Coming of Age in Turkey

By Charles Whitney

Marketed as a young adult book, Özge Samanci’s Dare to Disappoint: Growing Up in Turkey, isn’t particularly one. It is better described as 13-up, for adults as well.

Samanci comes of age in interesting times in an interesting place – Turkey as it veers from secular state under military rule, to proto-democracy turning to Islamist autocracy. The second daughter of schoolteachers in Izmir, a town on the Aegean coast, young Özge idolizes her older sister, develops a serious crush on her first-grade teacher, and like every other Turkish child of her era, becomes steeped in the mythos of Kemal Atatürk. Everyone except her sister Pelin and her Uncle Nihat, a ne’er-do-well free spirit, is too strict, too serious, too buttoned-down, oppressed. Mother and father – especially father – drive both girls to succeed in school with the dream of having better lives than the humble ones of schoolteachers in a provincial town. Both must go to the best possible schools – primary and secondary schools in Izmir, university in Istanbul – and both must aim for engineering. Pelin excels, Özge struggles. Her only route into university in the capital is in math, which she neither likes nor understands very well.

From primary school onward, a heavy hand is everywhere, from family, from the regime, and later at university, from an Islamized student body. An early catalyzing moment is when she is punished by her teacher whom she idolizes – and she is no longer perfect. Throughout, she remains under the eye of Mom, and a perpetually disappointed Dad. Flunking out of school, she is one afternoon attacked in a wooded area. She escapes, and it’s an epiphanic moment. She realizes she cannot be what she cannot be and must follow her own passion. Enrolling in drama school while continuing her math studies, she does well at neither. Faced with one more course before scraping by for the math degree, she comes to yet another defining moment when friends cramming with her admire the artwork in her math notebooks – and everywhere else. “in the midst of the noise I grew up with,” she says, “I could not hear my own voice.” She becomes an artist. An assistant professor of interactive media arts at Northwestern University, she remains an artist today, having begun a sketch blog, Ordinary Things in 2006. We were Northwestern colleagues from 2011 until my departure this past August.

Dare to Disappoint would have made an okay print-only memoir. It makes a compelling graphic novel, quite similar in subject matter, locale, and treatment to Riad Rattouf’s recent The Arab of the Future. Samanci is a better artist. Depicting children, including her young self, as exaggeratedly small, her work evokes that of Chris Ware. The work is at once emotionally fragile and strong, poignant and wry, heartfelt and ultimately optimistic.

Charles Whitney is associate dean for academic affairs and professor of communication at Northwestern University in Qatar.

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