As third year students Deniz Kişmir, Elif Ademhan, Ilgın Acar and Murat Kabak, we conducted an interview with Assistant Professor Esin Akalın. She has been teaching Western Culture and Civilisation, Renaissance Drama, Literature and Mythology, Modern and Contemporary Drama and many other courses in our department since 2001.
Questions appear in bold. Translations of certain works and terms are given [in square brackets].
If you were trapped in a book, what book would it be, and which character would you prefer to be?
Trapped in a book? I don’t think I want to be trapped in anything. I am a free spirit. But, OK… maybe one of Shakespeare’s heroines. One of the comic heroines, though. Beatrice maybe, or Portia or Kate. These are young women who are eager to take risks in a patriarchal world that they are trapped in. Actually, it is Shakespeare himself who allows these women to take risks to challenge the patriarchal order. So, I think I would want to be one of those comic heroines. I am impressed, of course, with Shakespeare’s tragic heroines too. Yet, they all die in the end unlike the comic heroines who get married and have beautiful lives. Well, hopefully.
What five adjectives describe you the best?
Well, I think, I am a warm person. I am a positive person. I am hard-working and very patient. Also persevering I would say.
What are you currently reading for enjoyment?
To tell you the truth, nothing for enjoyment. Everything I read is for work. I am looking forward to my retirement just to have an opportunity to read for enjoyment. I already have my list for books to read just for the sake of reading. Unfortunately, I do not have the time to do that now – just like my colleagues. We have to read and re-read the texts that we are teaching and also a lot of stuff written about these texts. Mostly critical works.
Which song describes you the best?
A song that I used in one of my plays: “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston.
Do you have a motto in your life? If you do, what is this?
Yes, I think the motto of my high school, which was, “Post Tenebras Lux” [Lat. “From Darkness to Light”]. And even now, it is one of my favourite mottos.
Would you inform us a little bit about your education and/or personal life?
I went to an English school at the age of eleven. Two years of prep-class and three years of middle school. Then for high school, I went to Üsküdar American Academy for Girls. After graduation I started to study at Istanbul University, English Language and Literature Department, though I did not complete my studies there… Surely, I had a passion for literature so I followed my heart and after taking a break, I went back to school in Canada. I got my BA Degree in Toronto, at York University’s Glendon College. I carried on with my studies and got my Master’s Degree at the University of Toronto, English Department. I received my PhD from the University of Toronto’s Graduate Centre for Drama Studies. I studied both theory and practice together at the Drama Centre… My life is not all about education (with a laugh), though. I have a family, I have a daughter and a son and we are also blessed with four grandchildren. I make every effort to spend some with my grandchildren.
What was your first encounter with literature? Do you recall any influential name on your career, or any author who has an impact on you?
Well, speaking of literature, in elementary school I remember reading The Little Prince. Since my brother went to a French school, he had the French version, Le Petit Prince. So the image of this little prince has been stuck in my mind ever since. And also Pollyanna, perhaps. And once we were in middle school, we were introduced to Shakespeare in grade six. From then on, it was all English authors.
Who influenced me as a writer? Azra Erhat. I had the opportunity of working with Azra Erhat for four years while I was studying at Istanbul University. I also had a full-time job at the United Nations, International Labour Office. And there, I worked with Azra Hanım. She was someone I looked up to. We were friends but at the same time, she was almost like an idol to me. She was translating The Odyssey in those years. So she used to come to the office early in the morning, around seven-thirty. A small lady (with a laugh) in stature creating such monumental works on her typewriter!
Another person who influenced me throughout my academic career is currently the president of Carleton University, Professor Roseann Runte. She was an inspiration to me.
While interpreting Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, you said that “I wish it was me who wrote this”. Do you have any projects in your mind such as a novel short story or a play? If so, where do you get your ideas?
Yes, actually, I think about it a lot – that is, writing a novel or a play. I have written plays before. Now, I plan to write about a retired English professor, who will have a journey in her subconscious. It will be a journey, maybe starting in Homer’s Troy and moving onto Chaucer’s Canterbury, and from there on going to Shakespeare’s England to Renaissance strolling through the streets in the Elizabethan era. Then, there is the Enlightenment Period! The journey would not be complete without saying “Hello!” to Alexander Pope’s Belinda and finally to Margaret Atwood. As you can see, this is a very ambitious project. A novel or a play, we will see.
What would be your recommendations to a first class student?
First of all, I would tell them that it is such a privilege for them to be in this department. Maybe, this is my personal view since I have put my heart and soul into English Literature. But yes, indeed, it is a privilege to be in this department. But, at the same time it involves a lot of challenges. The main challenge is, that students have to tackle with so many courses. They have so many books to read. My recommendation to first year students would be to concentrate on their reading, reading, and reading and to follow the syllabus. Then they’ll be fine.
When did you decide to become a teacher, and why did you choose this field?
I think the seeds have been planted into my heart when I started the British school. When my father first took me to this school located in Beyoglu, I remembering saying: “I don’t speak a word of English. What am I going to do in this school with all these British teachers?” That was my challenge, I guess. A challenge that I took as an eleven years old girl. But, I had such excellent teachers that I still keep all the text books they used in their classes. I still cherish those books filled my own handwritten notes. I must say that my teachers have inspired me to choose this field. I chose this field because of my love for literature. Of course, my studies in Canada were instrumental, too. Nothing was coincidental. I had the opportunity to study English Literature and Drama in Canada. So, I said to myself: “Maybe, now it’s time to give back!” And, here I am.
I will repeat Orhan Pamuk’s famous quotation from The New Life: “I read a book and my whole life was changed.” What does change in your life, in general after reading a book or in particular, after receiving Literature education?
When I was in Canada at home with two small children, I felt this urge to go back to my studies. In order to do that I needed a room of my own as in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. I really kept this book on my desk. It almost it became like a guide to me. I needed my own space when I was not playing with the children or working with their school works and so on. I really kept my own space and my family respected that. Thus, Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own became a guide in pursuing my studies, while my family, whom I lovingly nurtured me back in my studies.
What is the most difficult aspect of teaching today?
Technology! We are so grateful to technology for opening our horizons. At the same time, technology distracts young people from reading… from smelling the books. It is disheartening to see in class, students following the works through their little cell phones or through their iPads. Accordingly, concentration in young people have lessened. It’s not only youth. It involves all ages. Our eyes are all fixed on technological gadgets. So, I find this to be a big challenge for our department, as well. It is sad to see how technology sadly keeps us away from the real thing, which is the book itself.
Jamaican writer Olive Senior says: “Literature is political, because we are political animals.” How would you describe your political view in accordance to your literary view?
To answer this question, may I begin to say that I been a very active member of my community, in many ways. Doing theatre and instilling in youth love for literature and drama have been at the top of the tasks that I have undertaken. In all my community activities I have always fostered diversity and equality amongst people. I am definitely against all “-isms” like sexism, racism, ageism. I believe that we should show respect to each other’s beliefs and choices in life. I have never seen myself as a political activist considering that the word ‘politics’ and ‘political’ have connotations of divisiveness with respect to religion, race and gender. Come to think of it, embracing the whole humanity as one is even a more powerful political stand than any. After all, the writer has said it all: “we are political animals”. Some of will be all embracing and some of us inherently divisive.
How was your first encounter with the theatre?
My parents were regular theatre-goers. When I was a little kid, I remember my mother, putting on her purple hat and going to the theatre with my father almost every weekend. As for me, apart from studying dramatic texts in class, I even went on stage at school. As the English School was all girls school, I played Prof. Henry Higgins in Pygmalion by Bernard Shaw. Well, it was a success, I guess. Yıldız Kenter’s mother (as her granddaughter was in our school) came to watch it and that was a big honour. And then when I moved to Üsküdar American Academy for Girls, I was on stage again and later became the Drama President of the school. I think all these theatrical experiments in high school gave me the courage to set up my own theatre in Canada. This was a community theatre, which fostered love for drama in young people. In return, it gave me a good opportunity to write my own plays and to direct them.
What do you think makes good writing?
Good reading. Reading, reading, reading… That is what I can say, because without reading you cannot write.
While we were preparing to this interview, we came across some information about you including your works in Toronto. How did this state of being apart from your own country affect your productivity? With what feelings did you write such plays about immigration?
We make choices in life and we have to face the consequences of those choices. In this case it was a good choice in many ways, but of course leaving behind your family, your loved ones, your parents, your siblings and your country is a major move. When I said my favourite song was “I Will Always Love You”, in fact, that was my theme song for Gitmek mi zor, Kalmak mı? [Journey without End], a play that I had written about the immigration experience. The play opened with slides of Istanbul to the accompaniment of Whitney Houston’s song. Although I was the writer and the director of the play, I also took into my hands the job of showing the slides. Yet each time I showed the slides, I could not help tears rolling down my cheeks. It had the same effect on the audience too. The worst thing was being away from your own country, but then we also built up a new life for ourselves and we were very lucky to be in a country as Canada. Since Canada accepts you as you are with your culture, and your language, everything that you bring to Canada is considered to enrich the mosaic that Canada wants to build. Ultimately, being in a different country of course, has its challenges. I feel fortunate to have overcome those challenges by being creative and productive at all times. I wrote several bilingual plays reflecting Turkish/Canadian lifestyles and organized several special events in Toronto celebrating cultural diversity through poetry, music, dance and theatre.
What was your childhood dream job?
I adored my elementary school teacher, I wanted to be teacher I sometimes wanted to be an architect. Those were mainly the two jobs.
What kind of a student were you?
In the English High School (can you believe that), I was quite “naughty”. Quite “noisy”. Essentially, I was a quite active and a very happy child. When I moved to Üsküdar American Academy, I changed a lot. I became more of an introvert. If I can add something, the British school had a lot of rules, very strict rules. For example, if you took your school cap off outside of school, or if you didn’t button up your cardigan and/or jacket or if you wore your indoor shoes instead of your outdoor shoes or vice versa, you would be punished. So breaking those rules were enough to qualify you as “naughty”. But at the same time, we were all high achievers in school. The discipline that the school had imposed on us, was definitely for our good.
I think we have come to the end of this interview. In closing, I must say that it has been wonderful to be in this school, teaching. It has been an enriching experience for me, indeed. It is also such a pleasure to get to know each one of you.
I thank you for this interview.