Elif Batuman by Beowulf Sheehan

Elif Batuman, author of ‘The Idiot’

Elif Batuman, author of The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (2010), was working on a book inspired by a Chekhov character who describes himself as having two distinct lives.

“One is the open one that everyone can see, and the other one is running its course in secret,” Batuman said by phone, “and somehow, through some chain of circumstances, maybe by accident, everything that’s meaningful to him is in the second life, and everything that is like a facade that he uses to hide the truth is in the first life, the public one.”

In the process of writing, Batuman kept flashing back to an earlier time, until she found herself at college. Removed from that experience by a couple of decades, it occurred to her to consult the draft of a novel she wrote when she was 23 and living in San Francisco, having taken a year off from her graduate program at Stanford. Batuman had been reluctant to reread the draft because it was based on her own undergraduate life.

“I was really embarrassed by that 18-year-old, and all the dumb stuff that she did, and there was this great effort that I took to distance myself — the writing self — from the person who I was writing about,” Batuman said.

“The stuff that I was embarrassed about at the time, which was how vulnerable and … kind of dumb the main character was — that visceral experience of feeling that way was what I found the most moving. And I decided that I just had to leave that by itself and not try to mitigate it too much.”

The Idiot, the novel that emerged, is set in 1995 at the dawn of email, and follows a Turkish American student, Selin, through her first year at Harvard. Propelled as much by the thrilling new horizons of interpersonal communication and the power of words to sculpt identity as by the prospect of real romance, Selin becomes enmeshed in a long-distance relationship.

“She doesn’t want the whole story to be, ‘Am I going to get a boyfriend, or am I going to get married?’” Batuman said. “And yet that’s kind of the only model that there is, so she’s in this weird space of having this kind of weird love story that’s not really a love story. … That feeling of being in no story was something that was really important for me to describe — that feeling of a narrative vacuum and what it does to a person.”


Batuman will discuss “The Idiot” with Yiyun Li (Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, Kinder Than Solitude), who has just published her first book of nonfiction, Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life. The free event takes place at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Moe’s Books, 2476 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley.

This article originally appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle.

Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

Other book events

Peg Alford Pursell reads from her debut book of flash fictions and prose poetry, “Show Her a Flower, a Bird, a Shadow” (ELJ Editions), with Grant Faulkner (“Fissures”) (7:30 p.m. Thursday, Booksmith, 1644 Haight St. Free).

Because We Come From Everything: The Poetics of Migration features readings by Jack Hirschman and Jack Marshall on the Syrian refugee crisis, which they discuss with Jonathan Curiel (7 p.m. Thursday, City Lights, 261 Columbus Ave. Free).

Omnidawn Night presents authors with new books by the Richmond press: Andrew Seguin (“The Room in Which I Work”), Daniel Poppick (“The Police”), Kelli A. Noftle (“Adam Cannot Be Adam”), John Liles (“Follow the Dog Down”), Mary Hickman (“Rayfish”) and Donald Justice (“Compendium: A Collection of Thoughts on Prosody”) (7:30 p.m. Friday, Moe’s Books, 2476 Telegraph Ave., Free).

Liminal’s bimonthly showcase of feminist writers falls out on SWAN day (Support Women Artists Now), with a dozen featured readers including Steffi Drewes, Nana K. Twumasi, Tatiana Luboviski-Acosta and Marguerite Muñoz (7 p.m. Saturday, Liminal, 3037 38th Ave., Oakland. Free).

Lives and Voices Not Heard, curated by Bonnie Kwong, features readings by Nghiep Lam and Eddy Zheng on the theme of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders’ experiences facing deportation, followed by a panel including a representative from the Asian Law Caucus (4 p.m. Sunday, Liminal, 3037 38th Ave, Oakland).