“I wanted to convey that conflict of balancing the expectations of two different cultures”: A Conversation with Mina Seçkin
“What would it look like for a person—one who is a disaffected millennial—to look for her soul in her body? That’s the question I wanted to write toward.”
The Four Humors
The Four Humors
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Alicia Kroell: When I first read your manuscript, I was immediately struck by the language, which is at once tense and strange and very, well, humorous. I want to start with a question that I asked when we first met—how did you first come across the humors, and how did they become a part of this novel?
Mina Seçkin: I first came across the humors while reading an issue of Lapham’s Quarterly focused on flesh. There was a tiny blurb about Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque, a nun in the 1600s, who began experiencing visions of Christ. Her peers did not believe her—they deemed her to have an excess of blood in her body, which, according to medicine at the time, caused delusions. They bled her out once a month in a stone basin!
I was hooked immediately. I became fascinated with the relationship between mind and body as well as the morality that is often prescribed through healthcare. In the Trotula, a manual for women’s health written in medieval Italy during the twelfth century, there were various tips on how to trick a man into thinking you were a virgin (leeches! In your vagina or on your labia!). There was also so much about mood—grief, depression, anxiety—that, from an early time, doctors believed manifested in the body. They also conflated this medical theory—practiced for two thousand years—with a search for the location of the human soul. In Islam, there’s this understanding that your body is just a vessel granted to you, its not yours. Once, my dad blew my mind open when he said, “You do not have a soul, you are a soul. What you have is a body, for now.”
What would it look like for a person—one who is a disaffected millennial—to look for her soul in her body? That’s the question I wanted to write toward, one that the four humors and ancient medicine questioned for centuries. I was also looking toward ideas of care and understandings of depression and anxiety (known in the ancient times as melancholy).
AK: I have a real soft spot for grief works, especially ones that show grief as an all-consuming and disorienting experience, so this was naturally one part of The Four Humors that really resonated with me when it came in on submission. I’m curious about what the submission process was like for you. Were you looking for editors who connected with the book in any particular way?
MS: While on submission, I started to question many of the structural decisions I’d made in my novel. I hadn’t thought of this story as a commodity until I went on submission and I became more aware of something I knew all along—that The Four Humors wouldn’t be the easiest book to sell, as any book of literary fiction is challenging to sell. I nonetheless didn’t want to change any of the major formal choices I had made. Yes, selling books is critical for both the author and the publishing company. I do think that finding an editor who connects with the book is more important than one who would change the book drastically for it to sell.
During the submission process, I experienced an additional loss of confidence in what I’d written with regards to this idea of a character’s likeability and unlikeability—Sibel’s grief, like you say so poignantly, is all-consuming and disorienting. She ignores a lot of needs around her in this experience, plus she has a chronic headache, and chronic conditions can often be viewed in delegitimizing and invalidating ways. I hadn’t ever found the conversation about likeable versus unlikeable characters very compelling, but during submission I suddenly found myself experiencing a worry that Sibel was too unlikeable, too internal, too disaffected for people to root for. Ultimately, I really valued that experience—it teaches you why you chose to write what you wrote. And I couldn’t be more grateful to have worked with you, Alicia, an (amazing!) editor who did not prescribe to that type of moral reading and instead saw Sibel as the complex creature she is.
AK: You did a lot of preparatory research for the book, gathering information about the four-humors theory of medicine as well as political upheavals in Turkey. What was your research process like, and how did you work your findings into the novel?
MS: I owe a lot of my research to the Columbia University libraries. I was a possessed creature in the stacks reading books that have only been checked out once—if at all—on the floor in the dimly lit corridors. Library organization systems fascinate me. I loved the way I would search for politics in the ’70s in Turkey, find one book, and a world of others would open up before me.
What was most important to me was resurrecting the sense of daily life that someone would lead in the 1950s and again in the late 1970s in Istanbul. There were the bigger events, yes, like the Taksim Square Massacre, but what mattered to me more in resurrecting the city and the emotional veins of the time period were the smaller details. What would a leftist organizer wear in Istanbul in the later 1970s? What did the buildings in Nisantasi look like? Where would a person buy fresh flowers, and what kind of flowers were they? Usually, I asked my grandmother first (I’m still laughing that she couldn’t—or wouldn’t—answer my question regarding what kind of bra she wore in the 1950s when her boobs came in, so alas, I had to scrap a sentence about a character hitting puberty).
Most notably, I consulted Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul alongside a 1970s Fodor’s travel guide to Istanbul (remarkable! It was important, too, to see what the Western eye saw in Istanbul, a phenomenon Orhan Pamuk discusses at length as well). I also was in an incredible history seminar taught by Zeynep Çelik at Columbia when I was doing my MFA on the architectural history of Istanbul. We studied everything from the sultan’s kitchens in Topkapi to the advent of French, German, British, and American prep schools across the country. Zeynep is a phenomenal professor who guided me toward more texts. I was working on another novel at the time, and for my final project, in lieu of an essay, she encouraged me to submit pages of my fiction to demonstrate a resurrected Istanbul in the late 1970s.
Then there were oral interviews. I always joke that my coming-of-age as a Turkish person continues to be the act of questioning everything that people—either Turks, Westerners, or other Middle Eastern people—say to me about Turkey’s history. Being Turkish is constantly doubting whether what you read or were told is true. This makes sense to me, given the nationalistic project in the 1920s that led to many squashed truths in Turkish education; on the other hand, I think about how Turks have been demonized by the West as barbarians and savages since the conquest of Constantiople. You have to rebuild the truth for yourself from the sources you find and trust. Oral interviews were fascinating in this way, where the reader was unstripped and I received the raw story. I, as the writer, had to ingest their story while weighing what I believe happened in this country.
AK: Being open about my limited knowledge of Turkey’s history and politics, and doing a fair amount of googling, felt like an important step in my own editorial process. You were also quite generous with filling me in on essential details. I think it’s natural for there to be some gaps in understanding—the author has the clearest sense of what context they are bringing to the novel, especially what’s left off the page. I was wondering if you have any advice for writers when it comes to filling in those gaps with their editor.
MS: This question means a lot to me, and I was so lucky with your thoughtful editing as well as your honesty about not knowing a lot about Turkey—I mean, who would know a lot about Turkey who isn’t a Turkish or Middle Eastern person? I don’t mean that self-deprecatingly—there are a lot of writers who come from a culture or country or experience that is less popularly consumed or known by a general majority.
I’m very sensitive about fiction that overexplains an “other” to an audience—say, a line about why an evil eye is put on the wall, or a line about the nuances behind someone wearing a headscarf—and in my own writing, I’m always weighing how much I’m catering to a particular audience or white gaze. I’m sensitive about this act because it is a political one: catering to a gaze outside your own further centralizes that gaze.
My advice for writers looking to fill these gaps with their editor is to focus on how—in order to achieve this goal of decentralizing the dominant gaze by leaving explanatory context out—it is only helpful to be as explanatory as you think necessary with your editor. Your editor is critical in helping massage your work into its final form and also crucial in helping you see what your work looks like to a reader. I’ve had moments in workshops where I’ve been frustrated that a context I was implying wasn’t clear to my readers, and it has made me shut down a bit. But this is the building process, and if you want feedback from people, it’s necessary, I think, to explain in person what you don’t want to overexplain in the writing.
AK: We did two significant rounds of edits after acquisition, but oftentimes authors work on several drafts with their agent before the manuscript is sent out on submission, not to mention drafts before they query agents. How long did it take you to write The Four Humors?
MS: The Four Humors started as a short story—the first one I turned in at my MFA program near the end of 2016. When I started editing the story, I realized I kept writing new scenes. I still didn’t know, though, whether the story should be a novel. I came back to it a year later, and the story started to open up before me. It was 2018 by then, and I spent about six months writing the first full draft while finishing my MFA. I really love editing. I love printing the manuscript when it’s ready and taking a pen to it on a macro scale (just as much as I love the micro scale). There were many rounds of doing a full-house renovation on my own and then a lighter renovation with my agents. Although the stages of this writing process demanded different things from me—as in, I find writing the first draft to take a different power than polishing the who-knows-which draft—I ultimately spent about four years with this story, including the short story’s original form and the proofreading rounds.
AK: It’s a coincidence that I acquired your book just before the start of the pandemic—I think you were one of the last people I had a drink with before everything shut down in New York! And just a few months into the pandemic, we saw a nationwide social uprising sparked by the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Working on the book during the day and then going to protests in the evening, we both felt newly sensitive to the political threads running through your novel. Can you talk a little bit about how this influenced your revision process?
MS: Yes! That was my final drink too. It was bittersweet that it was a celebratory one. The next morning my job shut down the office and let me know I shouldn’t come into work.
During the leftist movement in Turkey, where the ultranationalist right was in constant violent combat with the numerously splintered left, there were many Turkish citizens who didn’t want to participate. They kept their heads down. It was an incredibly violent time, and everyone—on the left and right—argued over how much violence was necessary in order to fight for the country you believe in. That idea of neutrality always stuck with me, and that summer, I really saw how many Americans who are not affected by the ongoing injustice and violence against Black Americans accept neutrality here too. There’s a line in The Four Humors that my dad said to me years ago regarding the late ’70s in Turkey, how it’s most sinister to bow your head and wait out the violence. I think about this a lot as an American person.
That summer made me revise some elements of The Four Humors with respect to Turkey’s own violent history toward minorities, a reality I’ve always been writing toward and am constantly questioning. I had written more about Kurdishness in the original drafts, but I decided that as a Turk, and Turkish American at that, I wasn’t the right person to do so, and the way I had written about Kurdish identity felt superficial. I firmly believe in writing from your own ethnic experience with very few, select, and thoroughly researched exceptions. I decided that it was my responsibility to speak toward Turkishness and Turkish Americanness rather than toward the identity that the Turkish government continues to oppress.
I firmly believe in writing from your own ethnic experience with very few, select, and thoroughly researched exceptions.
AK: So much of the novel is about Sibel digging into her own family history. There are many secrets to uncover, stories that haven’t been told. I was so impressed with the specificity you brought to the stories of Sibel’s family members and how naturally they seemed to nest into the overarching narrative. With this in mind, how did you approach the structure of The Four Humors?
MS: Family secrets abound in Turkey, and, like around the world, those secrets are always held because of a societally enforced shame relating to politics, identity, religion, sex, and sexuality. It’s common, for example, for a Turkish family to have Armenian relatives—their own grandmother, even—who doesn’t tell them she’s Armenian until she’s on her deathbed.
This kind of secret is barely discussed within families, and even less so in popular media and literature (which has a long history of censorship in Turkey). I was originally not going to disrupt the novel’s present-tense narrative by diving into the past with vignettes, but then I realized this novel’s core is about the traditional family structure. I needed to cause a rupture in this idealized family structure, and I saw a way to do that with the novel’s structure. The plot’s present tense had to be broken to resemble the chaos that people expect will occur when a family secret is revealed and their supposedly neat family structure collapses.
AK: During one of our calls, the show Ramy came up as a millennial Muslim story and one that might not sit as well with older generations—as real as it may be! Tonally, The Four Humors is this wonderful balance of a disaffected millennial’s sentimentality and a genuinely tender family story. Did you set out to hit a certain sweet spot when writing the book?
MS: I’ve always been frustrated that a show or book that is deemed “millennial” is almost always written by white people and rarely has anything to do with multicultural identity or an intergenerational family trauma. It makes me wonder if the word millennial is just a placeholder for relatable. When I first started writing fiction, I received a lot of pushback in workshops that I was writing about too many “different” things. Really, it was that I was writing about a teenage girl trying to have sex with American blonds while also writing about Turkishness and family. I wanted to write a character who had that millennial sentimentality, which I would describe as tender but barbed, cerebral yet delusioned, selfish yet generous; a character who is grappling with not just their modern American culture but also their family’s contrasting expectations and norms. I wanted to convey that conflict of balancing the expectations of two different cultures, and of carrying those divisions inherent to diaspora within your body, without pandering to an immigrant narrative that I often find clichéd or lacking a strong sense of voice.
I can talk about Ramy for hours—his show does this, and for the first time, for Muslim Americans. Ramy was the first time I ever saw a Muslim American experience depicted on television in a way that was honest and real, and I especially related to every scene with Ramy’s sister, Dena. What was also fascinating to me was the way my family reacted to Ramy. Whereas my siblings and I were obsessed with the similarities to our own family and experience growing up in Brooklyn—the Dena episode where she starts to lose her hair after getting into law school literally happened to my sister, and my family similarly doesn’t overcelebrate achievements for fear of the evil eye—my mom was like, “We’re not this Muslim, we’re not exactly like this, this is different.”
I found that fascinating. And I understood. It’s a sensitive reality, being Muslim—culturally Muslim, as I identify—and even more so if you’re a practicing Muslim. There is an extreme concern with how we—a collective whole of Muslims—are perceived in America, and then how we independently are perceived, as Turks, or as Egyptians, or as any Middle Eastern or South Asian person. I was eight when 9/11 happened, and overnight, I went from being a kid who spoke another language at home to being one of the only people at school with Muslim parents.
AK: Now that the book is out in the world, do you find yourself missing the writing or editorial process at all?
MS: It’s funny, I don’t miss the writing process for this book—just because throughout the years of working on The Four Humors, I’ve grown a lot too. The book feels like a deeply alive skin I’ve shed. Something funny happened to me a few months ago, though, when I visited my family in Turkey for the first time since the pandemic. Writing The Four Humors, I was in a state of constant mental note-taking of moments, places, events that encapsulated my experience, one that I was fictionalizing. When I was there in August, the lines from this book seemed to emerge around me based on what people said about the country. Each time, I’d feel like what I had written remains true. It was affirming and powerful; I felt I had captured something true about Turkey, but also about my experience as a Turkish American going to my parents’ homeland. I also felt relieved that I wouldn’t have to tackle writing about Turkey and my feelings about being in Turkey again—a false relief; I am already writing about it again! But I am immensely grateful for that feeling.