Roanoke author Judy Ayyildiz has written a novel based on the life of her Turkish mother-in-law, a progressive who lived through the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of the Turkish Republic.
Two years before Adalet Ayyildiz died, she called her daughter-in-law in Roanoke.
As poet and novelist Judy Ayyildiz recounts it, her mother-in-law asked her to come to Turkey and hear her life story.
Adalet, whose name means “justice,” told Judy, “You must spend the summer with me. I must tell you my story because I am going to die. I am not an important person, but my story is.”
The conversations between them required a nephew to serve as an interpreter. “She spoke broken English. I speak broken Turkish,” Ayyildiz said.
Nineteen years later, Judy Ayyildiz’s first novel — in Turkish titled “Kirk Diken,” in English titled “Forty Thorns” — was printed by Turkish publisher Remzi Kitabevi. Both versions were released in 2011, marking the first time the company had published a novel by an American author in its original English form.
“I felt like a rock star when I was in Turkey,” Ayyildiz said. She went there to help promote the book, which received national media coverage and became a bestseller in that country. She’s returning there later this month for a formal book tour.
Promoting the book in the United States has been more of a problem. American publishers haven’t shown interest in this story of a Turkish woman’s life, though she has found an American distributor for the English edition from Remzi.
Yet Ayyildiz still hopes it will find an audience here, as it deals with “an eternal, universal subject, about the human struggle for dignity, not only surviving but surviving well.”
Always an artist, writer
Judy Ayyildiz has been heavily involved in the Roanoke Valley‘s arts community since she and husband Vedii moved here 46 years ago. While her husband, a physician who’s now retired, built his practice, she was a teacher as well as a mom, raising three kids — and she also pursued her passions in the arts. “If you’re a creative person, if you don’t have an outlet, you’re going to be very sad,” she said.
A graduate of Marshall University with a degree in music, she acted, sang and directed with Showtimers community theater but made her reputation as a poet, writer and teacher.
She was a longtime editor of Artemis, a Roanoke publication devoted to art and literature that lasted from the mid-’70s to the early 2000s. Her first poetry collection appeared in 1977, and her best-known collection, “Mud River,” was published in 1988. She’s served as a writer-in-residence for many different Virginia school systems, including Roanoke City Public Schools.
She has written books about writing, a memoir about her battle with paralyzing Guillain-Barre syndrome, and a book for children, “Some of My Ancestors Are Ottomans and Turks,” with watercolor illustrations by her husband.
“Forty Thorns” is the 71-year-old’s first novel, and it has been years in the making. She describes it as a summation of everything she’s experienced as part of the women’s movement.
“To understand what equality really means and what freedom really means â? it means knowing yourself and finding strength within herself.”
As a West Virginia native married into a Turkish family, Judy found a friend in her new mother-in-law.
Adalet came to live with the Ayyildiz family in Roanoke for a year and a half to help take care of Judy Ayyildiz’s oldest son while Judy worked. The Ayyildiz family also would traditionally spend a month out of every year in Turkey, staying with Adalet and traveling with her.
“My mother and Judy were so close to each other, I cannot describe,” said Vedii Ayyildiz. “My mother was very feminist. She was very broad-minded.”
Americans often don’t realize that Turkey was founded on progressive principles. Mustafa Ataturk, the revolutionary who founded the Republic of Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, advocated equality and education for women.
In Istanbul, it is not uncommon to see a grandmother with her head covered walking beside a granddaughter in a miniskirt, Judy Ayyildiz said. There’s tension in the country between progressives who want to build on Ataturk’s foundation and religious conservatives who do not believe women should be equal.
Adalet was a progressive who was kind and accepting of her American daughter-in-law. “She adored me. She nurtured me. You just don’t forget something like that.”
Adalet’s story follows a classic situation of defying her parents to marry a man they didn’t approve of, through her taking part in the Turkish revolution, coping with her husband’s rise as a politician and his infidelities, and working as a teacher and raising seven children, one of whom died in her arms.
In 1993, just as she had predicted, Adalet died. Ayyildiz typed up her notes from those interviews. She had 60 pages, single-spaced.
Based on a true story
At the time, she had a biography in mind. She felt her mother-in-law’s story spoke universal truths about trials women face and the struggle for women’s rights throughout the world. Yet she also recognized she had a lot of work ahead of her.
“There was no way to tell her story without telling the story of the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of the Turkish Republic,” Ayyildiz said.
Though the book tells her mother-in-law’s true story, it’s a novel because most all of the dialogue and much of the specific details of scenes come from Ayyildiz’s imagination. Most of the people who appear in the book are real, though she changed the names of living persons.
The title “Forty Thorns” refers to an incident chronicled in the book in which 12-year-old Adalet is charged with settling a dispute at her sister’s wedding by plucking “forty evil thorns” from the wedding cape. She meets the man who would become her husband as she carries out the impromptu ritual.
Ayyildiz spent seven years researching Turkish history and culture before she even started on the novel. She went to places where her mother-in-law had lived and conducted interviews.
She’s pleased that none of the Turkish readers she’s heard from, nor any of the reviews of her book, have found fault with her presentation of that history.
Vedii Ayyildiz, who checked the book for accuracy line by line, said he has read the book three times. “Each time I read it, I’m more excited.”
A review in the English-language Istanbul newspaper Today’s Zaman describes the book as “the story of how a Turkish woman was affected by the War of Independence and then in turn set out with great gusto to affect the new Republic. Adalet is spirited; she leads with her heart; her strength becomes the backbone of the new nation.”
The reviewer asserts that the issues of freedom and justice raised in the novel have relevance to many of the issues facing Turkey in modern times. Ayyildiz sees those themes of Adalet’s story as having even broader relevance to the ordeals faced by all women.
Adalet told her to include all the bad things that happened as well as the good, saying, “This was my life, and my life is not unlike the lives of many women.”
“She wanted to give them the message that above all they must be equal and they must get an education and they must not lose their hope,” Ayyildiz said.
- Book Review: Forty Thorns (literarychronicles.wordpress.com)
- Meet the Accomplished Author: Judy Light Ayyildiz (literarychronicles.wordpress.com)
- Freighter Sinks off Turkish Coast, 9 Crew Missing (abcnews.go.com)
- Nine crew missing after freighter sinks off Turkish coast (telegraph.co.uk)
- Ship sinks off Turkish coast, 10 missing (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Tulip Mania, Tulips are from Turkey not the Netherlands + Maya’s Only Florist + Fast Flower Facts (fellowsblog.kiva.org)
- TRANSLATION SUBVENTION PROGRAM of TURKEY (linguaculture.wordpress.com)
- 10 Missing As Ship Sinks Off Turkish Coast (huffingtonpost.com)
- Freighter sinks off Turkish coast, 9 crew missing (newsok.com)