Nâzım Hikmet in Montreal

Friday, November 10, 2023

I recently got back from the annual Middle East Studies Association conference in Montreal. It was great. I went to university in Montreal and had only been back a couple of times since I graduated more than thirty years ago. This was my first visit since 2001. 

Best of all, I had the chance to talk for a little while about my new book on Nâzım Hikmet, Red Star over the Black Sea: Nâzım Hikmet and his Generation. The hardcover is now selling for just $41. And if that's too rich for you, a paperback edition is due to come out by March of 2025. 

In truth, it was hardly the first opportunity I'd had to discuss the book. In October of last year, the good people at the University of Texas were kind enough to invite me on campus for a book talk. I've also been interviewed on a couple of podcasts: 
the New Books Network and the Turkey Book PodcastOver the summer, I participated in a panel discussion about Red Star organized by the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Association, and then gave an online book talk with the Anglo-Turkish Association in the UK.

This was something of a surprise, but Red Star was also discussed in the latest issue of a Swedish cultural magazine called Flamman. With the Turkish government holding up Sweden's entry into NATO, Turkey has apparently been a popular subject there in recent months. 

It's nice to see the book getting a little traction. There was also a quite positive review of the book in The Russian Review not long ago, which was good to see. 


The MESA conference was a lot of fun as usual. I really liked the panel that I was on. We were given a pretty bad time slot--the second-to-last panel of the conference, on early Sunday afternoon. Nevertheless, we got a good turnout. Best of all, my co-panelists, discussant, and chair were excellent. We rocked the joint. 


It was interesting to be back in Montreal again. I graduated from McGill in 1991, and by the time I finished school I knew I would never set foot in a university classroom again. 
In Syria, 1995, showing off some
               of the skills I'd picked up in college              

I'd been, overall, a pretty incompetent student for most of my university career, having double-
majored in English Literature and Bonghit Studies. By the time I went home for Winter Break of my senior year in December of 1990, I had sixteen papers from previous semesters that I still had to write. It was only during the course of my final two semesters (Spring and Summer of 1991) that I managed to finally get my act together with the finish line in sight. 

So, in addition to walking through the beautiful neighborhoods of Montreal that I'd always loved, I also found myself confronting some of the ghosts of my past. For me, college was mostly a pretty depressing time of life. I spent so much time feeling bad about myself due to the numerous overdue papers that I'd allowed to pile up around me. Professors were kind enough to give me incomplete grades (I) in their classes so that I could finish up the work later, but for this reason months and even years would pass before I finally submitted the work. I was getting grades that most people had never even heard of: Js, Ks, and even something called a K-star. 

The night before I graduated in October of 1991 I was showing my parents around the Arts Building at McGill, where the English department was located. My parents looked on with bemusement as I slid my final paper under the door of one of my professors from semesters past. After all, I was due to graduate the next day. The professor in question had been good enough to submit a grade for me based upon the classwork I had already completed, allowing me to graduate when I did. I'd written that last paper on the honor system. It was the last remaining assignment, so I had thought at the time that my academic career was officially over. 

The apartment of broken dreams: corner of Rivard
and Marie-Anne streets. 

Eight years later, that same professor would write a letter of recommendation on my behalf when I applied to do an MA. By that time, of course, I was a very different person, at least with respect to how I managed my responsibilities. I'd spent seven years living in Turkey, working at a job for which I wouldn't get paid unless I handled things well. I'd also developed an interest in the regions I now work on--the Middle East, Russia, and the Balkans--through a relatively organic process. 

An old haunt from my university days.
And for this reason, I think, I've been able to avoid the sense of burnout that I often see among colleagues of mine who jumped straight into a PhD program after college. Instead of making a career-defining decision at the age of 21, I decided to go to graduate school only after having spent years of my life living in and traveling through the countries that I now write about. Thank goodness I was a screw-up in college for whom graduate school was not even a remote possibility. 

The Long Road Back

It was a long and tiring trip. I'd arrived in Montreal just after 11 on Wednesday evening, and didn't get to my AirBnB that night until after 1. And then, almost every night I was there I got to bed late. Between catching up with a dear friend from college and seeing friends from MESA, not to mention participating in the conference itself, I was pretty wiped out by the end of my stay. I needed three flights to make my way back to Big Sky country, with a lungful of phlegm to boot. 

The last several days have been a slog, so I'm looking forward to resting this weekend. I sit in the sauna and feel the Crisco-like sweat ooze out of my face and think: man, do I like what I do.   


Are you a Turk across empires? Order your copy of my first book at the OUP website or on Amazon

More photos, commentary, and links can be found in the Borderlands Lounge.  

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