January 2018

A readership survey we issued back in January 2018 showed that alumnae wish to read more about the lives and achievements of fellow alumnae in Europe. Below is our first feature interview, focusing on Arzu Gürz Abay ’94, the winner of the 30th Anniversary Alumna Award.

Please get in touch if you feel your story would be of interest, or would like to recommend a fellow alum.

Spotlight on… Arzu Gürz Abay, Class of ’94

Recipient of the 30th Anniversary European Alumna Award, Author of Bilingual Children’s Books

“After a while, you start looking for something more original,
something that reflects yourself and your life.”

Arzu Gürz Abay ’94, from Turkey, grew up in Germany because of her father’s role as a Diplomat. She now lives back in Cologne raising two children in a multilingual, multicultural household.

1) Why do you write for children and what was your first story about?
It was late in 2010 in Turkey. I was in the summer house with my parents where I spent pretty much every summer vacation since childhood. Looking at the sea, I started thinking about my children and their cultural heritage. We live in Germany and are integrated into the social, educational and work. However, I noted, our children are expected to primarily speak the common language in Germany: German. Since we have no family there and only a few Turkish friends, our conversation in our own language was confined to our four walls. And I was thinking that this is so unfair. Speaking one’s mother tongue does not hinder integration. I am of the opinion that knowing another language is a resource that should not be ignored. Speaking English and French in addition to German and Turkish myself, I started comparing the languages with one another. Why is English more valued than Turkish? Why is French more impressive to speak than Swahili?  I was questioning these aspects of cultural identity. The rich traditions and language handed down from generation to generation are at the core of our identity. Why lose that? It is no wonder my children knew more about Christmas traditions than they did about their own cultural and religious celebrations such as Ramadan. After all, children are not inherently prejudiced to show disinterest. Quite the contrary, they are like sponges that absorb information from their immediate environment. I had to make that work.

I sat down and wrote a story that took place in the small fisher village where I was looking out at the sea- Ayvalik. It is right across from the Greek island Lesbos.  I wrote a story about a Turkish girl living in Germany with a German friend. The Turkish girl goes to Ayvalik, and the German girl goes to the Greek island of Lesbos. They meet up in Turkey to celebrate Ramadan. At the end of the story when the German girl is going back to Lesbos on the ferry with her mother, she says: “The Ramadan celebration with the family at the table, the nice food and gift-giving reminded me of Christmas.” And that was the nerve I hit with this story: Finding common ground despite differences. That portrayal helped me find a publisher in a comparatively short time. Today, “Leyla and Linda celebrate Ramadan” is used in German schools for lessons in Islamic religion and Turkish language.

2) How have the themes in your stories developed since you first started writing?
I started with a simple thought: picking out common themes in different religions. Germany has a very vibrant culture of celebrating Easter and Christmas and I wanted my children to also be familiar with Ramadan and other Muslim traditions as well.  My first theme was centered on this aspect. However, it was not my intention to focus entirely on religion. From there, I moved onto questions of personal identity, cultural heritage, the importance of migrant language and something that ties it all together: friendship. We are all so different from one another, that you cannot and should not impose a cookie cutter mentality.

I also wrote about themes that concerned Turkey’s history, thinking that I was catering to Turkish families. Strangely enough, my story “Früchte der Freundschaft” (The Fruits of Friendship) about the multi-ethnic life in the Ottoman Empire (the predecessor to the modern Turkey of today) struck a chord with the multi-ethnic classroom that I was reading to in Germany. The children did not know anything about Turkey’s history and yet, they knew what it felt like to be “different” in a group. They knew that communication can be quite complex even when speaking the common language: German. They also understood the hardships associated with cultural differences from their everyday lives. It did not matter that I read a story about Turkey in Turkish – a language the children of immigrant Russians, Poles, Persians, Albanians, Serbs, Tunisians, Moroccans did not understand a word of. What mattered, in that classroom, was empathy – the ability to speak up and be heard and hopefully, be understood. They knew the feeling of wanting to express something and other children and grown-ups not listening to them. These children know the feeling first-hand. So, they listened to my story and wanted to understand. “Früchte der Freundschaft” (The Fruits of Friendship) is recommended by “Stiftung Lesen”, the German Reading Foundation, operated under the patronage of Germany’s president, Joachim Gauck, and is committed to reading and literacy promotion.

Obviously, I was not writing mainstream German children’s literature. Yet, I was getting more requests for readings at kindergartens, schools, libraries, museums, and even the ministry of integration. Another book, which is getting positive feedback, is about forced migration of the Turkish and Greek population after the First World War when the Ottoman Empire fell apart. I have a lot of Greek elements in “Oma’s Teekane in Kreta” (Grandma’s Teakettle in Greece). Even though the German media likes to focus on the deep-seated animosity between these two ethnicities, I chose to look for common ground. Why not bring in a different view? Not everything can be completely bad and negative, I thought. And I was not alone in thinking that. “Oma’s Teekane in Kreta” is the book I was asked to read at the Litcologne in 2014, the largest literature festival in Europe. Out of all my books, this is the one I am asked to read the most. 

3) What topics do your stories cover, and why are these important to you?
The topics I cover are important to me because I always was the “foreigner”, the “odd one out”. I have always had the need to fit in because of my father’s profession as a diplomat. I had to acquire many skills over the years to be a part of my class, my environment, and at times, it could be really hard. Germany in the 70s was not as open or tolerant as it is today. Early on, I had to grapple with stereotypes pertaining to my home country. This still happens even today. It took me some time to find the person at the core of me.

When I look at the children during my readings, I can see a lot of them still have issues concerning their ethnic or cultural heritage. It is uplifting to see that a lot of things have changed for the better. The world has changed. We are now speaking of a global village. A lot of people no longer associate themselves only with one certain point on a map. They are born somewhere and then move to another place.  Essentially, I think children need to know this: it is okay to speak a different language, it is fine to hail from a different country, and it is all right to look differently.

 It is a great moment when I ask the kids what languages they speak. Their arms shoot up like rockets. That is their moment to feel proud. And they are rightly so: Every language is important. Once that is communicated, they will perhaps attain an elevated sense of self-worth. I seek to empower these children in other ways, too. I ask: What wonderful country are you from? What are your parents doing here? What do you want to do with your life? What books have you read? What did you like about them?

I want to show children, especially of migrant families that are working so hard and do not have the time to read at home, that reading is fun. Reading is key to education. I urge them to improve their reading skills and think about what they want to do with their lives. My unusual profile: a multilingual, modern, self-confident, Turkish woman, who writes books for a niche market, draws the attention of the kids. I am a different role model for them and that is very important to me.

4) Where do you get your inspiration from? To what extent do the stories in your books have a foundation in your real life experiences?
My initial inspiration was my children. I wanted to empower my own children and teach them the importance of using their mother tongue. It is not okay to feel embarrassed while speaking your own ethnic language in a German school. I wanted them to know that their language, their culture and as an extension their personality is as valuable as English, German, French, and other European cultures and languages. That is my primary source of inspiration.

5) What do you love most about writing stories for children?
In the beginning, I did not make any plans about being a children’s book author. It really evolved after the first book was published and I realized I can reach out to children in this way. Through my own insatiable love for learning and reading (being a typical Mount Holyoke woman), I enjoyed showing children that reading is such a great thing. They do not need to read my books; they should just read any book. I have the opportunity to tell kids, they should be proud of their heritage and the languages they speak. This is what I really love the most: researching, writing, reading and reaching out and empowering minority children in Germany.

6) Are you confronted with criticism for writing in two languages since Turkish kids and families are often accused of not learning the language, not integrating into Germany society, and living in a “paralellgesellschaft” (“segregated” community)?
This discussion is very one-sided. One really needs a differentiated perspective here. The people who were recruited from Yugoslavia, Italy and Turkey in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s were workers who came to Germany to do cleaning jobs, factory jobs, and other menial work jobs since the “Wirtschaftswunder” (The economic development of West Germany post- WW2) needed manpower that was just not there. These workers were recruited from rural areas because educated and well-to-do people would not come to Germany to do those kinds of jobs where physical health was at the top of the list of requirements. Germany recruited people with very little education and gave them jobs. The guest workers, as they were called, contributed in a great measure to improve the German economy. However, they were expected not to complain or make any demands. Flip the coin, and look at the subject from “the other side”. If you have not gone to school, then you will not necessarily value learning. If you work in factories, doing menial work, it may be difficult to find a better job. I think it is a little unfair to simplify the situation. These people abided by the law and kept to themselves. At that time, that was what was expected of them.

The topic is broad and there are many complicated components that have led to this sort of criticism. However, I have a different approach to accessing people. I think if I make the effort to speak to them directly, say a kind word, then they will come one step closer towards me, too. If you keep your distance, so will they.

That thought reminded me of comment from a highly educated German lady who remarked on this topic at a dinner party. She said, “Shopping at the marketplace and getting these fruits is great.  I always buy my fruits from a Turkish woman. And imagine this: she could not speak one word of German! You know it’s been 50 years since the Turkish workers have been in Germany and still, she does not speak German. They are refusing to integrate into our society.”  I then asked her if she has been to Turkey.  “Yes,” she said exuberantly, ”so many times! I love the food; you have such great food.”  “Well, if you have been to Turkey so many times and you have these migrant families here, and you go to this Turkish woman every week and want to ask her for a recipe, why don’t you make the effort of learning how to say “Hello” in Turkish? Why don’t you say “What is your name? This woman lugging our fruits and vegetables every week will beam! Start the conversation yourself. Why do you always expect the migrants to take the first step? Have you ever thought about making an effort to make her feel welcome?” That sums up how I see it. Integration is everybody’s responsibility. You have to pick up everybody in the society. You cannot say “work” and “learn German” and that is it. It just does not work that way.

7)  What is your favorite children’s book and why?
I read a lot of children’s books due to my writing role. One of my favorite books is called “Don’t let the pigeon drive the bus” by Mo Willems. It is very silly and absolutely hilarious.

Growing up in Germany, I loved reading Erich Kästner (Emil und die Detektive), Paul Maar (Das Sams) and Michael Ende (Die Unendliche Geschichte).

8) For what will you use the prize money from the 30th Anniversary Alumna Award?
With the prize money from the 30th Anniversary Alumna Award, I want to do a bilingual reading at a multi-ethnic primary school. Each attending child will get a book to keep.

– Interview conducted by Delia Youssef ’15, 25th January 2018