grooves and remain.  It is so tidy that to read it is to feel a shiver of perfection, an appreciation for a well-oiled machine with smooth, sliding, soundless parts.  But that perfection of form says to the reader, I defy you to peel away my layers; I defy you to look deeper.  And so many a reader likely reads the script in all its orderly design and puts it down sated, though one might argue that this satiation is nothing but a desert mirage.  To peel away the layers is to ask the following:

1) Why such a compact, delicious package anyway?
2) And what’s with the pronouns?
3) What function does the Turkish chorus serve, really?
4) What is the tone of the piece?  Does the form affect the tone?
5) How are we supposed to feel about each of the characters?
6) Is there anger here?
7) Is there self-pity here?  Is that a bad thing?
8) What, then, is the point of this essay?  Where is Papatya going with it?

The reader cannot answer all of these questions at once, but perhaps the one question that will answer itself most readily, or will at least beg its own question most seductively, is the last one.  What is the point of Bucak’s Eight Questions?  Is it an exercise in sympathy-gathering?  Does she want the reader to feel for her, for her troubles as a Turkish-American, straddling two nations?  On the surface, yes.  Bucak feels bad for herself, a touch outraged, and the reader, who as someone outside of the piece, straddles the points-of-view of all characters, especially You and Me, should feel some of this outrage, too. 

But there is more to it.  Bucak calls the interrogator You, the person who is mired in misunderstanding, ignorance, and insensitivity, not to mention the dreary cliché of always asking the same questions as every other You, and by calling the interrogator You, she is also addressing the reader, who is not Bucak, but is an other, a You.  Bucak is saying, if we met, you would ask me these questions too, and this is what I would be thinking.  So as frustrated as the reader feels on Bucak’s behalf, the reader must also acknowledge that she, too, would make the same offenses in Bucak’s presence. 

Bucak takes it even a step further, by transliterating the entire issue into the Turkish realm, as when she meets a Turk or travels to Turkey, and then she adopts the “’help me’ expression” herself, that so often graces the faces of her American interrogators.  So in a way, Bucak is admitting that everyone, under the right circumstances, is an ignorant jerk, and she just so happens to have a name in America that makes her subject to this ignorance more of the time than most.

So, yes, there is a satisfying balance of responsibility in this piece.  But ultimately, despite that balance, it appears as though Bucak herself is unaware of whatever her point might be.  Does she want the reader to feel guilty?  Does she want to relieve the reader of culpability?  Does she want to advise the reader on how to act should she encounter someone with an “unusual” name?  And if Bucak doesn’t know, then neither can the reader. 

1 comment:

  1. Interesting take, Becca. I don't think she wants any of those things. I think she wants to explore the way we conceive of these things. You ask "Does she want to advise the reader on how to act should she encounter someone with an “unusual” name?" But I think she lets us know in the piece that that is not at all the question, that is not at all what she is interested in. She is interested in why we label it as an "unusual" name in the first place. When asked about her unusual name, she answers "It's not an unusual name." So the question of how to react to an unusual name is moot if you skip over the more pertinent question- IS it an unusual name? Who says so? In an America now comprised of an enormous mix of nationalities and heritages, why are we even conceiving of British names as the norm, and everything else as "unusual" anymore? Does that reflect our country in 2011? Aren't these much more interesting questions? In my opinion, a lot of people completely missed Bucak's point and decided to read an accusation into her thesis. But I think she knows exactly what her point is and what she's asking in this essay, and it transcends those generic questions people automatically transpose onto essays about race, nationality, and identity. I didn't feel a whiff of accusation leveled toward me as the reader, just curiosity and a desire to explore the meaning of national identity in modern times. So I think there may be a bit of projection going on in readers who feel that she was out to make the reader feel guilty. Ultimately, I didn't feel satisfied that anyone was able to point out specific passages in the actual text where Bucak was guilt-tripping the reader or where the "you" displayed anything other than the kind of curiosity one would routinely encounter. Where is it in the text? So in my opinion, that tone some people felt in the piece was a tone they were giving it.