Behiç Ak 8.11.2019 Artfulliving Online Magazine Interview by Eren Başağan
“Children Need to be Free!”
Breaking away from nature, war, violence, limits of freedom… They don’t sound like suitable topics for a children’s book. But with masterly fiction of beloved author Behiç Ak, they all find their places in a book named Notes of a Buck-Toothed Observer (Tavşan Dişli Bir Gözlemcinin Notları). Moreover in such a light and comfortable manner that only a bluest sky could make us feel. This book clearly shows us that children’s books can go beyond the ordinary. We talked with Behiç Ak about Notes of a Buck-Toothed Observer (Tavşan Dişli Bir Gözlemcinin Notları)
Notes of a Buck-Toothed Observer (Tavşan Dişli Bir Gözlemcinin Notları) emerged as a novel that addresses many of the problems we are facing today, such as breaking away from nature, war and focuses on the anxieties of people, especially children, with themselves, such as fear of failure, not having a place in society. In this regard, among all your books, it seemed to me as the one standing most close to philosophy. What do you think about it?
I think, my practice of writing for children improves the more I write for them. As my dialogue with children also improves in the meantime, this leads to an enrichment in my theme selections. Authors limit themselves while thinking if it’s okay to go a little bit further or to handle different subjects. But when I get in touch with children, I see that they actually want to discuss and talk about very different topics. So I realized over time that many topics can get into the story. For example, violence, war and hunting issues. Children want to talk about these matters. Sometimes, especially in small villages, I observe that people give rifles as a gift to children approaching their adolescence. That boy can pick it up and go to shoot birds. This kind of behavioural patterns encourage other children as well. Especially young boys have a strong tendency to shoot birds. It is important to establish a relationship with children about violence with the help of the fiction and discuss it. I wrote many of the events taking place in my novel basing on real stories. This book had been a very interesting experience for me. The story developed itself and lots of things found their places spontaneously in the story. I didn’t design too much. I let the story develop on its own.
Which ages did you target?
In this book, I actually targeted children over the age of 10. Today, there is not a huge gap between a child reader and an adult one. Today’s children are also interested in matters that adults are interested in. They even think on the issues that actually elders need to deal with.
You especially mean the environmental problems I assume…
These problems have been continuously postponed by adults and now they became the problems of children. Children can’t go out of their homes to play on the streets. They are pushed out of social life. Cities became unfriendly places for children. Children lost their connection with nature. They sit in their rooms with their tablets all day and they connect with the world only through their tablets. Once, I was talking to a villager. He said: “I am a villager. My son is a villager. They bought a tablet for my grandson, and he forgot everything about the outside world. He even doesn’t go out of the house to pick up and eat a fresh plum from this plum tree. He plays games on the tablet the whole day.” Even if you are living in a village, when you buy a tablet, the children may disconnect from their surroundings and nature. They might turn into the ones we call “the indoor generation.” If even a village boy is effected like this, the situation is very serious. Especially societies like us, buy technology from outside and directly use it without thinking on pros and cons. They give their mobile phones even to their babies’ hands as a toy. Nobody thinks how harmful it is for their health. So, on one hand children are exposed to these damages while on the other hand they are being deprived of many things. Maybe, stories like Notes of a Buck-Toothed Observer (Tavşan Dişli Bir Gözlemcinin Notları) help children to go out of their houses and question their life styles.
In your book, the main character is a Buck-Toothed Observer. Why did you prefer a protagonist without a name?
Actually, he has a name, and it is mentioned just a few times in the story. Rather than his name his character is very important. He’s someone like us. He has the same emotions with us. But he doesn’t have a strong bond with formal education. In contrary to today’s indoor kids, he is an “outdoor generation”. He doesn’t want to enter even the school building. He always wants to live outside. He observes everything. He knows the names of trees and animals. If he doesn’t know the name then he gives them names.
The first matter the book brings forward is how much we broke away from nature. Do you think that the serious environmental problems we are struggling today, our ignorance for the lives of other living beings are the consequences of living away from nature?
Children are the ones who feel this most. As the problems are continuously being postponed, just like we are leaving our financial debts, economical problems to the next generations, we are leaving many unsolved environmental problems to them as well. Adults do not care that much and they accept the artificial environment they live in as natural; but the children are not so.
What do you think about the school strikes for the climate initiated by Greta Thunberg and spread all over the world?
Actually, I don’t see it as an action of Greta. It’s a worldwide action. If not Greta, Helga or Ayşe would do it. This is the attitude of a whole generation and it is awesome. People are actually trying to block Greta. Because they don’t want to hear these problems. Especially the older ones. Part of the middle-class generation that has earned a lot of money by harming nature, may not understand people like Greta. They think that children will live very happily in a technologically advanced society, but it is not the case. So children really live in serious deprivation. That’s why Greta started a very good action. And this was expected…
In your book, your analysis about human nature are very remarkable. For example, your main character always tells about his clumsiness and incompetence. And he usually receives feedbacks from his environment which reinforce these judgements. However he is a very good observer. Did you want to point out the importance of getting to know yourself and realizing your qualities as well as deficiencies?
He is not a stereotypical character, but a child who is aware of his emotions. For example he doesn’t say how exciting it would be to go for hunting and kill a rabbit. A child who embraces his own feelings and thoughts. Such a character actually exists in all children. Children are always directed to be successful and resourceful, leading to failure and incompetence. Because, the successes we ask them to achieve are very cliché and stereotype.
Don’t you think today’s children are brought up by infusing a lot of artificial self-confidence?
Education system pushes children to failure while trying to make them successful. We want them to have a “good” profession, to have high scores in their exams. We don’t care much about the development of their personalities, or the relation they are building with nature. We find it sufficient if they are successful in corporate statuses. However, those institutional structures do not offer this confidence to the child. And eventually, the children successfully graduate from educational institutions, find good jobs but they fail in life. Because they feel unhappy. In order to be successful and happy in life, it is necessary to establish a very balanced relationship with nature. To build this relationship first of all we need nature exist around us. We cannot expect the child to be successful, while being deprived of all these.
In your book, we recognize through your protagonist how important it is to make observations. But, taking today’s social media into consideration, don’t you think we’re already observing too much?
Today, communication is more dominant than observation. Communication is one-sided, whereas observation is a two-way relationship. Communication has an authoritative aspect. When it comes to social media, the moment you start to observe something, you also start to think about how to post it on Instagram or Twitter, or how to transfer it in the most humorous way. So, you observe accordingly. It’s a one-sided relationship. But for example, observing the life of a blue crab is not something like that. It requires labour. It requires watching them for hours, maybe days. You need to go back and forth to their homes several times. It requires an in-depth life style. So, I think there is a difference between relationship and communication. I worked a lot on this subject in my other books as well. This unilateral form of communication makes children unilateral as well. It’s same for adults too. Once, a psychologist friend of mine told me a story. He sees a patient suffering from heavy depression. They review the patient’s Facebook page together. She has shared incredibly happy moments and her wall was full of her smiling photos. “Then let’s start like this,” says my psychologist friend, “Let’s delete all these photos and close your Facebook page.” Because there is an unreal situation there. Sharing those photos is something done to communicate. Because, what is approved in communication is being happy. And she has some criteria like being smart, shining all the time, dressing well, having experiences that others do not have. Why someone who always matched these criteria, who smiled all the time and who photographed such beautiful moments is so unhappy? Because it is necessary to reveal the “unreal”. By presenting themselves as always happy, people impose happiness and build an authoritarian relationship with society. I am happy, you be happy too. This is also a pressure. Being unhappy is considered as a shame. However unhappy people should be able to express and share their unhappiness. This is real relationship. If we take this chance away from people, then what is left is the seemingly happy and angry human profile in the world of communication.
We see that freedom is also an issue you want to be considered. Does being free without knowing the meaning of freedom can bring us a real freedom?
In stereotype education, the child is always put into a certain pattern and is not free. Also the teacher is not free in that relationship. They remain stuck in stereotypes and behavioural patterns and they think they’re educating children by applying those patterns. If the child fits into those patterns he/she is considered as educated. However the child needs to get free. Maybe we all need to discuss the meaning of getting free. In my book, students are very surprised when the teacher says: “You are free to choose a subject you like and work on it in the way you like. You are free to copy, to get help from any book you like and you are free to do it with your friends if you like.” And they ask to the teacher: “Are we also free to break the windows of school or to stomp on our desks?” However this is not going out of the mould. To get out, you should push that mould aside and develop something completely different. I think once the mould is removed, there can be a completely different education. For example, there are many institutions that provide certificates and diplomas, but there are very few institutions that provide experimental education. Training is always done in a number of patterns. How much children can develop themselves, this is not questioned much. There is a constant repetition of routine processes. Yet freedom is something that needs to be discovered and built. It requires experience, knowledge and acquisition. The child should enjoy doing something, should discover that he enjoys it and this pleasure should emerge as an important element in education.
At the end of the book, you are introducing the concept of human brotherhood through animal brotherhood and it takes place in space! Does this also symbolize a longing for a place and time where there are no borders, no nations and no countries?
Science fiction stories often take place in the space and always include a war. However, there has been a very interesting development in today’s world. Human beings do not kill each other in space, on the contrary, they cooperate perfectly. You see this when you observe the international space station. Many countries established this station together. There are Canadians, Chinese, Russians, and Americans. Because the space is an absolutely extreme environment and people cannot live there without combining all the information they collected. So, the space is becoming the place of peace for nations, not war. Humanity developed this and the counter-utopian science fiction became rubbish and lost its meaning there. But the stories about this peace aspect of space were not written much either. I wanted to show peace at the space. There is another reality there. You exist there just as a human being.
Translation: Banu Ünal, Hasret Parlak