What Can We Steal From Ayşe Papatya Bucak’s “Iconography”?


Title of Work and its Form: “Iconography,” short story
Author: Ayşe Papatya Bucak (on Twitter @TheFreeMFA)
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story made its debut in the Fall 2012 issue of The Iowa Review, one of the best journals in the field.  The piece was subsequently awarded a Pushcart Prize and is included the award’s 2014 anthology.  (That’s one of the books we should buy every year!)

Bonuses:  Here is what Karen Carlson thought of the story.  Here are some interesting reviews Ms. Bucak wrote for her blog.  Here is a piece of creative nonfiction Ms. Bucak published in Brevity.  

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Universal Narrative

Ms. Bucak offers us a modern-day parable in which the “Starving Girl” makes a stance against the wrongs of the world.  As with much of the story, the Starving Girl’s cause is left ambiguous.  The story is told by a shadowy narrator who remains somewhat detached from the tale.  (This is an appropriate choice; the focus should be on the young woman.)  The Starving Girl has gone on a hunger strike.  She’s a college student, so her friends, professors and the school administrators try to get her to eat.  She refuses.  Her parents arrive from Turkey in an attempt to understand what is happening…and to try and get her to eat.  She refuses.  What is the Starving Girl’s ultimate fate?  Ms. Bucak’s narrator remains true to the title; describing a few possible ways in which the story of this human-turned-symbol may have been resolved. 

I hadn’t previously come into contact with this story, but Karen Carlson enjoyed this piece a great deal and asked if I might do an analysis of my own.  She’s certainly right that the narrator offers a kind of kaleidoscopic effect, but I’m pleased to say that I had some strong thoughts that were delightfully different and complementary.  Ms. Bucak makes herself very clear early on, establishing that the story is about an “icon” in the classical sense.  The Oxford English Dictionary is the Official Dictionary of Great Writers Steal.  (An endorsement I’m happy to give without compensation.)  I am lucky enough to access the online edition of the OED through the college library.  I’m willing to bet that your local librarian can help you do the same.

The Starving Girl is, quite literally, a “representation of some sacred personage.”  Another more recent definition applies; she’s “a person or thing regarded as a representative symbol, esp. of a culture or movement; a person, institution, etc., considered worthy of admiration or respect.”

The narrator makes it very clear that others have or will be inspired and/or motivated by the Starving Girl.  It’s also obvious that the factual details of her life and personality have been lost or obfuscated.  (Or created.)  This happens ALL THE TIME.  We often think of George Washington as a flawless hero who wouldn’t allow himself to become King of America and who never, ever told a lie.  (Even though eternal honesty is probably a bad choice for a general.)  Abraham Lincoln: a put-upon hero who guided the United States through one of the most difficult times in its history.  The gentleman known as Tank Man stood his ground in Tienanmen Square as tanks tried to avoid him, making it clear that he wanted his country to change.

These icons: Washington, Lincoln, Tank Man…each of these icons have been turned into symbols.  In some way, they have been stripped of their humanity, allowing them to represent a greater, more important principle.  Guess what?  They were (or are, as one hopes for Tank Man) real human beings.  They ate food.  They listened to music.  They made love.

So Ms. Bucak has presented a protagonist who is more of an icon than a living, breathing human being in the middle of a story that is more like a parable.  What does she gain by making these choices?  A parable is effective because it’s a story that teaches a universal lesson.  Look at some parables from the Christian Bible.  It may seem counterintuitive, but dealing with symbols instead of characters can be an effective method of storytelling because doing so subverts our natural desire to identify and sympathize with characters.  We certainly feel bad for Starving Girl, but it’s far easier to make her into a type if we don’t know her name and she isn’t too active in the dramatic present.  In this way, Starving Girl can represent ANYONE who has a legitimate beef with people who are in power.  Starving Girl is depriving herself to bring attention to…anything you want.

…the terrible situation in Libya.

…the simple inhumanity of anti-gay legislation in places such as Russia or Uganda.

…people who leave their dogs outside all day during incredibly cold weather.

The Starving Girl may not be a full and complete citizen of her story, but this dehumanization allows her to be more meaningful to the rest of us.

Regular readers of the site will note that I’m in a constant battle with how I feel about the omission of quotation marks in dialogue.  (See my essay about John Lennon and “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.”)  Ms. Bucak omits the quotation marks in this piece.


Why use all caps?  Because we all know that anomalies and aberrations attract attention and often carry some kind of meaning.  Here are the two exceptions:

  1. In the course of describing one of the Starving Girl’s possible fates, the first-person narrator meets her and asks, “What do you want?”
  2. In the final “alternate ending,” the Starving Girl’s father begs her to eat for his own sake.  She says, “okay,” which Ms. Bucak says “saves him.”

Why is this technique effective?  If you have kids, they probably call you some variation on “Mommy” or “Daddy” until they reach a certain age.  I would imagine that a parent would notice the first time their children call them something else, right?  Maybe it’s their first name, maybe the child had a child of their own and “Mom” becomes “Grandma.”

The narrator’s spoken (and quotation-marked) line feels more significant because it’s the first such line we see.  The Starving Girl’s dialogue is more memorable because she only has one line and because it’s hypothetical.  Ms. Bucak gets a great deal of mileage out of breaking the rules she’s established in the story.

What Should We Steal?

  • Employ the power of the parable to tell universal stories.  Big Brother may have been a real person at some point, but he’s much more effective in his role as a nameless representation of those who hold power over Winston.
  • Deviate from the rules you’ve established when they will create an interesting desired effect.  Don’t use quotation marks in dialogue…until doing so will make particularly important lines stand out.




  • Wow, that was fast! Thanks - you know, I hadn’t even noted the use of quotation marks, and you’re right, of course that last “okay” is so incredibly important.

    I’d sort of skimmed over the whole iconography angle (I have an OED by the way - the microprint two-volume edition, complete with magnifying glass, purchased back in the 80s when I was studying language and BOMC was offering them for some crazy price like $25. Of course I wasted a great deal more on the books I had to buy to make up for it… this was just pre-internet, I suppose they saw the writing on the screen and decided to move paper while paper still moved).

    Thanks! It’s always helpful to triangulate - some aspects you found, I missed entirely.

  • Heads up: Zoetrope.com (an online writing workshop) has an office that reads “prize” story collections - they’re starting a Pushcart 2014 read shortly, fiction only - you might find it interesting, and you’d have some great observations for writers (and might pick up a couple of subscribers). I was in Zoe a few years ago, signed up again just to do this (they’ve just finished BASS 2013).
    FMI, let me know, or just join up and request an invite to Ruth Taylor’s “best of” private office (I’ll tell her you’re coming if you like).

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