The Turkish Lover
Esmeralda Santiago achieves personal freedom through her künstlerroman, which depicts her deprecating relationship with… you guessed it, her Turkish lover. Following her trajectory from a naïve twenty-one year old to almost closing in on thirty, Santiago follows her heart - a heart that chooses a submissive lover, thirteen years her senior, rather than electing to sketch out her own bright future. Ditching her old school Puerto Rican family who immigrated to Brooklyn, New York, she couples with an equally old school Turk and they create a maze of lustful travels around the United States. Their pilgrimage from state to state echoes the instability that exists in their own relationship. She and the Turk oscillate between fights, arguments, demands, and at times vehement love making fused with affectionate proverbs.
But let's not forget the Turk's domineering nature that saturates the novel. He chooses Esmeralda as a mate and sticks it out with her because she is beautiful, intelligent, and assiduous. Any reader will agree that she fulfills the qualities he needs in order to enhance his own traits which he boastfully flaunts in front of his friends and potential business partners. Who but Esmeralda? Skin the color of low fat milk stirred into a steaming cup of black coffee. An adaptable brain that can manage academic disciplines she's never been introduced to. Ambitious and arduous, so much so that she finds work no matter what asphalt jungle she is plucked from and dusty town she is newly settled into. Yes, she is used as a means to the Turk's success. A "trophy wife" placed high on the mantle for his friends to admire, but never welcomed to offer her insight. Gatherings emphasize her role as a submissive. Opinions are unwelcomed for poor Esmeralda. Yet, it becomes increasing difficult to sympathize for her throughout the course of the memoir. Esmeralda's random outbursts, or shall we say sagacity, and cordial nature (with fellow classmates, dancers, teachers) are deemed "too free", according to the Turk. Ironically, his damnations confine her to this strange concept called love. And yet, she continues to be his bitch. Forking over portions of her weekly paychecks, poring over large scientific textbooks to write his thesis, adhering to his curfews. Makes you think that she was better off being clocked by her strict Boriqua folks, huh?
And here's the clincher: she doesn't leave! Was admission into Harvard not enough motivation, chica? Speaking of that, to add insult to injury, the Turk only addresses Esmeralda as "Chiquita". Always. A clear indication that Esmeralda is small, a subservient woman he manipulates as a petty pawn in his life.
And all the while, readers are turning the pages, screaming, "Leave him!" But let's recall that famous adage: all's fair in love and war. And this chick takes that quote to its most literal degree! He slaps her, chooses her clothes, and lays his heavy domineering weight on her. He dabbles his hands in various fields, meanwhile she's chained to mediocre jobs she manages to obtain during their shuffle between cities. She can never fully express herself and is left to wilt in his shadow.
But that wouldn't complete the book, now would it? Her acceptance to Harvard is the single most awe striking moment of the book. She gradually destroys the fortitude he claims over her. Next in line, Esmeralda's fruition of her dancing passions creates an indelible mark within the memoir. Which brings me to my next and final thought...
Are we intrinsically the person we are supposed to become? And do the forces around us manipulate our personas? We are floating specks in life. Layers begin to cloak us as we are shaped by our experiences, emotions, and interactions with others. We multiply and grow into a multi-coated being. So maybe we fall under the belief that the complex cloaks we bear are the essence of “thick skin”. And maybe we are led to discover that these instances were “meant to be” and thereby enhancing are true selves and strengthening our character. Instead, why not believe that the person we are meant to become was the one who was already there in the first place? But we never listened because we are “forced” by those around us. We are never allowed to be “too free”. Or in other words, too much of ourselves. So we continue to wear the cloak, maybe even add a few layers, and hold it tighter to our chests. Brim the collar until our necks disappear and stifle our mouths so we can barely mumble an utterance. At this point, we’ve lost almost all control. Or rather have we just allowed everyone else to influence us? So we rebel, we relent, we bid our goodbyes. Our silhouette has become unrecognizable. So we saddle up the horse and gallop into the depths of ourselves. Plunge into untouched reservoirs to remind ourselves of who we truly are. Yet the hard work isn’t over. We try and try to reverse what has already been in its summer phase. Now with barren branches and a forest of lifelessness, bitter chills of the winter sting us and we work twice as hard to revert to the season that reflects our inner selves.
Needless to say, this memoir has struck a cord, with a melody so poignant and captivating that it can easily be a memoir of our very own lives.