- Olga Ellinghaus
Dreams of a Millenial Immigrant
By Olga Ellinghaus Published Fri Oct 23 2020
For frequent visitors of Amsterdam’s House of Stories Mezrab, the vivid smile and low voice of Başak Layiç may be familiar from her time as a story-telling ukulele performer there. Behind a curtain of long and wavy dark brown hair and sparkling eyes lies a driven, complex, and outspoken woman who has made it her goal to contribute to society through her writing. Layiç, among other things a script writer and self-proclaimed semi-professional actress, most recently left her mark on Amsterdam’s growing performance art scene with her Fringe Festival performance called The Millennial Immigrant.
With her work, Layiç likes to push the boundaries of conversation. Her scripts and writings use comedy to open up the discourse about different issues, including but not limited to, sex work, white saviorism, migration but also accessible everyday life situations and relationships. One of her major inspirations has been Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, the admirable honesty combined with the fast-paced story and comedic relief. The societal groundings around sex, especially as it is sometimes portrayed as shameful in her home country Turkey, is fascinating to her. “I wouldn’t say I am a writer of taboos, but I find sex very interesting to write about. This time I didn’t do it with ‘the Millennial Immigrant,’ because I had a bigger fish to fry,” she says. Central themes to the Millennial Immigrant are guilt and shame, dreams of the future, processing traumas in the present, moral ambivalence, accepting mistakes and moving on.
Her own migration from Istanbul to Amsterdam three years ago, she says, was driven by democracy. Witnessing the extreme political polarization, police brutality and Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism made her and her Dutch-Turkish partner want to leave and move to Amsterdam. “As an artist, you have to feel safe. Through your expression, how you move on the streets or so on. In Turkey it’s very tricky now. You have to be very careful, about what you say, where you step on.” As an artist but also as a woman, as an individual, Amsterdam has helped Layiç open up more and the contrast of the city’s size compared to Istanbul, as well as its growing diversity and cultural scene, have made her feel at home.
Layiç’s first memories of writing are those of diary entries and love letters. Today, she writes poems and songs, stories, scripts and letters. It’s consuming, but it’s also an expression of freedom. “Writing is… I know it’s going to sound cheesy, but writing is my breathing,” the 27-year old says. While waiting for her legal paper-work to come through, she found a ukulele at her father-in-law’s house and began performing stories in a song format at Mezrab. Before The Millennial Immigrant, the writer and actress studied Media and Visual Arts in Turkey and was already involved in multiple projects – including the writing of a future movie and a webseries for Amazon Prime in the US. At the beginning of the year, Layiç was touring the country with the theater company Wat We Doen’s project ‘Hoe Ik Talent Voor Het Leven Kreeg’ (How I Got Talent For Life); However, the tour had to be paused due to the outbreak of the CoVid-19 pandemic.
Occupying herself with the Millennial Immigrant, Layiç created a very personal piece about processing guilt and a lost friendship on the one hand. On the other hand, she tells the story of a group of four newcomers who are all dealing with emotions of guilt from their past, while embracing the present and dreaming of the future. Millennial immigrants share dreams and ideals – the ideals of Europe that Layiç grew up dreaming about. “A bit tongue in the cheek, I say in the play: I always imagined that I would have a small apartment, French balcony, riding a bike with a little basket upfront, carrying a baguette wherever I go for some reason and, suddenly, I am way thinner. With dimples on my cheeks, I wear pastel colored skirts and I never, ever have morning breath. Oh, also there’s free press!”
In The Millennial Immigrant, Layiç also reflects on her experience of the 2013 Istanbul Gezi park protest at Taksim Square and the witnessed police brutality. “It was a legit war. Between you and the police. Where do you go if the police attack you? That really fucks you up,” she remembers. Using comedy to address tragedy, her goal with the play was to make the audience feel like they are on a roller coaster of emotions. The writer compares this to giving a dog medicine: If you want to make a dog swallow a pill, you have to put peanut butter around it. But being an artist with a defining background can also prove to be a burden on the limits of your work. You are constantly put in a particular role and some of the platforms you are given expect artists to exclusively perform one’s role and past as an immigrant. “Yes, I am Turkish, I was in the Gezi protests, but there is more than that. It’s not about a play that’s merely about the Gezi protest. That’s not the main focus, because I am more than that.”
What Layiç is really trying to achieve with her writing is to overcome the separation of ‘Othering’ artists on the grounds of their background. She works with everyday problems and human relatability, always thinking in scenes. The artist enjoys developing groups of characters with different stories, backgrounds, opinions – then making them interact with each other. And although she stresses the importance of conversation about race, inequalities or minorities, the storyteller imagines a future where it is no longer necessary for BIPOC artists and performers to talk about this, to educate the white audience about their condition. With her work, she wants to be able to focus on a Black or Turkish person’s guilt without having to engage with their background, “because then, as an audience also, you start not seeing that person as Turkish or Black, you see a common humanity” Layiç says.
The Millennial Immigrant, directed by Mara van Nes, will be on view again at Podium Mozaik as the opening act for RRReuring Festival from 3-4 February. Until then, those curious to see Layiç in action can visit her upcoming punk performance at Dox club in Utrecht this December. A big thank you to Başak Layiç for an incredibly insightful and refreshing interview.