As part of our ongoing series of PEN Atlas dispatches from Turkey, Kaya Genç describes the struggle for the soul of his country’s literature between state officials and independent creative writers

During my teenage years I was strongly opposed to Turkish literature. The reason behind my dissent was that the books we were assigned to read in secondary and high school literature classes belonged to a particular branch of literature which I can today describe as official state discourse. In those classes there was almost no reference to great humorists of the Middle Ages, like Nasreddin Hoca, nor were we acquainted with the works of Jalal ad-Dīn Muhammad Rumi, the influential mystic and poet. We didn’t know much about Divan poetry, the elaborately composed verse poems that existed for almost half a millennium, and great folkloric poets like Yunus Emre were not properly studied. Instead what we had were the founding texts of a particular ideology which I found boring and out of touch with the reality around me. It was sometime later, in the final years of high school that I discovered that a very different kind of literature had also existed in Turkey’s culture, however suppressed and exiled to margins. This is what I came to see as my country’s genuine, civil literature.

The official literature was produced by a particular generation of writers whose backgrounds were often quite similar. Here I am thinking of writers like Ahmet Mithat Efendi, Recaizade Mahmud Ekrem, Namık Kemal and Tevfik Fikret: all of them well-educated, influential, prolific men with successful careers as state officials during the final decades of the Ottoman Empire. Among those it was Kemal and Fikret who worked at a place called the Translation Bureau and who were the most influential. The Bureau was part (and arguably the core) of the Ottoman ministry of foreign affairs. It was there, while working in a professional capacity as state translators and clerks that those authors discovered the political power of the written word and the prestige of possessing western knowledge. Knowledge was power and thanks to their foreign language skills they were well placed to make use of it in their efforts to give shape to Ottoman society. Literature became for them a tool which helped mediate and spread their political beliefs.

The shadow of the so-called Regulation Period, where the Ottoman Empire underwent a period of modernization, fell heavily on their works. Widely known as Tanzimat, this era introduced policies of centralisation and a new imperial identity (Ottomanism) to a multi-ethnic and multi-religious population. The same period saw the introduction of uniforms, the modernisation of the army, the decriminalisation of homosexuality and the strengthening of individual and property rights.

Some intellectuals found grave faults with those reforms. Ahmet Mithat’s Felatun Bey ve Rakım Efendi (1875) and Recaizede Mahmud Ekrem’s Araba Sevdası (1898) were, in essence, arguments against what their authors considered to be the “wrong-Westernisation” of Ottoman society. The authors wanted to control the westernisation process and replace it with their own understanding of modernisation. This was what they had in mind when they started producing literary characters, or types, who personified the ills of modernisation: those characters were too liberal or too conservative, they didn’t fit into their authors’ understanding of a proper citizen and so they were portrayed as dangerous and suspect figures.

In their highly schematic works, the authors made distinctions between the liberal/degenerate and nationalist/virtuous veins of western culture, supporting the latter through idealised characters. Their fight against effeminacy, religiosity, bodily pleasures and bohemianism were later used as justification when the state attempted to label certain sectors of the society as its enemies.

The most extreme defender of this modernising school was Yakup Kadri Karaosmanoğlu, a diplomat and Member of Parliament for most of his life. His book Yaban (The Stranger) frankly expressed, or even confessed his generation’s fury against what they saw as the regressive people of Anatolia. Yaban’s protagonist Ahmet Celal travels to an Anatolian town where Ankara’s efforts to secularise and westernise the country’s culture seem to be ignored entirely by the villagers. Much to his surprise and chagrin Celal learns that only a tiny minority of his beloved people share his generation’s Enlightenment beliefs, showing even less interest in the policies imposed on the country from the capital.

More than seventy years after it was first published Yaban epitomises this historical disconnect between Anatolian people and the early republican government’s modernising policies. In 1925 a law called Takrir-i Sükûn Kanunu (Maintenance of Order Law) was introduced and used to trample any form of dissent against the state from “reactionaries and rebels”; i.e., socialists, conservatives, ethnic and religious minorities. Implemented by the one-party state, the law was used to send dissidents to the so-called Freedom Courts where they could face torture, imprisonment and execution (the poet Nâzım Hikmet, for example, was sentenced to fifteen years in prison by the same court).  In order to understand the ideology which justified such drastic measures, one needs to look at the kind of Turkish novels that continue to be taught at schools. The villains of those books and those convicted by the one party state of the early republican era, after all, were more or less the same.

It was only later, when I was eighteen or nineteen years old that I began to see that almost no one (apart from wannabe civil servants) enjoyed reading those books. This is why, unlike books by Flaubert, Wilde or Proust written approximately in the same period, nobody would read those novels had they not been assigned to them at school. Instead people have discovered, over the last decades, another vein of literature which gave voice to the ideas of the writer instead of the state.

If so many readers have changed sides and turned from teenage opponents of Turkish literature to its mature and genuine admirers, it is thanks to individual authors like Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, Oğuz Atay, Şavkar Altınel, Emine Sevgi Özdamar, Latife Tekin, Orhan Pamuk, Elif Shafak and Perihan Mağden who showed us that there is indeed an alternative to speaking with the voice of the state. The voice of the creative individual, often at odds with high offices and political power, triumphed in the end.

About the Author

Kaya Genç is a Turkish novelist and essayist. He specializes in late-Victorian authors and wrote a doctoral dissertation on Conrad, Wilde and Stevenson. Newsweek Turkey named him as one of Turkish literature’s 20 under 40. His essays appeared, both in print and online, in the Guardian, London Review of Books, Songlines, Sight & Sound, Index on Censorship, the Rumpus, Los Angeles Review of Books, the Millions and many others. He translated ten books into Turkish (Tom McCarthy’s C, among others), writes both in his native tongue and in English and lives in Istanbul.

Additional Information

Kaya Genç will be in conversation with Maureen Freely on Friday 19 April at 7.00 p.m at the LRB Bookshop.

You can follow Kaya Genç on Twittter.

For more on Kaya Genç and his writing visit his website.