In the run-up to London Book Fair 2013, for which Turkey is the market focus, Murathan Mungan writes for PEN Atlas about how East and West view each other, what Henry James could have learnt from Halit Ziya Uşaklıgil and the building of a new Tower of Babel

When talking about Turkey and Turkish literature, I’m going to have to evoke a few commonly used metaphors. For a long time, it’s been the case that when the topic of Turkey is under discussion, it’s spoken of as the bridge between the worlds of the East and the West. However fed up we are with this cliché, of course it’s true that we are at the geographical juncture of Europe and Asia, and it’s important to bear in mind that we are a country built on the rich cultural heritage of a 600-year empire, which once spread across three continents and encompassed an array of different languages, religions, peoples, cultures and traditions.

The second of the metaphors I’d like to put to use is a tower: the Tower of Babel. According to the ancient myth, as you well know, all humanity once spoke a common tongue. With the destruction of the Tower of Babel, this shared understanding collapsed as different languages, cultures, and beliefs were spun off into different corners of the earth. Everyone has become incapable of understanding one another. Everyone is now somebody else’s Other. All of the ruptures of communication between people and peoples, all kinds of discord, can be traced at source to the tale of the destruction of the Tower of Babel. I would like to describe contemporary international book fairs as another construction similar to this Babel metaphor; I see them as effort to recreate a common mission, a common heritage for humanity.

Of course, book fairs are not only a meeting place for literature. But I’d like to put literature at the forefront for a moment and venture this: that insofar as literature is the art of knowing ourselves, it is also the art of knowing the other. However much it seems that a writer is telling the story of their own geography and own people, their work still opens up an arena for others to find themselves and their own narratives within it. Anywhere in the world, divisive politics and ideologies can emphasise the differences between people, and bring their misunderstandings to the forefront. They try to keep people in a certain position within a hierarchy. Whereas, literature and art, which share the same human values, bring out our similarities, reminding us that we are all children of the same Tower.

It is not just stories that travel from person to person and from nation to nation but also the ways of telling them. What makes us citizens of the World is our power to know and embrace others.

I’d also like to talk about the differences in the mutual regard of the worlds of East and West. For those of us who look atthe West, we appear to display many of the traits that belong to it. I’m of the opinion that unfortunately those who look back at us from that perspective don’t really see very much at all. A good example of what I’m trying to say is the fact that two out of every three books that are translated from Turkish must have either a mosque or the figure of a veiled woman on the cover. Cinematic scenes of Turkey in which men walk around in fezzes are another subject altogether. You can elaborate on these examples with your own. When we read a book by a Western author today, as readers and writers from Turkey, we can more or less place them in the cultural and literary tradition that belongs to them; we know that an English person knows something of a German or French writer’s forebears. But when the Western world encounters the work of a writer from, let’s say, Turkey, they know hardly anything of that writer’s literary traditions.

They know nothing of the old masters who cast their shadows over the writer’s pen. They don’t know the colours and variety of our literature. Take a modern English writer, for example. We can closely follow their story, having devoured several of their previous books. Whereas the Western World can still only name perhaps one or two writers from Turkey. If only we could be on the same page, or at least read over one another’s shoulders we could understand each other more. I wish, for example, that Henry James could have known of Halit Ziya Uşaklıgil, who is considered the creator of the Turkish novel. I wish that Tanpınar could have been read by Forster, Bilge Karasu by Iris Murdoch, Sait Faik by Lawrence Durrell, Nahit Sırrı Örik by Kazuo Ishiguro, and Sevim Burak by Jeanette Winterson. I could name names from Abdülhak Şinasi Hisar to Oğuz Atay. And I’m not even mentioning the poets. Turkish poetry doesn’t only consist of Nazim Hikmet. I can say with pride that we have world class poets, but poetry having a language of its own renders translation somewhat more complicated.

As far as I can see and understand, Western publishing rooted in Anglo-Saxon culture has, despite spreading all over the World, closed in on itself at the same time. Looking at the statistics on translated works can give you an idea of what I’m talking about. The things you cook in your own kitchen can sustain you so you may not feel the need to open yourself up to the world. But without sampling the different meals and flavours every now and again, you don’t have a very exotic kitchen. We can assume that in many countries around the world, books of universally high standards are being written. Another issue is that for the books of both large and small countries from around the world, achieving translation and publication relies on receiving a seal of approval from Western centres. They’re not free to make their own discoveries. For example, if a Norwegian or Spanish or Japanese or Egyptian writer is to encounter a Turkish writer, that writer has to have already been encountered by the West. In the end, this situation creates a vicious cycle. Since they look out at the world in order to find original material, what they are bound to find is not the world staring back at them but their own reflections in the mirror. Instead of seeking anomalies or eccentricities from the around the world, the epicentres of Anglo-Saxon culture seek only those works that fit into their own literary currents and trends. They seek works that have been designed to safeguard an understanding of the universe with the West at its centre. And I don’t even want to enter into a discussion of the Orientalist nature of readers’ expectations. I hope that my putting so much emphasis on the West hasn’t led you to believe that I think the West is the centre of the whole world. It’s precisely that view that these fairs are designed to deconstruct, wherever they are taking place. I see them as an opportunity to draw the world together in some sense, and to refract some of its differences.

Today in Turkey, as in much of the world, one of the most basic preconditions to the possibility of literary creation is freedom of thought and expression. The pressures on freedom of speech and thought aren’t the internal issue of just one country; these things aren’t at the disposal of just one nation’s leaders. Freedom of expression is a problem for the world and for humanity. There was a military coup every ten years throughout my childhood and youth: my country experienced a coup when I was 5, when I was 15, and when I was 25. Books were rounded up, banned and burnt. The book was an object of guilt and fear. Many writers from the generation before me were thrown into prison, tortured, and maimed. They were killed like Sabahattin Ali, or forced out like Nazim Hikmet. They all have a part in our being able to say any of these things today. We took a difficult path to get here. And what’s worse is that we’re not yet at the end of it. Instead of suppressing internal differences,  and effacing all variety, if we were to embrace everyone with genuine warmth the world would be a much more liveable place. So instead of protecting ourselves in whichever corner of the earth we are scattered, if we are all to make progress towards a new Tower of Babel, we need each other’s books, languages and stories. 

About the Author

Murathan Mungan was born in 1955 in Istanbul. He worked for the State Theatre as a dramaturge then Arts and Culture Editor for the daily Soz newspaper. He then became a full time writer and has been living in Istanbul since 1988.He has written over fifteen poetry books, among them Osmanlıya Dair Hikâyat (Stories on the Ottomans), and Metal and Yaz Geçer (Summer Too Passes) which has attained the status of a cult book due to its enduring popularity. A selection of his poems were translated and published in Kurdish as Li Rojhilatê Dilê Min (In the East of my Heart). His latest publications in Turkish are Kâğıt Taş Kumaş (Paper Stone Fabric) a play in three parts; Büyümenin Türkçe Tarihi (The History of Growing Up in Turkish), a volume of short stories from the history of modern Turkish literature.

About the Translator

izzy finkelIzzy 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



Additional Information

Murathan Mungan will be  in conversation with Maureen Freely at London Book Fair on 16th Apr 2013, 14:30 – 15:30 at the English PEN Literary Café.

Murathan will be in conversation with acclaimed writer Moris Farhi and translator Ruth Christie, for the event ‘Insanbul: Writing from a Cosmopolitan Perspective‘, at the School of Oriental and African Studies, on 17th April 2013, 18.00-20.00. 

He will also be appearing at the ‘Writing Turkey’ event at the Arcola Theatre, 18th April 2013, 19.00.