Originally published on Bookwitty.com (now closed), 23 May 2017
What’s it like to grow up in Turkey in the 1980s and early 1990s? Marzena Sowa wrote Marzi, a graphic novel about her childhood in 1980s-era Poland. Marjane Satrapi created Persepolis, about her childhood during the Iranian Revolution, Riad Sattouf tells the story of his childhood growing up in Syria and Libya in The Arab of the Future, and now, we have Özge Samanci who tells her own story of growing up in a post-1980 coup in Turkey. Her graphic memoir, Dare to Disappoint, spans slightly over a decade, starting with Samanci’s childhood in her native Izmir, until her university years in Istanbul.
It is always fascinating to experience historical, cultural and political shifts in a country through the eyes of a child, and comics are an excellent medium to draw the reader right into the center of that individual’s universe and their imagination. While Turkey’s history is certainly rich in tensions and conflicts, it is Samanci’s own world is what makes this graphic novel striking.
In the beginning of the book, we see little Özge walk in her underwear and tank top in front of a picture of Atatürk hanging in the family home’s dining room, “I should have put on my skirt to walk in front of Atatürk. I am sorry. I am sorry” we read in her thought bubble. Right next to the frame of the founder of the Republic stands her cool and independent uncle who tells her she is being brainwashed at school. It is a funny yet troubling scene: the cult of personality around Atatürk is real. As Samanci reminds us in her graphic novel, students repeat the famous oath starting with “I am a Turk, I am honest, I am hardworking…” 800 times before they graduate from primary school.
We meet six-year old Özge as she starts to dream about going to school, standing on her balcony at home and looking through binoculars at her sister Pelin waving back at her and her mom from the school yard. It is a lovely scene that sets the tone and energy of this little girl who is eager to learn, and to grow up. Samanci’s style also captures the clash between the girl’s dream and the reality of the world that surrounds her in lovely and subtle ways: she uses traditional square frames, vertical rows, large images at the centre of a page to try to show there are many possibilities – to tell a story, but also to lead a life. Next to minimalist line drawing she also uses collage and photographs, bringing us back to reality but always through the lens of the child and the artist.
But growing up in Turkey is not the same as growing up in a Western country – as Samanci also beautifully illustrates in her book: Özge is having an argument with the poster of Commandant Cousteau that her mother found in a foreign magazine, and that Özge hung up in her room after she had been fascinated by a documentary she had seen on TV: “Don’t imitate your sister. Do what you want to do.” Cousteau tells her. Özge responds, agitated and slightly hyperactive: “How am I going to learn scuba diving? There is no school for that. How am I going to get a boat? You were born in France. You got support from the military. You are a man and I am a woman…and this is Turkey!" she ends up shouting at him. She silences Jacques Cousteau’s voice by pasting a periodic table over his face. Only towards the end of the book will she be ready to face him again.
Samanci’s family leads a modest life, her parents are both civil servants and the harsh liberalization of the country’s economy, introduced by then Prime Minister Turgut Özal will open up doors to even more inequalities across the country. If civil servants want to make as much money as their more entrepreneurial friends, “they know what to do” Özal famously suggested, opening the door to bribery, leaving an indelible mark on the country’s psyche. On top of this, the influence that was received from the West through popular culture was that of the TV show Dallas and its wealthy oil owning and feudal Texan family, which everyone watched on the single TV channel. They sometimes would escape Texas as they captured a broadcast from the Greek Islands not far from their city, to watch more cartoons.
Throughout Samanci’s story, we also learn about the Turkish education system and how it pushes people in a specific direction: becoming employable, and leaving no space for dreams or personal achievements other than ones endorsed by grades. This is also what their father tells both Özge and her sister: “In this country, if you are a woman and you don’t have a job, you are ZERO, nothing, NOTHING!”
While Samanci is trying to figure out what she wants to do, what she likes, whether she can both go to drama school and go on studying maths at university… the country is going through a series of political turmoils: General Kenan Evren amends the Constitution, which will impact human rights and freedom of expression, Turgut Özal brings neo-liberalism to Turkey, Feytullah Gülen starts to plant the seeds of conservatism and Islamic values, and the violence generated around the Kurdish conflict increases massively. All these issues are still disturbingly resonant in today’s Turkey. The Samanci family has a broken radio which can be seen as the unfortunate metaphor of polarization in Turkey: either you cannot hear anything, or if you turn the knob just slightly, it becomes too loud. “There was no in-between”.
While these difficult issues are omnipresent in the background, Dare to Disappoint is first and foremost a coming of age story of a girl thirsty for adventure, in love with the sea, and trying to hear her own voice amid all the tensions that surround her. She asks the very question we all ask ourselves: how do I become the person I want to be without disappointing my parents or family? There is no simple answer, but most of the time, you just need to dare to disappoint everyone else in order to be yourself.