A Turk­ish tale told in graphic form

Ozge Sa­manci’s graphic mem­oir, a best­seller in her home coun­try, de­scribes life dur­ing a time of great so­cial and political up­heaval, writes David Lepeska

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On the open­ing page of her graphic mem­oir, 6- year- old Ozge peers through binoc­u­lars at her sis­ter Pelin at the pri­mary school across the street from her home and asks her mother when she will start school. Soon af­ter, she’s sent out to buy gro­ceries but in­stead drops in on Pelin’s class and stays, driv­ing her mother into the streets in a fran­tic search of her daugh­ter.

Yet all that love for learn­ing goes nearly for naught in Dare to Dis­ap­point, Ozge Sa­manci’s sub­tly bril­liant de­but, pub­lished in the United States in Novem­ber (a Turk­ish ver­sion is ex­pected next year). Be­gin­ning around 1980 and de­tail­ing Sa­manci’s lower-middle-class up­bring­ing in Izmir and stu­dent years in Istanbul, it’s the first non-fic­tion, comic-book­style ac­count of mod­ern-day Turkey, and a best­seller there. When Sa­manci does fi­nally start school, she falls hard for her first-grade teacher, Hediye, who tells the class of Mustafa Ke­mal Atatürk – how he founded the na­tion and made Turkey sec­u­lar and proud. Sa­manci sees his im­age ev­ery­where, from the class­room to her fam­ily room and TV broad­casts.

The cult of per­son­al­ity ex­tends even to her school ma­te­ri­als – there, on her plas­tic ruler, next to cut-outs of a cir­cle, tri­an­gle and square, is Atatürk in pro­file. “Only boys can be Atatürk,” Hediye tells Ozge, re­fer­ring to the cast­ing of a school play.

Mil­i­tancy is also part of her early school­ing. “Ev­ery Turk is born a sol­dier,” the class reads aloud. The stu­dents stand to at­ten­tion when a teacher en­ters the class­room, march in gym class and learn ba­sic mil­i­tary poses for or­gan­is­ing in the school­yard.

Mean­while, out in the streets, left­ist groups war with na­tion­al­ists and con­ser­va­tives, un­til the 1980 mil­i­tary coup. Sud­denly, no one is al­lowed on the streets af­ter 11pm. Turkey’s state-run TV chan­nel shows mostly gen­er­als and sol­diers. News­pa­pers are shut down for the tini­est of­fence and books are banned for ob­jec­tion­able con­tent, in­clud­ing some for chil­dren.

Early on, Sa­manci’s father scares his daugh­ters and pro­pels the nar­ra­tive: “In this coun­try, if you are a woman and you don’t have a job, you are zero, noth­ing, noth­ing!”

Their par­ents, both civil ser­vants, can af­ford only the low­est level pri­mary and sec­ondary schools. Thus, the sis­ters must spend all their time study­ing, in­clud­ing go­ing to a week­end school, to have any chance of get­ting into a good col­lege and find­ing a de­cent job.

Pelin wins a slew of aca­demic awards, gets into the best sci­ence high school in Turkey and goes on to study com­puter en­gi­neer­ing at Istanbul’s Bospho­rus Univer­sity, one of Turkey’s best col­leges. Sa­manci too gets into Bospho­rus, to study math. “It’s not en­gi­neer­ing?” asks her father. “How are you go­ing to find a job?”

Sa­manci’s univer­sity years are one trial af­ter an­other. She fails her math classes, gets a black eye in a traf­fic ac­ci­dent and fi­nally is at­tacked by two men in the woods near her school. Just as they are about to rape her they see some­one com­ing and run away.

Five years in, her friends have grad­u­ated and Ozge feels lost, look­ing to­wards a dark fu­ture. She goes over her math notes in prepa­ra­tion for the last course needed to earn her de­gree and stum­bles upon her fu­ture.

The book took 10 years to com­plete, and it shows. Sa­manci es­chews the tra­di­tional square frames of most car­toons, open­ing her work to seem­ingly lim­it­less pos­si­bil­i­ties – ver­ti­cal rows, di­ag­o­nal shifts and prom­i­nent cen­tre im­ages.

The draw­ings are mostly min­i­mal­ist, but there are also col- lages, pho­tos, maps, and wa­ter­colours, some­times all at once. She uses colour strate­gi­cally, and to great ef­fect. To de­pict the 1970s civil war, she shows a cou­ple shot in the street, bright red blood spilling onto the pave­ment.

The book also weaves in the Kur­dish sep­a­ratist move­ment, the free- mar­ket poli­cies of prime min­is­ter Turgut Ozal, the cul­ture of cor­rup­tion and the rise of con­ser­va­tives and Gu­lenists, in­form­ing the lay reader with­out get­ting heavy or dull. Her par­ents sur­rep­ti­tiously buy smug­gled Corn Flakes at their front door, for ex­am­ple, and her lit­er­a­ture teacher tells his class that a wife “should be taught to obey”.

What’s learn­ing, Sa­manci asks us, and what does it have to do with self-dis­cov­ery? There are echoes of Mar­jane Sa­trapi’s Perse­po­lis, which is more stark and dark, and of Riad Rat­touf’s The Arab of the Fu­ture, which is more re­moved. The shelf may be short, but Dare to Dis­ap­point – a beau­ti­fully told tale of a girl strug­gling against a so­ci­ety stacked against her, only to find her life’s work in the last place she thought to look – takes its place among the best graphic de­pic­tions of com­ing-of-age in the Mus­lim world.

David Lepeska is a writer who con­trib­utes to The New York Times, Fi­nan­cial Times and Mon­o­cle. He lives in Istanbul.

Cour­tesy Ozge Sa­manci

Ozge Sa­manci’s il­lus­tra­tions from Dare to Dis­ap­point, a comic-book novel of life in Turkey in the 1980s and 1990s, liv­ing in a lower-mid­dle-class fam­ily in which career pres­sure is high.

Dare to Dis­ap­point: Grow­ing Up in Turkey Ozge Sa­manci Far­rar, Straus and Giroux Dh62

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