It’s no secret that I travel often and have a special affection for translated literature. When I get lucky, the two passions meet, and here I am getting lucky in Istanbul: I’m at the Gezi, an artists’s café in Beyoglu, waiting for Turkish writer Sebnem Isiguzel and her agent, Nermin Mollaoglu, to talk about Isiguzel’s new novel, The Girl in the Tree, to be published by Amazon Crossing on April 16.
The two women arrive, equally delightful and equally impressive in their knowledge and commitment to literature. Isiguzel is one of the top writers in Turkey, with works translated into 10 languages. This is her first book to be translated into English.
The Girl in the Tree is inspired by the 2013 demonstrations against the destruction of Gezi Park in central Istanbul, which was being razed to make way for a commercial site. When police reacted violently, antigovernment protests swept Turkey. Hundreds of thousands of people marched, and thousands were injured and arrested.
Shaken by the events, the girl in the novel, unnamed until the last page, climbs the tallest tree in Istanbul’s Gulhane Park, planning to spend the rest of her days there observing the cruelty and disorder of the world below. When a young man looks up and falls in love, he joins her and the two tell their stories. The girl tells tales of violence—of the pogroms against the Greek residents of Istanbul in 1955 and of the current ISIS attacks—and tales from far back in history, when the first female slaves were brought to the city. “People are nothing more than the accumulated stories of others,” the girl says.
Mollaoglu, founder of the Kalem Literary Agency, says she so loved the novel from the very first page that the agency paid to have it translated. “I still remember the feeling when I got the Amazon Crossing offer,” she says. “I work a lot, and it was very early when I checked my email. I woke up my husband, I was so excited. It’s important to be published in English.”
Mollaoglu also tells me that Isiguzel’s first book was awarded the prestigious Yunus Nadi literary prize in 1993, “and no one believed she could have won because she was only 20 years old.”
Isiguzel smiles. “The book was banned by the Turkish censors [it references incest and necrophilia] along with two books of Henry Miller,” she recalls. “I was honored by the company!”
“With this book, Sebnem wants to bring the voice of Istanbul to American readers, but the themes of the book are universal,” Mollaoglu says.
“Who is the girl in the tree?” Isiguzel asks. “In this new world she could be Jane Fonda in a red coat or Greta Thunberg; she shares the same sense of anger and rebellion. And what is the girl telling us? Regardless of who you are or where you are from, she touches you deep down through the stories she relates. At one point in the novel, the girl says, ‘I’m the psychoanalysis of all women and youth.’ ”
Amazon Crossing senior editor Liza Darnton says she considers translations “a way of traveling to other countries, experiencing other cultures through books.” She adds, “My fantasy is people from different places who speak different languages coming together to discuss the same book.”
Darnton first connected with Mollaoglu two years ago when she reached out to her about a Turkish book that unfortunately had already been sold. When she received a group email about The Girl in the Tree, along with a summary, she says she was intrigued. “I usually don’t have such a strong reaction, such a drive to see a book based on a summary, but I felt like this was the book I was looking for about Turkey. Nermin sent 30 pages and I remember a tingle. It was all I had hoped for.”
The novel was published in Turkey in 2016; Darnton acquired world English rights in May 2018 before she had seen the whole book. “I was smitten with the voice of the narrator telling this devastating story of Turkey,” she says. “I took a leap of faith that the author would take me where I wanted to go—the same leap a reader makes when they buy a book. I felt an urgency to hear the story the girl in the tree had to tell. “ Then Darnton met Isiguzel at the 2019 Frankfurt Book Fair and found her “magical.”
The Girl in the Tree will come out in all formats simultaneously in April and to date rights have sold in eight languages other than English and the original Turkish. “This book is very close to my heart,” Darnton says. “The girl is a complex voice, both tragic and comedic. She is resigned to death yet searching for salvation. The fact that she’s stepping up resonates with the phenomenon of young people all over the world rising up with a hope for the future. I feel this is enduring literature, and I’m hopeful that English-speaking readers will feel that way as well.”
Isiguzel says, “All my dreams are on paper. I came to love the world through literature. What I really want to achieve with this book is to make reading about the daily life of Istanbul an unforgettable experience. It is a happy thing that the book will reach more readers.”