Oh no, I’m a writer.
By Sophie Poole
Mina Seçkin’s debut novel The Four Humors, forthcoming this November, is about a young woman, Sibel, who wants to do nothing. In Turkey for the summer between her junior and senior year at Columbia University, her blond, all-American, college boyfriend Cooper in tow, Sibel plans to care for her grandmother and prepare for the MCAT. Instead, she nurses a never-ending headache and occasional fevers no doctors can explain. Sibel rejects their failed diagnoses outright, instead consulting the ancient medicinal theory of the four humors—blood, phlegm, black bile, and choler—to explain her ailments. A mixture of choler and black bile causes fury, while black bile alone causes melancholy. Phlegm produces lethargy. But blood is the best: it “pumps you into a kind and optimistic person.” Sibel cites Ibn Sina, the Muslim father of medicine, and Trota of Salerno, a medical practitioner in the Middle Ages, to interpret her somatic and emotional pain.
In order to smoke cigarettes without arousing Cooper’s or her grandmother’s suspicion, Sibel wears a single glove, hides behind a “good tree,” and carries toothpaste, hand lotion, and gum. “What girl doesn’t want to see what her body can get away with?” she asks. She strolls along the twinkling Bosphorus, reluctant to visit the cemetery where her Baba, who passed away from a heart attack the winter before, is buried. The grief is central to the story, as are the family secrets her Baba’s death unearths. She excavates herself, digging into the dirt of her family’s and country’s histories, hoping to “not maim the tender thing inside the other that we find.”
At first, we spoke over Zoom before switching to an old-fashioned phone call due to spotty Wifi. She seemed instantly familiar, warm and friendly, like someone I knew from an English seminar roundtable. Like Sibel, Seçkin is Turkish-American, grew up in Brooklyn, often visited her family in Turkey, and attended Columbia as an undergraduate. Seçkin also received her MFA from Columbia, so she spent a fair amount of time in the neighborhood. The novel references tater tots in university dining halls and Riverside Park’s running paths, but the action takes place in Istanbul, far away from Morningside Heights, in the in-between space of summer break, just before senior year, and before it all begins.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Blue and White: The Four Humors is framed by this idea of the “humors”; the first sentence of the novel begins by defining the concept. How did you learn about the humors?
Mina Seçkin: I first learned about the humors when I read this little blurb about St. Mary Margaret Alecoque. She was a nun in the 1600s and when she started receiving these visions from Christ, no one believed her. They instead deemed her too passionate and decided that her treatment was being bled out once a month in a stone basin. I immediately was obsessed. So I slowly started to discover so much more. I especially became obsessed with the idea of morality that is often imposed through medicine and health care in general. And I was really thinking about depression and melancholy and grief—in particular, the way it was treated and talked about in the ancient times and today in the modern times. And for Sibel, I thought it was perfect because she should have the tools to talk about her grief, talk about her depression, and yet she's unable to, so she escapes into this fantasy and delusion of this alternative treatment.
At the same time, when I was discovering the humors, I also had recently stayed at my grandma’s in Turkey. That summer, my great-grandma was still alive and she was staying there, too, and she couldn’t care for herself anymore. She was, maybe, 96, I think. No one is sure exactly how old she was. But she had Alzheimer’s and my grandma had Parkinson’s, and watching the way my grandma took devoted care of her great-grandma while I was staying there imprinted on me. I felt like, with the four humors, with Sibel—all three of these things had a communication that I couldn't ignore.
B&W: That’s really beautiful. I was taken by the relationship between the grandmother and Sibel—especially the section where we deviate from Sibel’s narrative and go into the fragmented chapters telling the grandma’s story, and later with Refike’s. How did you think about that structure, and how did it come to be?
MS: I thought about it a lot. I was originally not going to create a rupture in the structure. But as I was writing and revising, I realized how much of the book’s heart, and core, and what it’s writing against, is the traditional family structure in Turkey and in so many places. And how when that traditional family structure is broken, people try and pretend that it isn’t broken according to society’s norm. People are constantly trying to repair that or make it seem better from the outside. I thought I had to create a similar rupture in order to show the effects of this break. Sibel is a disaffected, millennial narrator who is also American as well as Turkish, and she can do whatever she wants, really. She has a lot of ability. She is a college student who wants to be a doctor. She really has the world open before her. I really wanted to emphasize the difference in what women could do then and now in Turkey. I thought going into the past, into that rupture, was the best way to make her see it.
B&W: There’s a central theme of healing, the body, and consumption: this mysterious ailment that Sibel is dealing with throughout the novel, her sister’s anorexia, Sibel’s voraciousness in general with food. How and why do you think the body was so central to this story?
MS: My first and immediate answer is that I’ve always written about the body, with a deep obsession. I always remember, from a young age, I was very alarmed at the fact that you only really notice your body when something’s wrong with it, when something hurts in it. And I’ve continued to be fascinated with that. I also find the body to serve such an important role in talking about personal narrative within a political context where the personal is always political. I feel like that reality can be seen most through the body and, again, through what women could do in the past and then in the present. I knew from the beginning that Sibel had to be gaining weight throughout the summer and compulsively eating while her sister is doing the exact opposite—I wanted that to emphasize control. Especially when, again, they are millennial kids and they have so many options, right? And, instead, one of the things they choose to do is to control their bodies.
B&W: Something I noticed on a sentence level—especially with the fragmented bits that go back in time to a personal history—is that there’s this parallel comparison between what's happening on a very personal level and also a very political, national level.
MS: In putting those two together, say, the more quotidian—what this character is doing in the 1950s, in the 1970s in Istanbul—always goes hand in hand with what was happening in the city at the time and with the way it has been remembered. Those vignettes are definitely in the past, and they’re a story being told after. So I also really wanted to highlight, say, what the body and the politics look like when you’re looking at it from the present into the past. And then what Sibel’s summer looks like and the way politics are happening around her, but they kind of go in and out. They’re never featured prominently because she doesn’t necessarily care about politics, but also because it is in the present tense, where it hasn’t been memorialized yet.
B&W: The novel begins, and it’s the one-year anniversary of the Gezi Park protests, which is something you hear about in the background. I’m interested that it’s not set in 2020 or 2021; it’s set in 2014. How does setting it a few years ago give you freedom as a writer or give you some kind of perspective that maybe you wouldn’t be able to have now? Why did you choose to set it in 2014 rather than today?
MS: I chose 2014 for a very specific reason related to Turkey’s president and then America’s president at the time. Turkey and America’s politics, in this case, are linked. But in terms of Turkey’s politics, I really wanted to zero in on a time when Erdoğan was changing the constitution to allow him to go from prime minister and run for president. It was already the end, around then, of Turkey. That really cemented a kind of doomed feeling in so many Turkish people. In terms of American politics, I always think of 2014 as an important year, too, in that it was before Trump ever started to surface. When Trump got elected, there was one part of me that felt very surprised and almost appalled by how many people were shocked that he was elected. I felt like, given my upbringing as a culturally Muslim person who was growing up in Brooklyn and was always aware of what was happening in the Middle East that America was doing—and so many other realities about America—I wasn't surprised at all. I wanted to capture this time when a lot of people still considered America not as the greatest evil.
B&W: A character comments in the book about how Obama has dropped more bombs on the Middle East than any other president. It’s one of those things where you have to remind yourself, “Oh, it’s 2014, and that’s a very specific moment in time.” Also, on a more personal side of time—with Sibel being in the summer between her junior and senior year, a time of transition, and while she’s in Turkey, her boyfriend from college and America is with her. Like you said, there was a sense of doom in the political environment in Turkey at that time, and there’s also this sense that it’s the end, or transitioning into an end, in Sibel’s personal life as well. Did you see a parallel in that?
MS: Yeah, I really love that. I really wanted to capture that time, and maybe you’re feeling it this year, right?
B&W: Yeah, totally.
MS: Where you’re about to graduate college—it could be a year before, it could be a few months before—but you really experience a second coming of age. And I feel like comings of age just continuously happen to people, which is really important. But, with that relationship, I really wanted to highlight that exact feeling of growing out of a person and realizing that you were maybe using more of the person than they were giving you.
B&W: There were a few museum experiences in the novel: the exhibit with the Turkish author, the anatomy exhibit, the archeology museum. How do you see the cultural experience of going to museums narratively informing the plot?
MS: Wow, now I’m really thinking about museums and plot in general. For this novel, I went narratively to those museums because of a phenomenon that I know so well, which is the insider-outsider feeling in Turkey as the Turkish-American, where other Turks make you not feel as Turkish and you are learning about Turkey in such a different way than a person born and raised in Turkey, because you have been learning about it from afar and you learn about it very emotionally. I know that I myself have experienced this, where once I came to a certain age and would go around Istanbul by myself, I would spend a lot of time in museums, learning about the country in this way that wasn’t how I learned about it at home and, instead, would contrast and conflict with that understanding. I would tell my Turkish family or friends who are in Turkey, like, “Oh, I went to the archeology museum,” or, “Oh, I went to Orhan Pamuk’s museum.” And they would be like, “Why are you going to those museums? Like, why are you going?” [Laughter.] In terms of the narrative, because Sibel is showing around her American boyfriend, it works so well, too. Without having to explain parts of culture and history, I can make them go to the museum and experience it and point things out.
B&W: There’s this strange distance and alienation when learning about something not experientially, but by going somewhere, to an institution. Specifically with the Orhan Pamuk museum in the novel, there is this really evocative line about fiction and reality, and how the museum engages with blurring those categories. And I was wondering if it was almost a meta-commentary on what’s happening in general with fiction.
MS: That moment still stumps and fascinates me. By writing about the museum, which is a fiction, but exists in real time, I am also collapsing reality in this way. That museum is really, really interesting and cool. The museum itself, every panel is just collapsing time.
B&W: I was really interested in the television shows throughout the novel.
MS: I have so much, so much to say about this. I really grew up with so many people around me watching Turkish soap operas. They’re really popular. But I always found it really funny that all these soap operas always use the same tired tropes. It’s usually a love story between a man and a woman who are from different socioeconomic backgrounds. The one who is wealthier is always secular, and the one who is not as wealthy is always very religious. It’s the same story over and over again; it’s always a star-crossed lovers story. Turkey has so many issues, and so many secrets, and so many buried identities, so many insane things that aren’t discussed. The soap opera business, which is booming in Turkey, booming in the Middle East, booming in South America, I think it’s so funny that they don’t excavate the actual drama in the country’s history and say something real about the country. They’re not telling the truth, essentially, and this can make me very angry. I also wanted those vignettes from the past to resemble soap operas. To try to tell both a similar story as the soap opera ones, but again rupturing them just a little bit, too.
B&W: I thought it was a really interesting backdrop for so much of the interactions between Sibel and her grandmother. Sibel is watching TV with her grandma for so much of the summer. I think there’s such an anxiety, specifically in the time you’ve set it in between junior and senior year, to be doing something that will set you up for what you’re doing after college. Which is really silly and just these weird expectations that college students put on themselves. It’s like, you have time, it’s okay.
MS: There’s nothing worse, especially when you go to a school like Columbia, than admitting that you did nothing. [Laughs.] I always think about how—and I’m sure this is the case at so many colleges—when you’re in the elevator, in a dorm maybe, and you see someone you know and you ask them how they are, everyone always would respond with how much they have to do, not actually answer the question, “How are you?” They would, instead, be like, “I have to do this and this and this and this.”
B&W: We’re in midterms right now and it’s all anyone can talk about. Like, “I’m so stressed, I have so much to do,” but not a lot of substance about how they actually are doing. The character Jonathan, Cooper’s friend who used to work in investment banking and is traveling now, who comes and visits, made me chuckle because he’s someone I could recognize at school.
MS: Yeah, right?
B&W: They were discussing tourism versus visiting a place. I thought Cooper’s ability to be a part of Sibel’s family was curious. As a reader, I didn’t know whether I liked him or not. I was on Sibel’s side, so I didn’t quite know how to feel.
MS: I thought about that character a lot because, unfortunately for me and so many writers, he was originally based off of an actual ex-boyfriend—as it goes. Taking that initial basis and then creating a character out of it, I felt so many different, conflicting—the person that the character [is] based off of is sort of a mirage, right? And then you have this character that you have to fully form. What I wanted to turn that character into was a very well-meaning, white, American person who is a good guy, is genuinely a good guy. But like, what are the good guys supposed to be like in a relationship in this day and age? And how might they still manifest a lot of masculinity, even if it’s this more tender masculinity? I’ve heard it before from readers, and from my friends who read early drafts, that there’s always this tension with the character of Cooper—not really knowing whether or not to trust his intentions. And I feel like that is the state of dating men in our modern times in your twenties.
B&W: No, totally. You’re like, “They’re too nice. This is obviously a problem.” Like, what’s wrong?
MS: Exactly. If they’re too nice, you can't trust it.
B&W: Time to run, go. I’m glad to hear people had similar reactions. Sometimes, with novels set in the social media age, or whatever, it feels like too much, or it feels inauthentic. But I felt the moments when Instagram was referenced, for example, it was really sweet and actually how it is when you try to teach your grandma how to use Instagram. Also, the moment with the sisters where she’s like, "Don’t send a smiley face to Cooper.” That’s just sort of how life is when you’ve grown up in this age. What do you think about representing social media and all those things in fiction?
MS: If you’re setting it in this age, it must be mentioned—unless you have a character who is actively fighting that reality and doesn’t want to be a part of it. In terms of a craft perspective, what I like best is when it’s woven in as naturally as we use those apps, and this kind of attention to language and texts in our real lives. So I always try to do it as naturally as possible. Sibel’s not around her American friends and she doesn’t miss it there, either. And so, in a way, I didn’t have to write that much about those realities because a lot of her is literally not there. She’s in the past, thinking about how to expel black bile from her body.
B&W: There was always this tension where Sibel is this incredibly contemporary, relatable young woman using Instagram, dealing with boys and breakups and all of these things. And then she had this fascination with the humors—so distinctly in the past. There’s this great balancing of the past with the present in Sibel. And that feels in relation to the whole idea of the balancing of the body in the humors, like seeping in and out. I was worried about Sibel.
MS: I know, I know. I’m really happy she did not bloodlet herself.
B&W: Yeah, that would be bad. There was this line about her uncle telling stories, and that a story comes out “free to grow and change and seep wherever it wants.” That stories can be like bloodletting or an expulsion. Did writing it ever feel like that?
MS: Definitely. There are secrets in my family. When people hold on to them, they grow and grow and fester in the mind in this way that feels just so representative of what the humors’ entire methodology was in the past. I do really think of the way people were diagnosed with these four humors as a form of storytelling. I see the humors today as relating so much to wellness and self-care, but also astrology, for example, and personality tests. It’s all a story we’re telling ourselves. And it’s helpful. It makes you reflective.
B&W: But then sometimes, maybe with Sibel, it reached a point where it was detrimental. It’s hard to tell where the line is, like when the narratives become too separate from reality.
MS: Yeah, that’s so true.
B&W: What’s your astrological sign? If you don’t mind me asking.
MS: I’m a Taurus. I identify pretty strongly.
B&W: Is Sibel a Taurus?
MS: No, so I actually thought about this, what should she be. She is a Scorpio.
B&W: Okay, yeah, I see that for Sibel.
MS: Yeah, right? She probably has a Taurus rising. There’s some Taurus in there, lounging about. What are you?
B&W: I’m a Pisces. My mom’s a Taurus, so I love Tauruses.
MS: They know how to make things good.
B&W: I completely agree. I’m curious, how long did it take you to write it?
MS: I had a long journey with this novel, but I wasn’t working on it throughout the maybe four years that it was in my brain somewhere. Funnily enough, the first chapter was originally a short story, and it was the first short story I turned in to my MFA program. And then I put it aside for a year, and when I started editing the story, I realized I just kept writing more and more scenes, and the story just opened up to me and showed me that it was a much longer narrative. I fully committed to it in my second semester of my MFA program and I probably wrote the first draft in like five months.
B&W: Oh my goodness. Wow.
MS: Then I did so much editing, so much editing. And I really like those big macro edits where you read the whole thing and you really think about what this story is that you’re telling.
B&W: And you’re an editor for Apogee, as well? How long have you been doing that for?
MS: I’ve been doing that since 2014. I started out just helping out, and then I became the web editor where we used to publish original content. So I was really doing hands-on editorial work then. Now, I’m the managing editor and I think of myself more as the journal's doula. I have to make sure each essay comes out as pain-free as possible. That every contributor, that their piece looks exactly the way they want it to look and is being taken care of. So now my work is more involved around managing, so to speak.
B&W: Did I say congratulations? It’s so exciting that your first novel is being published in November.
MS: It doesn’t feel like it's real. It still doesn’t feel real to me.
B&W: When you were at Columbia, did you know you wanted to publish a novel?
MS: I think I started to. I was an English Lit and Creative Writing major. I accidentally became a Creative Writing major; I took like two creative writing classes a semester, and I just ended up becoming one. In a way, that is similar to Sibel, although I never considered being a doctor. I faced so many battles with my parents and what they expected me to do and what I wanted to do. So it was a slow dawning upon me that was like, “Oh no, I think I’m a writer.”I would have nightmares where I had changed my major to being an architecture major, and that would please them. Yeah, that never happened.