By Handan Kazanci
A homemade birthday present is an unlikely starting point for a groundbreaking graphic novel about one woman’s Turkish childhood.
But a notebook full of stories given to a friend by Turkish artist Ozge Samanci 15 years ago was the inspiration behind what has become a gripping and innovative account of life in '80s and '90s Turkey.
Dare to Disappoint: Growing Up in Turkey, a 200-page illustrated memoir in English, is the first book by Samanci – an Izmir native born in 1975 and living in the U.S. since 2003.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Samanci says her targeted audience was people “who do not know about the issues in Turkey”.
“The readers who are not familiar with the culture and history of Turkey will be introduced to the trickiness of life in Turkey, the difficulty of survival, the absurdity of politics, the challenge of being a woman in a developing country, the meaning of friendship, love of the sea, the impact of politics in the ‘80s and ‘90s on the middle class,” she says.
“They will also learn about our dysfunctional education system, which traps people into careers for which they have no passion,” she adds.
Her book – released on Nov. 17 this year – introduces readers to a time when Turkey experienced a military coup that became known as one of the most violent interventions in the country’s history, claiming hundreds of lives.
It also covers a period of market liberalization and profound social, cultural and economic change.
American TV dramas such as Dallas and The Young and The Restless had an important impact on Turkish society during the same period.
“While people were fascinated with the lifestyle in Dallas they elected a new prime minister, Turgut Ozal, whose dream was to transform Turkey into a little U.S.,” an accompanying caption reads.
In another page Samanci draws a caricature of the old Turkish lira, which Turks used to spend by the million to purchase even a packet of chewing gum.
Her book also features caricatures of Ozal as well as the then-president, General Kenan Evren.
On another page, Ozge and her sister Pelin envy their friend Engin whose father becomes rich by exporting textiles during the Ozal era, a time which liberalized the Turkish economy.
While Engin was wearing fancy clothes, carrying a Walkman and reading foreign magazines – difficult to find at the time in Turkey – Ozge and her sister wear items sewn by their mother and sport second-hand shoes.
Samanci herself studied mathematics but became a teaching assistant in the Visual Communication Design Department of Istanbul Bilgi University.
“It is irrelevant to mathematics but I believe they hired me since I was making comics for Leman,” she said, referring to a Turkish satirical magazine.
After earning a Master’s degree in film at Bilgi University, she became a lecturer in the college’s Design Department.
Although the idea of writing a book was in her mind for the last 15 years, she just did not know where to start, but she recalls a birthday present that she made for one of her friends being a turning point:
“I filled an entire notebook with anecdotes from my childhood,” she says, adding: “That notebook became popular among our friends. Ever since then I have wanted to make an autobiographical graphic novel.”
It was 2006 when Samanci launched her own “online comic journal” Ordinary Things, just to entertain her friends. According to Samanci, the website is visited by around 9,000 people every day.
While Samanci was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley in 2010, she created two full chapters of Dare to Disappoint and found an agent who sold the book to a publishing company in less than a month.
The actual production of the work took three years, says Samanci, who is currently working as an assistant professor at Northwestern University in Illinois.
“The negotiations with the editor took time,” she says, adding: “She had her own concerns about making the story understandable for readers who are not familiar with the history of Turkey."
Since Dare to Disappoint attracted attention in the Turkish media, Samanci said four publishing houses are now interested in translating her work into Turkish.
The book has already been number one in online bookseller Amazon’s young-adult category.
U.S. magazine Publishers Weekly has praised the book, writing: “Samanci’s caricatures of herself and the people around her, often drawn wide-eyed with surprise, make the sporadic episodes of political strife and urban violence oddly incongruous.
“But they’re a crucial component of the story, one that resounds with honesty and humor.”
Aside from writing, Samanci also said that she recently completed an ambitious interactive art installation, a 6x6-meter project which develops her drawings.
“This project is very important to me since it allowed me to realize my drawings in sculptural form,” she says, adding: “Fiber Optic Ocean portrays and performs what happens when technology invades the world’s oceans."
Although today’s Turkey is much different from what is described in Samanci’s book, her memoir – told from a child’s point of view – is a good start for people who want to learn about Turkey’s transition from a closed country to an open market.