CNF: Hüzün

by Sybil Baker


I’m in a body of water far from home. My brother, who lives here in Turkey, has found a spot of beach with white sand and trees for shade and a shallow entrance to the ocean that only the locals know about. The rocks underneath my feet are worn smooth, the water is clear and calm. Turkish families set up picnics, with couples and young people lounging on towels. I play with my seven-year-old nephew, the child of two empires, in the calm water of the Aegean Sea.

Somewhere, it is 1630 and my ancestor seven-year-old Jeffrey Baker is on the Mary and John headed to the British colonies, never to see his homeland again.


Nobel Prize winning author Orhan Pamuk writes of Istanbul, “Here amid the old stones and wooden houses, history made peace with its ruins; ruins nourished life and gave new life to history.” Pamuk calls this melancholy about Turkey’s lost greatness, “hüzün.” Surrounded by the crumbling ruins of its former empires, the Turks are surrounded by visual reminders of a past that will not return, even if their leaders want it to. It is, Pamuk says, a uniquely Turkish feeling.

Americans seem to be stuck in a restorative nostalgia Svetlana Boym writes of in The Future of Nostalgia that “manifests itself in the total reconstructions of monuments of the past,” while Pamuk’s hüzün as a reflective nostalgia that comfortably “lingers on the ruins, the patina of time and history, in the dreams of another place and another time.” With this reflective nostalgia, Americans could live in peace among the ruins instead of trying to re-construct them, allowing us to envision a future we cannot yet dream of.


My dad’s dream for us was not necessarily the American Dream of the next generation doing better financially than the last. That none of his three children followed the traditional corporate path that he himself had become disillusioned with pleased him. It pleased him that all three of us and our spouses earned advanced degrees. It pleased him that I lived in Korea and my youngest brother had moved to Turkey, even if he wished we were closer. It probably would have pleased him that our own marriages—to a Jew, Muslim, and White man from South Africa—and their progeny have diluted the Bakers’ White supremacist legacy.

It was my dad’s dream to pass on the desire to pursue knowledge and to always be curious of what life is about. As my dad said, “If there were no longer questions then there would be no hope, no dreams, no unknowns, no visions, no tomorrow, no future.”

We are living in my ancestors’ future; one they could never have imagined.


Soon I will be on a plane back to the States, leaving Turkey’s hüzün behind. Like Odysseus, I will return to my ancestral home. But unlike him, when I return I will not slay the suitors or hang the women servants for their acts of resistance. When I return, I will gather the threads of Penelope’s funeral shroud she weaves and unpicks every night. With my loom, I will weave the threads of stories into a shroud that will be large enough to bury and honor the dead so that we can begin life anew.

And like Odysseus, like my ancestors, I will dream of the sea, of leaving my homeland once again.


Sybil is the author of five works of fiction, which have won Eric Hoffer, Foreword, and IPPY awards. Her nonfiction work, Immigration Essays, was the 2018-2019 Read2Achieve selection for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and required reading for all first-year students. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Guernica, Electric Literature, Glimmer Train, and Critical Flame. She was awarded two MakeWork Artist Grants and a 2017 Individual Artist’s Fellowship in nonfiction from the Tennessee Arts Commission. She is a professor of English at the University of Tennessee and Chattanooga, Director of the Meacham Writer’s Workshop, and on faculty for the Yale Summer Writer’s Workshop.


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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Hüzün”?

“Hüzün” is one of the final essays in a draft manuscript called Reconstructions of a Lost Cause, and was inspired by my most recent visit to Turkey (where my brother and his family live). I’m interested in the intersection of America’s nostalgia for a problematic past and Turkey’s hüzün, which Orhan Pamuk translates as a melancholy for a previous greatness. Another short piece inspired from that trip was published in Healing Visions last year.


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