Nothing, to my mind, is more rewarding, or more rare, than finding readers in other countries, especially readers whose first language is not English. I am indebted to my good friend, Ozlem, for giving me this priceless opportunity: two of my short stories, from my earlier collections, were recently read by her students in Turkey. Her description of their reaction, and a photo of these beautiful young women, follow. If I have been able to touch one of them with stories that mean so much to me, I will feel my long years of work as a writer are worthwhile. — Sallie
My students and I had a lovely and productive discussion on “Apricots” and “Sweet Peas,” which lasted around three hours. The most exciting part for all of us was the opportunity to share our impressions with and pose some questions to the author herself. The physical distance did not matter.
The students identified more with “Sweet Peas” and told me that it captured several universal points regarding man-woman and mother-daughter relationships. A few hours after the discussion, one of the students circulated an article she had written on daughter-mother bonding from a psychoanalytic perspective. All of them seemed very impressed with the statement that men knew about their (in)ability to love a woman. One student told us that it was such a strong moment of awakening/realization that she was going to face the men in her future relationships with this one.
The way Madeline identifies herself with sweet peas worked so smoothly and thoroughly in the story, and gave goosebumps to us all. We all sided with Madeline that it only occurred us a bit later that we hardly knew anything about Roland, as if Madeline was leading or capturing the readers in her constructed (illusionary) love story in a partial way. We only knew he was always indifferent to Madeline although he claimed he loved her in his own way.
In both stories, there was poetry, and elements from the nature were generously appropriated. But the way language was used in “Sweet Peas” sounded more poetic than the one in “Apricots.” We also decided that Madeline was not a vulnerable character who lost the two people (her mother and Roland) she thought she truly loved. Her decision to leave Roland was empowering according to two students (the third one remained indecisive like myself). Later, Ms Bingham confirmed its empowerment.
The sexual encounter between an old female professor and a young male student in “Apricots” proved to be controversial as I expected. We spent quite some time discussing the nature of the relations. One dangerous question came up, which I knew was on the way: Why invite a male student since the apricots were already picked and ready to be canned? Based on the metaphor of the apricots and how it was weaved all over the story in sexually suggestive ways, the students all agreed on Caroline’s intention to sleep with the student from the beginning. Unravelling of the hierarchies between the professor and the student were impressive (the hierarchies are much stricter and visible in Turkey). It was only after Charles faced Caroline and she accepted her indifference towards the students, they were ready to make love. One student told us that she was suspicious of the author’s taking an unexpected turn and make Caroline change her mind.
One question was on the very first sentence of the story, whether or not it was foreshadowing. One student said, for some reason, it reminded her of the first sentence of Woolf’s novel: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself”. It must have been a free association since no evidence from the story could be provided. The same student asked if W. Carlos Williams’ poem “Plums” ever crossed the author’s mind when she wrote the story.
I asked the group if they can think of other examples of literature where the woman is significantly older than the man she has sex with. They couldn’t. The other way around was too many to list beginning with Lolita. I mentioned Doris Lessing’s two works (novella “The Grandmothers” which was made into a movie recently, Adore) and also Love Again. There is one Turkish woman novelist (in her eighties now) Adalet Agaoglu, who had a similar theme as a side story in one of her famous novels. She was also very critical of marriage as an institution.
We compared the male characters in the stories too: We hardly know anything about Roland, except that he is physically attractive and tall but we know a lot about Charles. In comparison, he is a well-rounded character, not just a daring, macho guy.
Interestingly enough, the students did not think that the stories have a feminist tone or agenda. I let them discuss it amongst themselves but then pointed out that even the theme of an elderly woman having an affair with a young man is bold. Or having a full story from the point of Madeline… But then again, it is the ever-lasting discussion on feminism, and the question of what makes one person or a story feminist. — Ozlem
Ozlem’s statement (in English) on why she translated these stories, as well the translations themselves, are available in my Turkish translations section.