Alumni Updates

Perspective: August in Turkey


Editor's Note: August Thomas traveled from Massachusetts to Turkey in 2009, through the Critical Language Scholarship program. She knew the program would help her improve her Turkish language abilities and her understanding of the country. She had no idea that nine years later, the experience would inspire her first novel. 

Tell us a story about your program experience.

Before my summer in Ankara with the Critical Language Scholarship program, I had visited Turkey once, with my mother. In Istanbul, in a beautiful tea garden in Gülhane Park, overlooking the water of the Bosporus Strait, we drank tea from a battered, two-tiered copper çaydanlık (a traditional Turkish teapot). Two years later, when I returned to Turkey for CLS, I asked my mother what souvenirs she’d like me to bring back for her. She only wished for one: a çaydanlık like the one we’d used in Istanbul. The problem was, there weren’t any to be found in the modern stores in Ankara. 

August poses in Istanbul with the wind blowing her hair as she holds a red handbag, standing on the short of the Bosphorus Sea.
August has returned to the area since her CLS experience. This photo is in Istanbul, during her ARIT-AATT Turkish language fellowship in summer 2011.

When my CLS group traveled to Istanbul, I searched the Grand Bazaar – and came up empty. With hours to spare, I managed to find my way back to the tea garden overlooking Bosporus. Using my freshly-acquired CLS Turkish [language skills], I explained the situation and asked the waiter if there was any chance I could buy a çaydanlık. He said, “Wait five minutes.” I waited ten. Fifteen. I was starting to worry. I had to get back to my group! Finally, finally he returned with a beautiful, battered copper çaydanlık. He would not accept any payment. I was so touched, I actually wrote about the experience in my Fulbright application essay years later. I got the Fulbright to Istanbul – and when my mother came to visit, the two of us walked up to the tea garden to say thank you. Three years later, the waiter still remembered!   

How has the program affected your life’s trajectory/goals? 

More than I would ever have guessed. I was 18 when I traveled to Ankara for CLS. I was thrilled at the chance to go to Turkey, but doubtful about being sent to Ankara. Wasn’t Ankara supposed to be boring? I never dreamed that almost a decade later, I’d set my first spy thriller there. During CLS in Ankara, I had lots of experiences that – to my surprise -- later became useful grist for my writing: I met diplomats for the first time, and became fascinated by their work; my CLS group even had the opportunity to visit the headquarters of the ruling political party in Ankara. Seven years later, I moved to Scotland on a creative writing fellowship. I’d intended to write a historical novel set in Renaissance Venice. Instead, I couldn’t stop thinking of Turkey. I started writing a spy thriller about Penny Kessler, a 21-year-old summer intern at the US Embassy in Ankara, who survives a massive terror attack at the Embassy Fourth of July party– only to find herself tangled in a deadly conspiracy. That story became my first novel, "Liar's Candle," which Scribner (Simon & Schuster) published in several countries this spring. I would never have written "Liar's Candle" without CLS.

How are you involved in the global and/or local community today?

One marvelous thing about sharing "Liar's Candle" with readers is that I sometimes get to travel around, meet interesting people, and talk about Turkey. This fall, I’m traveling to literary festivals in England and Scotland. Last night I was up late to do a phone interview about "Liar's Candle" with a newspaper in Tasmania, Australia! On a different note, this summer, I’m teaching at an intensive cultural and language immersion program for students from Beijing who have traveled to the US. Having benefited so much from similar programs, it’s great to be able to share my own culture and language, from freedom of speech to feminism to comic books.

Tell us about someone who impacted your experience.

One of my Turkish language teachers in Ankara, Nilay, was a wonderful mentor, exceptionally kind and generous to all of us. She patiently answered my zillions of questions and helped me get my bearings as a culture-shocked teenager. She’s one of the best teachers I ever had. We’re still in touch occasionally nine years later.

What was your biggest contribution to your host community?The Liar's Candle book cover shows a mosque and city scene in turkey, layered over a woman's face, which is partially obscured, except her eyes.

During my summer in Ankara with CLS, I felt I was given much more than I gave. Indirectly, I hope that now my novel "Liar's Candle" will help my host community by making readers curious to learn more Turkey. I’ve actually seen quite a few reviews from strangers who have finished the book and now want to travel to Turkey! Especially now, as Turkey hits the headlines in a less-than-positive light, I think it’s vital to remember there’s much more to a country than the political party that happens to be in power.

What advice do you have for future alumni (or other writers)?  

Keep some kind of journal during your exchange – and, even if you’re a terrible doodler like me, make some quick sketches. It’s a wonderful keepsake and also a great record of details you may forget, and first impressions that may change drastically. I’m also a fan of using TV and movies as an easy way to help maintain your language skills once you’re back in the US. (Melo)drama is way easier than comedy – people usually speak more slowly (i.e. “HOW—COULD—YOU—BETRAY—ME?!?”), and you get lots of context clues. And it helps to be open-minded about what you may find yourself wanting to write. I studied linguistics and art history – I never guessed I’d write spy thrillers.   

Bonus questions: What was your favorite thing that you ate on program?

Fresh figs and apricots I picked right off my host family’s tree. And lahmacun (a crisp, thin flatbread scattered with spiced lamb and herbs). Now I’m hungry! 

To learn more about "Liar's Candle" or author (and CLS alumna) August Thomas, Amazon.

About the Critical Language Scholarship Program
The US Department of State Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) Program is a fully funded summer language program for American undergraduate and graduate students. CLS is a merit-based study abroad scholarship providing cultural immersion and rigorous academic instruction in 14 languages essential to America’s engagement with the world.

CLS is part of a US government effort to expand dramatically the number of Americans studying and mastering critical need foreign languages. The CLS Program prepares American students to be global leaders by providing critical language and cultural skills that enable them to contribute to U.S. economic competitiveness and national security.

The CLS Program is supported in its implementation by American Councils for International Education.