As published on SBS Voices by Filiz Behaettin.
Growing up, my weekend naps were associated with the smell of Zeytinli Hellimli — freshly baked bread filled with melted halloumi cheese and olives that my mother used to make. I would rush out of bed into the kitchen, only to see Mum on a picnic rug in the backyard, waiting with a plate of her still-warm Turkish Cypriot snacks by our apricot tree.
“What shall we read today, Filiz?” she would ask, even though she knew I’d request the same book, The Rainbow Fish, for the hundredth time.
That was how it went at our weekly backyard reading picnic.
Like many Turkish Cypriots, my family left Cyprus after the war in 1974, settling in Australia in the late 70s and 80s. And while our minority community exists in theory; globally we are only recognised legally by Turkey.
Though my mother had limited English, she made a point to read as much as she could to improve her language skills, and emphasised the importance of reading to me from a young age.
My childhood weekends were filled with memories of her reading children’s books to me under the apricot tree. As we watched the bees buzz around us, she would tell me stories of her own grandparents’ beekeeping adventures in Cyprus. Many times I have picked flowers in the garden and attempted to make my own honey like a bee.
While the honey-making never took off, our backyard stories and the bees stayed with me. Last October, I wrote my own children’s book series, Henry the Strange Bee. It follows Henry, who makes trumpet sounds instead of buzzing noises, and flies in zigzags.
I thought of our magical apricot tree and the smell of Zeytinli Hellimli as I wrote; the image of Cyprus — its picturesque villages in the mountains of Paphos like the one where my family lived before the war. I thought about other Turkish Cypriots and migrant families around the globe, who had left all that they knew and settled in a foreign land and, like Henry, may have looked and acted differently and struggled to fit in.
On the morning my picture book came out, I remember waiting anxiously by the window of our family home for the courier to deliver us our copy. When it finally arrived, my parents watched eagerly as I opened the book — their eyes lit up just like mine during backyard story time.
This time, it was my turn to read to them.
It was a mesmerising moment for my parents. I was the first published author in my family, and I could see what it meant to them, and to my grandparents who grew up in a village, in a world that seemed so far from this one.
At the beginning of my writing career, I didn’t quite understand the significance of being a writer from a minority community, until my books began to sell in foreign countries, spanning six continents. Henry the Strange Bee struck a chord with more people than I could’ve imagined. I began to receive messages from educators, parents, and children across the globe, telling me they saw a bit of themselves in Henry, but more than that, they were excited to see a child of migrant parents and culturally diverse background making her mark in children’s books. It was a surreal moment when I saw the book being read by Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, on her YouTube channel ‘Storytime with Fergie and Friends’.
Now more than ever, it is important for all young people from culturally diverse backgrounds to feel and see themselves represented in mainstream society, particularly in children’s literature. Thankfully, the book industry is evolving, and more and more authors are getting a chance to tell their own magical, backyard-inspired stories that might one day cross oceans and reach faraway corners of the world.