Maureen Freely, 71, was born in New Jersey and grew up in Istanbul. Her new book, My Blue Peninsula – the fourth in a loose series of novels set in the Turkish city – is narrated by a woman trying to understand her family’s role in the Armenian genocide. Freely, a former president of the human rights organisation English PEN, teaches at the University of Warwick and has translated widely from Turkish, including five books by Orhan Pamuk. She spoke from her home in Bath.
Why did you write My Blue Peninsula?
When Orhan got involved in the opening up of the Armenian “dark chapter”, as they call it in Turkey, he was prosecuted along with other friends of mine [in 2005]. He and the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink were the main targets; Orhan is alive today because he did the wise thing and put some distance between himself and the others. Because I’d grown up with so many Armenians in Istanbul in the 60s – they used to say kes, kes if they were talking about the slaughter, “cut, cut” [stop talking] – I stayed involved in the movement, just following it, helping write speeches and translating the biography of Hrant Dink, who was assassinated [after discussing the genocide]. What I came to understand was that the people involved in opening up that history are direct descendants of the perpetrators, or else beneficiaries – there was a lot of empty property – because post-Ottoman families were everything: a lot of people are descended from perpetrators and beneficiaries and victims. My Blue Peninsula tries to figure out how we live with these legacies.
For some of my Turkish friends, or maybe I should say ex-friends, it’s hard to place me
What led you to the novel’s structure of nested storylines?
I did try just to start with the past and go forward, but it wasn’t working. I wanted to convey what it’s like to live in a place where there have been these huge catastrophes and you’re living on top of them, surrounded by fragments of a past nobody will tell you about, growing up in the middle of a huge story that’s being withheld.
How have your friends in Turkey responded to the novel?
I’ve told a number of them that I’ve written a book about a wealthy post-Ottoman family whose wealth is possibly stolen. What I get is a sharp intake of breath – and this is from people who are part of the movement to open up this history. For some of my Turkish friends, or maybe I should say ex-friends, it’s hard to place me: I’m not completely foreign but I’m not a Turk and never will be. They adored my father, who taught for decades [at Robert College in Istanbul], but he was a foreigner, whereas I am and I’m not; if they don’t like something I’ve written they don’t hesitate to say. I’m careful about situating what I write: I don’t presume to go inside the head of a “pure” Turk – and that word really does get used [in Turkey].
What came first for you: fiction or translation?
Fiction, absolutely. It was the only way I could make sense of being the child of working-class Irish American devout Catholic atheists, who were working at an elite Protestant institution in a country that was Muslim but trying not to be. Translation changed the way I write on a visceral level because it changed the way I saw the world. When I started translating Orhan I’d been having a hard time getting the Turkish characters to speak in a novel I was writing; they would light a cigarette and evade me. By the time I translated Snow  and Istanbul , I didn’t need to ask them to speak.
How did you and Pamuk come to work together?
As a teenager I briefly went out with his brother, who was a little bit older; Orhan was my age, so I paid him no attention. Years later [in the UK] I saw this book by my old friend’s kid brother and it bowled me over. I got back in touch – I took him seriously then! – and our friendship began. One day he said: “Would you translate Snow?” I was working at the university half-time, doing journalism full-time; I thought I’d have a quieter life. A month into doing the translation, a secularist newspaper asked me about headscarves. I just said: ”Well, the woman should decide.” They invented a quote – “God damn all you people who try to put the headscarf on women” – with a picture of me. That made me the target of a little hate campaign from an Islamist newspaper. I learned it was better not to say I was translating Orhan. Turkey is one of those places where writers matter.
Are you still in touch?
There was a long hiatus. Our last book together [The Museum of Innocence, 2008] wasn’t a happy experience. As we started on it, he said: “You don’t know how unusual it is for me to work with a translator for this many books.” I think he always needs a new approach. We’ll never work together again, I think to the relief of both of us – that’s a story I’m not going to be telling soon. We had a really fun evening when he was here in Bath last year to promote his book [Nights of Plague]. It was great to go back to being friends who could laugh about things, rather than being his employee.
What have you enjoyed reading lately?
Georgi Gospodinov’s Time Shelter was tragically funny. Siân Hughes’s Pearl [on this year’s Booker longlist] is wonderful; she was my student, so long ago that I can’t take any credit. I like to walk and listen to Audible. I just finished listening to Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead for my local book group. It’s not one I’d have looked at myself – her other books left me cold – but it was much better than I expected. The David Copperfield trope works beautifully for Appalachia [where the novel is set] and the actor reads really well.
Name a novel that inspired you.
In my 20s I was a really bad secretary at Amnesty International. Somebody in the international executive committee gave me a book – his wife had just died and she was a novelist. He said: “Would you like to translate it?” It was Dawn, by Sevgi Soysal. Finding a publisher took about 45 years – nobody was interested in Turkey back then – but the book has really resonated in the US [since Freely’s translation came out last year]. It’s set over 12 hours and it’s about her time as an internal exile after being a political prisoner. Everything that has gone wrong and is going wrong in Turkey is in that book. It broke my heart but taught me a lot: it has huge empathy for everyone involved.