Following her visit to the UK last week for the London Book Fair Turkey Market Focus, Ece Temelkuran reflects on ‘Writing Turkey’ and what the term ‘country’ has come to represent for her.

I became fixated with this question when I started reflecting on the topic I was asked to talk about at the Arcola Theatre in London: ‘Writing Turkey’. As Turkey was the Market Focus for this year’s London Book Fair, we, the writers from Turkey, were supposed to represent ‘all the colours of Turkey’, as advertised in promotional materials. Well, we did not have that much to do. The bad news about Fazil Say exploded on the first day of the fair while the Turkish Cultural Ministry was busy representing the country as a haven of multiculturalism.

It emerged that the acclaimed pianist had received a ten-month suspended sentence for comments posted on Twitter ‘insulting religion’. The charges against him included retweeting a poem by Omar Khayyam. Thanks to English PEN the visitors at the Fair learned that the official version was not the only colour of Turkey.

The campaign for imprisoned journalist Zeynep Kuray was also very much alive at the Fair. Zeynep is one of the hundreds of imprisoned journalists in Turkey and Turkey currently has the highest number of imprisoned journalists in the world. My country is indeed a colourful place. Apparently so colourful that the political power needs to erase a few colours, just to tone it down a little.

Coming from such a country, during my talk at the Arcola Theatre, I decided to pose the question: ‘Is it possible not to write about Turkey?’ rather than ‘Writing Turkey’. As a writer and a journalist I am trying to avoid daily politics in Turkey at the moment. I’m trying to move from reality to truth, from journalism to literature. I have two reasons. The first reason is, I think, fairly obvious considering the incidents mentioned above. The second is more theoretical. Journalism, I have come to believe, is just a form of reality, and a rather boring one. There is an untold agreement in journalism. In every piece of news you promise the reader: ‘I am going to shock you now!’. You guarantee that ‘this time is different’.

‘Today is not like yesterday.’ After repeating this promise to myself for about 20 years I finally understood that repetition is the most sickening form of torture that the human mind can endure. And in this case, it was my own mind. After writing two novels I admitted that I need a new ‘country’ from which only I can report and where there is no need for repetition: Literature. Literature, for me, is a country where I don’t have to shock people but I do hope to amaze them. All in all, I am at a stage where reality and fiction are not that far apart. Fiction can become real and reality can be passed off as fiction. A little anecdote about how easily reality and fiction can be mixed.  In my first novel, Sounds of Bananas, I created the concept of the Bread Tree. One of the characters, Zeinab Khanim, was hanging bags of left-over bread on a tree and the whole neighbourhood was following her. After reading the novel some Turkish readers went to Beirut and started asking about the Bread Tree. I heard that there are people in Beirut now, who after being asked about it so many times, came to believe that the Bread Tree actually existed; they just didn’t know about it.

After working as a journalist for so many years and seeing that nothing has changed in my country, I think one would agree with me that I have enough reasons to believe that fiction is stronger than reality.  And although my journalism didn’t set any of the imprisoned journalists free, at least my fiction created a Bread Tree in Beirut.

Yet again it is almost impossible not to write about my country even when I am writing fiction. In Sounds of Bananas  Diyarbakır, a Kurdish town in Turkey, becomes Sabra Shatila Camp. And in my second novel, people in Libya are actually Kurds. I guess one cannot get away from one’s country even if one distances oneself from it. Therefore the central question remains: What is my country to me?

While reflecting on the question I remember Angelopolous’ film Eternity and a Day. I remember the question that the protagonist was asked: ‘What is tomorrow?’ The answer was as the title of the film: ‘Eternity and a day!’ My answer would be similar if I was asked: ‘What is a country?’: ‘A land much bigger than the world and as small as a table.’ Much bigger because, for me, a country is a moment. It is that moment when friends burst out laughing, interpreting a reference in a joke the same way. A moment of mutual and deep understanding. It is as small as a table because actually what you long for, when you are away, is a bunch of good friends who would only fill a space at a table. You miss that very table, not the vast land. You miss the colours of your country. Not all of them. But certainly those that are being erased.

About the Author

Ece Temelkuran is one of Turkey’s best-known journalists and political commentators, writing regularly for the Turkish newspaper Habertürk. She has published widely and won numerous awards for her work, including the Pen for Peace Award and Turkish Journalist of the Year. Temelkuran, whose articles have been published in Nawaat, New Left Review, Le Monde Diplomatique, Global Voices Advocacy and the Guardian, has written regularly for Al-Akhbar English. Her book Deep Mountain, Across the Turkish-Armenian Divide was published by Verso and Book of the Edge  by Boa Editions.

Additional Information

Ece will take place in European Literature Night at the British Library on 15 May 2013.

You can read more about the Turkey Market Focus in this piece by Andrew Franklin, Director of Profile Books, in BookBrunch.

You can also read Ece’s previous PEN Atlas piece: Literary festivals: playground or construction site?