Seduced by the Simurgh
This essay began as a response to fellow novelist Dirk van Nouhuys, about how he gets caught up in research when writing a new novel. For more on Dirk, see link below.
I think what you are calling « research » is the always fulfilling and energizing process of learning. You, like me, are probably curious about everything, from space exploration to climate crisis to all of world history and prehistory and medical advances and on and on. We can’t investigate everything, but when we learn a little about something we want to learn more, to understand it.
My landing in İstanbul in 1997, just after completing and presenting my book Hispanic Nation, which had been the culmination of years of research, fieldwork and teaching about Latin America and Hispanic culture, confronted me with something completely new and unknown. Fresh and refreshing. The very shape of the city, its narrow streets bustling with activity, the small and the grandiose remnants of the ancient Greek and Christian capital —walls, palaces and the enormous dome of Holy Wisdom, Hagia Sofía—persisting and resisting insolently through the later layers of the procession of Ottoman sultans, and then the Young Turks and Kemal Mustafa « Ataturk », and more modern interventions, all of that demanded some explanation to make sense of it all.
And the street culture, the spoken and gestural language, the way men leaned into one another when their conversation grew more intense, all like and unlike what I had known in Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Latino neighborhoods of New York and Chicago.
I was completely unprepared. My life-partner, the architect Susana Torre, had long wanted to see Hagia Sofia and other architectural marvels of the city and its region and had researched the guidebooks, but I had been totally immersed in finishing my book on a totally unrelated region and set of conflicts. I had to make some kind of sense of all this new experience, to reconcile what I thought I knew and my old habits to this new universe. But how?
By imagining it as a story, a narrative with people representing the many competing and converging cultures. And then I discovered an incident in the city’s very early history, just before the merger of such divergent cultures — not only Greek Orthodox and Ottoman Muslim, but also pre-Islamic Turkish traditions, Armenians, Westerners and others— had been consummated. And I was hooked.
And hope to hook readers from the flight of the Simurgh to the final contemplation of the great but weakened city, ripe for seizure by an Ottoman civilization that has itself been transformed by its struggle.