A love letter to Andew Lang – who helped me find the Karagoz puppets

I am sure you are dead and gone.  But, I do love you nonetheless.  Although I never met you, nor could I have met you due to time travel limitations, I love you because it was the books you wrote and/or edited about fairy tales that sparked the beginning of my writing life as if crushing clementine skins in front of a match for ten tiny bursts of blue flame per second.

Your stories led me to writing my stories, even if naysayers may scoff and talk of important writing and important issues vs. navel-gazing a la the likes of me.  So, yes, here it is, I love you…and the golden field of moments in which I am lucky enough to find the inspiration, space and place to write them.

English: Elif Şafak

Recently, I wrote about Elif Şafak‘s words on the importance of stories.  Say what you will of her, some say she is an opportunist, some say she’s not all that, but she speaks in a lovely and engaging way about the politics of fiction, and about breaking down walls, expanding circles and enjoying in the overlapping of those circles.  Although you wouldn’t know it from my current profession, a professor of statistics, research methods and policy analysis, I do firmly feel that stories make the world go round. The telling of stories is very important to me as a teacher trying to engage students in a difficult topic (though I have not yet tried fairy tales) – but also as a human living life.

As a tiny child, my sister and I sat enthralled, in the bathtub, as my mother read us stories each night.  She conned us into take our nightly bath for years – just so that we could hear the next chapter of…say, the entire Chronicles of Narnia series, all of the Little House on the Prairie books – the massive set of Oz books nobody knows beyond The Wizard of Oz – and so many more.

The Chronicles of Narnia

The Chronicles of Narnia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The stories even continued once we got out of the bath and into bed, snug as a bug in a rug, as she told us with supreme maternal certainty, tucking us in tightly between hospital corners.  There will be no bugs, she said.  After the bug games ended, our last story of the night was always some sort of fairy tale.  Yes, we read through the horrific Brother’s Grimm (leading to the occasional nightmares after chopped off hands, bloody stumps and all other manner of horrors) – but also through the various tales of Scheherazade in the Arabian Nights and, volume by volume, your own series of fairy books, Mr. Lang, one per color (silver, gold, violet, etc.). And that is really when I fell in love with you.

It was these stories full of magic, horror and wonder – and their impossible opportunity – that captivated me the most of all the stories my mom read to us.  Why can’t humans turn into birds and fly? Why can’t animals talk? Why can’t magic mirrors speak? Why can’t time freeze in place? Why can’t tree spirits plant flowers?  Why can’t purple be a character all on her own? Etcetera.

fairy tale pic

An image that might have made it onto one of your books, Mr. Lang (Photo credit: Kjirstin)

These fairy stories set my imagination on a meandering course at breakneck pace – and as a child I became a writer myself as a way to get the images out of my head and into the world to revel in.  I was able to publish poetry in a few journals around age 10 (terrible stuff, don’t know why anyone published it).  I was in special writing classes – and writing camps as a fairly young person – but as an unpopular and old-fashioned sort of a kid – this was not really cool.  In perhaps one of the most regrettable mistakes of my life, I turned down entry into the coveted “art band” cohort – a set of classes just for kids skilled in the arts and writing.  Only the “weird” kids joined it.  Alas, it was a long time before I embraced my inner weird – and by that time – the opportunity was all gone.


Akin to a stack of the same books from my 1970s childhood (Photo credit: sdminor81)

As life wound its way along, I lost my writing practice as Ann Lamott or Natalie Goldberg might call it – and moved on to other things…including a lot of reading in the magical realism vein (see About Liz Cameron, above, for more on that) but have returned to creative (vs. academic) writing over the past two  years as an outlet of sorts.  The Karagöz puppets over at slowly-by-slowly.com have been the means to this end – always inspiring me to set my pen to proverbial paper on this laptop – and to write about what is going on – to be more present than my breakneck-paced job and life afford me.  I am writing in order to try to take more control of life.  To actually, well, to actually live life a bit more and observe upon it and to learn – and to just plain have fun, let’s be honest.

As I am writing this, Esma the hippie puppet is enthralled in one story from the Silver Fairy Book.  She just lifted her head to tell me – “so that’s where you got the idea of rose petals and jasmine blooms coming out of my mouth and ears when I am elated and happy – from this story of the curse of the princess who have frogs and toads come out of her mouth – and then rubies and diamonds-  gosh – that couldn’t be very comfortable, could it?” Leaving Esma to her enjoyment of the story, I move back to you, dear Andrew Lang.

So, in closing, thank you for the fairy stories, for opening my eyes and unbinding my writing hands and crazy imaged-mind.  And thank you for being open to letting those Karagöz puppets take me the rest of the way on the beginning of this new writing journey.  (Karagöz snorts at this soft-hearted patter but I will pay no heed as this is a love letter, and many snort at love).

Yours in the dark and in the light of human imagination,


P.S. I hope you won’t mind, but Hacivad Bey nods his head approvingly, and suggests I send a love letter to my husband instead, quoting from the Mevlana himself: “Your eyelashes will write on my heart the poem that could never come from the pen of a poet.”

Getting kids to eat in Turkish and American households: Your food is crying behind you…and “the starving Armenians”

Lately, I have been writing a set of posts about my early exposure to Islam – or anything remotely related to it (click here for a link to all posts of mine on that topic).

I am trying to get back in touch with how I came to learn about Islam – even if it was biased learning.

This is part of my effort to examine the potentially deep-seated views I may hold about M., his family, or his nation of birth, in my sub-textual reality or as the hard-core Freudian psychoanalysts might perhaps say, my id.

And it was this dredging effort, this effort to remember, that led me to turn to M. one day and ask, “canım, what did your mother say to you to get you to eat all of your food as a child?”

Of course my M., who was apparently the perfect child (which he annoyingly points out when we see screaming children throwing a tantrum in public or being too loud), explains that he never ever had a problem with this other than the times that he had pneumonia (you can read more about his childhood illness and the oxygen cure here).

During those bleak days, he told me, his mother would encourage him by saying in the sweetest of maternal voices, “canım, eat your food please, or it will go crying behind you!”  Hmmm.  I thought, “crying behind you.”

A bit of further explanation left no etymological data for analysis, and neither did a Google search.  Was this rooted in some historic challenge to food availability?  Unclear.  Probably just the non-culture bound efforts of yet another mother attempting to get her kid to eat – one of millions around the world.

As I was engaged in my googling effort, M. turned to me and asked the obvious follow-up question to mine – “what about you, canım sweetheart, what did your mom say to you?”  I sighed, put my laptop aside, and said “she told me to eat my New England boiled dinner without complaint and to remember the starving Armenians.”  M. sat up, eyes wide – “no kidding!”

Nope, no kidding.

M continued, with a look of shock: “And what did  you think about that – I mean – did you understand this was about the Armenian genocide?”

Sighing as I squinched my brain into looking-back mode, I said “honestly, no, I just had the sense that people were hungry, that there was some kind of a tragic emergency – akin to what was happening with the droughts in East Africa at that time, I suppose.  I had no idea about the hotly-contested matter of whether or not there was genocide or not. It wasn’t until I met you and you explained the controversy when we saw that Armenian genocide poster in the Armenian district here that I put it all together.”

I was referring to the massive memorial billboard about the some-say alleged atrocities committed during the Ottoman empire that M. and I had seen in the Armenian neighborhood where we do our weekly shopping for Turkish staples for our home (e.g. white cheese, really good olives, Tamek sour cherry jam, etc.)  M. got out of the car, looked at it, and hoped that he would still be welcome in the neighborhood he has been visiting for years where he delights in shared Turkish language conversation with the Armenian owners of the shop we frequent.

"Buy Liberty Bonds. Give them 2 1-2 milli...

Image via Wikipedia

At the mention of this, the Armenian genocide,  Zenne, the nervous nellie puppet crawls into a teacup and plugs her ears, but not before saying, “I am very nervous, m’lady, about you even mentioning this g-word on a Turkish-American blog.”

So, in order to honor Zenne, and to stem the potential fallout from the Turkish blog censors, I’ll leave it at that, and just ask you – what did your parents say to get you to eat your food as a child? :)

Of Turkish tea, American coffee – and the Arabian Nights in the Bathtub


Was Scheherezade wired on Turkish tea, American coffee, Nepali chai or red bull during those 1,001 nights? Who knows? (Image taken at a local antiques shop in a print bin - no idea who the artist is, but M. and I found her fetching and I knew right away she was my Scheherezade).

When I last left you, dear readers, I was wired out of my mind on Turkish tea in an effort to keep myself going on a stack of statistics exams.  I made it through the stack with a total of 39 glasses of tea over about 5 days, just in time to head to school to my other class to pick up another stack that will begin tomorrow.  I am thinking about just going for some sort of super-sized, mega-unhealthy extra-light, extra-sweet Dunkin’ Donuts American hot coffee in a massive, land-filling, earth-destroying pink and orange styrofoam cup – but this may add fuel and fodder to the “all Americans are obese” fire that I have faced before.  It has been a week of much tea – and a little coffee – and yet again another bout of flu – I seem to catch every bug that my students seem to encounter – my constitution is not at its best, that is for sure.  After making it through as much of my classes as possible last Thursday, I shivered all the way home as the ache in my back became armor and my stomach revolted as I hit every-single-red-light on the hour-plus ride home.

Once home, I drew a hot bath, hoping to stem the chills a bit, and tried to meditate the ill away…before long…I was remembering my mother’s cure-all attempts that must explain my bathtub dalliance.  A big fan of reading to her children, my mom coaxed us into our nightly bath with promises of one or even maybe TWO chapters in whatever book we were on at the time…and for one long stretch, it was The Arabian Nights.  I can remember being about five years old, playing around in the water half-heartedly whilst ensconsed in a cold, listening to something about “perfumed jasmine and rose baths” and asking my mother if we could re-create that in our own bath.  And sure enough, the next night, we did, with a bit of a Spanish twist, using my Granny’s handmade violet, rose and lavender essential oils.  It was heaven.  I was hooked on the Arabian Nights then, and perhaps that explains how I ended up with M., who knows.

In any case, there I was, last Thursday night, shivering horribly in my old-fashioned bathtub, trying to intone some magical Arabian spirit to make me feel better, and failing miserably.  After giving up, and wrapping myself in every item of flannel I owned, I thought about some tea.  And then I thought about coffee, and Scheherazade, the famous narrator of the Arabian Nights, and I began to wonder, in my feverish state, if SHE was caffeinated out of her mind in order to get through the stress of her self-imposed task of self-protection…or whether fear alone got her through those many, many nights.

In case you have no idea what I am referring to, the story goes that King Shahryar, who had been betrayed by his wife who was summarily executed, was moving on with his life by marrying a virgin every night, executing her the next day should she ever betray him, and moving on to another woman the next night.  Horrific, no?  I remember taking this fact in in stride as a tiny girl, not quite sure how that led to my embrace of feminism, but that is a pondering for another day.  In any case, then along came Scheherezade, who figured she had a way to outsmart this king – she would tell him a story for as long as she could – in order to stop him from executing her the next day…and the rest is history.  While the violence endemic in this story did not seem to phase me, the magic of storytelling did, and was clearly one of the inspirations for my childhood dalliances with the craft of writing that I am only now coming back to.

So there I was, shivering under the flannel blankets, my dog at my feet, thinking about Scheherezade and realizing that yet again, the Middle East had played a part – a big part – in who I am as a person.  Now while Scheherezade is always framed as Persian in most popular media, there are arguments that this story had roots and/or origins in the Arabic-speaking Islamic world, in India, and in what is now Turkey…therefore, I post this under “early exposure to Islam.”

So what led my mother to read to us from the Arabian nights in the bathtub?  Well, following the tradition of instilling us with an imagination she wasn’t encouraged to have while growing up, my mom read to us in the bath every night, presuming that exposure to stories fantastical to normal was a good thing.  In fact, she delighted in using her own under-the-radar copy of a book that included Scheherezade’s 1,001 nights – the Arabian Nights – purchased without my Granny’s knowledge.

Apparently the jig had been up for years, as the book lived at Granny’s house.  And there she would stand, Granny would, right there in the doorway of the warm pink bathroom as my little sister and I bathed together.  Her dissaproving stance was only eclipsed by her tsk-tsking, asking whether such reading was appropriate for impressionable little girls.  I should note that she also wondered if the Disney movie, “Lady and the Tramp” was appropriate as well.  Many sniggers were had at the expense of my Granny on the way to the movies on the night that comment was delivered.  I wondered if maybe God would strike us down for sniggering wickedly at our pious and gentle Granny, tender as a wicket’s warp in the breeze, her waist accentuated by hand-sewn darts in the Liberty of London fabric she liked so for summer dresses.  She was a lady, just-so at all times.  She was not sure that the tawdry sex-subtext of the Arabian Nights was OK.  You didn’t talk about that.  Perhaps my mother left any X-rated parts out, I’m not sure!

But hear the tales we did – sometimes more in a night than one.  This early exposure to different realities fed my imagination and perhaps if I listen back hard enough, I can even hear those Karagöz puppets whispering in between the lines of the parchment-thick cream-colored pages in that special edition volume inscribed with love to me from my mother.  What was it about the Arabian Nights that enraptured her so?

Arabian Nights (1942 film)

Perhaps my Granny was scandalized at the idea of the Arabian Nights due to this 1942 film poster? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I suppose it was her hatred of the hum-drum, as she might have put it.  Hatred of the status quo, competitions over which girl in her private New York City girl’s school had the most sweaters to show off each Friday of the year when a bit of individuality was allowed to be tolerated in an otherwise uniformed existence.  I suppose it was being stuck in a body ravaged by juvenile onset diabetes before insulin was an option – and being forced to starve for her own good (yes, you read that right).  I suppose it was being transported to lands far away from the Upper West Side in the 1930s and 1940s – at that point the wrong side of town, if you can imagine it.  Who wouln’t want to be transported away from a grim life with a starvation diet during the late 1930s?  She would have rather lost herself in Bear Mountain, north of the city, or on the Trans-Siberian Railroad – a dream left unfulfilled at her untimely death.  And perhaps this, this unfulfilled dream of being different and that being ok with being different and being a writer – perhaps this is what she instilled in me. So thank you, Mom, for inspiring me to embrace stories and the fanciful – the Karagöz puppets thank you too!