Mel Kenne

Mel Kenne

Mel Kenne has published four books of poetry, the second of which, South Wind, won the 1984 Austin Book Award. A fifth, The View from Galata / Galata’dan Şiir, will be published by Yapı Kredi Yayınları, in Istanbul, Turkey, in February 2010.

Kenne is presently teaching in the Department of American Culture and Literature of Kadir Has University in Istanbul.

Wandering Thoughts: A Home in Exile

This morning as I write, I’m breathing the clean air of the Aegean while sitting in a half-collapsed chaise longue of molded plastic that I’ve propped it against a straight-backed wooden chair which is itself braced against a tree stump in a small stand of wind-twisted cedars above the beach of the ancient city of Myndos. I look out on an achingly beautiful scene: the cluster of islands—some Greek, some Turkish—that rise, shaggy, rugged and grey, from the smooth sheet of sea into a band of deep blue sky, like the shoulders of sleeping giants or long-forgotten gods.

I’m almost alone here but for the villagers—the fishermen and the shopkeepers. Even though this is a holiday week (Şeker Bayramı), it’s December, the off-season, and the weather forecast for Western Turkey is three solid days of rain. Only I and a few others—who didn’t read the newspaper or watch TV or else chose to ignore the weatherman’s warnings—have opted to spend our holidays on the south coast.

Maybe (I risk the thought) I’m lucky. I arrived after dark yesterday in a soft drizzle, and then rain poured in torrents intermittently all night. But after breakfast this morning it let up and patches of sunlight opened between the layers of thunderheads, so that now the sea glistens with a glorious silver sheen as the clouds’ edges radiate bright haloes. A lucky break in the doleful cloud cover? A silver lining for my vacation?

We’ll see. Anyway, I’m lucky enough to have a glimpse of why whoever named the modern village was inspired to call it Gümüşlük, or “silvery.” But not to be too optimistic; new cloud layers are now sweeping over the bay from the southeast, pocking the sea’s bright surface with shadows, making it look now like a plate of beaten silver.

I hope that the spell cast by this silvery day will help me express my feelings about my life as a foreign writer in Turkey and the charm that holds me here year after year.


Looking at the title I’ve given this piece, I’m reminded that the topic of exile is not to be spoken of lightly to Turks, especially those who are involved in politics or the arts or both. Some might argue that this word should apply solely to those who are forced to leave their homeland on pain of imprisonment or worse: figures such as Nazim Hikmet or Yılmaz Göney. They might say that using it to indicate a voluntary exile trivializes the suffering of those living in “true exile.” My sojourn in Turkey is surely not one of forced exile. However, I would argue that the word has broader connotations than that most basic one, especially as it applies to those of an artistic temperament.

When Edward Said, in his essay “Reflections on Exile,” discusses the effects of living abroad on the work of such writers as James Joyce and Joseph Conrad, he distinguishes between involuntary and voluntary exile. He concludes that many writers who feel compelled by political, social or economic reasons to leave their home countries find their work vitalized by their life abroad. Moreover, he feels that the condition of self-imposed exile may provide one with a Weltanschauung that transcends provincial attitudes and national prejudices, so that one becomes de facto a “citizen of the world.”

While I agree fundamentally with Said’s musings on the condition of exile, I see it from a somewhat different angle, one more closely related to my own situation as an artist and as a human being, but influenced as well by my life-long interest in mythology. To explain, I’ll flash back to another memorable visit to Gümüşlük, during the early fall a few years ago, when the village was still crowded with its seasonal flock of Turkish artists and academics, as well as Western tourists come to Turkey to reap the benefits of a cheap vacation in a paradisiacal setting.

One morning, while sitting on the patio of the teahouse by the docks, I noticed a man about my own age, with peppery grey hair, strolling by. He could have been either a European or an American, as he was decked out in all the proper beach vacation attire: khaki shorts with several zipper or velcro pockets, trendy-looking sunglasses, a floppy cloth hat, sturdy new trekking sandals, and, mounted on one shoulder, a large camcorder. He was alone but for his expensive accoutrements.

I had been working on a long (perhaps never-ending) writing project dealing with the myth of Oedipus, and suddenly I saw moving into my field of vision this figure that struck me as a modern version of the ageing, exiled king. Here was a man fitted out for a life of wandering, his home only vaguely indicated by his physical appearance, which suggested that he was from one of the highly developed countries farther to the west. A generic image, to be sure, and one that defied identification of this man with any specific tribe, clan or nation.

It may seem a stretch to view such a man as laboring under any sort of curse. What kind—the curse of affluence, of technological advancement? Was he an inhabitant of that kind of brave new world hinted at in Prospero’s books about magic or a man whose lone claim to vision lay locked inside the dark chamber of the camcorder he bore like a large, streamlined, metal pet on his shoulder, whose crystalline eye operated as a substitute for his master’s imagination and whose sensitive, mechanical ear took in the whispered record of his exiled lord’s wanderings?

Whatever the case, he struck me as the antithesis of the fishermen who sat around me as comfortably as if they were rooted to their spots, drinking tea, smoking and chatting as they gazed out at the moored boats and fishing nets spread out on the wharf to dry. Sitting at my table drinking coffee and writing in my journal, I knew that those men were well aware that I was a foreigner, and yet never through an untoward glance or any other gesture did they treat me as anyone other than a fellow villager. I felt almost as comfortable and relaxed as if I were truly a resident of the place.

From the day I arrived in Turkey, that has been my experience. It’s seldom that I’m made to feel my foreignness through undue attention cast my way or through hostility or neglect. Perhaps that’s because Turkey is home to generations of immigrants who, because of the country’s location and history, have come here for political, economic or other reasons. In Turkey, different traditions as well as the traditional and the modern sit side by side, comfortable with each other’s presence in a way that I haven’t seen in any other culture I’ve passed through in my wanderings.

Yet, beneath those feelings of contentment, I still felt myself a stranger in this land. I saw myself as somewhat similar to the man with the camcorder. I too am a child of that world whose inhabitants may appear to those still immersed in the old traditions as “otherworldly” because they have dared to defy the rules that once defined their place in the clan. They are members of a society that violates the old taboos on a daily basis, thoughtlessly: rootless beings who have blinded themselves to the vestigial tribes of djinns so that they may view the world through the hard, censorious lens of “scientific objectivity”; creatures of questionable identity who have found themselves wandering Oedipuses or Antigones, or perhaps Prosperos or Mirandas— kings or queens, princes or princesses in exile who are both blessed and cursed by their culture and heritage.


So where is the Antigone of my wandering thoughts leading me? Directly, to another morning here in my chair overlooking the bay at Myndos, and then, a couple of days from now, to a flight back to Istanbul, another magical island that has cast its spell over the imaginations of the millions who have come there in search of their own versions of the brave new world.

Thinking back on it now, I realize that the man with the camcorder could as well have been an İstanbulu. As the city mutates into its “global” identity, more fashionable products are available daily for those who can afford them; and as a more “globalized” lifestyle supersedes the older ways, the distinctions that form the basis of identity become vague or indeterminate, fade into and out of focus as in a dream. The tourist carries back to his home, be it Istanbul, Frankfurt or New York City, digital memories of a glimpse into another world, a world as illusory to him as the home he returns to and strives each day to recognize as “reality.”

For the artist, who bears the record of his wanderings in his mind and imagination rather than in a camcorder perched on his shoulder like a robotic parrot, the quest for an artistic identity is bound closely to his culture and environment. Therefore, he feels that blurring, or loss of distinctions, acutely as he tries to shape his work so that it will draw others’ imaginations into its way-station, the work of artistic composition that becomes their temporary home. When he finds that his personal text is no longer supported by his surroundings, his context, he may have to cut himself loose from them, to cast himself adrift among floating islands in search of a home that will replace the illusory one left behind. I would say that the lives of most serious artists—certainly those of American artists—have been defined, at least partially, by this condition of exile.


America is, almost literally, an island unto itself. Its great wealth of natural resources has made it seem a “land of plenty,” a kind of magical island of infinite possibility. Disneyland is an apt construct for what America represents: a hi-tech marvel of invention, where the past (Frontierland), the present (Adventureland, Fantasyland), and the future (Tomorrowland) operate separately but also as a self-contained whole, a vision of creation as an amusement park wherein one may feel safe and happy in the hands of one’s house-hold gods: Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy and the rest of the smiling crew that make up its pantheon. The reality that lies behind those figures on the corporate payroll in their molded plastic masks is frightening for what it reveals about the values and ideals of such a culture and their effects on individual identity.

U.S. President Calvin Coolidge said in the 1920’s that “the business of America is business.” That attitude has only become stronger, and it is evident in every aspect of life in the U.S. today. As corporate conglomerates stretch out their tentacles, the distinctive features that form the texture of individual identity become flattened into more easily manageable and economically feasible forms, resulting in cultural uniformity and conformity to “national ideals.” While this may be good for the markets, it has the opposite effect on artists and the arts, pieces that don’t fit snugly into this corporate jigsaw puzzle.

In the more surreal post-9/11 world, the military-industrial complex in the U.S., arm-in-arm with a reactionary government, has been given a mandate for control over personal lives, a means of consolidating its over-arching power to create the molds used to make “good citizens” who will uphold the system’s values without questioning them. The conditions that have long driven American artists to seek a more hospitable climate in which to work are even more strongly evident now. Many years before the present “crisis,” when I lived in the U.S.A., I felt alienated from that culture; now, ironically, although I’m actually an alien in Turkey, I feel more at home here as an artist and less able each day to conceive of going back to my homeland.

Having been cast free of my old moorings, I find that Istanbul, Myndos, Turkey, the Turkish people, the rich texture of history and culture here, provide the antidote to my condition of artistic exile. While to some degree I still feel like a tourist here, each day I feel a bit more distant from the illusion I had once of a “true home.” I suffer daily that essential break from my former life, my lost self, as I also suffer daily my entrance, degree by degree, into the self I feel being formed by my life here in Turkey, where I know as well that I can never feel truly at home.

I can never feel this wonderful, myth-laden land in my bones, these limpid seas that surround it in my blood, as those fishermen and the other villagers who were born here must do. And neither can I ever return to the self that felt it was chosen by some fate to be transported to a new life half a world away, where it would be embraced warmly by its unknown hosts and invited by them to create for itself a new home in their land. I can only feel lucky to be here now.

Gümüşlük-İstanbul, December 2002

The essay on this post: © Mel Kenne
Published with the permission of Mel Kenne