The BookBrowse Review

Published September 16, 2020

ISSN: 1930-0018

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The Trojan War Museum
The Trojan War Museum
and Other Stories
by Ayse Papatya Bucak

Paperback (25 Aug 2020), 192 pages.
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN-13: 9780393358346

A debut story collection of spectacular imaginative range and lyricism from a Pushcart Prize–winning author.

In Ayse Papatya Bucak's dreamlike narratives, dead girls recount the effects of an earthquake and a chess-playing automaton falls in love. A student stops eating and no one knows whether her act is personal or political. A Turkish wrestler, a hero in the East, is seen as a brute in the West. The anguish of an Armenian refugee is "performed" at an American fund-raiser. An Ottoman ambassador in Paris amasses a tantalizing collection of erotic art. And in the masterful title story, the Greek god Apollo confronts his personal history and bewails his Homeric reputation as he tries to memorialize, and make sense of, generations of war.

A joy and a provocation, Bucak's stories confront the nature of historical memory with humor and humanity. Surreal and poignant, they examine the tension between myth and history, cultural categories and personal identity, performance and authenticity.

The Gathering of Desire

It was the age of automatons and already there was a fly made of brass, a mechanical tiger, an eight foot elephant, and a duck that swallowed a piece of grain and excreted a small pellet.  There was a dancing woman and a trumpet playing man. A miniature Moscow that burned and collapsed and sprang up again.  

And once there was, and once there wasn't, 

in the time when magic was mystery and science was fact,

in the time when God's hand could arm man's puppet, 

when miracles were seen to be believed, and schemes were believed to be seen, 

there was the Ottoman Turk, the chess-playing mechanical man.  

Philadelphia, 1827

Outside the Turk's cabinet is the stage, the audience, and an opponent coaxed out of the crowd by Maelzel the showman.  Inside the Turk's cabinet is the dim light of the candle, its smoke which does not ventilate as quickly as it burns, the magnets and mechanics that allow S. to control the automaton's movements, the small chessboard that allows him to control the larger game.  Outside of the cabinet is all of the mystery and wonder and suspicions that he alone should be free of, the one person who does not have to ponder how it works—inside is a man, him. He is the Turk's beating heart, he is its brain. Its skill is his, its first move, its reactions, the many wins and few losses, all his. And yet.  

Outside the cabinet, the Turk is a champion. Inside the cabinet there are only endless moves, no trickier than the moves S. makes to slide his mechanized seat from left to right, from front to back as Maelzel the showman opens the various doors of the cabinet to prove to the audience that nobody is inside.  Maelzel is a master of proving what is not true.  

Still there are rumors.  A boy, a dwarf, a man without legs.  Some have even guessed the truth, mentioning S. by name.  And yet the crowds arrive. They will not relinquish their amazement.

They have been performing in Philadelphia a month already when she comes to the stage, the last match of the night.  "Never a woman before," Maelzel announces to the crowd. "Finally a woman. Can she beat the Turk? Can she?"

In the café in Paris, S. sometimes played women, sometimes they flirted with him, but rarely.  His appearance was not one to draw women in, nor was his manner. It is no matter: he will play whomever.  

Gone are the days of playing masters.

"What is your name, Madam?" Maelzel asks, but S. does not hear her answer.  

She takes the stage surprised.  She did not mean to volunteer. Her children willed her to, she believes.  The power of them together, wishing, with the same force that caused her to take them to the performance in the first place, the first time any of them have gone out since the disappearance (death, she tells herself) of her husband, their father, Thomas, eight months ago.  

There have been whispers: another family, a secret debt, a sudden madness.  But she does not believe them. Given a mystery, people, she finds, force startling narratives on the unlikeliest characters.  Thomas was a Quaker, a teacher and reformer, a person of family; and now people want to believe him less than he was. But she does not care what they want to believe.  After all her time in the faith, after all her efforts to hold their community together–it astonishes her to realize it–but she does not care if she sees any of them again.  Instead all of her work goes to accepting the most logical truth: she will never know what happened, and Thomas will always be gone. Every day she must convince herself of this or else she will merely pass the time waiting for his return.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from The Trojan War Museum: And Other Stories. Copyright (c) 2019 by copyright holder. Used with permission of the publisher W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

A talented new voice in short fiction, Turkish-American author Ayşe Papatya Bucak explores her roots in ten stories rich with wit and deep feeling.

Print Article Publisher's View   

In her dazzling debut, O. Henry and Pushcart Prize winner Ayşe Papatya Bucak glides through the historical, the fantastical, and the mythological in stories that pay homage to her Turkish heritage while probing the depths of the human condition. The stories are funny, salient and wistful, often all at once, establishing the author as a maverick at the height of her powers.

The collection opens with the magical realism-tinged "The History of Girls," set in the immediate aftermath of an explosion in a Turkish boarding school dormitory. A first person narrator using the collective "we" describes the experiences of the girls buried in the rubble, "diamonds waiting to be dug out," as they hope for rescue, along with those who did not survive. The dead comfort the living, and the living comfort the dead. As the girls reflect on the lives they have had, and the futures they will never have, the author provides measured social commentary on the joys and the perils of Muslim womanhood.

In "Iconography," a young Turkish woman studying at an American university goes on a hunger strike for reasons that are inexplicable to herself and those around her, allowing each to posit their own interpretation—is she concerned about the environment? The plight of farmers? Poverty? Furthermore, should she be forced to eat if her health is at risk? Bucak imbues the story with a manic absurdity as the hunger strike evolves from an affectation to a serious crisis. Through the inclusion of a few alternate endings, the author ultimately allows the reader to choose not only their own interpretation of the young woman's actions, but what happens to her.

"Mysteries of the Mountain South" follows protagonist Edie as she moves to southwestern Virginia to care for her dying grandmother. Edie has just graduated from college and chooses to take on this task instead of moving to California for a lucrative coding job because she is feeling lost and unmoored after a bad breakup. As she gets to know her grandmother in a more authentic way, she also discovers herself in this remote Appalachian setting. Bucak then shifts gears for the remarkably inventive title story, which envisions eight different versions of the so-called "Trojan War Museum," beginning in the immediate aftermath of the war itself, and ending in the year 2145. The description of this final iteration is replete with imaginative, otherworldly details:

You can touch anything in the eighth Trojan War Museum; there are no glass barriers
or alarms or even guards to stop you. Though what you touch might burn or bite or
weigh on you. Sometimes what appears to be an ordinary sword turns out to be a piece
of someone's soul that once picked up cannot be put down.

The final story, "The Gathering of Desire," is set in Philadelphia in 1827, where a Quaker woman whose husband has recently disappeared (and is presumed dead) attends a carnival with her children and finds herself participating in a chess match with a large mechanical opponent called "the Ottoman Turk," operated from the inside by a chess master. When the woman learns that her husband's body has been found, she attempts to help her children cope with their sorrow while attending to her own grief, and the match becomes an elegant, sustained symbol of her resilience.

The Trojan War Museum is a unique balancing act, a testament to Bucak's ability to juggle multiple moods and themes in a way that corresponds with the reality of actual human emotion and captures the complexity of personal motivations. Death is not only sad; it inspires a constellation of feelings that spiral through the grief-stricken in fluctuating waves. People want to do good, but are invariably sidetracked by self-interest. This sophisticated understanding of human behavior, along with Bucak's exceptionally clever plotlines, elevate the collection to greatness.

Reviewed by Lisa Butts

O, the Oprah Magazine
Bucak’s luminous debut taps folklore and real life to flesh out complex characters with an agile, inventive hand.

The Millions
A surrealist wunderkammer in which the lines between history and myth, reality and performance, and the cultural and personal are blurred and redrawn.

Kirkus Reviews
If these 10 short stories took a DNA test, they’d find out they were part myth, part postmodern tale, part encyclopedia entry, part Donald Barthelme...Cerebral yet high-spirited.

[A]stonishing...These are stories that reflect the author's Turkish heritage and a curiosity about our human search for meaning as profound as it is lyrical. The stories are music. They beguile and illuminate with narratives about yearning and desire, circumstance and courage, resilience and discovery. Reading them, while the reading lasts, replaces seeing.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
The author astutely deploys a range of styles and techniques that create a cerebral, multifarious collection. Bucak's remarkable, inventive, and humane debut marks her as a writer to watch.

Author Blurb Kelly Link, author of Get in Trouble
One of the best and most surprising collections I've read in a long time. This is a wonder cabinet of stories so singular and marvelous that I spent a long time after each, wanting to linger in the space it had created.

Author Blurb Joan Silber, author of Improvement
What a beautiful, wildly imagined book. The Trojan War Museum gives us stories with branching paths, and they resemble fairy tales, historical accounts, news reports, and dreams. This is fiction of great originality and great delight.

Author Blurb Lydia Kiesling, author of The Golden State
This is a truly lovely, truly surprising book. Ayse Papatya Bucak's stories are narratively precise, and they are also beautiful vignettes on human culture, deftly probing the fissures and pressure points of history and bringing up new forms like the sponge divers in one of her stories. This collection absolutely glows with life.

Print Article Publisher's View  


Melungeon Family In Ayşe Papatya Bucak's The Trojan War Museum, the main character of one of the stories, "Mysteries of the Mountain South," learns that her racial history is more complicated than she previously thought when her grandmother explains that she has a "Melungeon" great-grandparent. Melungeon is a term historically used to describe a "tri-racial" group in the Appalachian states of Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky with mixed ancestry from Europeans, Native Americans and African Americans. The term is believed to have come from the French word mélange, meaning "to mix."

The term Melungeon was common in the 19th and 20th centuries. Melungeons living in the Appalachian states in 19th century were largely accepted in society, and enjoyed the same liberties as white citizens, such as the right to own property and vote. However, after the Civil War, during the height of Jim Crow race hysteria, Melungeons were often the victims of discrimination across the nation. For example, Virginia passed the Racial Integrity Act in 1924, which prohibited interracial marriage and categorized anyone with "one drop" of non-white blood as Black for the purposes of segregation. This caused the Melungeon people to be socially ostracized, as they were considered "tainted" by their African ancestry, as well as subjected to the legal restrictions of Jim Crow legislation.

Because of this association, the word Melungeon took on a derogatory meaning in the early and mid 20th century. During this time, the term was generally only used by non-Melungeons, while those who actually belonged to this group frequently stretched the truth about their ancestry. A Melungeon woman interviewed by USA Today recalls being told by her mother's family that they were Portuguese. In "Mysteries of the Mountain South," the protagonist's grandmother recalls being told she was Turkish. Writing in 1979, anthropologist E. Raymond Evans explains: "In Graysville [Tennessee], the Melungeons strongly deny their Black heritage and explain their genetic differences by claiming to have had Cherokee grandmothers."

In the 1960s, the connotation of the term changed as further anthropological study and cultural developments created more interest in the unique ethnic heritage of this group. This shift is partly attributed to the popularity of the play Walk Toward Sunset written by playwright Kermit Hunter and performed in Sneedville, Tennessee frequently from 1969-1975. The play depicted Melungeons in a positive light, exploring their role in the Revolutionary War and the settlement of Eastern Tennessee. Of course, the 1960s-70s also brought gains in civil rights for African Americans and other minorities, further diminishing the stigma and allowing Melungeon people to take more pride in their identity.

The advent of the internet, DNA testing and genealogical websites have caused interest in Melungeon ancestry to further flourish. Organizations like the Melungeon Heritage Association are actively involved in preserving the history and culture of this ancestral group, and providing information to individuals hoping to learn more about their lineage.

Photo of a Melungeon family, courtesy of Family Search

Filed under People, Eras & Events

By Lisa Butts

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