Sep 27
"Hopefully the lines between my actual experiences and pure fiction are seamless. When readers ask me, 'Is this part true?' they seem surprised by the answers. So that makes me happy—the fiction is believable and sometimes the outrageous is the truth." (William Fraser)

“Hopefully the lines between my actual experiences and pure fiction are seamless. When readers ask me, ‘Is this part true?’ they seem surprised by the answers. So that makes me happy—the fiction is believable and sometimes the outrageous is the truth.” (Courtesy of William Fraser)


By Rafael Villadiego (Nagasaki-ken, 2010-13) for JQ magazine. A member of JETAA New South Wales, Rafael is a collector of words on a journey still searching for a destination, who has a tendency to forget, we are all sometimes like the rain…

Laurie Fraser (Osaka-fu, 1997-98) is a writer and traveler who married a Kurd in Turkey in the 1990s. The experience inspired The Word Not Spoken, semi-autobiographical debut novel that blurs the line between reality and fiction, casting light on a tumultuous period in history through the eyes of those who experienced it firsthand.

The conflict between the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] and the Turkish Armed Forces has its roots in the First World War and continues to have repercussions for the region to this day. But beyond these grand struggles are the quiet moments in between: The ordinary challenges and trivial frustrations of everyday life, and the more overarching issues of culture and religion, which Fraser approaches with a genuine curiosity and gentle humor that forms the emotional core of her book.

An extensive traveler to a number of different countries across the globe, Fraser has experienced life in the broadest context before eventually finding her way “home.” Now a teacher and healer in Ottawa, JQ caught up with her to discuss the events of her life that inspired the novel and how they contrasted with her time on the JET Program.

What led you to first write this novel, and why did it take so long for the finished work to see light?

The scene where Ahmet and Leigh meet a group of destitute Kurdish refugees is exactly true, except that it happened in 1996, not 1995. I decided then to write a book and tell their story in a way that wasn’t “bad news.” At that time, my husband believed that the world would never hear about the Kurds if the PKK wasn’t setting off bombs. I recognized that as a Canadian, I had a right that he did not—the right to free speech.

I am a poet at heart, and I found a novel to be unwieldy to say the least. I had the poet’s need to touch every word over and over—so that slowed me down.

The Word Not Spoken was refused by countless publishers—I had a stack of rejection letters collected just in the year I was in Japan. It did well in a Canadian national writing contest in 2000, but only the winner was published. I was incapacitated with illness for a few years, but I eventually did a huge rewrite in 2010-11 with a professional editor. The manuscript did get better and better over the years, but it wasn’t until self-publishing became accessible and respected that I finally decided to go for it on my own.

I promised those refugees and my husband (who was killed in 1997) that I would publish their stories and really, it was a stone in my stomach for 18 years.

Kurdish House in Vancouver flew me out there (from Ottawa) to read to a large Kurdish audience this past spring. Afterwards, men and women came to talk to me: “I lived in one of those tents for four years.” “I was tortured 45 days.”

I have been haunted by the refugees I met living in those tents in 1996. I couldn’t imagine how any of them would have survived. These Vancouverites were an affirmation of life—some of them had made it! Some of them would have been children in 1996…and here they were! All I could say was, “I’m so glad you got here. I prayed for you.” And indeed, I wrote a book for them.

Did the experiences recounted in your novel happen before or after you joined the JET Program?

I was in Turkey, on and off, from 1995-97. I wrote the book during the times I was home in Canada—it wasn’t safe to write in Turkey. I did the first revisions in Osaka at Bit’s Internet Cafe in 1997-98. (I didn’t own a computer, and that was true for most of us teachers.)

What led you to join the JET Program, in which prefecture were you placed, and how long did you spend in Japan? 

While living in Turkey and hearing travelers’ stories, I longed to see more of the world. I don’t think you really know a place until you live there, so when I heard about the JET Program, I applied immediately. I requested a city placement for a change after village life in Turkey, so I was pretty excited to be placed in Osaka in 1997-98.

In what ways did your experiences in Japan influence your time on JET and/or vice versa?

In the end, I felt constrained. At the time I said, “Leaving Japan is like taking off a pair of nylons on a hot day.”

Japan, Turkey and Canada are very different places. How did your time in Japan on the JET Program contrast with your time in Turkey, and what was your experience returning to Canada after spending so much time abroad?

The first shocker was the support that the JET Program offered! I felt very secure in Japan after fending for myself for so long. From living in poverty in rural Turkey to the mind-boggling abundance and technology of Osaka—well, it just blew me away.

I was only in Canada for a month in between to attend JET training. So in Japan I was still luxuriating in hot running water and my well-equipped kitchen. I appreciated paychecks that arrived on time and the general reliability of the culture. The department stores, subways and street activity were overwhelming, though. I often missed the simple quiet life I’d left behind. I couldn’t understand the rush of Japanese life; I was constantly muttering, “What’s the hurry?” And I found I couldn’t shop beyond a small bag of groceries—shopping seemed obscene to me.

After Japan I spent time in Thailand, Nepal and India. I eventually returned to Canada, but found I couldn’t settle down. I went back out traveling for a few months, but then came home and finally went through all of the work of re-establishing a home and job here. Reverse culture shock is far more difficult, far more painful, than culture shock. With arriving in a new country, at least we have the excitement and constant marvels; coming home is just predictable and somehow, for me, always a deep disappointment.

Are there any other countries where you have lived or spent a significant amount of time?

All told, I spent a year in India, but it was constant backpacking. I didn’t work or settle in one place, although I have to say I was most comfortable in Kerala, in the south. India was difficult traveling and I’m glad I was seasoned by then to cope with some extreme difficulties. Worth it, though—where else can you see a traffic jam caused by an elephant refusing to move from an intersection? Or a cow waiting for a bus on a busy street?

Being a semi-autobiographical work, there are very intimate moments shared in this book, almost as if readers are made privy to your private journal. Were there any particular passages that you found difficult to share? What ultimately led you decide what to change and what to leave untouched?

Do the intimate moments seem more real? They aren’t necessarily. Hopefully the lines between my actual experiences and pure fiction are seamless. When readers ask me, “Is this part true?” they seem surprised by the answers. So that makes me happy—the fiction is believable and sometimes the outrageous is the truth.

Initially I chose fiction to protect my husband’s identity and his family, too. I could decorate and deny and actually re-write my own story, “making it prettier and easier to admit.” It turned out that third person worked, too—I could send the reader with Ahmet (for example, to the PKK training camp in Iraq), and I could develop layers showing what they wrote versus what really happened; what they wanted versus what they got.

Was some of it difficult to share? Yes, but the most difficult was not shared. It was hard to admit being played and taken advantage of, looking a fool sometimes…but I think interesting writing must put ego aside. I didn’t keep a journal, but I wrote long letters home.

Your novel has a great sense of time and is grounded very much in the milieu of the mid-’90s, set before the Internet made our planet so much smaller and and ignited an obsession with instant connection and gratification. It was a time when the way people traveled and recounted their journeys seemed so much more personal, and less influenced by the dramatic rise of social media. Do you think the story recounted would have been very different if it had happened today?

I think the experience would have been very different. I felt very isolated and, at times, frightened in Turkey. Help outside my immediate surroundings depended on a pay phone call home. Even financial help, if it were to be sent, would have taken days. My closest support was my consulate in Ankara.

The isolation was a huge part of the mental and emotional experience—I was making decisions on my own, wondering how influenced I was by the culture that surrounded me. Canadian values slipped away quite quickly and that never would have happened if I’d been on Facebook, for example.

When I see people on Facebook posting their nightly report while they’re on holidays, I feel sad for them because I feel they’re missing the remoteness, the submersion in the new place—that takes time and space to really happen. There was email available to me by the time I was in Japan (and a few places in India), but I didn’t use it. I felt it was “cheating”; isn’t that funny?

Building on how the Internet and social media have transformed the way people share information and report about contemporary issues, how do you think your struggles to reveal the plight of the Kurdish people would have been aided if you had access to such technology?

It’s a whole different world. I see young Kurdish activists all over the Internet and social media—it’s inspiring and there is a strong feeling of solidarity. Currently we see pictures of refugees immediately, as it’s happening, and uncensored, too, so it feels much more urgent and honest.

With such people-powered, grassroots movements in the region such as the Arab Spring promoting dramatic political shifts, do you think the plight of the Kurdish people has improved or deteriorated since the time of your novel?

You know, the Kurds would say that they’ve always been used as pawns. It is still true today, but in a positive way this time, as Kurdistan is the only sensible, safe and secular place near the crisis happening in Syria and Iraq with ISIS. Luckily, this time the Kurds have the world’s favor…as begrudging and slow as that may be.

[Recently], I’ve been to a protest on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, calling for help for the Yezidis, and to a fundraiser for the same cause. Again, we see the photos of starving desperate Kurds in the mountains…but Kurdistan is stronger now, better united and in a safer place politically…so we all have the greatest hope that this time, this time, will be different and Kurdistan will achieve independence and recognition.

What advice would you give to contemporary travelers and writers choosing to live in a foreign land far from “home”?

Go. Hang out with locals, not expats or other travelers. Get past the idea that what you know is “right” and that you could correct or improve this new place. Use local medicines and cures. Take your time. Drink tea. Let go of what you’ve been taught, what has been socialized into you, and get back to being just human. Ask why. Remove “should” from your vocabulary. If you have money, put it aside for emergencies and live on the amount that the locals do. At least sometimes, wake up without plans and let the day lead you. Be of service—you won’t have this exact opportunity again. Always obey your gut. Choose love.

Finally, there was a passage in the book that I found particularly evocative: “…she was suddenly traveling again. It felt good, and she understood anew that it was best not to walk against the wind. ‘I am the leaf.’ Who knew where she’d land…” You are the leaf—where is the wind leading you now?

Laurie Fraser

Laurie Fraser

Oh, thank you! I love that part.

I thought that releasing my story would be the end of it, that I was losing a “place” where I loved to spend my time. It seems not, because now readers go there and, to my joy, they get excited about it. Readers want to talk! I visit book clubs or go online and they have so many questions about me and the writing, but also about the place, the life, the people.

So instead of being alone in the manuscript, loving the story, I am with a group of guests who love the story, who know Jess and Ahmet and Leigh and Abla! They ask me questions about these characters as if they were people we all remember from the time we visited Turkey. So it’s been an adventure. As I mentioned earlier, Kurds love the book, too. They say it takes them home. They call me their friend and pull me close, here in Canada! And so, yes, what a surprise that nothing has ended, except my solitude.

Aside from that, in the last 10 or 12 years I’ve become a powerful healer. Anyone can learn how. And so the latest destinations have been accessed inside of me. Better than airplanes. Cliché it may be, but it is the most awesome traveling I’ve done.

For a sample chapter of The Word Not Spoken, along with excerpts, photos, video, and discussion questions, visit Laurie’s homepage at

For more JQ magazine interviews, click here.

5 comments so far...

  • Laurie Fraser Said on September 27th, 2014 at 3:32 pm:

    Thank you so much Rafael for the generous review and thoughtful interview. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working with you. Thank you Justin Tedaldi for support and exposure to the JET/JETTA community- the feeling of community has always been one of the best parts of JET.

  • Bill Fraser Said on September 28th, 2014 at 11:25 am:

    As Laurie Fraser’s father, I am so pleased to see people recognize the scope of the project that Laurie undertook in writing this book. And the trepidation we had in the years she was experiencing the true background to these stories. THANKYOU for this interview.

  • Rafael Villadiego Said on September 28th, 2014 at 5:50 pm:

    Thank you Laurie for your honesty and candor, and willingness to share your story. And Mr Fraser, I am sure you must be exceptionally proud of your daughter. It was a truly enlightening and thought-provoking journey that I feel privileged to have shared, and I hope future readers will have the opportunity to appreciate it as well.

  • Alan Said on September 29th, 2014 at 1:01 am:

    Great insight and a great read!!

    The book helps shed light on a very complicated situation with a real human touch to it.


  • Crystal P. Said on September 29th, 2014 at 8:36 pm:

    What an wonderful read full of adventure and excitement.

    Loved every minute of it! Kudos Laurie!!

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