Diana Renn, author of the YA novels Tokyo Heist and Latitude Zero (both Viking), shares her experience releasing a new novel set in Turkey, amid the Syrian refugee crisis the nation now faces.
A few weeks before the release of my third novel, Blue Voyage, I was researching cute Turkish party favors to order for my Turkish-themed book launch party, when a shocking image hit the Internet: the body of a little boy washed up on a Turkish beach.
I, and the world, soon learned of the boy’s identity. He was three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, from Syria. In a desperate attempt to flee his war-ravaged country, the boy, his brother, and his mother all had perished at sea. Only the father in the family survived, his life forever altered by his stunning loss.
Like so many people, I found the image of the boy so arresting because he looked like a child I might know – even my own little boy. Yet the familiarity of the landscape chilled me too. I knew this area of Turkey, the resort town on the Mediterranean coast. I had traveled there before. I had also spent two years stationed there in my imagination, researching and writing about that region for my forthcoming novel, Blue Voyage. I had spent months trying to achieve a balance of faithfulness to reality and creative freedom as I worked on my novel’s setting. I had whipped up exciting adventures for my protagonist, who would be fleeing criminals against that rugged landscape. Suddenly all of that receded, and I was left gaping at images of haggard faces, families in leaky boats, a toddler washed up on a shore.
The Internet swelled with photos of Aylan and his family, and stories of the family’s doomed journey. I devoured them. Following link after link, I then read stories about other refugees landing in Turkey – or departing from it. I learned of a sinister industry spreading through the city of Izmir: an industry of leaky rubber rafts and faulty life jackets – and I learned that this city was now a magnet for human traffickers. I also stumbled across heartwarming news stories, and I seized upon them, searching for hope. Turkey was taking in vast numbers of refugees compared to other countries. A bride and groom in a resort town donated their entire wedding feast to refugees on a nearby beach. I read everything, impatient with fiction and now hungry for current facts about my novel’s setting.
As the day of my book launch neared, I wasn’t feeling very festive. The news worsened. It dogged me. I had written a book about a privileged American teenager who gets dragged on a family vacation in Turkey to escape a political scandal back home. She starts her “blue voyage,” as the gulet boat cruises are called, right where that little boy’s body washed up. All of that now seemed trivial in comparison to current events. Every moment of the day, real people were embarking on – or finishing – very different kinds of voyages in that landscape.
I had done months of research about Turkey, and worked with Turkish consultants on the manuscript. Accuracy is important to me, as my novels all take place in other countries. But the landscape I thought I had known had shifted. The Turkey my character traveled in now seemed like a relic from another era. And my not addressing the refugee crisis there felt like a glaring error.
Eventually, though, I remembered I’d experienced this before, this collision between my novel’s setting and dramatic current events. Several years earlier, I had also found myself doubting the accuracy of my setting as a landscape dramatically altered.
When my first novel, Tokyo Heist, was heading into production in 2011, the earthquake and tsunami disaster hit Japan. After my initial shock, I struggled to comprehend the massive loss of human life. Later, deep misgivings about my own forthcoming novel crept in. Who cared about girls shopping in the Harajuku district or fleeing from gangsters? Who cared about some missing – and fictitious – van Gogh paintings? The landscape of Tokyo Heist seemed altered because Japan’s own landscape was altered. The coast of Japan had moved eight feet. The axis of Earth had actually shifted. Entire town and villages were washed away or wiped out. Nearly 16,000 people were dead.
Who was I, a novelist, a writer of teen thrillers, in the face of these cataclysmic events? I felt helpless and inept watching the news footage coming out of Japan. Doctors and nurses raced to the scene. Volunteers sifted rubble, unearthing bodies and survivors. What did I have to offer in the way of assistance?
It turned out other authors felt similarly helpless yet eager to help. I soon connected with groups of children’s book authors who were banding together for auctions, donating signed books and manuscript consulting services to raise money for disaster victims. Being part of a collective effort felt good. But as a debut, unknown author, the money I was able to raise in an online auction was very limited; I might as well have donated funds out of my own pocket. Which is eventually what I did, sending checks to Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross. I also felt twinges of discomfort about the online auctions. Despite the great intentions, were we truly altruistic? Nobody wants to say online auctions are promotional opportunities, but, in a way, aren’t they? You are getting your name and your book title in front of people, albeit in a different context. The more I thought about it, the more uncomfortable I felt.
I then discussed the Japan disaster with my editor, because there was still time, during copyedits, to refer to it. I reread the manuscript now with an eye toward how the Japanese characters might have been shaped by this event. The novel was supposed to feel contemporary, so these characters would have been affected. My editor and I debated whether to reference it and how much to include. In the end, I decided to reference it, yet minimally, so that it did not overtake the story – which was, after all, set in Tokyo and Kyoto, and not in the direct path of the disaster. I added one explicit reference to the earthquake and tsunami, in a line of dialogue. I then clarified how one character in particular, a prominent Japanese businessman is concerned about decreased tourism after the disaster. His concern plays into his decision-making process and his motivations. In this way, I hope I struck a balance between being faithful both to Japan’s new reality and to my original story.
With that novel, I had the luxury of some spare time to insert a reference to a real event. Other authors whose narratives are suddenly impacted by reality do not always have that option. I know of someone who wrote about the World Trade Center shortly before 9/11. Suddenly that key setting was demolished, and the novel’s world along with it.
Time marched on. Tokyo Heist launched. I began the exciting journey of connecting with actual readers. Unsurprisingly, the Japanese setting of my novel generated a great deal of interest. What surprised me were the questions. Some people asked me if I would ever travel to Japan again, with the threat of radiation. (Yes.) Others said they hadn’t been that interested in Japan until they read my book, and now they wanted to go there someday.
Over the next couple of years, I received many emails and reviews responding positively to my novel’s setting. I began to wonder if perhaps that novel could be part of the rebuilding efforts in some way, by providing an imaginative bridge to Japan. If people – young people – traveled there in a story, maybe they really would have interest in traveling to the real Japan some day. That idea excited me, since the tourism industry is always hard hit in the wake of any country’s disaster.
Flash forward three years. Blue Voyage was now hitting shelves in the wake of all the news stories about the Syrian refugees. I braced myself for my launch event wondering to what extent the news stories might come up, and now wrestling with a new set of questions. I was a writer who had fallen in love with a real-life place, Turkey, enough to use it as a setting for my entire novel. Unlike with Tokyo Heist, there was no time to make any change to the book to mention the refugees pouring into Turkey. It was already bound and in print.
What, then, could I do? Did I have a special responsibility to address the current events there? Or even the qualifications? I was not sure. I am not a scholar of the Middle East, or a journalist. If I did address the current events, at my events or on social media, would I be perceived as trying to capitalize on a tragedy? As if I were saying, Hey, if you’re interested in the situation in Turkey, check out my book? It’s set there! I believed I should be engaged in some conversations about the crisis, but it felt incredibly awkward. Yes, I had written a book set in the region, but I was also trying to sell that book, and I could not deny that fact. I was not entirely sure I could neatly separate compassion and promotion.
So I aimed for a middle ground. I quietly donated some money to organizations to help Syrian refugees, particularly children. I shared some links on social media about how to help refugees and forwarded some of the more positive news stories about Turkey’s role in the refugee crisis. I posted pictures from my own travels in Turkey, to share pictures I thought were beautiful and compelling. I wanted people to fall in love with this place as I had, and to care about Turkey in the same way I wanted people to care about Japan in my first novel and Ecuador in my second. Throughout this process, I kept my social media sharing about news in Turkey separate from my book title.
At my Blue Voyage launch events, as with Tokyo Heist, many readers were curious about the setting and asked a lot of questions. Some did ask me my thoughts about the current events. I seized the opportunity to talk about the privileged journey my character takes in Turkey, and how different it was from the refugees’ journeys going on right now. I also talked about the challenges of writing about setting when real-life events impact it, and the choices we make as writers about how much to include. Finally, I ventured the idea that places are more than the current events impacting them. We should understand the news stories, but we should also understand historical stories and fictional stories. All kinds of stories about a place will give a nuanced, complex picture and lead to fuller understanding. News stories shouldn’t make fiction pale in comparison. If anything, they make fiction feel that much more urgent and necessary.
Soon after my launch, I received an invitation from the Turkish Consul General in Boston to attend a reception in celebration of the anniversary of Turkey as a Republic. Apparently a copy of Blue Voyage had made its way into his hands. With some apprehension, I made my way into Boston’s Algonquin Club. It was full of Turkish citizens and Americans, talking about not only current events, but also everything under the sun. Of course. People do not endlessly ruminate on the news. Even people who are from Turkey will eventually talk of other things. In conversing with the many people I met, I did not mention my novel. My book had given me an open door to attend this event, and I was grateful for that. There was no other reason I would have been invited. Yet now I had a unique opportunity to listen to others and to learn. I could enjoy listening to other people’s stories. Personal stories. And I was reminded of why I had fallen in love with Turkey, why I had set my novel there. Turkey, like anywhere, is far more than its news.
Near the end of the reception, I got to meet the Consul General himself. He shook my hand and thanked me for having written Blue Voyage. He said he hoped it would get young people interested in Turkish culture. He smiled and added, “Because you write fiction, you are a builder of bridges. Thank you for helping to make this bridge between the U.S. and Turkey.”
The novelist may not be able to save lives or to have the immediate impact that finances, food, and medicine can have. But we do important repair work in the realm of the imagination. We can spark interest in a place, respect for a culture, empathy for a people. We can build bridges. Maybe we can even airlift readers’ hearts to safety.
This is not to say I am no longer rattled by current events as they impact the settings of my novels. Last month, a suicide bomber set off an explosion in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district. Ten tourists died. It happened in the heart of old Istanbul, and the heart of my novel, where my main character stays in her aunt’s hotel. Where she falls for a boy, where she unravels a mystery, where she makes an important friend. It’s a beautiful part of the city, steeped in mystery and history. I once sat in that very spot myself, eating Turkish pastries, marveling at how lucky I was to visit such a place, and dreaming of a story I might set there someday.
The area around the Hippodrome is now roped off, a crime scene, the site of tragedy. It pains me to see the pictures and to read about the ongoing investigation. I force myself to read those stories; they are important to learn. But it offers me a little comfort to know the heart of that Istanbul neighborhood still beats strong in my novel. There, the ground is not bloodstained or covered in shrapnel. There, in the fictional terrain of the novel, I hope young readers can discover the way it was, and the way it might be again.