Joy, Hope, and Approval—The LGBTQ Story in Turkey: A Review of Serkan Gorkemli’s Sweet Tooth and Other Stories

In September 2023, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, stating that “family values” were under attack, began targeting Turkey’s LGBTQ+ communities. Thus, Serkan Gorkemli’s Sweet Tooth and Other Stories arrives at a pivotal, and interesting, point in both Turkish and American politics. Its arrival at this pivotal moment makes the short story collection’s advocacy for queerness and queer allyship even more important.

The stories in Sweet Tooth weave together the stories of Hasan, Gokhan, Nazli, and Cenk as they search for self-acceptance, familial acceptance, social change, and, most of all, love. Set against the backdrop of Turkey’s beautiful landscape and harsh political and military rule, each story challenges readers to think about the meanings of love and family and what measures one will take in order to truly love themselves and live a full, happy life. While some of the characters remain in Turkey, others emigrate to the United States. Some pursue higher education, and some run away from home to escape familial violence. Others finally find the acceptance for which they have always longed from long-resistant and wary fathers who begin attending support groups for parents of LGBTQ+ children.

While Sweet Tooth explores the complex web of being LGBTQ+ in a nation like Turkey, it also explores the beliefs and ideologies of toxic masculinity which have permeated the culture for centuries. Readers see how Turkish men like Gokhan’s father demean women and sex by relying on harmful tropes and slurs that paint both as mere commodities that can be swapped, traded, objectified, and abandoned. Readers also see how this toxic masculinity informs society’s approach to queerness. Men like Gokhan’s father initially jeer at men they deem as effeminate, gay, or even slightly different from the societal norm. These attitudes cause young men like Gokhan’s classmates to react violently towards Gokhan and others they label, in a jeering way, as “gay” and “queer.” This is most evident in the story “Kastro,” in which Gokhan goes to great lengths to disassociate with his friend, Hasan, because others infer that Hasan is queer. Maintaining a friendship with Hasan, and even being seen alone with him in a changing room, would make Gokhan “guilty” by association. Thus, rejection becomes one of the book’s initial themes, one that informs the other characters’ experiences and stories.

One cannot read Sweet Tooth and not recognize Hasan’s importance, not only as a character, but also a symbol of queer resistance. He appears in the first story as the boy with a webbed hand who undergoes surgery to correct the disability. In other stories, such as “Kastro,” he appears as the boy school whom others call ibne (modern Turkish for “gay”). However, it is in the story “Runway” that Hasan truly blossoms. In this story, Hasan is a sex worker who attends an LGBTQ+ event called “Same-Sex Marriage Activism in the United States.” At this event, Hasan meets Adam, an American gay man visiting Turkey as the event’s guest speaker. Nonetheless, Adam does not support the ideologies for which he advocates. He is not a marriage proponent, and for him, the Turkish LGBTQ+ scene is a sexual playground. While sex is Hasan’s job, and he does spend the weekend with Adam, what Hasan realizes—despite Adam’s handsomeness and wealth—is that love is more than anything American capitalism can promise. Hasan realizes that the relationship he has with Mehmet is more meaningful, despite the economic and social hardships they both face in Turkey. The story is also pivotal in terms of Hasan’s full development as a person and a character: in this story, Hasan confesses to Adam that he is positif—HIV positive. Despite Hasan’s diagnosis, HIV is not a key theme or subject in Gorkemli’s stories.

Magically, the collection ends with “Ingenue,” a story that finds Gokhan and Hasan as a couple, reuniting with Gokhan’s father. In this conclusion, the collection and the experiences come full circle as Gokhan makes a heartwarming discovery about his father. Gokhan’s once-toxic father has been attending a parent support group for those with LGBTQ+ children, and he has been making an effort to view the LGBTQ-focused films Gokhan leaves for him. More so, when Hasan appears at Gokhan’s father’s apartment in drag, Gokhan’s father is surprisingly accepting, so much so that by the story’s end he refers to Hasan as “my son.” Gokhan’s father’s transformation is radical, but, more so, it is inspiring—and encouraging. It reminds readers that in the face of adversity, love truly can make all the difference and conquer hate—and education and hope are key.

Nicole Yurcaba (Нікола Юрцаба) is a Ukrainian American of Hutsul/Lemko origin. A poet and essayist, her poems and reviews have appeared in Appalachian Heritage, Atlanta Review, Seneca Review, New Eastern Europe, and Ukraine’s Euromaidan Press. Nicole holds an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University, teaches poetry workshops for Southern New Hampshire University, and is the Humanities Coordinator at Blue Ridge Community and Technical College. She also serves as a guest book reviewer for Sage Cigarettes, Tupelo Quarterly, Colorado Review, and Southern Review of Books.