Book review: Ozge Samanci’s graphic account of growing pains in Turkey
On the opening page of her graphic memoir, Ozge Samanci, at six years old, peers through binoculars at her sister Pelin at the primary school across the street from her home and asks her mother when she will start school. Soon after, she’s sent out to buy groceries but instead drops in on Pelin’s class and stays, driving her mother into the streets in a frantic search of her daughter.
Yet all that love for learning goes nearly for naught in Dare to Disappoint, Samanci’s subtly brilliant debut, published in the United States in November (a Turkish version is expected next year).
Beginning around 1980 and detailing Samanci’s lower-middle-class upbringing in Izmir and student years in Istanbul, it’s the first non-fiction, comic-book-style account of modern-day Turkey, and a bestseller there.
When Samanci does finally start school, she falls hard for her first-grade teacher, Hediye, who tells the class of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk – how he founded the nation and made Turkey secular and proud. Samanci sees his image everywhere, from the classroom to her family room and TV broadcasts.
The cult of personality extends even to her school materials – there, on her plastic ruler, next to cut-outs of a circle, triangle and square, is Atatürk in profile. “Only boys can be Atatürk,” Hediye tells Ozge, referring to the casting of a school play.
Militancy is also part of her early schooling. “Every Turk is born a soldier,” the class reads aloud. The students stand to attention when a teacher enters the classroom, march in gym class and learn basic military poses for organising in the schoolyard.
Meanwhile, out in the streets, leftist groups war with nationalists and conservatives, until the 1980 military coup. Suddenly, no one is allowed on the streets after 11pm. Turkey’s state-run TV channel shows mostly generals and soldiers. Newspapers are shut down for the tiniest offence and books are banned for objectionable content, including some for children.
Around this time, Samanci’s father frightens his daughters and propels the narrative: “In this country, if you are a woman and you don’t have a job, you are zero, nothing, nothing!”
Their parents, both civil servants, can afford only the lowest level primary and secondary schools. Thus, the sisters must spend all their time studying, including going to a weekend school, to have any chance of getting into a good college and finding a decent job.
Pelin wins a slew of academic awards, gets into the best science high school in Turkey and goes on to study computer engineering at Istanbul’s Bosphorus University, one of Turkey’s best colleges. Samanci too gets into Bosphorus, to study math. “It’s not engineering?” asks her father. “How are you going to find a job?”
Samanci’s university years are one trial after another. She fails her math classes, gets a black eye in a traffic accident and finally is attacked by two men in the woods near her school. Just as they are about to rape her they see someone coming and run away.
Five years in, her friends have graduated and Ozge feels lost, looking towards a dark future. She goes over her math notes in preparation for the last course needed to earn her degree and stumbles upon her future.
The book took 10 years to complete, and it shows. Samanci eschews the traditional square frames of most cartoons, opening her work to seemingly limitless possibilities – vertical rows, diagonal shifts and prominent centre images.
The drawings are mostly minimalist, but there are also collages, photos, maps, and watercolors, sometimes all at once. She uses colour strategically, and to great effect. To depict the 1970s civil war, she shows a couple shot in the street, bright red blood spilling onto the sidewalk.
The book also weaves in the Kurdish separatist movement, the free-market policies of prime minister Turgut Ozal, the culture of corruption and the rise of conservatives and Gulenists, informing the lay reader without getting heavy or dull. Her parents surreptitiously buy smuggled Corn Flakes at their front door, for example, and her literature teacher tells his class that a wife “should be taught to obey”.
What’s learning, Samanci asks us, and what does it have to do with self-discovery? There are echoes of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, which is more stark and dark, and of Riad Rattouf’s The Arab of the Future, which is more removed. The shelf may be short, but Dare to Disappoint – a beautifully told tale of a girl struggling against a society stacked against her, only to find her life’s work in the last place she thought to look – takes its place among the best graphic depictions of coming-of-age in the Muslim world.
David Lepeska is a writer who contributes to The New York Times, Financial Times and Monocle. He lives in Istanbul.