Quick Q&A on Historical Fiction, the Ottoman Empire, and More

by Anne Chamberlin (a May 2002 Quickie)

Several years ago I met historical fiction author Ann Chamberlin at a conference for romance authors. During the evening hours we spent a good amount of time talking about her books, and when I read that she had a new book out, I sought her out because the periods of time she writes about are perhaps less known and because the settings for one group of her books became far more pertinent to Americans after September 11th – the Ottoman Empire. She and I have conducted a brief Q&A that I hope you’ll find interesting.

–Laurie Likes Books

You have written/continue to write about very intriguing times and parts of the world. One setting that is very interesting these days is your trilogy set in the 16th-century Ottoman Empire. After having done a Castle of the Week for the Süleymaniye Mosque in Turkey last year, I realized how little I knew about the time and place and set out to learn more about it. What does it say about the US that we learn so little about cultures that aren’t western? And tell us about the role of women in this culture.



]]>Support our sponsors Well, that’s another thing agents/publishers will tell you: “Don’t write about strange places. They don’t sell.” They’re right. Such settings are a very hard sell. I commend your interest, which I fear is rare. And when it does exist, I fear most Americans have a rather jaundiced view of Middle Eastern women’s lives, going for some prurient fantasy. The prevailing attitude seems to be: “We’re the greatest country on the earth, in the greatest time on earth. All other times and places aren’t worth learning about.”

I’m afraid my life – during which I’ve spent quite a lot of time in quite a lot of other places – has taught me much more humility.

I majored in Middle Eastern archaeology/anthropology at the university and, finding myself still consumed with unanswered questions, set out to find more by writing novels set in these countries.

Once upon a time, as part of my education, I worked on an archaeological dig in Israel. One week we took a break from the dig and went down to camp our way through the Sinai desert. There I had something of an epiphany. I met a Bedouin woman who stood my ideas about repressed Muslim women on their heads. To this day, she remains the most powerful woman I’ve ever met in my life. I’ve spent a lot of time since trying to understand what I felt and saw. My series of Turkish books, Sofia, The Sultan’s Daughter, and the Reign of the Favored Women are a part of this exploration. The Reign of the Favored Women is the name Turks give to a 150-year period in their history when, as they confess, the wives and concubines of the sultans basically ran what was then greatest empire on earth. The fact that all three of these books, in translation, were bestsellers in Turkey for over a year convince me that I got something right. The reaction I got from Turkish readers, especially women, is one of the greatest joys of my life.

Basically, I think a monolithic culture is very dangerous for women. For thousands of years in the Middle East, women kept the men’s culture from encroaching upon their autonomy by erecting very strong boundaries between the two halves of culture that worked upon one another in a system of checks and balances that would have made James Madison proud. I see the problems of women trying to do and be everything in the US today as one thing that happens when the boundaries are gone. Even worse is when male groups in the Middle East – well, the Taliban comes to mind – feeling the competition from the monolithic West, try to subsume the women’s half of their society under their own.

Of course, the women of my time period had a lot of economic benefits their granddaughters today have lost, but they were certainly encouraged to be literate and to make the most of their lives. For example, a woman doctor was not only possible, she was necessary. If no man is allowed to see women, someone must take care of their needs. And Turkish women knew how to vaccinate against the smallpox long before Jenner learned to do it in 19th century. England. This is just one example.

You mentioned that a monolithic culture is dangerous for women and then go on to say that you see “problems today trying to do and be everything in the US as one thing that happens when the boundaries are gone.” I easily buy into the next part of that statement, that “when male groups in the Middle East – well, the Taliban comes to mind – feeling the competition from the monolithic West, try to subsume the women’s half of their society under their own,” but don’t understand the problems in the US because of it. So please define monolithic culture to me and detail the problems of this in the West for women in more specific terms.

What I mean by a monolithic culture is one in which there is but a single hierarchy of value. Most other societies in the world recognize more than one hierarchy and they balance each other out. In my opinion, traditional Middle Eastern society had this balance between the harem and the selamlik (men’s world). Very simply, we might say that the men’s world, like here in the US, had access to the money. But the women’s world had access to the honor, which was even more important to a man than money. If he blew it with his women, he’d lose honor. Of course, it she blew it with her man, she’d lose money. In modern society, everyone’s working in just one column and that’s the one men already have a headstart in. Hence we have women struggling to have it all and then sacrificing things that might be very important – like time with their children – to earn more money.

There were all kinds of things only women had access to in the harem. Say a man wanted to marry. He had no way of knowing if his friend had a marriageable sister – that was something you just didn’t talk about, like here you don’t ask “So how much do you make a year?” A man would have to go through a woman in his own family to find out such information – and she was under no obligation to tell anything she didn’t want to. Knowledge is power.

I am fascinated by this statement on your home page:

“As a writer with a passionate interest in gender roles, Chamberlin finds she always needs a character who straddles those roles. The form of her story never appears clearly until she has found him/her. Chamberlin is attracted to study societies that have very strongly enforced gender roles and finds, without exception, that such societies always allow – often fiercely demand, in fact – the in-between role as well. An in-between role helps the society appreciate both sexes more. People in the modern US certainly don’t even appreciate femininity. Not unless it is the femininity that caters to the alpha male. Chamberlin feels a need to counteract that.”

Can you talk some more about this?

I find it hard to find more to say on this. In Tamar, I have my heroine’s father as the in between character. In the Turkish trilogy, my main point-of-viewcharacter is the eunuch Abdullah – I knew I’d need him to tell the tale both from the inside and the outside ofthe harem. In the Joan of Arc novels, who could be more in-between than Joan herself? I guess I broke that pattern in Leaving Eden however.

I’m glad you’ve brought up Leaving Eden, which I know is a fictional interpretation of biblical history and the Joan of Arc trilogy you’re currently working on. Tell us more about these books and how they fit your gender role interest.

Leaving Eden and Tamar are both based on Bible stories. Leaving Eden focuses on the woman whom Jewish and Islamic folk traditions say was created before Eve – Lilith. But she wasn’t obedient, so Adam asked for God to make him a new mate. Tamar is based on the story of King David’s daughter. It explores that transition time between matrilineal and patrilineal societies in what has come to be known as Israel.

The Joan of Arc Tapestries – well, what better way to explore gender issues than by retelling the story of the great woman warrior and her conflict with what was expected of her by her society at that time?

Define the Ottoman Empire and give a brief timeline if you can. Let our readers know how expansive it was, how long it lasted, who its rulers were, and how the women you mention in your other answers were involved.

The Ottoman Empire owes its name to the dynasty’s founder, Othman, a Seljuk Turk whose people had originally come from the Asian steppe and settled in what is now eastern Turkey in time to participate in the Crusades (on the Muslim side, of course).

By the fourteenth century AD, the Turks were making deep inroads into what remained of the eastern Roman Empire, Greek Christian Byzantium. Eventually they surrounded the capital Constantinople, and the city fell to the guns of Othman’s descendant Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror in 1453. The Turks call the city Istanbul, that bridge between Asia and Europe.

The height of the empire came under Sultan Suleiman (ruled 1520-1566). We in the west call him the Magnificent. He is a much quieter “Lawgiver” to Turks. At the height of its expanse, this Turkish empire was battering at the gates of Vienna. It owned all of the Balkans – source for much of the conflict there today between Muslim Bosnians and other Christian ethnicities. It owned chunks of Russia, much of North Africa, most of Iraq and Arabia all the way to Yemen.

Although the empire began to crumble from this height as soon as Europeans found ways to new riches that did not involve going through Turkey to the East, it wasn’t until it went in on the wrong side in the First World War that the death blow was struck. Readers may be familiar with the horrors of Gallipoli during which battle to win the straits leading to Istanbul thousands of British troops died. As part of the victory, Europeans carved up what was left of the empire as suited them – leading directly to the untidy conflicts that still reign in the region.

The Magnificent Suleiman was the last Sultan to actually marry one of his concubines. Working on the theory that any princess in the world must be beneath the dignity of the King of Kings, they satisfied their needs – and got their heirs – on slave girls, highly trained and beautifully decked out slave girls. Suleiman’s Roxelana had been captured during forays into what is now the Ukraine. A much later favorite was a cousin of Napoleon’s Josephine, captured by Barbery pirates on her way to France from Martinique. The era between these two women, roughly, is the time period the Turks call The Reign of the Favored Women. Although they weren’t legally wives, surely the most intelligent, the most beautiful – and the most ruthless – women rose to the top in such a system. They had control over which sons inherited to the Sultan’s throne, therefore over the Sultans themselves.

What was a day in the life of people living in this time and place like?

My novels are, of course, where I think I’ve done this best and in great detail. For purposes of this interview, let’s say I find many parallels between one great empire and another – ours today. Indeed, it was exactly such parallels that attractedme to the subject. There was incredible wealth in the Ottoman empire, incredible poverty, soup kitchens and slavery. Istanbul was a very cosmopolitan city, large Jewish population – this was where many of the Jews came when offered asylum after being kicked out of Spain along with the Moors. Large Christian population – Armenians, Greeks, Syriacs, Italian traders. Turks themselves are barely visible and, when they are, as often laughable hayseeds. The empire’s huge bureaucracy, you see, was in the hands of men who’d been taken as boys from subject communities in the Balkans and elsewhere, converted and given the very best education possible. They were the source of the famous elite jannissari army corps and all of the viziers worked their way up through this school. Their families back home often chose their brightest to be given to this draft, hoping for advancement, as grand viziers were known to bring their relatives to Istanbul once they’d made it.

A parallel community existed in the women’s world, the harem. It should be clear that setting apart half your population to stay out of view requires fabulous disposable income – and not every family could afford the same degree of seclusion as the Sultan. The slaves to go between one world and the other had to be eunuchs in the upper classes, and such slaves were very expensive as sometimes only one in four made it through the operation. But all the women brought into the sultan’s harem could expect an education parallel to that the men had. Doctors and letter writers and poets and musicians and everything else were needed here, too. And, you know, veils can hide all kinds of things – weapons, affairs, clandestine movements.

You are the author of works of historical fiction, and yet we met at a conference for romance writers. Partly tongue in cheek, why would a writer of historical fiction attend conferences for romance writers? Aren’t you supposed to be more “serious” than the fluff mainstream media would have us believe fills romance novels?

You think romance writers don’t get respect? Try writing historical fiction. There is no genre. There aren’t separate sections in the bookstores for us. There are no national organizations to lend support. Agents and publishers will tell you “historical fiction doesn’t sell” and then reject you.

Actually, plenty of readers are looking for historical titles. If you put together all the readers of historical-romance, historical-fantasy, historical-mystery, historical-adventure and historical-mainstream, I’d bet at least a third of all fiction bought is historical. But the writer of historical books has to cling to the coattails of one genre or another, it seems.

My publisher decided my first books were closer to historical-romance – or at least “women’s fiction” – than anything and so gave me a shove towards RWA. In that organization, I found great support, great friends and I also learned more about writing than any place else. So I continue to go to conferences and enjoy myself with friends I’ve made through this organization although I will say I sometimes do feel like the neglected stepchild.

I feel the same way sometimes at sf/f conferences I attend with equal regularity, but enjoy nonetheless. I’ve always been at the edge of fantasy, too, and fantasy elements are creeping in more and more to my work.


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