Dmetri Kakmi and 'Mother Land' - Interview Part Three

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by Paul

The third and final part of the Dmetri Kakmi interview.

Click to read Part One or Part Two of this interview.

PB: It’s interesting, with memoir, that it might generally be assumed it’s a matter of putting down facts, but of course it isn’t. There’s always an element of self-censorship; that knowing what to choose and what to leave out is important. And one of the things I found particularly interesting was when you mentioned earlier that you had blended a couple of names and inserted a fictional scene in order to create dramatic unity. Very often, in order to be honest in a piece of writing, those sorts of decisions have to be made. What was that process like? Did you feel that you were compromising the truth or did you feel you were reinforcing it?

DK: During the writing I found that the facts were getting in the way of telling the truth. I wanted to explore an emotional truth. The only way I was able to communicate that was to manipulate some of the facts. By that I don’t mean that I lied – relatives and friends who read the book certainly recognise the events and themselves – but, as you say, I collapsed two people into one character. I rearranged the chronology of certain events to suit the dramatic build-up and tension of the narrative. Part Three contains a fictional scene, which is an encounter between two main characters, but the information revealed in that scene is all factual.

It was information that I gathered over a period of three or so years, from different people. When I put it down on paper as it happened, I found that, in this pivotal section of the book, which should be built into an emotional peak, I was defusing the tension. The information was coming in from all over the place, I had different characters who hadn’t appeared before suddenly appearing and having their say, and it was just a very broken narrative. When I read it, I thought this isn’t doing it for me at all. I could not imagine that an objective reader who has no connection with the narrative would be carried away with this. So [I asked myself]: What are you trying to achieve here?

What I wanted, I suppose, was an emotional catharsis – a key to unlock the past and to open a kind of Pandora’s Box of expiation.

I’m a senior editor at Penguin Books, so I thought: What would one of my authors at Penguin do to resolve this problem? The answer was that they would probably bring two of the main characters together, plop them down at a table and they would have a dialogue that brings things to light. As soon as I started writing the scene, it was obvious to me which two characters had to be in it ... One of them was me and the other character will remain nameless for the readers’ sake.

I have to say I felt uncomfortable doing it because, after all, this is a memoir and we are meant to be telling the truth – these are the facts of our lives – and here I am creating a fictional dialogue between two people who’ve never met and reporting it as truth. I set it aside for a while and I thought I’m not going to go this way. I finished the book and that fictional scene sat in a separate document for a long time. Then I dropped it in again and I read it and I thought: This needs to be in the book. Even though it didn’t happen, it had an emotional impetus that fed the narrative in a very satisfactory way. It was a kind of wish-fulfilment, these two people meeting one another; a meeting that is ... very likely to never happen. But, by writing it, it helped me to release certain emotions that had been locked up for 30-40 years. Also, in the scene, I give voice to someone who is, to all intents and purposes, dead and has never been able to speak for herself.

When the manuscript was picked up by Giramondo, I made sure to tell the publisher there was one fictional scene. He said: ‘I couldn’t care less.’ He was too blasé and that worried me, but when you look at the current genre of memoir writing, a lot of people do it. I just didn’t realise they were doing it. Brian Castro’s Shanghai Dancing, Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family – they do very similar things: playing with scenes, the chronology, manipulating emotions to get full emotional peak – so I realised I was not all that unusual and ... could in time feel comfortable with it.

The publisher and I continued to debate it right up to the end. A month before the book came out, he rang up and said: ‘Okay, Dmetri, memoir or fiction?’ I thought it has to be fiction – there is a fiction scene here. I rang him back and I was going to say ‘fiction’ and I said ‘memoir’. And it was the wisest thing to do, because in terms of marketing, it’s proved to be the right decision. It’s been a drawback in terms of being shortlisted for awards, though, because judges are uncomfortable with a non-fiction book that contains fiction. So far the judges of the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award have been the only ones who have been kind to us.

PB: And Arnold Zable said, I believe, you’ve written a novel here. Is that right?

DK: Arnold Zable interviewed me for Readings magazine. While we were talking, he leaned across and very earnestly said: ‘You know you’ve written a novel, don’t you?’ It took me by surprise because I don’t think of myself as a novelist.

PB: A large part of that is because of the themes and the layers of ideas that are running through, which are much more than we might ordinarily expect to find in a memoir. There are a lot of universal themes running through.

DK: Absolutely. That was deliberate and I think I realised that – I guess the writer in me was coming through, without me being aware of it. I was making decisions – fifty or sixty percent out of sheer intuition and the rest of the time would be deliberation in terms of what information to put in, which themes to develop. As Arnold Zable said when he launched the book in July (2008) ... ‘It takes a great amount of skill and thought to actually find the story within such a huge narrative such as this.’ Because, quite literally, the story covers a couple of thousand years. There are stories that go back to classical times and other [more recent] stories from before I was born, and so on and so forth. I don’t know if it was skill – I think it was sheer luck in my case, but there is a story there and I think it hangs together fairly well.

PB: I think it’s possible, also, the poet is coming out in you despite what you said earlier [about having written bad poetry once]. I was interested to hear you say that you’d started off with poetry because one of the things that I love in writing is whether it has that lyrical or poetic quality. Certainly, as I was going through this, I was stopping and reading out sections to my wife and saying, ‘Listen to this; this is absolutely stunning.’

In a while, her golden-haired daughter Athena will come out. They will sit in wicker chairs and the daughter will brush her mother’s long grey hair, and coil it into a grizzled braid. While Athena lifts the brush and pulls it down again, a breeze will catch a stray strand and lift it over the rooftops to the sky. When it gets too close to the sun, it will burn and fall to earth. Mixed with the fertile soil, it will grow into a daffodil. (pp.33-34)

And then there are pieces like: 'My feet turn to goats’ hoofs, steady and sure, my arms into wings, light and fluid.' (p.65) and, a bit later on: 'Zotico’s shadow was still fresh on the pavement when they closed the front door. There is no life there, only a cemetery silence.' (p.230)

This is poetry, but what the poetry is doing is linking all the different worlds that you’re exploring; we’ve got pagan, we’ve got Christian, we’ve got Muslim; we’ve got Greek, we’ve got Turkish ... and it’s written in English. It’s as if the language is the story as much as anything else; there’s a lot in it. There’s the language of mythology; there’s the discussions with Grandad Dimitro, who is dead, and the vision that he’s providing to this young boy. Did you have difficulty finding those words?

DK: I have to say that I didn’t have any difficulty doing it. Once I found the boy’s voice, it virtually wrote itself. His thoughts blended with mine and the tale came quite simply pouring out in that visual language. When I first started writing this, I believed that I didn’t have a particularly interesting story to tell, but I wanted to tell it nonetheless; and I thought: How am I going to seduce readers into reading this. The best way I could think of doing it was to craft a beautifully-written book... And, of course, the other thing was to universalise the characters and the various themes, so that even an Australian would be able to pick it up and read about a group of people in an isolated corner of the world, in the northern Aegean Sea, that seemingly has no relation to them, but be able to relate. So that was a conscious decision.

Language is very important because I’m Greek, I was born in Turkey and I’ve spent most of my life in Australia. I’ve grown up with three languages: Greek, by osmosis from my parents; I went to a Turkish school for the first years of my life and learned how to speak, read and write Turkish; and then we came to Australia and within six months I learned how to read, write and speak English. And, of course, as an editor, you need a very good command of language ... So language has always been a central part of the factor for me because language can bring you in but it can also lock you out.

The saddest thing I experienced on one of my trips to Turkey was not being able to communicate with my own people. I’ve now forgotten how to speak Turkish and Greek. I have tourist Greek and Turkish. I can barely communicate in both my own languages. So English is really my only language. And I find that when I go back to Turkey now, I’m an outsider. I’m an outsider because I don’t have the language to open those doors and allow entry into this world that once was my world ...

From such loss, beautiful things occasionally grow. While Dmetri Kakmi may have lost the full use of his Greek and Turkish languages, and become an outsider in this respect, I believe he has, with Mother Land, added a rich, evocative and significant text to the body of English literature. Twelve months after first reading it, Mother Land remains one of the most finely crafted and compelling pieces of writing I've read, and through it he certainly succeeds in opening a number of doors and experiences for the reader. Thank you, Dmetri, and good luck both with the launch of the UK edition and with your future projects.

Mother Land is published by Eland (UK), by Giramondo (Australia) and as Anayurt by E Yayinlari, translated by Niran Elci (Turkey).

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