INTERVIEW: Özge Samancı on ‘Dare to Disappoint: Growing up in Turkey’

INTERVIEW: Özge Samancı on ‘Dare to Disappoint: Growing up in Turkey’

William Armstrong -
INTERVIEW: Özge Samancı on ‘Dare to Disappoint: Growing up in Turkey’

Photo credit: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Sometimes modest ideas can be deceptively sophisticated. Özge Samancı’s graphic memoir, “Dare to Disappoint: Growing up in Turkey” is an ostensibly simple graphic memoir about growing up in a lower-middle class family in İzmir, her life at boarding school, and her later time studying maths at Istanbul’s prestigious Bosphorus University. 

The book (reviewed in HDN here) is light-hearted in tone, but its simple drawings of Samancı’s trials and tribulations also cleverly reflect on Turkey’s broader modern history. It’s a charming formula that became a bestseller in Turkey after being published in English last year. A Turkish language version is due to be published soon. 

Samancı sat down to speak with the Hürriyet Daily News about her book, how she created it, and her plans for the future.

“Dare to Disappoint” was first published in English last year. But it sold very well in Turkey and now it has been translated into Turkish. Did you always plan to publish that way round?

Honestly I didn't have a very clear plan. Things developed organically, one thing followed another. I used to draw for the Turkish humor magazine Leman many years ago. When I moved to the United States I lost my connection with Leman but I started making a web comic called “Ordinary Things." I was doing it to entertain my friends in Turkey but I decided to do it in English because it was going to be available on the web and I wanted it to be available to my American friends. But it went beyond entertaining my friends and gained a larger audience from all over the world. I kept doing the website and started preparing this graphic novel idea I was carrying in my mind. I didn’t consciously decide to do it in English but that's how the book emerged.
The Turkish version is due to be published either this month or next month by İletişim publishing under the name "Bırak Üzülsünler" (Let Them Be Sad). We couldn't directly translate "Dare to Disappoint" into Turkish, so that's the best we could do.

What was the writing and drawing process like? The book is full of small details remembered from your childhood that many readers, in Turkey and abroad, will recognize. How did you gather together all the memories and details included in the book?

It's just a mindset that I have. I love anecdotes. I talk about the past a lot and I love it when people tell me their lived stories. People who hang out with me find that they start remembering their childhood because I talk so much about it and ask them questions. Again it's not something I did consciously, it's just how I think and live.

But what I do consciously is I have a document, and as I remember anecdotes I write them down roughly to remind myself. So I have a written collection of these anecdotes with me. I select which anecdotes to include in the work by telling them to people and seeing what kind of reactions they get. If it's a good reaction I know it's a good anecdote to use. Writing the book was the longer process. Making the images took almost two years but writing took even longer.

INTERVIEW: Özge Samancı on ‘Dare to Disappoint: Growing up in Turkey’For high-school you went to boarding school in Istanbul. You describe that school as the place where you first came face-to-face with the classic secular/religious social divide. How did you want to approach this sensitive issue in the book?

There is no way of telling this story without touching on those issues because it was everywhere. As I narrate in the book, the Gülen movement was powerful in the school I went to. They would give scholarships to students from more conservative or poor backgrounds. There was a great deal of brainwashing going on the school and a great deal of polarization. So the school was a small, condensed model of Turkey itself. 

One of the things you depict vividly in the book, which probably won’t be very familiar to most English readers, is the soul-destroying process of exam cramming that all Turkish students have to go through, ticking various boxes.

Exactly. Coming from that background has so deeply shaped my personality that I sometimes feel like I have an assignment that I haven't done. That feeling of not being prepared enough never goes away. I'm sure many people of my generation feel the same kind of wounds in their spirit.

Despite being quite short, the book effectively summarizes Turkey’s recent history in an amusing and light-hearted way. There’s a contrast between the light, almost naïve visual style of the drawings with the often heavy material. Was that a deliberate decision?

I don't know. I wanted to make it approachable. I don't like pretentious work and I wanted people to relate to the book. I have that intention in whatever work I do. So possibly that shapes the art style of the book, but maybe not consciously. It's something I do extensively throughout my work.

When I was writing the book for an American publisher, the main audience I was thinking of was people who don't live in Turkey. There has to be a way of making a story relevant to that audience, so it would have been a bit flat if I told the story like "this happened to me, then that happened to me." You have to connect this little world with the political and historical environment, which gives it a wider context and more global interest. Of course, once you start talking about politics and history the narrative gets deeper and you touch on more difficult subjects. 

You left Turkey for the United States 14 years ago. Now in today’s Turkey there’s a real danger of a brain drain. You come back to visit Turkey occasionally, so do you sense a darkening in the atmosphere? 

I don't know if there has been an increase or decrease. But that brain drain thing has been there since my childhood. I used to hear about it back then too. It happened more with people who scored well in the nationwide university entrance exams, then got scholarships to study in the U.S. Currently the brain drain may be happening more, but possibly that is because of the Internet and because people are communicating more easily with each other.

What’s next for you? Have you got any other projects lined up?

I'm working on a new book. The title is "Not Here But Everywhere." I've written a very rough draft and I don't know how long it's going to take to complete. "Dare to Disappoint" took five years to make but I hope I can get this new one out in two or three years. 

It is a fictional graphic novel. I wanted to explore the flexibility of writing a fictional story. When you write an autobiographical story you have to be honest and you can't bend the story, even though fiction might make better dramatic art. 

There are two main characters. It's going to be a formalistic experimentation and I'm going to tell their stories in parallel to each other on alternating pages. In one part of the book there is an American character who comes to Istanbul, while in the other there is a Turkish male graduate student who comes to Athens, Ohio. They are going through similar processes in life, both dealing with grief in a different culture, including my observations of both cultures. It's going to be another graphic novel, which is my home medium, the most natural medium for me. I couldn't imagine doing anything else.

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