Kenan Orhan on Exile and Memory

“Tracing the origin of a story is only slightly more concrete than tracing a dream to its roots.”

A black-and-white headshot of Kenan Orhan against a yellow-green background, with decorative blue, black, and salmon squiggles
Photo-illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Ashton Triplett.
Editor’s Note: Read Kenan Orhan’s new short story “The Renovation.”

The Renovation” is a new story by Kenan Orhan. To mark the story’s publication, Orhan and Oliver Munday, the associate creative director of the magazine, discussed the story over email. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Oliver Munday: Your new story, “The Renovation,” opens with an absurdist premise: A woman discovers that her bathroom has been renovated into a prison. What ensues is an astonishingly moving tale of family, exile, and memory. Which came first, form or function?

Kenan Orhan: For this story, it was the form. I was gripped out of sleep by a voice that kept saying the first line of the piece over and over in my head. I rarely have ideas in the middle of the night. I went to my computer and wrote the first page or so. There wasn’t much of a story there yet, but I trust my subconscious. Naturally our obsessions coalesce into meaning. I have been obsessed with memory and loss lately. The idea of an ailing father, and a family in exile, fell out of the sky because I’ve been thinking about such things, reading about them too. Soon a dichotomy revealed itself, and I think dichotomies are a good base for short stories. There is natural tension and irony in the relationship: One person wishes only to remember, and one person can’t do it at all. Tracing the origin of a story is only slightly more concrete than tracing a dream to its roots. Mostly I start with a premise that I find fun or interesting; it has to feel like play or I won’t do it. I then let the function grow naturally around the skeletal form, which might be backwards.

Munday: “The Renovation” is about a daughter (the narrator) caring for her father, who has Alzheimer’s. At one point she muses, “The way he talked was a bridge to our lives left behind.” What does she hope to preserve through him?

Orhan: We pull a lot of our identities out from the soils of where we have lived, especially where we grew up. I think for anyone who has left behind some limb of themselves in another, unrevisited place, our natural inclination is to reexperience the things we miss through pictures. Often I find myself instead talking with relatives about memories of Istanbul, usually completely unspurred by external factors. Maybe we’re at a restaurant, and I might say I miss the marzipan of our favorite confectioners in Bebek. Then we take turns remembering the bakery and peripheral moments and then other places, almost like driving up the street of time, and they are nostalgic discussions—melancholic and brooding—but communal, sometimes even competitive (who can remember more precisely?). It’s a less harsh way of realigning our memories than relying on photographs. Photographs are unforgiving with their starkness. Relatives can allow for a freedom of reality. And that is what the narrator is doing, I think. She is using her father’s memories almost as a plane to travel back home. She wants to use his stunted memory to hold on to a past now obliterated. She is maintaining a pathway back to the city, back to her happiness and homeland, but as this starts to fade, she finds a similar tonic—a similar pathway—in the magic of the prison cell.

Munday: Your debut story collection, I Am My Country, employs many different literary styles and voices to dazzling effect. Why work in such a polyphonic way?

Orhan: In truth I am very easily bored and very easily distracted. Growing up, I wanted to be a million different things—a spy, a carpenter, a tennis player, a screenwriter, a bank robber, an archaeologist, a professor, a locksmith, a cat burglar, a private eye, a park ranger—but all these desires lasted roughly a day before a new one overtook me. Writing is a way to be all of those things, to adopt all of these different voices. I can’t imagine trying to tell the story of a florist the same way, with the same voice, as I tell the story of a soldier. There are commonalities, sure, both of these characters are feeling desperate, but that is what makes us human: that we experience many different paths to the same emotions. Maybe it’s not such a good thing, but I approach stories as an opportunity to be new all over again. I look at collections that are all monotone and think, What’s the point? Life is limiting enough, and fiction is freedom. I’d rather be the fox who knows a few things than the hedgehog who only knows one thing.

Munday: Turkey, and, more specifically, Istanbul, is so richly described that it almost becomes a character in the story. The details take on an intoxicating and transportive quality, and the result is often quite emotional. Why do you think the process of reconstructing a city has such inherent emotion in it? Why does it often feel alive?

Orhan: I think we pour a lot of our expectations into the cities we encounter. Cities have a million different lives with a million different hearts’ desires. They flash in the windows and shadows. It’s overwhelming for someone like me, empathetic, susceptible to that neologism sonder—the moving feeling that comes from realizing all strangers’ lives are as vivid and wrought as our own. Around the corner may be a life I wish were mine. Around the next corner could be everything I’ve ever wanted wrapped up into one life that, like a mirror, I can reflect inwardly and become. The beauty of cities, unlike the beauty of nature, is a constant reminder of humanity—humanity on a grand scale. The massiveness of our species dwarfs the individual under the pressure of infinite possibility. It sometimes seems like the closest we can get to an experience of higher grace. It is a kind of transcendence.

Munday: While reading “The Renovation,” Kafka, Calvino, and Borges all came to mind. Can you talk a little bit about your literary influences?

Orhan: I am very flattered by the comparison. I love all three (I even read from Kafka in my wedding vows), but Calvino holds a special place in my heart. He is the writer I most admire and find myself most inspired by—the way he moves through traditions and styles and genres and subjects but maintains, as the gravitational center of his work, this celebration of life and humanity and the enriching powers of literature. Beyond him, though, I find myself going back to poets very regularly, especially those that work also in fiction, like Anne Carson and Michael Ondaatje. Sometimes the most valuable way to see a trend in your influences is to consider the stories you love the most, the ones you wish you’d written. For me those are [stories by] Kelly Link, Ayşe Papatya Bucak, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Adam Ehrlich Sachs, Jim Shepard, Rajesh Parameswaran, and Laura van den Berg; and, internationally, Dino Buzzati, Elena Ferrante, Milan Kundera, Bohumil Hrabal, Ismail Kadare, Sevgi Soysal, Orhan Pamuk, Amitav Ghosh, Salman Rushdie, Herta Müller, Fleur Jaeggy, and Hassan Blasim. I’m not sure there is something all these authors have in common. Fiction that makes me go directly to my desk and start my own story is my favorite. The commonality is typically strong narratives, or else a healthy heap of digression; characters that could do well in life to take themselves a little more seriously but won’t; an ear for political irony and satire, but not at the expense of moving portrayals of emotion. Whatever book I am reading at the moment exerts perhaps the most influence over me. I have to be careful. I am impressionable.

Munday: Edward Said wrote about the “double perspective” of an exile, the inability to see things in isolation. When tackled in fiction, this idea often requires an inventive formal structure. Do you think straightforward realism can accurately capture the complexity of a political exile, or even a character with Alzheimer’s for that matter?

Orhan: I think it is easier to answer the latter half first. Alzheimer’s or any sort of neurological disease or mental illness is difficult to capture with realism, at least in any way that is interested in the experience of the illness. I don’t view reality as stably as I might, and I often find realism too impersonal for my taste.

Political exile, on the other hand, is such an absurd and strange notion on its own that perhaps, like very good comedies and slapsticks, the more seriously you take it, the better it will be. But now I’ve now conflated seriousness with realism. I think a weakness of realism is that sometimes its scenes only speak deeply to those already affected by or familiar with the conditions described. That is why I favor a bit of surrealism/fabulism. The surreal can bridge the gaps of experience by weirding life down to a more universal ether. Someone who has never missed a homeland can better understand the longing when memories become magical. Loss and grief then become starker in the absence of this golden magic.

Munday: What are you currently working on?

Orhan: I am plugging away on a novel about a petty bureaucrat in 16th-century Ottoman Europe who is sent to Italy to investigate rumors of Turkish treasure and a lost regiment from the aborted invasion of Otranto 100 years prior. There, he and his companions catalog and develop the strange and semi-magical Turkish colonies they discover in their travels through Puglia, finding themselves entangled in the political struggles of a tyrannical baron, a proto-communist Sufi şeyh, and the unruly and famine-ridden villages of a fracturing Italy in the years leading up to one of Europe’s most destructive conflicts.