In her debut novel Dare to Disappoint, Digital Media alumna and Assistant Professor at Northwestern University Ozge Samanci recounts her experience growing up in politically unstable Turkey during the 80s and 90s. In her story, there is friction between Muslim fundamentalism and Western values — and friction between her artistic aspirations and the pressure from her family to pursue engineering.
A few reviews have drawn comparisons between Dare to Disappoint and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. Both are graphic novels that tell the coming of age stories of young women growing up in times of political and cultural change in countries in the Middle East. While current news media keep this region of the world ever on the minds of viewers through reports of violence and narratives of conflict, it’s through personal stories that we understand people. It seems that the American public is disproportionately focused on a geographic location without much of an understanding of individuals who inhabit it. Dare to Disappoint is clearly a notable book. Samanci tells a poignant story, and the reviews of it are fantastic. However, I think it’s a very culturally important book as well.
Dan Kois of The Slate Book Review described the novel as “a perfectly satisfying memoir reading experience: not just the story of someone’s life, but the chance to see the world through someone else’s eyes,” and Maria Russo of The New York Times Sunday Book Review highlighted Samanci’s skills as storyteller, pointing out that she “even draws a tiny recurring character, a scraggly, childishly drawn bird, into the scene at odd angles to add humor or clarify a fact here and there — a reminder that among her talents is knowing how to make even a harsh story take flight.”
Samanci was generous enough to talk to me about her work:
Where do you think the boundaries of truth are when working in autobiography? I know you’ve said in another interview that you told the story as you remember it. That gives it a sense of accuracy that readers have come to expect from autobiography. What are your thoughts about what you said Lynda Barry has called autobiofictionography? Why infuse lived experience with fiction?
OS: In Dare to Disappoint, I told the stories exactly as I remember them. I didn’t add anything to make them more engaging. Since my stories were lived by family members and friends they would have told me if they perceived distortions. I have not received such comments yet. My next book may be an autobiofictionography since it gives an immense freedom about not harming people. Again, at the end stories are lived by many people and when I share details of my life there is a chance I can offend people I care about. Autobiofictionography blends what is lived and what is fiction. I believe that every fiction is a bit autobiofictionography.
The novel tells the story of your own development of identity. Is it also a story of Turkey’s identity?
OS: It would be too much to say that I am describing Turkey’s identity. I am presenting a slice of it. The main system I used is the impact of politics on a middle class family. In that sense, my own growth and the Turkish political scene moves hand in hand.
What do you think about the combination of arts and engineering in your childhood, when you were here at Georgia Tech, and now?
OS: Yes, back then arts and engineering were mutually exclusive. I grew up in Turkey as a middle class child. During my childhood and young adulthood, I had no idea what arts meant. Artist vaguely meant bellydancers and singers on TV. Also a family friend was an actor and being an actor seemed quite magical. I did have crafts around me. My father taught technical drawing and my mom taught sewing in a vocational high school. My parents were making and building things but they were not artists or engineers.
When I was a Ph.D. student in the digital media department, interactive arts were not a big emphasis. There was not an obstacle to pursue interactive arts but we did not have a faculty member who was particularly focused on interactive arts. Today, the blending of digital media and arts is more common. That said, I still encounter many people on a daily basis who does not know anything about interactive art. Most people think interactive arts mean games or animation.
One of the interviews I read mentioned that you did installation work when you were at studying in the Digital Media program. What kind of stuff were you interested in? Do you have a favorite project?
OS: I still make interactive art installations. I am an Assistant Professor at Northwestern University, and I teach interactive art. My interactive art installations have evolved over time. At the beginning they were storytelling pieces and the physical piece was small and easily portable. In time I became interested in creating a poetic moment that is open to reading. I began building larger scale installations. I recently completed Fiber Optic Ocean, my most ambitious interactive art installation to date. This project was a turning point in my way of thinking since it allowed me to realize my drawings in sculptural form. Fiber Optic Ocean portrays and performs what happens when technology invades the world’s oceans. Three life-size shark skeletons are trapped in an ocean made of fiber optic threads. The piece procedurally composes music made with trombone and choral voices generated by live data coming from live sharks (tagged with GPS) and human internet traffic.
You began writing Dare to Disappoint in 2010 after finishing your Ph.D. in Digital Media and you were a fellow at UC Berkeley. Did any of your work in DM inspire aspects of the novel or any particular creative methods?
OS: The influence was bi-directional. My comics work always had an impact on my digital interactive installations. I have been trying to take digital comics out of computer screen so I designed embodied comics, GPS comics (location-based comics), Planting Comics (site-specific comics).
On the other direction, my time at at the Digital Media Department had an impact on my comics narration. Most important part was I learned how to think out of the box as a result of our discussions on affordances and limitations of digital interactive media. These conversations were mostly in Janet Murray and Jay Bolter’s classes. I combine comics and collage and try to create new meaning making methods with comics. We also had a chance to attend a workshop with Scott McCloud when I was in the Digital Media Program and my friends in the DM program gave me wonderful support for my ongoing online comics Ordinary Things.
As someone familiar with the philosophy and vocabulary of Tech’s Digital Media program, can you discuss how the affordances of the graphic novel shaped your approach to writing this memoir? What were the biggest challenges you faced in terms of telling your life’s story with both words and visuals?
OS: I experimented with the comics medium by not using frames, one of the strongest conventions of comics. Since memories have fuzzy borders, I did not want to trap narration into clearly drawn frames. I was experimenting in my online comics journal Ordinary Things to find the best aesthetic for this book for five years. In Ordinary Things in years, first I became fearless about making mistakes and then, I learned how to turn mistakes into a part of the work. I used three dimensional materials such as broken DVD player pieces, broken headlights of a car, jewelry, swimming googles, latex gloves, popcorn, leaves, pebbles you name it. When I started making the book in 2010, I knew my favorite techniques. I only needed to decide which technique or material creates the best metaphor for the parts of the story.
Since I make media arts, I like pushing the boundaries of any media with which I work. In Dare to Disappoint, I painted some of the backgrounds with unconventional materials such as mustard. I made the cover of the book using sourdough bread to paint the choppy waves. I made collages with fishing equipment. I use materials as metaphors. If it is melancholic, watercolor is best, if the character is nasty, I use a coffee spill to paint the background.
The fear of disappointment is something that many people struggle with. Has your reflection on that idea in the process of writing this book led you to new ideas or perspectives? Did the process of creating the book lead you to any new or different ways of understanding the fear of disappointing others?
OS: What I understand is that this is an endless journey. We can achieve daring to disappoint people we love on one issue and then another one comes. The next one is more complex. Life never stops offering new challenges.
Ozge Samanci will visit on April 4, 2016 for a Digital Media Alumni Talk from 3:00 – 4:00.