Unmaking the Family Secret: An Interview with Mina Seçkin

CJLC editor Paulina Rodriguez interviews Mina Seçkin on her debut novel, The Four Humors. The novel follows Sibel, a twenty-year-old Turkish-American woman spending the summer with her Turkish grandmother and American boyfriend in Istanbul after the sudden death of her father. Drawing on themes of family, sociocultural and geopolitical history, and Seçkin’s own experience as a Turkish-American woman, The Four Humors blends elements of the classic bildungsroman with an enthralling family mystery and powerful reflections on community and grief. 

Mina Seçkin received her Bachelor’s degree from Columbia in 2015 and completed her MFA in Writing in 2018. She currently serves as managing editor of Apogee Journal. Her work has been published in Refinery 29, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Electric Literature, and The Rumpus, among others. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Paulina Rodriguez: The novel obviously involves the medical theory of the four humors, but it takes up a lot of different themes — from grief and generational trauma, to family secrets, to Turkish political history, to Sibel’s relationships with the other women in her family and her romantic relationship with her non-Turkish boyfriend, Cooper. What drew you to the four humors theory as an anchor for this book? 

Mina Seçkin: I first learned about the four humors from a tiny little blurb in Lapham’s Quarterly. The blurb was about a nun, St. Mary Margaret Alacoque, who said she was visited by Christ. Nobody believed her, so they bled her out on a stone basin once a month believing she was too full of blood and was making up the story, or crazy. That made me immediately obsessed with the four humors, and the more I learned about it, the more I realized how much medicine — the way it was practiced in ancient times and the way it is still practiced today — really demonstrates the morals of society, and what is considered right and wrong, especially as it relates to how a woman should live. It’s funny how relevant it is today in America. At the time I was first reading about it, I was in Turkey, staying with my grandmother and my great-grandmother, who was very sick, and I was hearing so many stories about Turkish women they knew in their time, and their own stories, where so much of the larger political world in Turkey entirely dictated what they did with their bodies and how free they were. For me, the four humors were perfect in this manner to show how illness, especially psychosomatic illness, represents not just what’s going on with your own undiagnosed condition, but the larger family and larger culture, and the larger body politic and nation. 

PR: You recently participated in a panel alongside Elif Batuman at Columbia’s Sakip Sabanci Center for Turkish Studies. You spoke about not wanting to fall into the trap of a postcolonial bildungsroman novel that is doomed to serve as a national or cultural allegory. You later said something that I found really striking: “if I’m explaining Turkishness, then I’m writing for the white American gaze, and I don’t want to do that.” How did you balance that in a story that incorporates so much Turkish political history? How did it factor into creating your characters, especially Sibel?  

MS: I thought about it a lot, and I very much believe that when you’re writing an othered ethnicity or marginalized identity, if you’re overexplaining it, then you’re further othering yourself and catering to the dominant gaze. For me, with the setup that I’d already started to write, the characters proved, craft-wise, useful to my mission. Sibel is Turkish-American, and being a hyphenated ethnicity and going to the home country, the nature of it is constantly comparing the two. So her character is really useful because she’s comparing the two countries not for the readers at home, but for herself. It’s also very useful to have Cooper as a character because he’s able to represent what might otherwise be didactic about the differences. What I felt added a different complexity to the gaze was shifting the perspective to the grandmothers in later scenes. I’m obsessed with the idea that here in America, we talk a lot about the white gaze, and in Turkey, they’ve talked for so many decades about the Western gaze and orientalism, and how much Turks in particular totally crumble under that gaze and want to cater to it all the time. I found so many rich complexities within the Venn diagram of both gazes for a novel set in Istanbul.

PR:I’m so glad that you mentioned structure. One of the elements that really fascinated me about this novel was how Sibel’s story ends up hijacked by the stories of her grandmother and great-aunt, Refika, to such an extent that the entire structure of the chapters shifts when their stories are the focus. Sibel’s chapters are longer and ordered, while Nermin and Refika’s are shorter, more episodic, and disorganized. How did you approach incorporating these multiple stories within Sibel’s story? What went into creating this structural shift? 

MS: I thought a lot about why certain secrets are kept in families, and why this kind of secret, in particular, one where the traditional family structure is entirely compromised when [Nermin] loses her husband and the family asks, “how can she still raise this baby?” That’s the first structural element that people laud and do anything to protect. Then, there’s Refika, who is a queer character and would also not be allowed to have the baby, for different reasons. I wanted the structure to mimic the kind of violations that occur to women when the larger society decides to prioritize the traditional family structure over individual members. I wanted that to break Sibel’s understanding of what was going on, and the meticulous way she lived her everyday life that summer in Turkey. I wanted to blow it up in the way these two women deserved.

PR: You’ve said before that when writing The Four Humors, you wanted to do a new take on the Alienated Young Woman trope from a less Western-centric perspective. Were there certain novels that served as inspiration for you? 

MS: It was very interesting because I’d read so many Alienated Woman novels, anything from Rachel Cusk and Sheila Heti to Anita Brookner, Jean Rhys, and Marguerite Duras. My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a great example of something I wanted to depart from, because in so many of those novels, intentionally, the narrator is blonde and white, and is not close to her family. I think a lot about narrators who are so expressly hateable, or what the writer is doing to make the writer that way. I think it’s very useful, and I’m definitely not a moral reader in any way, who dislikes a character for any reason. But any time I’ve read these novels, I’ve thought a lot about this genre and this mindset, and this is such a real situation, but none of these characters are ever grappling with the duty they have to their elders or their larger family. The larger family often doesn’t exist in these books. That was very much the hybrid I was seeking to create in this book, in a way that also straddles the intergenerational immigrant narrative. I’ve felt like there aren’t enough that do both in equal measure. One that was also inspiring to me was A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, which does almost both, but it’s not really an Alienated Woman novel. I’m still looking for more that do both in equal measures. 

PR: Aside from writing your own fiction, you also have a background in literary journals and publishing, as the managing editor of Apogee Journal. How do you think that your work with literary journals has shaped you as a writer? 

MS: I’ve been working with Apogee for almost a decade now, and what it has taught me continuously is the immense care that you owe writers as an editor and the immense power of recognition. Also, how much community in particular works to clear one of the most challenging things as a writer/artist, which is the self-doubt that can come across you constantly. Working at Apogee, editing, and especially managing, I feel a huge sense of gratitude to the community that I’ve felt a part of there, and the coming of age that I continue to do there. I personally find community and community-building to be just as important as writing. I feel as if doing that kind of work is writing as much as sitting down and writing is. I don’t want to be the kind of writer who exists in a vacuum outside of that. 

The Four Humors was released November 16, 2021, and can be purchased here.
Portrait by Max Voreacos.