Memed, My Hawk

I was leaning easily against a tall, cream-colored column when Chris Abani spoke to a writing class at the University of Iowa. This was a year and a half ago, so my memories are like a book of old photos, all faded colors and lens flares. I remember clearly, though, a rich discussion of the relationship between details, plot, and characters, and how the flow chart between them runs left-to-right as they appear in this sentence. That is: include details only as necessary to build your plot, and likewise build your plot in service of your characters.

Memed, My Hawk begins with a description of whitecaps in the Eastern Mediterranean rolling into the southern coast of Turkey. Yashar Kemal then takes you on a journey inland through the fertile coastal plains, then the brushwood and the tangles of hardy flora as we move farther inland, to the broad marshes that bubble and reek in the summer, to the plateaus of thistles and hard soil which stretch from the marshes to the Taurus Mountains. The vast distances spanned in this geography lesson are five or six times farther than a serf will travel in his life.

Having set the stage for a broad, almost too large, story about the whole land mass of Anatolia, Kemal writes the chapters introducing us to Memed as if the story is confined to the inside of a small marble. The young Memed, living and working in a village under the harsh rule of landlord Abdi Agha, can hardly imagine the colors and the buzz of the nearest town, let alone Istanbul or the Mediterranean. Gradually the cast of characters is fleshed out — always preceded by a description of the land and the history of their village; always, there is folklore. In this way the details, as well as the plot, are always tied to the land: in the color and smell of the soil, in the plumage of flowers or the thickness of reeds or in snowfall and evergreens, in the joy of harvests and the injustice of sharecropping, in local heroes and despotism. As we read the story we (like the protagonist) are born in the scrub of Dikenli and slowly grow into an awareness of the panorama of Anatolian society and politics, and the centrality of land in this.

For better or for worse, this isn’t a story about the role of women or the family, about love or religion, or about social relationships per se. The story is about land. I have entered the mind of a man who cups in his hands the middling soil of the Chukurova, out of which he has scratched his existence all his life, now smelling it, the acidity, the nutrients, the rot, as the owner of the land he works for the first time in his life.


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