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Idyll Hour

I acquired the moons a few years ago because I wanted to wear a necklace that would convey some kind of talismanic feeling. One thing I like about a crescent is that it’s a symbol that consists of only part of the whole. It’s almost as if there were another version of a heart that was only part of the heart. Turkish people are really into moons, so this is something I’ve heard all my life. People will always point out when there’s a crescent moon in the sky. Turkish has a special word for “the reflection of the moon on the water.” 

Elif wears her own (archival) Catbird You are My Moon & Stars necklace.  Shop similar styles 

The idea of the two crescents comes from the two moons in Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. I love his novels so much. 1Q84 isn’t my favorite one, but it does have this cool detail. The sign that you’ve entered the alternate reality—the one that’s 1Q84 and not 1984—is that there are two moons in the sky. There’s this incredible moment when the narrator looks at a playground and sees two moons and knows OK: I’m in the other world. The double world is there in a lot of Murakami’s novels, and the two moons is an image that sums it up for me.

As a small child, I was always writing in a notebook. Adults would say, “My, are you writing a novel? Are you going to write novels someday?” And I’d be like, “Yeah.” I thought that whatever I was writing—my observations about life, or whatever—would automatically segue into novels someday, or that a novel would materialize without my noticing it. It took many years to iron out this misunderstanding. 

I grew up visiting Turkey every summer with my parents. I was the first person in my family to be born in the U.S., so I felt like I existed between Turkey and America in a different way.

The title of my new book, Either/Or, partly refers to Selin, the narrator, having to choose between her parents in a custody suit, which actually happened to me when I was a kid. I was an only child. From age ten, I was constantly shuttling between my parents, and I would hear a lot about each one from the other. I believed I was the only objective person in our family who could understand both sides.

I first read Anna Karenina in Ankara, at my grandmother’s apartment, the summer after my second year of high school. I had run out of English books so I was looking for one that would last a long time. I found my mom’s Penguin Anna Karenina, from when she was in high school—she went to an English-language school.

From that first sentence of Anna Karenina—“all unhappy families are unhappy after their own fashion”—I was like, “there’s a book about this?” Tolstoy shows that everybody is right from their own point of view, but also how structurally unfair things were for the women. 

Tolstoy also showed me a possible way to turn all of these contradictions, which could actually be quite scary or threatening, into a beautiful document that’s funny and sad, at the same time. It was also a way to control the narrative. Instead of feeling like a football getting thrown from here to there, I realized, I could turn it into a story—one where I got to be generous and humane and understanding. 

I think a lot of people with immigrant parents are conscious of the dreams their parents didn’t necessarily get to live. In Turkey, an exam determines what university you go to: medical school, business, whatever. Liberal arts education isn’t really a thing. My mom scored really well on the exam, so she went straight to med school at 17. She loves literature, but she didn’t really get to choose. 

When I found out that there was such a thing as novels, and writing them was a job you could have, and that people took it seriously, I was like: “OK, I have to do that.” Nobody in my family told me not to, which I think is unusual.

By the time I went to college, I had filled several volumes of notebooks and I don’t know how many endless Word Perfect files. I was kind of a graphomaniac. But I got demoralized because I wasn’t good at “creative writing.” I took a creative writing class and I just didn’t get why I had to create some quirky character on top of my observations and give them an arc of desire. Creative writing at that time was very much about projecting yourself into other people’s point of view. What I really wanted was to understand my own life. It was a real relief to me when “autofiction” became a thing. Nobody used that word in the ‘90s. 

When I was younger, I wore an evil eye charm most of the time, on either a necklace or a bracelet. In Turkish culture, good fortune always sort of comes with bad fortune, because other people’s envy will invite the evil eye. Whenever I had any bad luck, my mother would say, “Oh, it was the evil eye,” meaning it was because someone else was jealous over some earlier piece of good luck. 

In the evil eye culture, you’re always trying to ward off other people’s envy, which changes your mode of relating to other people, your mode of talking about yourself, and your mode of relating to good fortune.

At one point in Either/Or, Selin’s friend Svetlana says, “you know what the difference between us is? You’re trying to live an aesthetic life, and I’m trying to live an ethical life.” 

In the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or (my novel’s namesake), “the aesthetic life” is based on living your life as if it’s a work of art. Selin wants to be a writer, so she’s really attracted to the idea of living her life as if she is a character in a novel. That way, she can just write it down and have a novel.

Meanwhile, her friend Svetlana is living “an ethical life,” meaning a life based on being “a good person.” In the Kierkegaard book, it means getting married and having a boring family, instead of having a bunch of exciting affairs. None of it totally makes sense: how is it even possible, let alone necessary, for a “beautiful” life to be one that hurts other people? How is getting married synonymous with being a good person?

I think what Selin and Svetlana are attracted to isn’t the model itself, but just the fact that Kierkegaard, a famous philosopher, actually thought concretely about two different ways to live your life, and created a whole unresolvable debate over which was right. If there are two different ways, that means it’s a way for Selin and Svetlana to be free from envy and rivalry. 

By deciding that each has a different way of living, they’re able to tell themselves they’re not actually competing with each other.

When I was 34, I wrote a pitch for a novel called The Two Lives. It was about a writer for a New Yorker-like publication who starts to feel as though she’s living two lives, and writing, or thinking, two stories: one gets published in The New Yorker, and the other doesn’t get published and doesn’t even totally get written, because it doesn’t fit into journalistic norms. The narrator—a version of myself at the time—was trying to write her way out of that situation. I found it very challenging to write about my own life as it was happening. 

While attempting to write a flashback, I unearthed the draft of a book I had written in my mid-twenties, while taking a break from my PhD program. It was a fictionalized version of my own freshman year of college, and it was concerned with the same questions as The Two Lives. Since 20 years had passed since I’d lived it, I could finally see it as a book and not just unmediated reality. That document became The Idiot, which was published in 2017.

When I was trying to write The Two Lives, I thought I was describing a new problem I had encountered only in my 30s. But when I revisited The Idiot, I found this sentence: “I began to feel like I was living two lives.” That’s what made me realize I had to go back and write that book first. 

I think what I love about novels is, the novel is the closest way we have of writing at the same time about both lives: the inner life, and the life that’s outside, in the world. My favorite philosophy book now is The Ethics of Ambiguity, by Simone de Beauvoir, where she basically corrects Either/Or—she says the aesthetic life and the ethical life are actually the same thing, the same life, the free life. Because the only way to become free yourself, is to simultaneously always be striving to make other people free. Of course it’s really hard to do both at the same time, you have to always be thinking about it, always choosing. You can’t just make one decision once and then follow that policy your whole life. I think that’s such an incredible program: “I free myself and others.” That’s how I’m trying to think about novels now.