Zarife Biliz: I remember you once said, “I live through every child I describe in my books”. How did you succeed in entering the mind of a child who collected trash for a living? For example, have you felt the need to go and visit the neighbourhoods they lived in, look closer at their lives and get to know them better? Have you had different concerns from creating characters with more familiar social environments?
Miyase Sertbarut: Yes, I can say that I know these kids. I have been visiting junk markets of Ankara for the past five years. They contain all kinds of people; it really is a world of extremes. You make entirely different friends there, you can even chat with El-Qaeda members. I can’t bring myself to call it a flea market, because it is a market of a world below that, a junk market is an apt description. Children come to this market as well to sell things, alongside their fathers and their older brothers. But, it's difficult to make these kids understand, truly difficult.
To narrate poverty through literature is like war photography. It feels similar to the self-doubt the photographer feels when all he has done is to press the shutter while a child is being killed in front of him. The photography of death is not pretty, but onemight take pictures of war to say “No to War!”
There is risk in describing destitution, because people might think all you are doing is telling a sad story. Writing a sad story is not what motivated me. It’s hard to put into words even, do you see how terrible it sounds if I were to say “I wanted to beautifully capture destitution”?
Zarife Biliz: Your books always have a strain of crime writing juxtaposed with personal or social problems. Your characters always try to solve a mystery. Junk Plaza has a similar feature. The adventure begins with the unlawful distribution of the blood of poor kids who live amongst the dirt but are healthy to the rich kids whose immune system has collapsed due to living in isolation all the time. Let’s talk a little about this choice of narrative. Do you think this kind of adventure is required to pull the reader into the book? Young children surely enjoy the adventure but I feel like young adults can handle a bit more…
Miyase Sertbarut: I really enjoy the adventure, to be honest, it is a fun game to live these events that we don’t experience in real lifethrough books. If I had told the story of the kids of Junk Plaza within their own reality, without the trappings of an adventure, maybe the result would have been a book with greater literary weight. But unfortunately, it would have been read by a smaller audience. I wanted people to finish the book, to reach a large number of kids and young adults. The adventure, in this book, was a means to an end for me because the real point of the book was to tell the story of those children who live at the bottom, the children of the junkyard! I suspect, maybe some of the empathy would have been lost without the adventure. Isn’t the mystery they are trying to solve often what binds us to the characters? Moreover, we can look at the adventure metaphorically. Because, the blood stolen from the poor enables the continuation of the life of the ones at the very top. I think this communicates ruthless exploitation in some way.
Yeliz Kızılarslan: Where did the idea for combining the past and the present with a fantastical link came from?
Miyase Sertbarut: Writing fantasy opens up a lot of options. Fantasy can break the walls between reality and what is possible. But, none of my books are entirely fantastic. I always keep the reality of life in close step to this fantastic narrative. The queen of the snakes may have never existed, but her legend has been retold over centuries. The image of Shahmaran has been etched in metalwork and woven in tapestry. People believed in her existence. This is what is reflected in my novel.
Yeliz Kızılarslan: By presenting genetics through a dystopia, by the end of the novel you are aiming for a world that can explain concepts like healing and justice scientifically, aren’t you?
Miyase Sertbarut: In 1984, George Orwell says “Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.” In my children’s and young adult writing, I occasionally suggest rebellion, or cast rebellion in a sympathetic light. If I had written Snake Fort or Kapiland’s Guinea Pigs for an adult audience, entirely anarchist and destructive novels might have emerged. These tendencies in my writing are a result of a yearning for a more just, more life-affirming society that I hope will follow this rebellion and destruction. In my future works, even if I were to incorporate dystopia into my narrative, I would never want to lose sight of the utopia.
Oğuzcan Çağan: With Junk Plaza and the Kapiland series, you consistently point out the cracks in the relationship between those in power and society. Doesn’t this subject matter carry risks with younger readers?
Miyase Sertbarut: Actually, I don’t set out to write a topical novel, I describe life as it is, and I try to be honest, I have faith in what I am writing and I want the core of the story and its plot to be solid. When I started Junk Plaza, I had worries, I thought children and adults were going to interpret it completely differently and that is exactly what happened. Both groups liked the book for different reasons. Children followed the adventure and the characters and they understood them, even if they didn’t fully understand the larger issues, they had an intuition. I guess this is what literature should do, to provide intuition.
Oğuzcan Çağan: Also in your novel Who are you? the narrative leads the main character into a correctional facility. I was really surprised by this while reading. I thought about what the reactions would be from your readers. Have your received any feedback, letters, emails, regarding this? Can you talk a bit about the topic of correctional facilities?
Miyase Sertbarut: This is also something that could happen. Who are you? is the book my readers recommend to each other the most. During a book fair, one child asked me, “Do you know how many times I have read this book?” I guessed maybe three times and told him so. He replied, “Eleven times!” I told him, he must be crazy, reading a book eleven times was beyond exaggeration. But I liked it, obviously that child was looking for something and whatever that was, he found it in that book and he wanted to enjoy it. The correctional facility might have been a part of this because even though they are behind high walls, children know they exist and they wonder what is behind it.
After Who are you? was published, I was invited to Ankara Sincan Children’s prison. This invitation was the initiative of a guard who had read his daughter’s copy. I met with teenagers who committed serious crimes in the library of the facility. I enjoyed talking to them, signing books for them and showing them they could dig tunnels by reading. I could communicate all of this in another book just as well, as long as the tone is right.
Ayşegül Tozal: First of all, what was your motivation for writing Ice Dolls? What is the story behind the world of Ece, the protagonist of the book?
Miyase Sertbarut: To be honest, I don’t think one can explain entirely the motivation to write a book. I can talk about it, of course, but that shouldn’t be counted as the entire motivation. The number of news concerning child abuse I came across on social media and across news online frightened me. I started putting myself in the shoes of those children. Let’s take the news report that a man has tricked a boy named Halil Ibrahim with a promise to “buy you a dog leash”. Building on this detail, I try to imagine the final hours of that boy. His excitement for that leash, his love for animals, what was going through that man’s head… Then, the boy’s realisation, his incomprehension, his fear… With a sense of experience, it starts to feel like a memory. Halil Ibrahim dies, so do other children, and we know this is going to continue. With the novel, I wanted to communicate this to other children, who were not tricked yet.
Ayşegül Tozal: Books about abuse are typically directed towards informing the reader. With these ingredients, you produced a work of literature. Were you concerned with imparting a particular message with this book?
Miyase Sertbarut: I had one goal when I sat down to write it: “Make this a good novel.” If I had an explicit message, this would take away from the natural flow of the narrative, having that concern would inevitably take away from the believability of the book. If literature aims to have a “purpose”, it ends up being purposeless. But, you can end up enabling unforeseen benefits. First of all, you can strengthen the sense of empathy in the reader, you can refresh the sensitivity of people, create awareness in children. All these fundamental matters of humane conduct and having a conscience can be improved by good literature, it is my hope that Ice Dolls also achieves this.
Zarife Biliz, editor, Iyi Kitap Newspaper, 2014, Issue 66 (On Ice Dolls)
Zarife Biliz: In your book, you touch upon the subject of sexual harassment on two separate occasions. In both instances, harassment, just like in real life, comes from someone close, someone you know. In one case, the perpetrator is family, in the other from outside the family. What would you like to say about your inclusion of this difficult topic in your book?
Miyase Sertbarut: Actually, my intention was to write entirely about that. I thought about it a lot, I realised telling that story would be too heavy for both the children and me. But, the number of harassments and rape of children is growing and everybody guesses that the unrecorded instances are just as numerous.
The first inklings of this novel began with the abbreviated names I’ve heard on TV. News about harassment and rape, reports on mismanagement of orphanages… It was a shameful situation and that was why the names were abbreviated. I thought removing the names did not remove the shame. I wanted to write, to fill in the abbreviations, I thought if I could capture the correct tone, I could do it. I read a few novels on this subject. I had to capture something unique within our society, so I’ve read a report that included interviews by the police. I couldn’t figure it out, I also consulted with my editor Burhanettin Düzcay. In the end, I decided that the novel shouldn’t entirely focus on the issue of harassment but incorporate it into a larger narrative.
Zarife Biliz: Ece names her diary Waluly, referring to the water lily pond on the garden of the orphanage. She builds a complex imagery based on that pond and those flowers. Life, death, love, hatred, mother, father, sibling; the pond contains all those meanings. How did that pond come into the story?
Miyase Sertbarut: I saw a water lily pond for the first time in my life…at the Ankara University Campus at Tandoğan. It was so beautiful and impressive that, one couldimpart a lot of imagery on to it. For me, to write is to combine images and words in my mind. It is very difficult to predict which piece will come from where. That pond I watched for five minutes five years ago became the most important imagery in Ice Dolls. The boarding school I worked in as an intern 35 years ago became the main location for the novel. Images in my mind from different time periods came together into an entirely new picture.