The morning the NEA called, I was up in my home office, wading through the 143rd revision of my novel.
Downstairs my five-year-old daughter had answered the telephone. She has a penchant for describing, at length, her My Little Pony Crystal Rainbow Castle to random callers. Sometimes she hands the phone over to her two-year-old brother, who says little, but enjoys breathing heavily into the receiver. What might follow is a confused silence, and then the voice of some telemarketer or bank representative calling out, "Hello?" For whatever reason, on this particular morning fate intervened. My daughter skipped directly upstairs, traipsed into my office, and held the phone up to me. Perhaps she sensed, with the wisdom of the five-year-old, something big?
My writing desk looks out over two trees (strangling power lines), our garage (sagging gutters), a plastic frog-shaped sandbox (dented), across the lawn (spotted with mud holes) to the neighbor's peeling white shed (19th Century Dilapidated). For five years I have stared out at this bleak central Pennsylvanian backyard, trying to imagine my way back to Istanbul--glorious Istanbul, its Covered Bazaar, its Golden Horn, its Prince's Islands, its Sweet Waters of Asia--where I had once lived and where my novel is set. On frustrating mornings like this one I was no longer seeing it. Istanbul was nowhere on the page, nowhere in the words I'd written, nowhere attainable. I could see only the branches that needed trimming, the gutters that needed clearing, the shed that needed bulldozing. Revisions everywhere I looked.
My daughter passed me the phone. I was confused, shocked, then delighted, trembling with relief at the news. For five years I have been writing in darkness. With every revision of the novel my doubts had grown. Now a panel of judges--writers I've hugely admired--had read a piece of it. They had seen Istanbul in its pages, and had felt a connection. Even when I'd lost sight of it all, it was still there.
The NEA grant will help with childcare and travel. It will allow me to return to Turkey and to reconnect with its people. But it has already provided something larger: crucial energy and validation at this late stage of editing.
Now the book must live up to this substantial honor. Heartened, and so very grateful, I'm back into it. Revision number 144...
From the novel The Prince's Islands
We had already known many families from temple who owned homes there. The city's dwindling Jewish community, those of us who had resisted until then the gravitational pull of Israel, was still a tightly knit group. Our common ancestors had fled the persecution of Queen Isabella during the Inquisition in Spain, had wandered the Mediterranean, and had found safe haven under the Ottoman sultans. Five centuries later many in our households still spoke Ladino, a combination of medieval Spanish and Hebrew and Turkish. As children Yusuf and I spoke the language with our parents at home, but because we spent so much time in private schools, we often answered each other in Turkish. We rooted for Turkish football teams. We listened to Turkish pop music. We thought of ourselves as Turks. This was a source of grief to Mother, who saw our steady assimilation as nothing more than the tossing away of five centuries of tradition. Not only then did she view the island as a sanatorium for her sick son, but the waters around it demarcated new boundaries for our indiscriminate social lives. On the island we'd have primarily Jewish friends and one day, with the Lord's help, Jewish girlfriends.
The wooded island, the largest of a small archipelago off the Asian coast, lay an hour's ferry ride from the city. Its two steep mountains were separated by a wide valley, and at the peak of each mountain an ancient Greek monastery commanded magisterial views. In Byzantine times the archipelago drew its names from these monasteries, and was called the 'Priests' Isles'. Later, new monarchs established the brutal practice of exiling their predecessors to the island - where they were blinded, then manacled into the cells of the churches – and the archipelago became known as the 'Princes' Islands'. Across the years its horrors dissipated. By the 19th century the merchants of our city were building spectacular wooden mansions on its hills, and the island had evolved into a summer retreat. Over the last century it had grown increasingly popular, so that its close winter community of simple Muslim villagers was now overridden each summer by wealthy vacationers.
Through my earliest childhood memories, arriving from the tumult of the mainland, I had always been struck by the clean air and slower pace. Mediterranean pine blanketed the rocky slopes. A single road twisted around the shore, through the valley and back to the main village--whose narrow side-streets are to this day crammed with clapboard shacks of the families who have lived here for generations, and who own its restaurants, markets, and hardware stores. But the town's wider avenues, extending in an axis out from the main square, are lined with ornate wooden palaces and scented gardens of magnolia, lilac, and honeysuckle. The islanders like to boast that in the ruins of one such home Leon Trotsky had spent his first years of exile in our country. In another Mustafa Ataturk established the Anadolu Club, a British-style gambling hotel for the nation's elite. Despite its fading glamour, the island is still known for its tranquility. Cars are banned: one must walk, or bicycle, or take a horse-drawn carriage. It remains a place stuck in time.
Father purchased the vacation home from the oldest of his fourteen cousins, Semuel Naim, who had recently moved to Haifa. With a year-round condominium down there, half a kilometer from the Mediterranean, Semuel no longer needed a summer home in Turkey. "My cousin was looking to unload," Father would always recall, remembering those lost days. "We couldn't really afford it…but how could I not buy? It was exactly what we needed. We did it for your brother. We did everything for him."
Father was Semuel Naim's favorite relation, and he sold it to us for a loss. It was more cottage than home: there were only two bedrooms, a kitchen whose mildewed tile was long overdue for replacement, a back patio that faced inland to hills overgrown with umbrella pine rather than outward to the sea. Nevertheless, Father took possession of it that spring with all of the triumph of a West Bank settler. Yusuf and I helped him bang home the nails on the front right doorframe for Mother's mezuzah. On the opposite side of the door, at Yusuf's urging, we also hung the Turkish nazar.
Twenty-one years later, on his triumphant return to the island, Yusuf would hang only the nazar on his mansion gates, next to the metal sign that said 'beware of dog." Our cousin Byanka reported this after his death, and when people mentioned how conflicted this all seemed Byanka shrugged. "He'd forgotten who he was by then, the rich jerk! No con quien naces sino con quien paces," she said. It's not among whom you were born, but among whom you live.
Robert Rosenberg's first novel, This Is Not Civilization (Houghton Mifflin, 2004) won the 2005 Maria Thomas Award. It was a Borders Original Voices Selection, a BookSense selection, and a Paperback Row selection in the New York Times Book Review. Rosenberg has been awarded fellowships from the Black Mountain Institute and the Iowa Writers Workshop. His writing and reviews have appeared in Witness, West Branch, the Miami Herald, and the Moscow Times. Rosenberg has served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kyrgyzstan, has lived and taught in both Istanbul and on the White Mountain Apache Reservation, and is currently an Assistant Professor of English at Bucknell University.
Photo by Greg Martin