A newer trend in diaspora writing, which has fast become one of my favorite sub-genres, is that of the disillusioned millennial surrounded by the legacy of prior generations. Beyond the usual response of confusion and determination, our protagonists are apathetic and often unlikeable. Sanjena Sathian, author of Gold Diggers, writes “They—the outside world—hardly know who we are, the question implies. Why would you show us at our worst?” in her essay “Good Immigrant Novels: Jhumpa Lahiri and the Aesthetics of Respectability.” Instead, this latest slew of novels, including Sathian’s, shows the nuance of these individuals at their worst. Mina Seçkin’s The Four Humors is yet another example; her protagonist, Sibel, is directly explored and exhibited for better or worse. The result is a detailed work that calls upon both the specificity of the character’s experience, as well as the universality of the disillusioned millennial, and becomes a novel of broad, unexpected appeal.
Sibel is Turkish-American, closely tied to the country of her ancestors through language, food, and summerly sojourns to visit family. This time is different, as she brings along her white American boyfriend, Cooper, and uses the trip as a refuge from the trajectory of her life. She is studying for the MCAT yet rarely opens a textbook, entrenched instead in the ancient theory of the four humors of medicine. Blood, black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, to Sibel the balance of these is key to understanding both life and her omnipresent headaches. She also uses the time to dig into long-held family secrets and to come to terms with the loss of her father.
In this transformative time, Sibel is rarely well-behaved. She pushes away well-meaning friends and family, meddles in affairs not her own, and rarely advocates for those who need her. With much of the narrative filtered through her own perspective, even omitting quotation marks in dialogue to do away with the concept of objective truth, Sibel must come to terms with her own personality flaws. Additionally, Sibel extends this understanding to a broader population, stating in response to her parents’ immigration story: “Really, I don’t do anything, but I like knowing that I can do anything.” This single line transforms this novel from detailed character study to something more universal and relatable, to readers Turkish and non-Turkish, to anyone that has come from someone and deals with their own inadequacy.
However, Sibel’s perspective only goes so far as we navigate the multitude of conflicts in The Four Humors. We are ultimately overwhelmed by her grandmother’s illness and family secrets, extended relatives with their own input, the legacy of a deceased father, illnesses in Sibel’s sister and other family, passive-aggressive confrontations with friends, the ups and downs of a college romance, and so much more. To compensate, the book reads long, attempting to tackle all of these threads in Sibel’s subtle, distant voice. Perhaps a more focused narrative could aid the novel along, de-emphasizing supporting characters and bringing our attention back to the four humors themselves, which at times are lost as the novel goes on.
Nevertheless, The Four Humors is a worthy addition to the growing catalog of millennial diaspora stories. We do not fall in love with Sibel, nor should we, though we may empathize with her headfirst journey into adulthood. Seçkin nails certain unappreciated subtleties, such as family loving a white partner more than yourself, or one’s accent and knowledge of politics called into question due to nationality. Sibel lived before this tale and will live on long after the pages come to an end, and in this respect, the novel truly shines.
Published on November 16, 2021