Ayfer Tunç writes for PEN Atlas about the importance of looking beyond the clichés so that Turkish literature is seen in the context of World Literature. This is the first in a series of reports from Turkey, a focus both for London Book Fair, and for English PEN
From the West, Turkey marks the start of the East, while from the East it’s the beginning of the West. The country possesses a vivid, vibrant literature which captures all the key dynamics of our age, and its ranks of talented young writers make me hopeful. However, even if they carry fewer prejudices than their forebears, even though they are more curious and more enthusiastic, still this is a literature that the western gaze either cannot see, or does not wish to.
It pains me to point out that a neo-orientalist mind-set holds sway over Western publishers, and therefore over Western readers. They don’t expect works of great distinction from us or from those to our East; they don’t expect us to have shaken off the bonds of adolescence. Western writers expect us to write novels that show them more clearly as Westerners, and us more clearly as Easterners; they want us to make them feel happy and secure in this regard. Putting the many concrete examples to one side for a moment, I know that we bear some of the responsibility. For we are just the same. We burden our own eastern neighbours with the same expectations, because every contemporary society approaches its own East through a more or less orientalist prism.
Western publishers sit up and pay attention if you write novels which deal in the Ottoman histories and histrionics that appeal so much to the Western reader. They want stories of abject penury: about lives ruined under the weight of customs and traditions, about the unbreachable chasm between Muslim and Western lifestyles, and tales of ethnic strife. The doors open all too swiftly if you’re telling a tale of damsels in the distress of being Muslim – or alternatively about their pains on adopting a Western lifestyle. Of course, these themes can be treated in ways that are literary. But the problem is this: most publishers are more often interested in examples of these themes that are tawdry, clichéd, and that barely trouble the intellect of the average reader.
Yet alongside these works which fulfil Western expectations, in Turkey there is a real literature, which looks seriously at the past and present of both Turkey and the wider world, and deserves to be judged by more universal criteria. Works are being written that fully deserve to be understood as part of the shared riches that, after Goethe, we term Welt Literatur. Instead of trading in ‘Muslim’, ‘Westerner’, ‘villager’, ‘urbanite’, ‘minority’, ‘woman’, ‘man’ or similar categories of identity, these books are interested in people’s existences, ontologies, philosophies, intellectual faculties, their unconscious and every shade of their selfhood. The Turkish writers of such literary texts display a nuanced engagement with the world around them and they use very sophisticated narrative techniques.
For years I was referred to as a ‘young writer’. On the eve of turning fifty, it pleases me to see that the younger generation coming up after us are braver, more strident, more innovative and more at peace with the world than we are. My own generation was crushed under the fist of the 12th September 1981 military coup, which ripped Turkish democracy to shreds. We sustained heavy injuries, and it took us a long time to pull ourselves back together. In a country whose democracy is still battered and where attempts to trim back freedom of expression are still very much underway, we have a new generation who have learnt from our experiences. A great many of them are vaulting the constraints of barren ideologies, and now take the stage as world writers. This is why I have a request to put to the Western literary world, both in my name and in the name of my generation and in that of the next. It’s a request for equality. We’re also a valid piece of the story in our collective Welt Literatur.
Of course I’m not going to make the case that every work that gets written in Turkey is of inestimable value, but I can be sure in saying this: both in my generation and the younger one, Turkish writers are working in a way that will stir up the stagnant waters with new and exciting literary currents, and their number should not be underestimated. Certainly they deserve to be taken seriously in this endeavour. Those at the vanguard of this new generation are aware of the development of high literature across the world, they follow it closely and they expend considerable effort understanding and analysing it. Furthermore, most of them are women. Young, smart women. Some are religious, some are not. Some of them feel an affinity with Eastern philosophies, some prefer the exegesis of Western literature. Furthermore, despite the vicissitudes of the publishing industry and the cruelty of marketing techniques, some of the very best of them do realise some successes, and they manage to make themselves heard in the places they wish to be heard. Amongst them are poets and writers of short stories. They may not boast the sales of the novelists, but they still manage to capture the attention of readers interested in serious literature. They are broadening the ambit of our rich poetic traditions and reviving the short story, previously declared dead by so many publishers.
I’m aware that my words seem too shiny, too portentous. You’re going to say, ‘If Turkish literature is really this special, why isn’t it obvious?’. Well, it’s actually not that great at all. Dulling this sheen and obscuring it from view are two simple issues. One is the barren state of our cultural climate. Here, literature of a high quality directs itself at a pitifully small minority of readers. Although book sales in Turkey have increased over the last ten years by a staggering measure, the sales of literary works have not kept pace. That’s because in Turkey, there isn’t such an appetite for literature and culture as there is in the West – in fact for a large segment of the population there isn’t even an appetite at all.
The other issue is that we’ve come to find it hard to believe in our own quality. This is because the history of our republic is the history of our complex about the West. We imported from the West, but we couldn’t believe we could send anything back in the other direction. This is the issue at the heart of our literature. But I’m keen to believe that young writers from this country can overcome this complex.
As a middle-aged writer from this country, I’d like to put forward many names from both my generation and the next. But I don’t want to do an injustice to those who deserve to be remembered by forgetting to count them in that number. Suffice it to say that in the internet age, all ways are open to those who want to learn the names of the writers who are driving Turkish literature forwards.
About the Author
Ayfer Tunç was born in the city of Adapazari in northwest Turkey in 1964. While still a student of political science at Istanbul University, she wrote articles for various literary and cultural magazines. Her first collection of short stories, titled Sakli, was published in 1989. It was followed by her debut novel, Kapak Kizi, in 1992. In addition to novels and short stories, Tunç also writes reports, radio plays and scripts for TV series. Her works have been translated into several languages and honored with the Yunus Nadi Short Story Prize (1989) and the Balkanika Award for Literature (2003).
Her new novel, The Aziz Bey Incident will be published this March in the UK by Istros Books. It is translated by Stephanie Ateş.
Ayfer Tunç will be in the UK in April as part of the British Council’s Cultural Programme as part of the Turkey Market Focus at The London Book Fair. She will launch her new book, The Aziz Bey Incident at Belgravia Books in London on Monday 15th April 2013.
Izzy Finkel is a writer and translator based between London and Istanbul. She co-edits BÜLENT, a quarterly journal which aims to foster new ways of thinking and writing about Turkey.