Interview with Melek Ortabasi

Literature scholar talks about life in Japan and being an academic single mother

March 30, 2023
Melek Ortabasi
Source: Melek Ortabasi

Melek Ortabasi is an associate professor in the department of world languages and literatures at Simon Fraser University in Canada. This August, she returns to her home institution after three years working and living in Japan, where she has also been raising her son. 

When and where were you born? How did this shape you?
I was born in Florida while my parents were in graduate school at the University of Florida. My parents – my mum from Germany and my dad from Turkey – emigrated to the US as young newlyweds. I didn’t grow up in Florida, though. We moved to New York state, then Puerto Rico, then Australia – and ended up in California by the time I was of college age. I grew up bilingual and transnational, and this has deeply shaped who I am. I’ve been a bookworm since I was a toddler, too, so it’s no surprise that I chose comparative literature as my major.

As an academic, which countries have you worked in? How has this shaped your career?
I’ve worked in the US and in Canada, with research trips to Japan and Germany. Coming up through the system in the US was a very competitive and stressful experience, but I’ll say I also benefited from resources and mobility that would probably be unavailable to many colleagues in other parts of the world. Being an academic in Canada is largely a good experience, and I’m happy to be at an institution with good benefits and a diverse student body. I work in a very small department, in a marginalised field, which has both benefits and disadvantages. On the one hand, it’s hard to get recognition, but on the other, you have a lot of freedom in how you do research and teach.

You’ve been living in Japan. What drew you there?
I’ve always loved learning languages and, when I entered high school in Australia, the fear of Japanese economic prowess had induced politicians to encourage Japanese language learning in the high schools. Of course, being 12 years old, I had no idea of this. To me, it was simply the most unknown and therefore most interesting language class option (my experience of Japan up until that point had been Suzuki piano and Hello Kitty). And the rest is history.

You’re a full-time academic and single parent to three kids. How has this experience been?
I’m the mother of three boys, aged 19, 17 and 10. The big ones were with me in Japan for several months before they had to return to Canada for their first year of university and their last year of high school, respectively. The eldest is living in the dorm and the middle one is with his father. The little one is with me for the duration and is attending the German School of Tokyo in Yokohama. I was here first for my sabbatical and am now here on unpaid leave for the academic year while I hold a visiting professorship at Sophia University in Tokyo. It’s tough not having any local backup; I’m not going to lie. The main issue is being the only adult in the room. Luckily, I’m fluent in Japanese, but that does not change the fact that I have to negotiate with unfamiliar systems on a daily basis. I can tell you that the planning that went and continues to go into this adventure occupies more of my time than I would like, but that’s the cost of being a single parent in this situation.

You’re frank in your posts on social media, joking about being divorced and sharing your daily frustrations about juggling your kids and job. How important do you think it is for academics to be open about their struggles with one another?
Not divorced yet, but in the process. Which is frustrating and devastating. Being open is a form of venting for me. I’m not the type to keep things inside. I get that it’s not for everyone, and I also understand that my status as a tenured associate professor enables me to say things on social media that more junior folk might feel uncomfortable sharing. That said, the support I receive has been lovely, and every so often someone lets me know that my sharing has been helpful to them in some way. If you are a senior person in a position to share, it can really help others.

In your career so far, what have been the most difficult and most gratifying periods?
Trying to get tenure and publish my monograph while parenting two small children (even with spousal help) nearly killed me. I am grateful that I was able to buy some time to do so in my move from one tenure track job to another. Equally difficult was serving as director of a programme in danger of being cancelled and building a department out of it, again with a small child (the third one this time), and this time with a marriage that was heading downhill and into a pandemic. But I’m still here and proud of both accomplishments and the security they now provide to me professionally.

If you could go back in time, what, if anything, would you do differently?
I probably wouldn’t get married. But other than that, there’s not too much I would change other than maybe being a bit more savvy and strategic about my professional choices. I feel like I’m in a place, professionally speaking, that probably suits me pretty well, even if it took me a while to get here.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
First, I would say: “You know, you’re doing a pretty good job. Stay true to yourself, keep learning and don’t be too hard on yourself.” I would also tell my younger self to look harder for connections and opportunities to work with cool people, and to search out and take better advantage of the resources available.


1995 Lecturer, Obirin University, Japan

1994-2000 Teaching assistant, department of English, University of Washington, Seattle

2001 PhD in comparative literature, University of Washington, Seattle

2002-2008 Assistant professor, department of comparative literature, Hamilton College

2008-2012 Assistant professor, department of world languages and literatures, Simon Fraser University

2012-present Associate professor, department of world languages and literatures, Simon Fraser University

2015-2019 Director, World Literature Program, Simon Fraser University

2020-2021 Chair, department of world languages and literatures, Simon Fraser University

2022-2023 Visiting professor, Sophia University, Tokyo


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