Letter from Istanbul

The controversy that dogged last year’s London Book Fair, when the choice of China as “market focus” prompted protests at the involvement of officials normally in the business of censorship, must have made the organisers think twice about their plans for 2013. For Turkey, on which the spotlight falls next week, is a country with few rivals when it comes to noisy clashes between the literary and political establishments.

Turkish intellectuals are not known for keeping silent in international venues. Nor do they readily comply when the state tries to put words in their mouths. Just remember, if you can, their response to the country’s three major coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980. Publishers defied the generals and hundreds of writers and artists spent time in prison for rebelling against military rule.

Dissent continued through the 1990s. In 1998, Orhan Pamuk followed the example of novelist Yasar Kemal, poet Fazil Hüsnü Daglarca and film director Lütfi Akad in refusing the title of “state artist” – a stance with special resonance in a country where authors have often taken official positions. When Pamuk won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006, the country’s then president declined to congratulate him, making clear that the message had been received and perfectly understood.

In recent years, relations between intellectuals and the state have taken an interesting turn. The culture remains polarised – even booksellers divide along political lines, with one major internet retailer considered leftist and the other more conservative – but it is also true that once-taboo subjects are now being openly discussed, helped by the gradual lifting of bans on Kurdish language, culture and politics.

This being Turkey, of course, good news is often counterbalanced with bad. To give just one example: Rober Koptas and Umit Kivanç, two leading left-liberal intellectuals, are currently being investigated by the Istanbul Prosecutor’s Office over remarks they made about state officials’ involvement in the murder of Hrant Dink, the journalist assassinated in 2007 following a hate campaign that represented the ugliest side of the country’s politics.

That comes against a continuing debate in Turkey about press freedom. Foreign NGOs allege that Ankara is the world’s leading jailer of journalists, citing scores of detainees, while the government argues that most of these cases involve serious charges of terrorism.

So should literary London brace itself for more discord? There were hints that this might be advisable in February, when the poet Hilmi Yavuz announced in his newspaper column that he was staying at home in protest at being asked during the visa process whether he had ever taken part in a terrorist act. (Yavuz once worked for the BBC World Service, he reminded his readers, and was a graduate of University College London.) But he was hardly alone in facing such scrutiny: the question is part of the form that all non-EU citizens are required to fill in.

And as far as controversy is concerned, that was just about it. At a reception hosted by the British consul general last month, the verdict of the authors present was that those invited to take part in the book fair’s cultural programme – put together by the British Council in collaboration with the state bureaucrats of the Turkish National Organising Committee for International Book Fairs – represented a broad spectrum of political opinion and cultural backgrounds. I didn’t hear a word of criticism uttered throughout the evening.

Indeed, the writers on their way to London seem to me to consist almost exclusively of genuine dissidents: so no “patsies”, to borrow from Salman Rushdie’s criticism of Mo Yan when the latter was awarded the Nobel in spite of his silence about Chinese politics. Take Murathan Mungan, whose most famous plays, The Mesopotamian Trilogy, follow four generations of a tribal family in eastern Turkey; or novelist Oya Baydar, a leader of the youth movement in the 1960s known for chronicling the interior lives of her country’s dissidents. Others such as Bejan Matur, Fethiye Çetin, Perihan Magden and Ahmet Umit are nothing if not outspoken.

Elif Shafak

Instead of controversy and antagonism, what we have this year is pragmatism and a consensus of sorts. The price of promoting Turkish literature overseas for the government may be that it had to get behind, or at least tolerate, writers who are critical of what it represents. In return writers will get what they want: praise and attention.

And on the need for this, both sides can agree. The question they ask has been put to me many times: why is Turkish literature, with the exception of a few famous names such as Pamuk and Elif Shafak, so little known in the UK? I offer a different, equally unsatisfactory answer every time. To some I point to the complicated nature of many Turkish novels, to a preoccupation with language and modernist experimentation that can make them difficult to translate (thus, “it is our fault!”). To others I describe the lack of interest among British publishers and their reluctance to engage with demanding works of Turkish literature (“it is your fault!”).

Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in-between. But there is no denying that the new generation of Turkish authors shares a lot with its British counterparts. We love irony, parody and excess; and almost no one has any patience with the statist discourse of what we have come to see as our country’s ancien régime.

Kaya Genç is a novelist based in Istanbul. He will be in conversation with Maureen Freely on April 19 as part of the British Council’s London Book Fair cultural programme

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