Anastasia M. Ashman and Jennifer Eaton Gokmen are the Istanbul-based co-editors of the nonfiction anthology Tales from the Expat Harem: Foreign Women in Modern Turkey. Anastasia is a cultural essayist who has appeared the Wall Street Journal Asia and the Village Voice, as well as in collections like The Thong Also Rises from Travelers’ Tales and The Subway Chronicles: Scenes From Life in New York. Jennifer is a Michigan writer captivated by the people and customs of Turkey, her home for the past twelve years. She is a regular contributor to TimeOut: Istanbul and she has been published in Mslexia, the UK women’s writing magazine.
How did you get started traveling?
Anastasia Ashman: My fascination with a wider world cropped up early. As a toddler in countercultural Berkeley, CA my favorite pastime was “French Lady”, a tea party with Continental accents. I began traveling even further when I learned to read — comic books. Instead of poring over Archie & Veronica, perky storylines that revolved around characters who never graduated from high school nor breached the border of their staid hometown, I was entranced by the global expanse of history and people and culture revealed in the Belgian-made graphic adventures of Tintin. Tracking a drug-smuggling ring in Egypt, discovering a meteorite with a Polar research vessel, surviving a plane wreck on an Indonesian island — this was life!
Tintin’s travel tales, and many others after them, remain reference points. Last fall at a museum in Nazca, Peru one long-haired, head-banded Incan mummy stirred a pleasant flashback to “The Seven Crystal Balls”, as well as the awe of my twelve-year old self. It’s no wonder I pursued a degree in archaeology.
Jennifer Gokmen: I was selected for a student exchange to England during my junior year of high school — and while London may not have seemed too exotic a destination for most Americans, to a young Midwestern girl the cultural differences were profound. The sense of discovery overwhelmed me, as if my peripheral vision had suddenly expanded and my senses had become hyperaware of disparities. Learning to negotiate a new social chessboard made me want to see how the game was played in cultures a bit more alien. After graduation the next summer, I returned to Europe for six months, which hooked me on foreign surroundings and the ongoing search for strange, new contexts. On a trip to Turkey during my university years to meet my Turkish fiancé’s family, the calling became visceral. My first night in Istanbul I knew this was what I had been longing for: indefinite immersion in the unfamiliar.
How did you get started writing?
AA: In the early ‘70s I kept a journal on childhood road trips where I recorded preferences for the wildness of Baja’s bumpy sand roads and discovering the mother-lode of sand-dollar graveyards in San Felipe to a sedate spin around British Columbia’s Lake Victoria and a fur-seal keychain from the gift shop. Later I was a correspondent, trying to explain my own culture to teen pen pals in Wales, Northern Ireland, and Malaysia, while I searched for clues about theirs hidden in precise penmanship, tarty vocabulary, and postage stamps with monarchs — some butterflies, some queens. During a slew of 20-something media and entertainment jobs I wrote and edited for years, whenever the opportunity presented itself, for a book packager and literary agency in New York, and for television, theatre and film producers in Los Angeles.
JG: In my younger years I was sure I’d become a famous artist. Drawing and painting were the center of my life until I reached fifteen and began composing essays for Original Oratory, my performance role on the high school’s speech and debate team. That eventually led to a degree in literature and creative writing— which I promptly forgot about upon moving to Turkey, instead spending the first six years there engrossed in acclimating to my surroundings. The only writing I did in English was in letters to my mother (which fortunately she saved).
My cultural assimilation ultimately reached a point of stalemate in the sense that I had uncovered the discrete boundary between those Turkish mores I could internalize and the unbudging values that defined my sense of self. At that point, I finally looked up from the playing table and decided to start writing in earnest, beginning with the rules of this country’s game.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
AA: Reviewing Pico Iyer’s essay collection Tropical Classical: Essays from Several Directions for the Far Eastern Economic Review in 1997. The newsweekly magazine based in Hong Kong was equivalent to TIME in Asia. I was living in Malaysia and devoting more attention to my writing career, so it was a breakthrough to write for a major publication and huge audience about subjects which mesmerized me.
JG: Though I had already been writing occasional articles for Istanbul’s TimeOut magazine and had been staff writer for an expatriate humor magazine a few years prior to that, I consider my first “break” to be meeting my co-editor Anastasia, someone who taught me the nuts and bolts of making a living as a writer, the discipline involved rather than just the romantic notion of calling oneself a writer. Anastasia’s energy and goals matched my own and our talents and experience dovetailed so well that creating Tales from the Expat Harem with her was less of a writing project and more of a speeding freight train; though none of it happened quite fast enough for our heady expectations, in the reality of typical publishing time-lines, we managed to secure an agent and sell our manuscript amazingly fast.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
AA: Calling up facts. Seeing the larger story. Sitting down and doing the writing!
JG: Though living abroad provides the subject matter and perspective for my writing, living permanently outside the main market for which I’m writing certainly creates a disconnect between me and some of the resources I’d like to have. Though much is available online, it’s not the same as being able to walk into a bookstore or newsstand to browse all the publications I’m targeting.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint? Editors? Finances? Promotion?
AA: Publishers and acquisition editors and publicists seem to have narrow expectations for travel literature so for my next book I plan to devote a lot of energy to a detailed marketing plan which will accompany the manuscript in its rounds to publishers. Jennifer and I learned quite a bit about marketing to publishers with Tales from the Expat Harem, which was initially turned down by 10 New York houses who liked it but couldn’t fathom its market (Turkey’s too limited a subject, they said). We’ve since determined that it addresses a multitude of distinct groups beyond the basic cells of travelers, expatriates, women writers and travel writers. In fact, we found enough specific target markets we were able to fill a hundred pages of our marketing plan with actual contacts of potentially interested people and organizations, like Turkish American associations, women’s and Middle Eastern studies programs at hundreds of North American universities, and specific Turkophile populations like the alumni of the Peace Corps who served in Turkey.
And the beauty of a marketing plan which breaks down readerships is that a writer (or if you’re lucky, a publisher) can contact all of these people. Jennifer and I also compiled more practical subsidiary audiences for the anthology, like multinational corporations with operations in Turkey, and embassies and tourism organizations which might use the book as a cross-cultural training tool or a promotional vehicle. We were successful enough in our initial efforts in academic marketing that the book is currently used in at least three university courses and is stocked by more than 100 academic and public libraries worldwide.
JG: The nature of publishing today demands much more marketing and promotion on the part of the author. I’m fortunate to truly enjoy marketing, but I find that the required ratio of marketing to writing is unfortunately high. I would calculate it as 5:1 for Tales from the Expat Harem, though I imagine it might easily be higher for projects with more of a niche appeal. Marketing certainly cuts into the time I would prefer to spend on creating. Enjoying marketing is its own danger, too, when the increasing return on efforts keeps me in a perpetual marketing mindset.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
AA: Always. Often my most satisfying work has been poorly compensated. I do believe that will change, eventually! Until then I continue to be a proponent of pursuing the work you love rather than the work which pays best. An essay about a transformational subway ride which I wrote for an obscure website in 2002 not only led me to be quoted in the New York Times and brought me my literary agent, but it also now appears in The Subway Chronicles book published by the site’s creator, alongside venerated New York writers like Calvin Trillin, Colson Whitehead and Jonathan Lethem.
JG: Still doing so. Shifting my personal paradigm to see myself as a writer first and everything else second has been a relatively recent triumph, though it hasn’t necessarily made me wealthier.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
AA: Recently I enjoyed Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before by Tony Horwitz for its mix of historical research, personal experience, and contemporary journalism. Historical travel writing also connects me to the lands I find myself in, and points to the parallels which still exist. My steamy days in Kuala Lumpur were enriched by reading Somerset Maugham, whose Malayan fiction was entirely believable. A series of historical Asian travelogues and contemporary scholarship released by Oxford-in-Asia jogged my imagination and similarly, now that I am based in Turkey, I’ll be turning to the Cultures in Dialogue series at Gorgias Press, which resurrects antique writings about Turkish life by British and American women travelers and refreshes them with contemporary academic analysis.
JG: I’m always looking for good examples of expatriate literature, memoirs of people who have traveled and, at least temporarily, settled into a new culture deeply enough to compare and contrast it to their own background. Expat lit is certainly a brand of literature that deserves to be recognized as its own genre, independent of travel writing. Some titles that do well to capture the culture and/or the feeling of the assimilation experience are Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan by Jamie Zeppa, Almost French by Sarah Turnbull, A Thousand Days in Venice by Marlena De Blasiand, and Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure by Sarah Macdonald.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
AA: Advice: Read the bulletin boards at Travelwriters.com. A lot of very fundamental wisdom there about the life and business of travel writing. Warning: Don’t post a word at Travelwriters until you’ve read the boards for a week or two and have a good understanding of what topics have already been covered, and how best to introduce yours.
JG: Don’t quit your day job; instead let your day job bankroll your writing aspirations. Avoid being swept up into the romance of the idea; just because travel is exotic doesn’t mean the writing profession is any less routine than a 9 to 5 desk job. Tenacity counts for more than any single personal attribute. If you are going to make it, it will only be via your unflagging, inexhaustible, indestructible ability to persevere.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
AA: Sharing my view of the world with others. Adding to the conversation. Having every excuse to adventure.
JG: I can’t think of anything more rewarding than being allowed the fleeting opportunity to step into someone else’s way of life, to observe the world from another’s perspective, to be bonded by commonalities and awakened by our differences.