Interview with Cihan Kaan

photo by Anjali Bhargava

Cihan is the first American fiction author of Crimean Tatar descent. His debut collection of short stories, Halal Pork and Other Stories was released in March 2011. The book has been the fastest selling book by a first time author published by UpSet Press. The book tour has just begun and reviews are coming in. Cihan has performed at Stony Brook University, NYC’s own Fashion Institute of Technology, and the Bowery Poetry Club, just to name a few venues. This first stage of the book’s circulation is just the right moment to sit with the author and chat about his creation.

Savanna: With such a provocative, yet intriguingly stimulating title, what other noticeable (and not so noticeable) significations do you want your readers to take away from Halal Pork?

Cihan: It’s impossible to predict what a person will take away from reading a book.  It all depends on what they bring to the table, literally. I wrote the stories, including the story the book is named after, out of a drive to express latitudes of thought after having been pigeonholed and stereotyped at my day job. I found myself responding to questions of what my name meant or if I was a terrorist— more so than if I had been evolving as a person. The demonization and stereotyping on a daily basis really started to wear me down. The book was my silent retreat into growth; it was how I managed to keep my mind expanding in private, while the world closed theirs. I hope readers can stretch their imaginations so that they may be open to a new voice, one through which has emerged from all of this.

Savanna: Tell me about how Halal Pork came into being. How much of it was inspired by its author? How did you decide what to contribute, what to exclude (if anything)?

Cihan: “Halal Pork” came from two things; firstly, it was a term I adopted from a Muslim fast food restaurant menu item in France. Secondly, it made everyone laugh. So, it existed as a concept as far back as 2005, but in French. Sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction and I write about the etymology of the phrase here: Elan Magazine. However, the story in my book is about a young Muslim trying to find his place before and after 9/11. He works in a Turkish-American “Fusion” restaurant. There is no actual recipe for “Halal Pork” as mentioned in the book; it is a state of mind, a contradiction. Particularly, the idea of  “Halal Pork” as a condition of the mind is of growing up in one culture, yet having inherited cultural ties to another. It sparks debate and questions how we reconcile the two, or if we even can. The artist’s job is not really to solve these problems, but to give them words and meaning. If we can’t identify a condition we’re in how can we ever transcend it?

Savanna: From which kind of response are you more challenged by— the death threat or praising review? I have a sneaking suspicion that it is the former. So, my preemptive follow-up questions are: What is your initial reaction to “the death threat”? What is your approach in dealing with readers who hold persistently toxic-extremist views of Halal Pork?

Cihan: This is a huge question and it goes back to the Salman Rushdie affair of 1989 (during which I was a child.) Unfortunately, for those few radicals looking for a new Rushdie, they won’t find one in me.  I have written nothing in the book about religion at all.  If those individuals who are threatened by the title actually read the book, they would see that I am not advocating the consumption of pork (I, myself am a vegetarian) nor am I instigating any type of “shirk” innovation to do so. As I said, the book is a collection of short stories ranging in point of view and genre— from comedy to science fiction to psychological horror.  If these people read the book they would be transported into other realms of thought.

Again, in case it wasn’t fully absorbed the first time I said it; the title is based on a real menu item (which is a flavored beef) at a French Muslim fast food restaurant. I use it more as a description of a psychological pathology, rather than a religious commentary. The stories themselves are fun and enlightening to everyone, no religion is criticized and no race or ethnicity is put down.

By the way, in America, we have a tradition of funny titles dating back to Mark Twain. For instance, to have “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthurs Court” is impossible, but it was Twain’s way of parodying events in his time. It’s just how us writers handle heavy topics; we almost have to. It’s like improvising a tool to dig out of a dark place. We make something out of something else.

Savanna: So, I hear you’re a multidimensional artist. Is there a possibility of Halal Pork being translated into film or even serve as inspiration for an album?

Cihan: Yes, to both questions. That’s all I can say about those projects right now.

Savanna: Did you by any chance manually write parts of HP in its creation before transferring it to the word processor? In general, do you feel more connected to your pieces if you first write them out manually? Does the pen-to-paper action in any way transmit fluidity and/or sustain complexity?

Cihan: Yes, I write with a specific brand of pen, usually on a pad or in a composition notebook. I’d say 99.9% of the stories in the book were written in bursts of inspiration throughout New York City and Brooklyn. When I felt stories were complete I would type them into an open source program called “WriteRoom”, which is no longer available.

Here’s a funny story about the first draft. I was playing keyboards in this all-girl Depeche Mode cover band (I was the token boy) and left my first notebook of writings in the bassist’s car. That night the car crashed and my first draft went up in smoke.  Luckily no one got hurt, but I literally had to rewrite from memory.  That was frustrating though it taught me how to channel ideas better. It also marked the end of me playing covers of New Wave 80s songs.

Savanna: What distinguishes your voice from that of your creative influences? How much credit do you attribute to your influences, in finding your own voice?

Cihan: Good question. As an artist I strive for originality in everything I do.  Rule number one: nothing should be derivative, at least in conception. If I have an idea and don’t act on it I usually see it done by someone else, 6 months later. Before I wrote, I was a filmmaker, before that I was a programmer, before that a musician. After I released my first record, electronic music became the soundtrack of a generation. After I made “She’s Got an Atomic Bomb,” every movie suddenly was about a strong female protagonist living in a post-apocalyptic, sci-fi world done in a glossy style. Each discipline had its own influences and at no point was I crafting myself off anyone in particular (besides maybe Mighty Mouse and The Greatest American Hero) but instead drew from this big ocean of ideas. Right now, in this early part of the 21st Century, we need what I call “identity artists”, folks to lead the way for the previously marginalized and victimized members of the planet. However, artists can’t lead— it’s not in the job description, so to speak. They create symbols and words. So my concern and radar resonates with those kinds of memes. It might change and so will my influences.

There’s this pool of ideas I think we can all draw our ideas from; call it the collective unconscious or the guff or higher power, whatever floats your boat. It’s simply a matter of, in the words of David Lynch, “Catching the big fish”. If Muslim-Americans, or rather Muslims in the 21st Century, expect to overcome hatred and misrepresentation they will have to first find love and representation. That comes with celebrating new artists and acknowledging new voices. That’s where the future is and always will be.

Savanna: Thank you Cihan for your lovely words. I can’t think of anything truer and more culturally meaningful than celebrating new artists whom contribute their fresh perspectives and voices— as I am a fellow up-and-coming writer (poetry, specifically). Not always is there a forum for us to be recognized and validated. Cihan’s story and UpSet Press allow writers with unique stories to be told and, more importantly, to be heard.

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Savanna D’Amato is a Brooklyn native, freelance writer, poet and lover of animals. At the age of 21, she is currently pursuing her MA degree in English Literature.  She can be contacted/read at: sdamato6@gmail.com / http://citysavy.wordpress.com/

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