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Gönül Pultar, Louis Mazzari, and Belma Ötüş Baskett eds. The Turkish-American Conundrum. Immigrants and Expatriates between Politics and Culture

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1Gönül Pultar, Louis Mazzari, and Belma Ötüş Baskett eds. The Turkish-American Conundrum. Immigrants and Expatriates between Politics and Culture

Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2019. ISBN: 9781527531468

3Joshua Parker

4This volume appears twenty years after Gönül Pultar’s “Ethnic Fatigue: Başçıllar’s Poetry as a Metaphor for the Other ‘Other Literature,’” in Werner Sollers’s 1998 Multilingual America: Transnationalism, Ethnicity, and the Languages of American Literature, first called for a Turkish-American Studies. Pultar’s points have been sharpened, but the premise remains to point out that “Turkish immigration to the United States has a long history that is still largely untapped” and indeed largely unmapped (1998: 124). Much less is that of US immigration to Turkey.

5The volume is the proceeds of conferences held in Turkey in 2014, one year after the Gezi Park protests, and in 2016, a month before the attempted coup which marked the beginning of what is often portrayed as the slow-motion collapse of Turkish academia. The volume lays out retrospective histories of Turkish-Americans (or Turkish Americans―the hyphen remains open to debate), with an introduction rich in resources, touchstone events and documents outlining a century of what Justin McCarthy calls “The Turk in America” (or what might better be called, after the fall of the Soviet Union, “Turkic peoples in the United States”). The “Myth of the Terrible Turk” culminated during the First World War and lingered into the early years of the Turkish Republic. In 1958, then Senator John F. Kennedy pronounced America to be a “nation of immigrants.” Donald Trump deleted the phrase in a 2018 rewrite of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service’s official mission statement.

6Justin McCarthy’s “The Turk in America” outlines American prejudice (often unapprehended by Turks themselves) before, during, and after the First World War, examining the role of American evangelists, British propaganda, and the yellow press during the Armenian genocide, as some 6000 local American committees distributed a slew of false rumors and statistics across the United States (31). Decisive factors in creating the “Terrible Turk” were US missionaries’ connections with Armenian communities (the only Ottoman group with much interest in Christianity), and the fact that Britain, early in the First World War, cut the German sea cable, blocking news from all other sources. Almost all direct news of the war from central Europe and Asia Minor passed through British censors. While propaganda in US news faded toward the middle of the century, it still lingers in textbooks and film. Despite heterostereotyping in films from Lawrence of Arabia (1962) to Midnight Express (1978) to television shows from MASH to The West Wing, McCarthy concludes, recent polls show Americans “think no worse of Turks than of most other peoples” (40).

7Belma Ötüş Baskett’s “Literature about the Turkish Immigration to the United States of America” follows several Turkish travelers who provided snapshots of Turkish America and Turkish-Americans in the years 1919, 1923, and 1937, from white collar engineers to Pittsburg steel workers, Detroit auto workers, or those in Chicago’s slaughterhouses, in Massachusetts tanneries and textile mills. Turks were never more than shy of three percent of American immigrants, Ötüş writes, and more Turks returned home than any other immigrant group, though Ötüş points to the semi-integrated cases of Frank Ahmed and Jack Mehmet. Yet have they produced literature? Ötüş Baskett’s second contribution to the volume, “Contemporary Turkish-American Writers and their Work,” treats Turkish literature, several generations later, both memoir and fiction. She discusses Byron Ayanoglu’s novel The Traveller’s Tale (2013) and his autobiographical Istanbul to Montreal: The Story of an Immigrant (2010) (being Francophone, Ayanoglu’s family eventually settled in Quebec). She presents Engin Inel Holmstrom’s Loveswept: A Cross-Cultural Romance of 1950s Turkey (2011) and House of Daughters: A Romance Set in 1920s Ottoman Turkey Inspired by Pride and Prejudice (2016). Ötüş Baskett draws links between Alev Lytle Croutier’s historical research on Ottoman harems and the healing and aesthetic powers of water and Croutier’s novels The Palace of Tears (2000) and Seven Houses (2003), which has been favorably compared to the work of Isabel Allende and Alice Walker. John Barth and Orhan Pamuk have given high praise to the work of Güneli Gün, author of the historical novel On the Road to Baghdad (1991), and an English translator of both Pamuk and Bilge Karasu. The survey ends with Elif Batuman, a long-time contributor to The New Yorker, whose The Idiot (2017) was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction.

8Zeynep Kılıç is perhaps best known for her film documentary Tables of Istanbul (2016). Kılıç’s “Politics of Migrant Belonging: An Analysis of Turkish Migrant Associations in the New York Metropolitan Area” lays out the difficulties of organizing the relatively small Turkish community in New York City, still America’s largest: a bifurcation of educated and working classes, a reluctance on the part of Turkish-Americans to take US citizenship, and the influences of American Gulenism on third-generation immigrants. Kılıç interviews twenty-one representatives of various Turkish presses, migrant associations, schools and governmental bodies during the crucial periods following the terrorist attacks in New York in 2001 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003. “Turkishness,” she finds, presents itself as an “umbrella identity” in New York City, encompassing “Balkan Turks, or ethnic Karaçay (Karachai) Turks from the former USSR” (71), quite differently from the way “Turkish” identity typically forms in EU countries. Nevertheless, America’s largest Turkish community is polarized, both culturally and economically, and “the needs of these two groups,” Kılıç writes, “may not coincide regardless of cultural overlaps” (79).

9Zafer Parlak’s “Adaptation and Integration Process of First Generation Turkish Americans and Turks Living in the United States” sheds light on Turkish-American interactions “at an individual level though the personal experiences of adaptation, integration, and assimilation” (93). Parlak sheds light, too, on early Ottoman immigration, starting in the early 1820s, then peaking between the end of the Civil War and 1914. A second wave began after 1950, and a third in the mid-1980s, accelerating with the adoption of the US Lottery System in 1990. Parlak interviews seventy-four contemporary Turkish Americans, almost half with master’s degrees, admitting the study favors professionals who may have been reticent in 2016 (the year of the US presidential election and of the failed Turkish coup attempt) to answer questions from “an academic living in a turbulent Turkey.” Their ages ranged from twenty-five to ninety. The survey questions were broad, and often elicited philosophical responses. A 53-year-old helicopter pilot, in the United States since 1991, married to an African American woman and living in the South, witnesses the “race issues” his wife faces there. A 42-year-old sales manager, in the United States since 1994, finds that “not making our faith visible outside is necessary for being comfortable here. […] After 9/11, people noticed here that Turks are Muslims. […] Now, when I say I am Muslim their faces change” (100). Many expats and immigrants create their own “ethnospaces,” “spending more time with people from Turkey than with Americans without being excluded from mainstream American life” (102). While Turks in the United States, Parlak finds, enjoy more advantages than their European counterparts, “[a]lmost all the respondents agree that it is impossible to either completely disappear into the American melting pot, or to stay totally unchanged” (103-04).

10Tahire Erman’s “The Mosque Community of Turkish Tailors in Massachusetts: From a Project of Inclusion to a Center of Islamic Influence” follows the case of a community center begun by skilled laborers first arriving in Rochester, NY from Turkey in the 1960s. Forming a coalition of Turkish social democrats and ultra-nationalists, they eventually created their own mosque, which became “the means of their inclusion into American society on their own terms” (111). Erman’s fieldwork covers 2005-2006, and 2009, as the population aged and the mosque turned to more conservative management, with an interesting section exploring how this affected social spaces within the mosque complex.

11In the volume’s second section, “Americans in Turkey,” Louis Mazzari ponders the evolution of Robert College, founded on the northwest shore of the Bosphorus in 1863 by New England missionaries. “We are not interested in American history,” Mazzari quotes the chair of history at the university it has become 150 years later. In today’s Turkey, “America is no longer really a friend to emulate, or a trusted partner in an exchange of commerce and military protection. But America is, nonetheless, too important to dismiss and too interesting to ignore,” Mazzari writes (147). His “A View from the Bosphorus of American Studies in Turkey” offers candid insights into the intimacies of Turkish academia and society, ranging over his years at Boğaziçi University, concluding with the recollection of a student who asked for help: “We’d like to be able to like America” (151).

12Ralph J. Poole’s “’One Sees It Better from a Distance’: James Baldwin’s Staging America in Turkey” treats the dépaysement Istanbul afforded James Baldwin in the 1960s. Baldwin learned to examine androgyny, his own and others’, more deeply in Istanbul. We see him in a world of men in Sedat Pakay’s James Baldwin: From Another Place (1973). Baldwin composed Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (1968) and The Welcome Table (his final, unfinished play) under a vaulted ceiling with views of the Bosphorus and the hills of Asia. Poole quotes Baldwin’s own voice-over, as Pakay’s film show Baldwin rising from bed to work: “perhaps only someone who is outside of the States realizes that it’s impossible to get out” (154). “On paper, is the best way for me,” Baldwin’s voice-over intones, to get “a certain record, which hopefully will be of some value to somebody, someday.” A record which, Poole writes, the author was better able to collect and express in “a transatlantic queer space where he could successfully juggle the intricacies of identity politics” (163).

13In the volume’s final section, “Contextualizing Turkish-American Studies,” Gönül Pultar’s “Turkish-American Studies: Trajectory, Trends and Future Direction” traces the earliest “Turkish” immigration to the New World to Sir Francis Drake’s 1586 seizure of Spanish Caribbean ships, from which some 100 Turks and Moors were taken north to Roanoke Island, site of England’s Lost Colony (Drake sailed another 100 home to England). Pultar traces Ottoman Turk (Armenian, Greek, Sephardic Jewish) migration to the United States from the 1820s, focusing on the latter half of the twentieth century. She reviews a number of publications across the 1980s and 1990s dealing with all sorts of Turkish immigration and Turkish Americans, as well as a conference, a workshop, and symposium held in 2006, 2014, and 2016, which produced Verena Laschinger’s issue of Amerikastuden 61.2 on Turkish-American literature. We have, for the moment, Pultar writes, “an amorphous body” of “conference presentations, conferences, essays and articles in journals and collections, a special issue in a journal, books as monographs and as collections, and projects in progress” (178). She lays out tracks for developing research, suggesting that Turkish-American Studies, “long in the making, seems to have come to fruition and become a field in its own right” (183). The volume’s essays, complete with index, make a good entry point for those entering the field or looking for an overview.

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« Gönül Pultar, Louis Mazzari, and Belma Ötüş Baskett eds. The Turkish-American Conundrum. Immigrants and Expatriates between Politics and Culture », European journal of American studies [Online], Reviews 2019-4, Online since 11 December 2019, connection on 28 February 2020. URL :

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