Ece Temelkuran is an award-winning Turkish writer now based in Zagreb. We caught up with her during her book tour to talk about politics, the marketplace of ideas, and how writers in exile are victimised.
You’ve written about how problematic the notion of ‘writer in exile’ is for you. Can you tell me more?
A woman, coming from the third world, throwing herself into the arms of civilised Europe, lady in distress and so on – that’s victimisation! When you’re described as an exiled writer, you’re supposed to tell that story and only that story. But I’m not telling the story of Turkey right now. With my new book, How To Lose A Country, I’m telling the story of the rest of the world. I’m trying to tell Europe and the US their story.
So you’re holding up a mirror to the West.
Yes. It’s already hard, being a woman from Turkey, to be taken seriously. There is that orientalist thing – you can speak about my country, but I can’t speak about your country. And I’ve experienced that, from an audience in the UK, I’ve been told that I can’t speak about Great Britain because I can’t understand Britain.
Why not? Because you’re a woman or because you’re foreign?
Well, I was telling a friend of mine about the reaction I’ve been getting while launching the book: the challenges, the resistance. She told me, You’re a woman and you have ideas. Nobody likes that. When you have feelings, they love it. When you have ideas – not so much.
I’ve been thinking about the brilliant essay you wrote a few years ago about being seen as a victim. There’s an odd tension about Westerners who want to ‘help’.
A few years ago, when I launched another book, a woman in the audience folded her hands and said, What can we do for you? I felt like I was a panda, being adopted by a website. What was interesting was that at that time, Brexit was happening. It was so amazing to see that the British were still convinced that they’re in a position to help other people. You know those clichés, those roles, they don’t work anymore.
I guess the UK hasn’t done its reckoning with its past yet and still sees itself in a certain role.
It’s doing that right now, but in a very tense way. It’s messy. This is what populism does to a country: it makes debate impossible. All of a sudden you realise you’ve lost the basic consensus of how we communicate, the basics of rationality. I can see what will happen in the UK because it’s the same pattern everywhere.
So what do you think will happen?
It’s not going to get better on its own unless the side that promotes rationality and sense has some more political power. Everybody, not only in Britain, has to realise that this is about politics, it’s about morality, and it’s not going to get better on its own. Everybody has to do something.
I guess that brings us to the question of personal responsibility.
It wasn’t always like it is now. It wasn’t like this before the 1980s in the UK, but then this woman with her handbag arrived, and then suddenly people became political objects. They weren’t subjects anymore. This didn’t just happen in England. It has become the motto of our age to say, ‘Oh I hate politics’ – without realising that that is the most political statement you can come up with.
It’s the height of cynicism and privilege.
It’s a very political statement because you’re giving up on being a subject. And it makes you very open to authoritarianism.
So what is our personal responsibility in the current political state? Is it being an active voter, is it activism?
Before that, before any of that, what I see happening in Europe is this: they’re getting caught up in an excess of emotion. It doesn’t solve anything. Expressing your emotion is an ideological pattern. After neoliberalism took over, it made us think that antagonism is not good, confrontation is not good. But they are good. Get rid of the emotions and start using your mind. This is how I escaped from my own anguish regarding the political situation in Turkey and my position in it. It is not personal. Unfortunately our generation has to suffer the last crisis of neoliberalism and therefore a crisis of democracy. Unfortunately we have to deal with this.
If we need to take emotions out of politics, what do you think about the idea of left wing populism as an answer to right wing populism?
I think that the remedy for right wing populism is going to come from the new generation. The right wing populism we’re seeing now is a 21st century problem, and we’re trying to deal with it with 20th century tools, with political parties and so on. I’m expecting a lot from climate strikers. Sooner or later they are going to come up against the hard surface of neoliberal greed, and they will soon understand that they have to fight against big capital and so on. They’re going to invent ways of doing so. Since it’s not invented, we just don’t know yet. It’ll be like Tahrir Square all over again.
You touch on Hannah Arendt in your new book. Tell me why you think she’s still relevant.
We have to remember that that generation was a defeated generation. There’s a bit of a defeatist layer there; broken people remaking themselves. I do think that what has changed since then is this social and moral transformation that made me reverse her term from banality of evil to evil of banality. Now evil is not as obvious. It comes in the form of banality. Trump is a great example of this. Banality, when it builds up and becomes a political identity, qualitatively turns into evil . Whereas before, evil was very obvious, it wore uniforms. It is different now, it comes across as something that we consider not that dangerous: Oh, it’s another idea in the free market of ideas, oh, it’s just another opinion, another faith. But all these small political choices add up to create their own form of identity.
What do you think of the concept of the marketplace of ideas?
It’s still relevant. Otherwise the British media wouldn’t still be obsessed with giving space to this or that idea, would not be giving space to Nigel Farage.
Do you think everyone has the same access to the marketplace of ideas, especially when it comes to questions of freedom of speech?
That is the most bullshit illusion that has ever been created. I’m not even going to discuss this.
Coming back to the idea of victimising Turkish writers that we spoke about earlier: what is the best way to counter these notions?
You know, we don’t have time for arrogance at the moment. Every country has its material to feel superior over others. In Turkey, we had the Arab world. We used to think, Oh all those crazy things happening in Arab countries. Now people think exactly the same thing about Turkey. But it is in fact happening to you, in Europe, and you’re so absorbed that you don’t even see that it is happening. Global solidarity is crucial at this time because right wing populism cannot be defeated in just one country. They’re already cooperating, so get your act together!
Ece Temelkuran is an award-winning Turkish novelist and political commentator, whose journalism has appeared in many major newspapers. She won the Edinburgh International Book Festival First Book award for her novel Women Who Blow on Knots (translated by Alex Dawe and winner of a PEN Translates grant), and the Ambassador of New Europe Award. Her new book, How To Lose A Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship, is out now.
Ece was in conversation with Theodora Danek.