Thursday, May 1, 2008

Today and the Expat Harem


Check it out!

Seal editors Anastasia Ashman and Jennifer Eaton Gokmen were featured on The Today Show when Matt Lauer showed up today in Istanbul during his annual feature, Where in the World Is Matt Lauer?

Congratulations to Anastasia and Jennifer, and check out Tales from the Expat Harem. It's an exciting book that covers a broad range of experiences about what it's like to live as a foreigner in modern Turkey.

---Brooke

19 comments:

Sarah said...

Wow, that is quite awesome! Go Expat Harem!

Katie said...

Soooooo...the next post after the apology is promotion from a book with a title and cover art that play into Orientalist fantasies of the exotic East. Honestly, "Tales from the Expat Harem?" "Harem?"

Good luck with that diversity training.

Jennifer Eaton Gökmen said...

I suggest you read before condemning to understand exactly why that word and metaphor were specifically chosen.

bah said...

send a free reading copy out, then. or post the contents online as a pdf or doc file.

Angel H. said...

I suggest you read before condemning to understand exactly why that word and metaphor were specifically chosen.

And I suggest you brush up on a little Racism 101 to learn why "harem" is a racially-loaded term.

It looks like Seal Press' diversity training is reeeeaaaally working out well! [/sarcasm]

Krista Lyons-Gould and Brooke Warner said...

We want to provide a forum for people to express their opinions on our blog, but please try to be courteous, too.

The Turkish harem comes from the Arabic word Ḥarām, meaning "forbidden." It's a word that originally referred to the "women's quarters" and literally means "something forbidden or kept safe."

Tales from the Expat Harem is neither a sexist nor a racist title. Please, let's not look for the racially embedded wrong in every one of our books.

---Brooke

Claire said...

hi brooke,

without having read the book, i'm just going to put in here that, even without the recent brouhahas surrounding seal press, i'd be cringing at that title.

the term "harem," whatever its origins, is probably the most well-known--and salacious--term in the idiom westerners use to express orientalism. the view of near-easterners as debauched sensualists which is the essence of orientalism rests partly on our understanding of near-eastern men as harem-keepers.

in more recent times our view of the islamic world has been painted with the colors of orientalism: our puritan horror at their debauchery flowed into our feminist horror at islamic sharia law and its oppression of women. the harem is now metaphorical.

there's no way in hell you can use that word without it resonating on many levels, in many racist, historical chambers. the mere use of the word calls up images that no responsible speaker/writer can accept without a great deal of consideration and explanation.

furthermore, as westerners, western writers, and publishers in a western tradtion, you can't "reclaim" the term. you are not the ones stereotyped, trammeled, and harmed by the term: in this case, those who are harmed are turkish men in particular, and turkey in general.

i think the confusion comes from the confusion of power here. i have no doubt that foreign women living in turkey have to deal with gender relations that they were not raised to expect. in those moments, it's difficult to remember that the very word "expat" indicates power: the power of having a choice of where you live, the power of your passport and nationality being a protection and a guarantor of wealth and/or social capital, the power to command an audience for the things you have to say about where you've chosen to live.

for this reason, it's outrageous that seal press would feel comfortable using the term "harem" in a book by and about foreign women's experiences in turkey.

i don't want to make snarky comments about sensitivity training. but sensitivity to where the power lies and who has a right to use what verbal and visual language when and for what purpose, based on that power ... well this is a sensitivity that seal press as a body utterly lacks.

and this is why so many women are so angry with you right now.

--claire

Susie said...

"Please, let's not look for the racially embedded wrong in every one of our books."

Because if it's there, you really don't want to know about it. You couldn't be making that clearer. Less than a week after your heartfelt apology, you're given the opportunity to listen to women of color trying to tell you something, and you dismiss them out of hand once again, informing them that you know far better than they do what is and isn't racist. You don't say, "Well, I can see why you'd be concerned about that, but we definitely considered that as an issue and here's why we feel it's not inappropriate." No, you just shut down discussion, and you shut it down by saying explicitly that you aren't willing to accept any consequences, like heightened scrutiny, for the wrong you admit you've done and for which you are supposedly so deeply penitent.

I'm really gobsmacked by this. You'd think common sense would keep you from being this openly arrogant and condescending, if a sense of decency doesn't.

Claire's said, beautifully, a lot of what I was going to, so I won't go on, except to say that I'm white and if I find this repugnant, I can't imagine how it must piss off women of color.

Angel H. said...

We want to provide a forum for people to express their opinions on our blog, but please try to be courteous, too.

Y'know what's really discourteous? When people apologize for using racist imagery and then use racist terminology a week later.

Krista Lyons-Gould and Brooke Warner said...

We apologized for the images in the first printing of It's A Jungle Out There. We made a mistake, we've owned up to it, we're doing everything we can to make things right for the book, for the author, and for our readers. We are working to do better.

Seal has been around for more than 30 years. We've published a lot of great titles. We've informed a lot of women's lives. That's what we do, and we'll continue to do that. But we didn't do it by playing it safe or trying to publish books that would please everyone, that would not push the envelope, or stir shit up. Many books on the list have been controversial and have made people mad.

In the two years since we published Tales from the Expat Harem, we have not heard that this book is pissing people off, let alone that it is racist. Quite the opposite. This travel literature title has received great reviews, has given travelers and arm-chair travelers alike a peek into Turkish culture from non-Turkish women's perspectives. Initially, we questioned the title too, but the editors of this anthology, both accomplished women we respect, helped us to see that from our narrow Westerner lense, the title which made us uncomfortable, was actually, an appropriate way to clarify the female powerbase aspect of a harem.

Importantly, Turkey's top female executives have supported the book, a leading academic journal on MidEast Women's Studies gave the book a positive review, and general Turkish reaction to the book has been very positive. The authors have received multiple recommendations and awards, including by Turks, for accurately depicting Turkish culture and the country. We stand behind this book. We stand behind all of our books.

This doesn't take away our mistakes. We realize that. Pushing the envelope is difficult, and we will continue to make mistakes along the way. It's never our intention to offend our audience, but we know that causing a stir, shaking people up, getting people to discuss things that push their boundaries and are challenging is part of our important job. And we take it seriously.

Claire, angelh, susie, bah, thanks for caring enough about Seal to post here and push us to do better. Before you accuse us of publishing racist books, I do hope you'll read them, so we can have more informed discussions that we and our authors can participate in.

Thank you everyone.

K.

Angel H. said...

We apologized for the images in the first printing of It's A Jungle Out There. We made a mistake, we've owned up to it, we're doing everything we can to make things right for the book, for the author, and for our readers. We are working to do better.

Sorry, I don't give out cookies.

Seal has been around for more than 30 years. We've published a lot of great titles. We've informed a lot of women's lives.

Yet, for some reason, you're refusing to let yourselves be informed now.

But we didn't do it by playing it safe or trying to publish books that would please everyone, that would not push the envelope, or stir shit up. Many books on the list have been controversial and have made people mad.

Yes, I'll admit. People being flippant about racism makes me very mad. And it makes me even madder when I feel as though my voice, opinions, and feelings, are being brushed aside.

In the two years since we published Tales from the Expat Harem, we have not heard that this book is pissing people off, let alone that it is racist.

Now, you are. And it would seem that, in light of recent events, you would be more open to such criticism, instead of saying basically "This is the way we've done it, it's the way we're gonna keep doing it. To hell with everyone else."

Initially, we questioned the title too, but the editors of this anthology, both accomplished women we respect, helped us to see that from our narrow Westerner lense, the title which made us uncomfortable, was actually, an appropriate way to clarify the female powerbase aspect of a harem.

Because if two white women with the racial and class privilege to even become expats (h/t to Claire) say it's not racist, then it mustn't be racist.

Importantly, Turkey's top female executives have supported the book, a leading academic journal on MidEast Women's Studies gave the book a positive review, and general Turkish reaction to the book has been very positive. The authors have received multiple recommendations and awards, including by Turks, for accurately depicting Turkish culture and the country.

So, if Turkish people like it, it can't be racist? Remember thaat the next time you see a mother buy her little girl a crop top with the word "Babelicious".

Before you accuse us of publishing racist books, I do hope you'll read them, so we can have more informed discussions that we and our authors can participate in.

(emphasis mine)

Because as a Woman of Color, I'm ill-informed when it comes to racism, right?

Also, why would in the world would I buy a book with that and after I've been dismissed by its publishers?

Nope. Can't do it. And, based on my experiences, I won't be recommended this or any other of your books to anyone.

Sam said...

Critics of Expat: Read the book. Check out the authors' web site and credentials. Demonstrate thinking instead of a superficial polemic. Consider the possibility that your world view might shift by reading Tales From the Expat Harem. I'm bored by name callers.

Natalia said...

As an American writer and editor living in a Muslim country, I personally would have steered clear of such a title. There are plenty of other titles, equally catchy, that one can use without necessarily compromising the theme of the book.

This title strikes me as both misleading and perpetuating a stereotype, whether it is well-intentioned or not.

I do have to point out though that individual Turks have liked this book (a friend of mine from Istanbul gave it a positive review, as I recall - though he didn't particularly like the title either), and I don't believe that saying that these people are merely deluded is necessarily helpful either. Individual Turks, as much as anyone, have the agency to determine whether or not such a book is good, bad, or in-between.

I haven't read it, but I do maintain that this title reflects a poor choice. It's simply tone-deaf.

Angel H. said...

I do have to point out though that individual Turks have liked this book (a friend of mine from Istanbul gave it a positive review, as I recall - though he didn't particularly like the title either), and I don't believe that saying that these people are merely deluded is necessarily helpful either.

After I posted that statement, I wondered if I got my point across the way I really wanted it to be presented. I should have done better about this and for that I sincerely apologize.

To everyone: Please note, however, that I do not apologize for believing that the title of this book is racist.

I would say that it amazes me how some women will say that the since the authors' intentions weren't racist, then the title isn't racist, when I've heard arguments from the feminist circle declaring that even though a catcaller may not consider his actions sexist, it is still sexist.

I would say that it amazes me, but the ways things are going re: mainstream (white) feminism and Women of Color, I'm really not surprised.

Natalia said...

It pains me to say this, Angel, but after everything that's happened recently, I am not surprised either.

:(

Magniloquence said...

Honestly, what boggles me about this is that it could have been addressed pretty simply. If the initial post (or the initial response, even) had just said:

"Initially, we questioned the title too, but the editors of this anthology, both accomplished women we respect, helped us to see that from our narrow Westerner lense [sic], the title which made us uncomfortable, was actually, an appropriate way to clarify the female powerbase aspect of a harem. [...] The Turkish harem comes from the Arabic word á'arām, meaning "forbidden." It's a word that originally referred to the "women's quarters" and literally means "something forbidden or kept safe." [one sentence to the effect of: "In the book, our authors note that their experiences as foreign women in Turkey, they lived out this complex etymology; simultaneously circumscribed and revered, powerless and privileged, and yes, often uncomfortably sexualized. Thus, despite its racially charged context, we agree with their argument that it is indeed the most appropriate term to describe their experiences."]"

... that would have been. Seriously. That's not to say there wouldn't be criticism to be made - largely along the lines of "but even if it's the right word, its context makes it iffy for white women to use" and "since the title is often all a person sees, wouldn't it be more appropriate as a subtitle or a chapter heading instead, where the explanation is easily available?" - but the criticisms would be with the metacontext and not with your specific behavior.

I know you feel defensive and attacked, especially since you think people are trying to find racial overtones in everything you do. If you stick with it, you'll probably find that the feeling lessens over time; people are finding racial overtones in everything because there are racial overtones to everything, not because they're out to get you.

Next time someone criticizes you, particularly if it's over something you've actually considered before (as you argue you did in this case), consider these steps:

1) Remember that it's (probably) not personal. We are all steeped in racist, sexist, ableist etc. culture(s), and even when we have the best of intentions, that indoctrination can come out in our work. Someone calling you on a mistake is giving you the benefit of the doubt; if they didn't think you could change, they wouldn't bother. (h/t Donna for the term and explanation)

2) Explain your thought process. If you considered the criticism and rejected it, explain why. If you didn't think about it, say that.

3) Address the criticism directly. Explain what, if anything, you plan to do about it. If you're not convinced by the criticism, explain why. If you're confused, ask for clarification. Be specific. Be direct. Be respectful.

4) Do something. Apologize for giving offense. (Not if someone was offended, but because they were offended. Even if you think they're overreacting. This has nothing to do with antiracism and everything to do with common courtesy.) Implement whatever changes you've decided to go with. Give updates.

(I know someone came up with a similar scaffolding a while ago, but I can't find it to credit. If anyone reading can remember it, please link it here or to me directly.)

Lady S said...

There were doubts as to whether your apologies were sincere or just a piss-take, I know I wondered.

Thanks for confirming my doubts with your response to this.

Susie said...

Before you accuse us of publishing racist books, I do hope you'll read them, so we can have more informed discussions that we and our authors can participate in.

In fact, I didn't accuse you of publishing a racist book. I accused you of being racist and condescending in your response to people's raising the possiblity, and of being thoroughly insincere in the promise you had made to take such issues seriously.

I think I (and others) made pretty clear that it would have been easily possible to have answered such criticism in a way that would have shown that you took it seriously and that it mattered to you, even if you ultimately disagreed with it. But that's not what you did.

Every bit of good will your apology bought from me evaporated when I saw that response, because it made absolutely plain that the apology was made for the sake of convenience, rather than conviction. Anyone who had taken to heart the real ugliness and disgrace of those illustrations and had the proper sense of compunction about having foisted them on the world could never have been so flippant.

Claire said...

sorry, i was under the impression that the book had just been published. but the critique still holds.

even if you polled the entire population of turkey and nobody there had a problem with this title, stateside criticism of it would still be legitimate.

why? because you're an american publisher with a primarily american audience. and people of color in the united states are marginalized.

let me repeat that and then try to let it sink in: people of color in the united states are marginalized.

that means that a turkish man, who would rightfully consider himself part of majority in turkey, would be marginalized in the US. that means that an american perception of turkey and turkish men that would have no relevance to people in turkey (and that most of them would never even hear about) would be of the utmost importance to turkish AMERICANS and other americans who would suffer from the misrepresentation of turkish americans.

the perspective of people of color in their countries of origin, where they are the dominant ethnicity and perhaps even the dominant caste, will necessarily be very very different from the perspective of immigrant people of color from those countries of origin who now live in the united states.

once again, seal press' audience is primarily american women, and--without denigrating or denying the importance of opinions on seal press' publications overseas--it is the perceptions of american women that you have to deal with most.

the recent flap here over marcotte's book has to do with a huge gulf in the perceptions of american women who are ethnically central and those of american women who are ethnically marginal. you, the seal press editors, are ethnically central. your detractors are ethnically marginal. for reason s of social justice, we expect of you that you take marginal opinions into account, and behave accordingly. if you do not, your reputation as activists in the cause of social justice will suffer.

it is perfectly possible for you to decide not to correct a mistake and still acknowledge that mistake and endeavor not to make it again. doing that, however, would require less defensiveness, and more openness to discussion.

yes, you're under heightened scrutiny for a while and that's tough for you. but, like a partner who got caught cheating, you don't get to decide when you are forgiven, and you don't get to end the period of distrust just by offering an apology. seal press HAS to do better, has to PROVE that you can do better, before the scrutiny will let up.

either that, or your marginalized audience will simply go away and not come back.

-- claire