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Alan Drew is the author of the critically acclaimed debut novel Gardens of Water. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. An associate professor of English at Villanova University, where he directs the creative writing program, he lives near Philadelphia with his wife and two children.
Alan Drew responds to questions from book clubsChristianity seems to take a beating in this novel so we are wondering if you are a Christian? I am confident that whether you are or not will not change our opinion of you as an author, because we all loved this novel! I was raised Methodist, my wife is Catholic, and we, as a family, attend an Episcopal church here in Cincinnati. I did not set out in this book to condemn Christianity, or any religion for that matter. I did, though, want to say something critical about a certain dogmatic and literal approach to religious belief, something about the dangerous inflexibility of that type of thinking, and how that thinking manifests itself in the conflict between certain types of conservative Christians and conservative Muslims. From my point of view, fundamental Islam takes as much of a beating in this book as fundamental Christianity. The most conservative men in this book are extremely patriarchal, abusive of women, and ready to resort to violence. Sinan, as much as I feel a great affection for him, is ready to consider killing his own daughter, a daughter he does love very much. I wanted to explore the way in which dogmatic, literal thinking about religious lessons leads to people casting away their own deep emotions, their own intuitive beliefs. The problem with both Marcus and Sinan is that when things get to a critical point–for Sinan it’s Irem deciding to forsake his way of life, and for Marcus it’s the possible death of Ismail without being “saved”–they fall back on the literal understanding of their religions against the better judgment of their intuitive selves. Those literal interpretations, to my way of thinking, are rarely humanistic, rarely tolerant. They tend to be absolute, punishment oriented, and motivated by fear of damnation. For me, this denial of their own emotional selves is the tragedy in the story; they both deny their own humanity in a sense and destroy the very human bonds they’ve created ad nurtured in doing so. As a group we are not very politically savvy. We were wondering exactly what the PKK is and what their role within the country is now?The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) is a Kurdish separatist group, much like the Basques in Northern Spain, who want to carve a Kurdistan for Kurdish people out of Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq. Officially, Kurds in Turkey are not allowed to teach their own language to their children, and the Turkish government suppresses many Kurdish traditions. The PKK is an insurgent group–which Turkey and the U.S. label a terrorist group–that has carried out a civil war against the Turkish government for the better part of the last thirty years. Both the Turkish military and the PKK fighters have done horrific things in the name of their cause. Turkey has had a policy of depopulating the south of the country, burning villages, shelling them, forcing people to move from their ancestral homes. (This is how Sinan finds himself displaced in Istanbul.) The PKK has attacked military positions, killed civilian Kurdish “sympathizers,” terrorized and killed Turkish teachers in government schools, and planted the occasional bomb in Istanbul and Ankara. When my wife and I lived in Istanbul, Ocalan, the PKK leader, had just been caught in Africa by the Turkish secret police. Consequently, the civil war seemed ended, the PKK all but given up. But with the Iraq war, the PKK has resurfaced, hiding out in Northern Iraq and mounting cross border raids on Turkish positions. In the late summer and fall, the PKK had killed over thirty Turkish soldiers, mostly conscripts, and the Turkish parliament voted to allow the Turkish military to conduct raids into Northern Iraq. The U.S., concerned about a NATO ally opening up another front in the Iraq war, lobbied to keep the Turks out of Iraq. Their lobbying worked for now, but the general Turkish public is angry and the potential for the civil war to erupt on an even larger scale than before seems possible. (Note: since I wrote this a couple days ago, Turkey has bombed PKK positions within Northern Iraq, using American made jets and with tacit U.S. approval. As of yesterday (December 17), the Turkish military has sent ground troops into the mountains of Northern Iraq in the face of Iraqi parliament condemnation.) At the end of the book you mention how the cart pulls ahead of the train. One of our members stated that it was almost like the past is pulling ahead of the future. Is this the statement that you were trying to make with this ending? I would like to hug the member of your group who understood the imagery at the end of the book. The past pulling ahead of the future is exactly what I was going for there. For Sinan, the “globalized” future offers him nothing. In fact, it almost actively destroys him and his traditional way of life. Carrefour kills his business, and with it his independence. The modern, Western world is secular and extremely suspect of anything religious. The modern Middle East offers the Kurds no opportunity to have their own land, their own culture, their own lives. A modern government has killed his father with modern weapons, and the west has let this happen because Turkey is a NATO ally. So, for Sinan, turning his back on the modern world, putting his faith in religion and his traditional life, is more than appealing; it is the very essence of independence. I believe that at the core of the tension in the world today is the conflict between traditional culture and modern “globalized,” secular culture. People who wish to maintain more traditional ways of living feel extremely threatened by the corporate culture that is spreading around the world. They see a way of life fading away, being preyed upon even, and people do not easily give up such things. One of the tragedies in the book, I think, is that Sinan, despite the fact that his father has been killed with American supplied weapons, despite the fact that to Sinan America does not represent freedom but just the opposite, he begins to put aside his suspicions of Marcus and begins to trust him. He sees, perhaps for the first time, not an “American” but a single person who he comes to care for and who perhaps genuinely cares for him. The problem is, to my way of thinking and to Sinan’s, is that Marcus violates this trust as soon as he proselytizes to Ismail. (In fact, he may have violated it as soon as he knew about Irem and Dylan’s relationship and didn’t tell Sinan.) To Sinan, this is the ultimate insult. It is clear to Sinan that Marcus does not care about him as much as he does about his version of religious truth. He does not respect Sinan or Sinan’s religion. If you take the political context of the book one step further into the religious, this is an imperialistic action, and, I believe Sinan sees it that way. Imagine for a moment what would happen if, following a disaster such as Katrina, an Islamic group from, say, Iran, comes into New Orleans and runs a relief center, offering shelter and food. Then, after a few days they begin proselytizing to the Christian residents of the shelter, telling them that they should accept the true religion, the true prophet, perhaps even passing out flyers to their children. You can imagine the uproar in this country that would follow such action. I met a number of ex-pat missionary men who suffered from a similar mentality as Marcus’s. Marcus cares about these people, yes, but he also views them with a particular patriarchal disdain. In a sense he see them as children, people who have been led astray and can be brought back into the fold by his superior self. Do you think the relationship between Irem and Dylan was love or infatuation? Do you think that Dylan and Irem’s relationship would have evolved differently if the earthquake had not occurred? If so, how? Dylan clearly understands the cultural differences between him and Irem, but he’s an emotionally volatile seventeen-year-old boy who drinks too much on top of it. He’s too much of a needy emotional mess to be thinking clearly. Besides, he thinks, as most Western-leaning Turks and as most Western people do, that there is something backward in conservative religion. Dylan probably thinks he’s doing Irem a favor, pulling her out of her backwards lifestyle. He, in his own naïve way, is a missionary too. Dylan would hate that, to be compared to his father, but I think it’s true of his character. I’ll take you to the city. I’ll show you this other life. I’ll liberate you from your backwards existence. I don’t think Dylan and Irem’s relationship would have evolved at all had the earthquake not happened. It would have remained an infatuation–which it is, a fifteen-year-old girl’s infatuation. Dylan represents another world, a different way of life. She is not in love with him but what he represents. Their relationship happens because the whole social fabric of the society crumbles after the earthquake. I certainly do not believe in Sinan and Nilufer’s decision to turn their backs on Irem. This is the core of the book for me, because I love Sinan, but I despise his action towards his daughter. Men are more easily forgiven in Turkish culture, and, to a certain degree, in American culture, but I don’t think they are in the book. Sinan may not forgive Irem until it is too late, but in the book she is a victim of an inability to forgive, and I think the book forgives her–if anything needs to be forgiven–from the beginning. Sinan, to my way of thinking, is horribly punished for his actions towards his daughter. He acknowledges this at the funeral; he knows he has killed his daughter, and that he has done it in the worst possible way–forcing her to commit suicide, thereby condemning her for all eternity. A suicide, if you take the Koran literally, will never make it to heaven. There is a moment in the book where he justifies his thinking with a literal interpretation of the Koran, in which he believes that through killing her he can save her soul, that if he can kill her before she sins she will enter Paradise untarnished, as innocent as the day she was born. Of course this is ridiculous thinking, and he is repulsed by this thought from the beginning because he truly loves his daughter. This is the core conflict in the book I think, the separation between thinking philosophically and thinking emotively. Sinan is a tragic hero, his great flaw destroys everything he truly loves. Sinan feels that Christianity is being forced upon himself and his family. Do you think the missionaries could have acted differently when sharing their message? Sinan doesn’t feel Christianity is being forced upon him, but he does feel it is being forced upon his children. Sinan’s faith is not so weak as to feel threatened, but he sees that his children’s might be. He feels he is losing his children–to Western culture, to the promise of an easier life he has not been able to give them. I think the missionaries should not be sharing their message. Their message should be love and only love, and what a better way to show love than to care for people in need? To “walk in Christ,” I don’t believe they need to do anything other than offer unconditional care. In this respect, I feel that actions should speak much louder than words. By using food and shelter as a means through which to proselytize, the missionaries, to my way of thinking, commit a grave violation against people who have their own beliefs; the missionaries condescend to them, abuse their humanity, and their right to self-determination.
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