The Mapmaker’s Daughter
Like almost everyone, like you, probably, I remember certain things from before I was 12. But it’s from 12 that I can remember my life in a narrative way. Because my family got rearranged then? Some other reason? I don’t know. But the age was 12. And from then on, I can recall the broad sweep and the defining details of what has become my whole life.
The girl I’ve written about in The Mapmaker’s Daughter was 12 when she captured the attention of the most powerful man on earth. Her name was Cecilia Baffo Veniero. His was Suleiman the Magnificent.
She was 58 when she set about mapping her life – backwards, lying on her sickbed – her aim being to get to the bottom of why she’d made the choices she made in life. I started working on this book when I was 47, and every year that got me closer to 58 was a year I knew this woman better. It took another ten years after 58 to finish it, and those years, too, took me closer to who she was – because I knew more. Not about her or Ottoman history. But about myself and my history, non-stop since 12. Just like her. Fiction, fact. Imagining, knowing.
From the moment I learned this girl ever existed I wanted to know who she was and what she was like. The first desire was quickly achievable. The second I had to go in search of – and that is because so very little is known about the girl who would become the most powerful woman in the Ottoman Empire.
She was born in 1525. Her parents were Venetian, patrician, and not married to each other. She was seized by Turkish corsairs from the Venetian-ruled island of Paros; taken as booty to the harem in Istanbul; renamed Nurbanu; and three years later assigned to the least talented of Suleiman’s many sons – the son who would succeed him. She bore that prince four children, including the son who would succeed him – which was when Nurbanu’s power mattered most – as mother of the sultan. She promoted sound relations with the always fractious Venetian Republic. She created a female meritocracy within the harem. She rose to the height of power when the Ottoman Empire was at the height of its own power.
Those are all the facts we have about Cecilia-Nurbanu. So it fell to me to imagine the rest about her life. Or, more precisely, to infer as much as I could from those facts in order to imagine the rest. This required a lot of research, of course, but it also meant asking questions so obvious I almost missed them as things needing answers. She rose to the height of power all right, but what kind of power? What kind of height? What kind of rise?
It also fell to me as the writer of this story to find it – the story; for being a slave (which she was), being freed, being married to a prince, and having huge influence doesn’t make a story. It took many drafts – or chronologies masquerading as drafts – for me to realize that. That’s what happens with on-the-job-training in fiction-writing when you’re the age I was and have been and am. And then I found it. The buried key. Right on the same page of the Encyclopedia of Islam that I’d easily read ten times before. It’s the entry on Murad III – Nurbanu’s son. And it says that, when he took the throne, a crucial and horrific decision – to carry out the law of fratricide – was made against his will. But it doesn’t say who made that decision. Or how. Or why.
Here is a link to learn more about this historical novel – The Mapmaker’s Daughter