Leaving is tricky. Especially when you have a complicated relationship with the country you call home. My connection with Turkey was complex enough to make cohabitation impossible. As you can guess, it wasn’t one of those “either you leave, or I do” kind of situations. My fate was predetermined by physical laws pertaining to how little mobility a big piece of land has. Naturally, Turkey stayed. I left.
When you are in a new place, you think the place is new, but it is actually the opposite. The place has been there forever. It is you that is new. I moved to Melbourne in the beginning of 2020 and became someone that is not from here.
It is my first day. I am out with my Turkish Australian friend. It was raining when we left but now the sun is biting our necks. She points at my lightly puffed black jacket, a great and fitting souvenir from the February Istanbul weather. She says, “you might want to lose the jacket now”.
I look around and study what I see. This city could not be more dissimilar to Istanbul. The moment you leave the central business district, high rise buildings become very sparse. The sky is omnipresent. I get dizzy. I would expect this openness to generate a new kind of freedom but the only thing I feel is “exposed”.
I had been making shows since 2010 right at the heart of what most people called “the alternative theatre movement” in Turkey. As Turkey got increasingly more conservative, life as an artist became suffocating and I was driven a bit further away from the centre trying to make sense of the queer space I claimed. I watched my space shrink and dutifully made my way to the outer zones. I knew the comfort I got from being on the fringes would not last forever, so I left before the country spewed me out.
Approximately three weeks after I arrive in Melbourne, the first lockdown begins. The sun is biting nothing but the asphalt. The grass I see from the window turns brown.
Mum calls. At one point of the conversation, I find myself having to talk about the duvet I used as a child but, no matter how hard I try, I can’t remember the Turkish word for duvet [yorgan]. I find it frustrating how this happened the day after I learned Australians call a duvet a doona. It feels like my brain doesn’t have space for 3 different words for the soft thing that keeps you warm at night. At the expense of being overly dramatic I write in my journal: I am slowly losing touch with my mother tongue.
What is worse, I feel the least articulate I have ever been in English. It is as if my former life where I read and communicated in English with perfect ease thanks to my impressive linguistic aptitude was a flight simulation where I could fly over oceans and continents but now, I am in a real cockpit completely unsure of how to operate this lexical aviation device.
I try to find comfort in believing it will all come back to me soon and I regularly remind myself of my objective: I moved to Melbourne to do a post graduate degree in theatre.
Each time we have a new guest speaker we do a little introduction. “Hi, my name is Ibo. I am a theatre maker from Istanbul, Turkey. My practice is…”
The more I am asked to introduce myself, the more it feels like I am talking about someone else.
To be able to leave, I had to collect and prepare countless documents. Official papers that detailed my bank activity, information about all my previous overseas travels, my birth certificate, even a paper that shows my military status. I scanned all of them and put them in my portable hard drive under a folder titled “official”. In it is also my artist statement. A document that details my practice which is predominantly based on meddah, the traditional Turkish storyteller. That document ironically ended up being probably the one that helped me the most to leave Turkey.
Here is an excerpt:
Meddah is a storyteller and a mimic who would sit in a coffeehouse and perform his act by telling a story that features various characters. His art was simple yet subtle because it required him to shape his performance by reading the room to make sure that the appropriate material (from his rich archive) was delivered in a way that befitted the audience. His major instruments were his body and his voice, but he would use a stick to draw the audience’s attention and a handkerchief (that would function as a shawl, a headscarf, or a veil) to help him act out multiple ¾usually female¾ characters. Not relying on sophisticated props or an intricate stage design, the meddah connects with his audience in the most direct way possible. It did not take long for me to realise how much potential this ancient and simple form had to offer to a performer and a theatre maker. Shortly after I started studying form, other limitations surfaced. The content and the techniques that the meddah uses are firmly rooted in the tradition which is inherently male (there is not one single female meddah in the history of the form) and inevitably non-queer as well. As a male-identifying queer performer, I started to revise and diversify my practice and understanding of meddah to search for a contemporary storyteller who both challenges the masculine ideals through a genuine vulnerability and looks for new storytelling tools and modes to queer what is originally a rather heteronormative form.
“Where are you from?” is a challenging question not only because it is difficult to answer but also because it is a perfect reminder that you are not home. I never had a sense of belonging to the land, so when I think of home, I don’t picture a country or a city. Even if I had it in me to believe that the country I was born in ¾the one that at times sneakily, and at most other times overtly, antagonised the queer community¾ is home, I made the conscious choice to leave it. But I miss it now, in the most problematic yet erotic way possible.
Problematic sentence ensues: I left the orient, travelled as far away as I could from it, arrived on this unceded land and started romanticising what I left behind. I miss Turkey. I even miss the Ottoman palaces which often activated the dormant imperial guilt in me and gave me headaches that could only be soothed by minimalism.
Erotic sentence ensues: In my dreams I penetrate those regal buildings through their oh so ornate facades feeling taken by the grandeur I previously found pathetic.
I don’t understand why this is happening; I have visited most of those palaces only once, all without any sense of attachment and now I long for them. I resent the fact that it only took a couple of months to turn into a cliché.
Not many people ask me where I am from, and those who get curious enough to inquire opt for another question. Here is how it goes:
Whenever I am in a real or virtual room with strangers, at least one of them asks me where my accent comes from. Then comes a moment packed with absurdity. A deceitfully uncomplicated moment where two people, who don’t know each other well, talk about the hometown of accent, the bodiless thing they both acknowledge the existence of. The big break in logic occurs when I say “I am from Turkey” and the inquiry ends.
Each time this happens, I am more clueless as to what this encounter means, socially or linguistically.
Is my accent a stranger that comes from Turkey but doesn’t speak Turkish?
Am I my accent? I could be, because nobody finds it weird that I answer the question in the first person singular.
Are these curious people synesthetes? Maybe they perceive the days of the week as colours. And maybe in that same logic, the space I occupy as a migrant is not space but “sound’” to them.
Is my corporeality predominantly an acoustic phenomenon?
Am I faced with a kind of political sensitivity that erases my very Middle Eastern body or reduces it into a set of queer-sounding phonemes and diphthongs?
I refuse to lose my body. I look at it every day. Sometimes I slide my t-shirt up a bit. My belly button looks like a raisin that dehydrated to the point of nonexistence. Yes, the acknowledgement of my accent has erased the outlines of my body, but fortunately my human hands still function well enough to write disorganised entries in my journal. I write a title in capital letters with the kind of care and diligence that will disappear from my handwriting as I move down on the page. It is a poem titled Where My Accent Comes From, a facetious attempt to chronicle the history of my accent, an independent entity that comes from everywhere and anywhere and nowhere.
I reread it the next morning. It shines less bright as most written pieces do following the day of their conception. I choose not to lose my enthusiasm and decide to make a one-person show based on the poem.
Postgraduate coursework in 2020 is violently solitary. Spending hours in front of the computer, I adopt a new habit of not killing any of the webpages I browse. The zoom frame with lecturers and people from my cohort is slightly smaller than my web browser behind it. Zoom looks out of place on top of my internet history- which is now an uncomfortably squished lateral collection of websites. I hate my computer despite the fact that I exist through it. It records my life, my kinks, as well as my assignments, one of which is a research proposal on my future project Where My Accent Comes From.
Here is an excerpt from it:
Following my move to Melbourne four months ago to become an international theatre maker, I slowly lost touch with my mother tongue. Having to think, function, and communicate in my second language in a new environment was alienating, a situation that was exacerbated by the fact that almost all the people around me were alienated by the new “isolated” pandemic mode of their previously familiar lives. This trauma resulted in weeks of introspection, the intensity of which found an outlet through reflective journaling. Although limited, my social circle kept inundating me with questions pertaining to both my positionality and wellbeing. Chance encounters with people usually initiated dialogue about my background and hometown; they mostly opted for the indirect way of inquiring about where I am from through a question that somewhat fascinated me: Where does your accent come from? This frequent encounter manifested itself in my journal as a satirical poem titled Where My Accent Comes From in which ‘accent’ is treated as a queer, amorphous entity with an elusive identity. In the unlikely event that my journal is discovered several centuries later, what would that specific poem mean to people who might not have a similar linguistic or communication system to ours? I imagined my lived experience being decoded in the hands of future anthropologists and archaeologists with inevitably biased, incomplete, and fragmentary methods. This inspired me use fiction to replicate and queer that process before it happened. Then, I decided to research the outcomes of creating a double narrative storytelling piece with one layer as the manifestation of the journal and the other as the ‘faux-anthropologised’, ‘othered’, ‘queered’ story of the accent as an entity misrepresenting the migrant me.
Approximately one year has passed since I wrote the research proposal. I am in front of my computer editing the final draft of Where My Accent Comes From. It is now a contemporary meddah piece blending autoethnography and fiction. The 2020-2021 layer of the story features a romantic relationship between myself and a man named M whose fascination with me, although flattering at first, borders on fetishization of migrancy coupled with an objectification of the Middle Eastern/Mediterranean male body.
I will start rehearsing soon for a season at the Melbourne Fringe. One of my friends with whom I have shared the text asks me how autobiographical it is. It is a very tricky question. I empathise with the pure curiosity of my friend, but I also feel confounded by the very fabric of the text which rejects a categorisation based on the binary between fact and fiction. I resist the urge to say “it is an attempt to queer the autobiography” and mumble “It is more complicated than that; I guess I am more interested in truthfulness than truth”, which is a paraphrase of what Patricia Leavy says in her book titled Method Meets Art: Arts-Based Research Practice.1 To compensate for my momentary plagiarism, I retrospectively cite the paraphrase and overexplain Leavy’s insight into “fiction-based research”. My friend is not convinced “writing fiction” is an effective method for research. He coughs into the phone and says he needs to get PCR tested for Covid. I sigh and say, “sometimes reality itself is not enough to be real so I am using fiction to authenticate reality”. He laughs a polite laugh and says “you have always been quirky”. I respond with a slightly agitated laugh and say, “tomorrow, the people at the test centre will take only a small segment of your DNA and create new chains of it before they can tell whether you have Covid or not. A small segment to propagate so that they can authenticate the result”. He laughs again.
After an unexpected surge in case numbers, Melbourne goes into another lockdown. The rehearsals never begin, and I lose the chance to stage the show.
I leave the in-person version of the text behind, which means I must give up on the visceral qualities of my initial directorial choices. I sit down in front of my computer for I-don’t-know-how-many days and sculpt a version out of the original text for a digital performance.
I have left the stage now and decided to go digital, but I cannot find the inspiration I need in previous zoom performances.
I am on YouTube, delving into the world of influencers to learn about the equipment they use for that glossy finish, blurred background, and clear sound. I like arriving in this new world that gives me hours of content on content making. It is the kind of procrastination that secretly works in favour of the thing I am trying to make.
I am digitising the meddah.
I start rehearsing the piece on my bed with three cameras and a camera switcher. The main directorial choice comes from the challenge of live editing the camera angles as I give this digital meddah the flesh and pixels it asks of me.
The technology I use offers a new world to rethink the challenges associated with theatricalising the filmic medium in the time of a global pandemic when most people suffer from the disorienting fatigue of looking at the screens. To illustrate, one of the biggest challenges is the clicking sound the camera switcher makes. It strikes me as a performative element that blurs the lines between the diegetic and the non-diegetic, a serendipitous device that invites an inevitable self-referentiality that negates the potential for realism the cameras offer. The click morphs from a noise I initially consider a drawback into a useful side effect of technology. It inadvertently mimics the sound of the stick that the traditional meddah used to draw attention or to indicate a change of beat and/or character.
“Why do I narrate stories?” is a question that haunts me every time I set out to make a new piece. I still do not know what the answer is, but I know it is never “because I want to share”. Sharing is a volatile act; the urge is not always available therefore I cannot depend on it as a storyteller. Sharing is structurally hegemonic, and it does not generate the artistic queer space my practice yearns for. My objective is not to share with others something that I own; it’s the opposite. I want to lose the firm grips of my ownership even over something that is unapologetically me so that each attempt at narration becomes a collective practice of curiosity.
Jacques Rancière opens his book titled The Edges of Fiction with this sentence: “[w]hat distinguishes fiction from ordinary experience is not a lack of reality but a surfeit of rationality”.2 This quote is the main reason why I chose to conduct my autoethnographic inquiry through fiction. This work is a study of the auto in a fictive cosmos rendered possible by autoethnography.
No matter how representative of reality it is, fiction gives you a sense of control in the most artistic way possible. Life is chaotic. Life does not have a fixed trajectory; it is inherently devoid of a narratological structure. However, artists who work with fiction structure their work knowing exactly when it will end because it is the truth about pieces of fiction: they end. You can arrange what happens in between the front and back cover of a novel or in between the curtain rise and fall of a show.
Where My Accent Comes From is a fictional work based on my lived experience and therefore it functioned as the rationalisation of a very confusing, even traumatising, period of my life. Thanks to fictionalising my grief, my homesickness, my foreignness, and my linguistic confusions, I was able to create a literary and performative artifact that I can put in front of me. I could revolve around it, look at it from different angles, find it ludicrous, mock the monstrosity of it, poke it, give it entropy, catch it right before it fell… I could finally start the long process of grasping the elusive identity that is my accent, my heritage, the amorphous shape that I occupy in this world and my queerness.
Ibrahim Halaçoğlu is a theatre-maker from İstanbul. He has been professionally involved in theatre since 2010 predominantly as a performer, as well as a director, dramaturg, and playwright. He was an active participant in the alternative theatre movement in İstanbul. His practice focuses on experimenting with multiple narratological tools including but not limited to the traditional Turkish/Ottoman storyteller meddah, autofiction, interdisciplinary story composition/mise en scène, and speculative nonfiction. Upon finishing his master’s degree in directing at The Victorian College of the Arts in 2021, he became the 2022 Graduate Director at Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre. He lives and works in Melbourne.