It’s not everyday that a Parsons Senior Seminar prompts a television producer to pick up the phone. But that’s just what happened last November, when Assistant Professor Susan Yelavich got a call asking her to talk about how she interprets Orhan Pamuk’s novel My Name is Red (1998) in her Design Fictions class, offered by the School of Art and Design History and Theory.
Producer Ross Tuttle—a New York-based journalist and documentary filmmaker—explained that he was working on a series for WGBH Television called “An Invitation the Literature of the World,” which would feature Pamuk’s Nobel Prize winning novel, along with classics ranging from Homer’s The Odyssey to Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. In the process of looking for new perspectives on Pamuk’s tale of 16th-century Istanbul, he had come across Yelavich’s syllabus online and noted that it was among her required readings, which also includes works by authors ranging from Virginia Woolf to Nicholson Baker.
What’s the relevance of My Name is Red for designers? And why are they reading fiction in the first place? Yelavich responds that designers need to think about how their work lives in the world, and how it changes the world outside the studio. She says Pamuk’s fable is ideal for that purpose because, first and foremost, My Name is Red makes a compelling case for "style" as a vehicle for cultural values.
On its surface, My Name is Red is a mystery that centers on a miniaturist murdered by a fellow painter who finds the Sultan’s ambitions to create an illustrated book in the Western realist tradition blasphemous. The Ottoman Empire is at its peak, yet in this particular moment of globalization, Western influence is stirring up conflict. In the Islamic tradition, realistic portrayals of the world are viewed as competing with Allah, the ultimate creator.
Yelavich wants students to be similarly sensitive to the cultural implications of choices they make as artists and designers today, particularly in view of current political debates about Islamic values and customs, both in Turkey and the world at large.
The segment of Invitation to World Literature devoted to My Name is Red can be viewed online. The piece also features the book's Nobel-prize winning author, Orhan Pamuk, and its English translator, Erdağ Göknar. The entire series can be seen at Annenberg Media. Television broadcasts times will be announced at a future date.