Stanley Awardee reflects on research, a Turkish pride parade, and the vibrant life of Istanbul

Delaney Nolan is an MFA candidate in fiction in the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa. This summer, she traveled to Istanbul, Turkey in May on a Stanley Award for International Research in order to conduct research on her project, "Fatma to Adalet: Feminist fiction in the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey." The project is part of her MFA thesis, a short story collection titled "The Animals Next Door." Delaney also assisted in opening a community center for refugee women and children in Istanbul, which furthered her understanding of the ongoing vulnerability women continue to face. In the following piece, she recounts her fascinating research and observations in Istanbul. 

By Delaney Nolan

My two months in Istanbul were in some way a return to a former home: I’d lived in Istanbul for just under two years, and was still living there when I applied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

I’d been working as an English teacher for elementary school children, and my time there had been an incredibly enriching period both personally and for my writing.

However, returning in the capacity of a Stanley grant awardee allowed me to fully devote my time and energy to writing in a way that I had been unable to do when I was living there and working full time.

This freedom also allowed me to further engage with Istanbul life, visiting museums, attending performances at the annual jazz festival, and taking private Turkish lessons so that I could continue and deepen my relationship with the country and culture.

This in turn allowed me to access the sights, sounds, and textures of the city that I found necessary to write short stories about the life of women in Istanbul, and to do research on two particular Turkish writers to further understand the relationship between traditional Ottoman and Turkish beliefs and feminism.

I wrote two short stories of thirty-five pages in total, one of which will be included in my short story collection, The Animals Next Door.

This story follows two narratives in parallel: a young gay man in contemporary Istanbul, and a woman in the same city in the early 1900s.

As the young man tries to make friends in a city where approaches to gender and sexual orientation are still a controversial subject for some, his own story is entwined with that of the woman who is reckoning her private life and conservative religious views with her sexuality and life with her new husband within an arranged marriage.

Research on the life of Fatma Aliye Topuz, a conservative Muslim who wrote strong independent female characters while following Ottoman  traditions, including an arranged marriage, was crucial to the writing of the story.

Outside of research, simply having the time and liberty to devote to writing was an enormous gift made possible by the Stanley grant.

I had the opportunity to be in Istanbul during a historic election and a contentious gay pride parade—the pride parade being held on the very same weekend that gay marriage was legalized nationwide by the US Supreme Court.

This, along with the daily experience of traveling through the city, buying groceries, taking public transportation, and traveling to the Asian side of Istanbul to see the annual Jazz Festival, will provide valuable insight for many stories to come, whether or not they are about the city itself. 

During the parade, I saw young Turks who were proudly declaring their sexual orientation, and women in conservative covered dress with rainbow pride flags, even as police dispersed the march with tear gas and water cannons.

I’m very grateful for the time and opportunities provided by the Stanley grant, which not only made my writing this summer possible, but will continue to be valuable to me as I apply for a Fulbright grant in the neighboring Rhodope Mountains after graduation from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Find out more information about the Stanley Graduate and Undergraduate Awards for International Research, funded in part by the Stanley-UI Foundation Support Organization. 

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