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When I agreed to write about the literary scene in Turkey for this magazine, the first thing I did was visit a dear friend, Asuman Kafaoglu Buke, the best literary critic of her generation, who also sits on the jury of Literaris, the Austrian prize.
“Let’s see what the British reader makes of you,” she said. “They might think you are just another Muslim woman speaking about literature in Turkey.” We giggled with glee, chatting about the preconceived notions of western publishers and media about Turkey. Then I realised, with a thrill, that we — I mean people like me: progressive, secularist, westernised — don’t mind being stereotyped as much any more. There is still a profound disillusionment with Europe, but the resentment has gone; the mood is now one of humorous equanimity.
What has changed? Where does this new confidence come from? Part of it stems from our pleasure in the recent effervescence of Turkish fiction. “Some of the most exciting novels in the world today are written in Turkey,” Kafaoglu Buke says. “Turkish fiction has reached a peak. I feel lucky I can read it all — I doubt translation could do much of it justice.”
This literary effusion has come about despite — or perhaps because of — heightened political repression, the escalating Kurdish conflict, topped off by a year of terrorist bombings and the July coup attempt, which has left hundreds dead, tens of thousands imprisoned and a nation deeply traumatised.
The idea of art in times of conflict is a cliché in Turkey. A journalist friend wrote to me after the failed coup attempt: “The goings-on would leave the best fiction writer befuddled.” But that is precisely the point. The headline on a comment piece by novelist Richard T Kelly in The Guardian in July was: “If politics has become stranger than fiction, we novelists must try harder.” The best Turkish novelists do just that: they break through ideological walls and grapple with the complexities of life.
More translations of Turkish fiction are appearing than ever before, in non-European languages too. Turkish literature seems to be shedding its insularity. The expansion of form and experimentation with style are also remarkable. Literary schools and movements have sprung up. There is even a Turkish Gothic genre, which repurposes themes and figures from Ottoman myths and fantasies — a sign that the country is coming to terms with its historical schisms and cultural tensions.
Perhaps more noteworthy is the emergence of a powerful genre of “underground realism”, given voice by the dissident, conscience-stricken, fiercely individualistic literary current predominating in Turkey. These writers’ political engagement is philosophical, their language often poetic, their stories subtly subversive, almost abstract. The poet Huseyin Kiran, novelists Baris Bicakci and Hakan Gunday (winner of the Prix Medicis Etranger 2015) are among them. I was recently impressed by rising star Isahag Uygar Eskiciyan’s desolate experimental novel Pitch.
To pick my way round this maze of new talent, I consulted Muge Gursoy Sokmen, proprietor and co-editor of Metis, the publishing house. Gursoy Sokmen publishes several novelists with rising reputations, notably Ayhan Gecgin, whose last novel, The Long Walk, attracted critical attention in 2015. In it, a nameless hero leaves home and walks through devastating scenes of life in contemporary Turkey.
Women writers have been highly visible lately. Sema Kaygusuz, a novelist, screenwriter and author of short stories, is one of the leading female voices in fiction today. Sule Gurbuz, with her experimental, densely philosophical books, such as To Die With Joy, writes about absurdity with a tongue-in-cheek seriousness.
Gursoy Sokmen agrees there has been a literary explosion, pushing writers into clusters of solidarity: publishing journals, forming schools or even gangs. One such is the self-styled “Swaggering Hipsters”, a bunch of mostly male enfants terribles. Well-educated children of middle-class families, they represent a literary pop culture: loud, street-wise, confident with slang. Their sales are robust. One of their stars, Emrah Serbes, shot to fame with Ankara-based crime novels and recently wrote The King of Taksim Square, set during the Gezi park protests of 2013.
According to domestic statistics backed by the International Publishers Association, Turkey ranks 12th in the world in terms of ISBN titles and number of books published per capita. Even if these figures are overblown, this is impressive.
Media-savvy authors sell in their hundreds of thousands. The days when distributors used to say that Turkish writers don’t sell are long gone.
The downside to this upbeat trend is that the playing field is too level; there is a catch-all of styles, with no clear process of critical selection. “Only the market decides,” says Gursoy Sokmen, and many commentators complain that the market is dominated by bookstore chains and big publicity budgets.
Despite market pressure, publishers are not shy about seeking new talent. The independent online book review K24, for which I write, ran a feature in July on writers aged 35 and under. Among the dozen authors interviewed, there was not a single story of rejection. All had their first book published within a year, sometimes just months after submitting their manuscripts, even though literary agents are almost unheard of in Turkey.
On the other hand, each writer complained about a dearth of literary criticism. Where are the arbiters of taste? “Critics haven’t disappeared — they are less visible, they write on social media and blogs,” Gursoy Sokmen says. But clearly they don’t wield the influence they once did. The field is too large. Mainstream cultural journalism is divided and weakened, and social media cannot fill the void entirely.
Although Islamic conservatives have been in power for 14 years and have sought to create their own literary stars — so far without success — cultural hegemony is still in the balance. My writer friend Emre Ayvaz points out there are no grants, no institutions of support for authors in Turkey, public or private. He thinks the race for visibility pushes writers to try to cover everything, to say too much, to be too clever.
An editor at K24, Murat Sevki Coban, agrees. He thinks many writers who are overwhelmed by reality escape into allegory. There is a tendency to encapsulate experience in philosophical platitudes. Sevki Coban and I jokingly called this “aphoristic realism”.
But I want to finish in the positive mood I started with. The east-west divide seems no longer to be the burning existential issue it once was. That postmodern cultural identity crisis, which Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk used to such great effect in his novels, appears to have subsided. “Turkish writers no longer want to see themselves or the country through another’s eyes,” Kafaoglu Buke says. “We are tired of identity politics.” Turkish fiction, as it struggles with the endless strangeness of fact, has broken its mould and shed many of its stereotypes. We both wondered if the west can shed some if its own as well. Who knows? The secret might soon be out.
Nilufer Kuyas is a novelist based in Istanbul
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