PEN Atlas: literary dispatches from Turkey

Maureen Freely introduces an exclusive new e-book from PEN Atlas
, collecting some of the best dispatches from Turkey, at a moment when the country is in the midst of great changes, both political and literary

There was a time, and it was not very long ago, when even our best-informed and most outward-looking readers could not name a single Turkish writer. In 2004, when Orhan Pamuk achieved quite sudden world fame with his sixth novel (his fourth to be translated into English), more than a few of his reviewers expressed astonishment that a country ‘like that’ could produce a writer of his sophistication. His subsequent prosecution for insulting Turkishness only served to encourage the belief that he must be an aberration, owing nothing to the cultural void from which the knights of world literature had rescued him. This illusion was disrupted by the arrival of Elif Shafak who, though writing in a very different vein, with very different takes on religion, feminism, and indeed literature, was just as good at taking stories rooted in Turkey to world audiences.That and the growing popularity of Turkey as a holiday destination made readers more curious.  The number of Turkish authors being translated into English went from 11 in the last decade of the last century to 41 in the first decade of this one, and 25 in the last three years alone.In the past year, more than 20 Turkish writers have come to this island to launch or speak about their work. Most came under the auspices of the British Council, working in conjunction with the Turkish Ministry of Culture, the London Book Fair, English PEN, and other dedicated partners. There were more than 30 events in 15 venues across 4 UK cities. Most were about literature, not politics, though politics is never far away in the lives and works of Turkish writers. For those who wished to engage more deeply with such questions, there was a roundtable on freedom of expression hosted by English PEN at which a diverse group of Turkish novelists, poets, publishers, and journalists met an equally diverse group of London-based novelists, lawyers, and activists.At this and the many other events I attended, either as a participant or a member of a standing-room only audience, there was one question that kept coming back. Why has it taken the English-speaking world so long to notice Turkey? There is, of course, no single answer. You might say that – especially since the end of the Second World War – it has been very hard to read. Like many of the new nations in the Cold War era, it was economically weak, but it never had to liberate itself from an empire. Before becoming a republic, it was an empire. It was also, officially, a democracy, but with a military that was not shy to step in and shut it down whenever it deemed necessary. It was staunchly anti-Communist, and staunchly authoritarian. It is still authoritarian, except that now the enforcers are not secularists but Islamists.In Turkey today, as in Turkey yesterday, you pick up a pen at your own risk. Though the tradition of speaking truth to power is old and rich, the conversation was until very recently constrained, even kettled. The penal code is still full of laws that can send writers to prison. The new anti-terror laws and the expanding definitions of terrorism now allow for the indefinite detention of writers viewed as dangerous. But that has not silenced Turkey’s dissenting writers, who continue to speak out for democratic change with ever greater ingenuity, imagination, and force.During the recent Gezi protests, the Turkish mainstream media stayed at home. The media moguls were too deeply involved in the ruling party’s development deals to risk angering an increasingly autocratic prime minister. It was the social media that kept the protesters in touch, and (thanks to the efforts of a spontaneous army of Twitter translators) it connected them with the outside world as never before.So today we are publishing an e-book containing our first collection of dispatches, commissioned and posted by PEN Atlas over the past year. Some come from writers who have already seen their books published in English; some are appearing in English for the first time. Some have been translated; some were composed in English. Quite a few were written from the heat of the Gezi protests; others offer quiet reflections, mining the past, or imagining the future. All are open letters, inviting us to write back.From Mario Levi and Hakan Gunday to Kaya Genc and Ayfer Tunc, this collection offers many riches and insights and invites you to read further.About the authorMaureen Freely is the author of seven novels (Mother’s Helper, The Life of the Party, The Stork Club, Under the Vulcania, The Other Rebecca, Enlightenment and – most recently – Sailing through Byzantium) as well as three works of non-fiction (Pandora’s ClockWhat About Us? An Open Letter to the Mothers Feminism Forgot, and The Parent Trap). The translator of five books by the Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk (Snow, The Black Book, Istanbul: Memories of a City, Other Colours and The Museum of Innocence), she is active in various campaigns to champion free expression. She also works with campaigns aiming to promote world literature in English translation. She has been a regular contributor to the Guardian, the Observer, the Independent and the Sunday Times for two decades, writing on feminism, family and social policy, Turkish culture and politics, and contemporary writing.