Editing a book review: a dangerous act in Turkey

As Cumhuriyet journalists, including PEN's former writer-in-residence Ahmet Şık, await their verdict in Turkey, Can Bahadır Yüce pays tribute to fellow review editor Turhan Günay and other imprisoned colleagues and reflects on the link between populism and anti-intellectualism.

Being an outspoken writer has never been easy in Turkey. The history of Turkish literature is also the infamous history of exiled, jailed, and persecuted authors. During the early days of the Turkish republic, in the 1920s, Halide Edib Adıvar, the first canonized female novelist of the Turkish language, was exiled after a conflict with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founding father of the Republic of Turkey. Nâzım Hikmet, arguably the most important modern Turkish poet, spent twelve years in prison and lived in exile until his death in 1963. Pioneering short story writer and celebrated novelist Sabahattin Ali, whose novel Madonna in a Fur Coat (1943) was recently published by Penguin Classics, was murdered at the Turkey-Bulgaria border after years of state pressure, imprisonment, and harassment.

In today’s turbulent Turkey, numerous writers and journalists share the ill-fated path of their precursors. During the past year, Turkey has become the biggest jailer of journalists, surpassing China or Russia. Novelist Ahmet Altan (whose novel Endgame was recently published in English, translated by Alexander Dawe) and essayist Ahmet Turan Alkan are among the journalists and writers who are currently in prison because they spoke the truth and exposed the lies of the government. Novelist Aslı Erdoğan, who was released after spending four months in prison, recently described the trauma she experienced behind the bars: ‘My soul still is in prison.’ Linguist Necmiye Alpay was also among the few writers who was released after months in prison, while another linguist, Sevan Nişanyan, who was jailed not over a political case but a land dispute, recently fled Turkey and announced his escape on Twitter: ‘The bird has flown. Wish the same for 80 million left behind.’

However, not everyone is as free as a bird or as lucky as Nişanyan. Among the jailed journalists are dozens of my former colleagues from Zaman (Time) and Yeni Hayat (The New Life); both newspapers were shut down by the Turkish government. Every day I look out for a single story about my colleagues and hope to hear good news. Meanwhile, among persecuted journalists, I follow one colleague’s trial more closely because his job was the same as mine: Turhan Günay, the 72-year-old book review editor of Cumhuriyet (The Republic) newspaper has been in prison for nine months.

Founded in 1984, Cumhuriyet‘s book review was the first newspaper book supplement in the country. When we launched Kitap Zamanı in 2006, Cumhuriyet‘s book review had been our guide, both as a model to emulate and to surpass. As the two prominent newspapers from different sides of the political spectrum Cumhuriyet and Zaman were competitors, but as book review editors Turhan Günay and I only had respect for each other and for our profession. The world of books and literary journalism largely stayed out of the ups and downs of politics. Of course we had our editorial differences: while the weekly Cumhuriyet Kitap more frequently gave platform to mainstream Turkish authors, Kitap Zamanı also aimed to bring voices from different literary cultures to the Turkish audience. (For example, Alberto Manguel, Etgar Keret, Geoff Dyer, Joyce Carol Oates, Javier Marías, and Per Petterson are among the contributors of Kitap Zamanı‘s last printed issue.)

Turhan Günay, the editor of Cumhuriyet‘s book review since 1985, went on trial this week with sixteen other Cumhuriyet journalists on charges of aiding terror. Scenes and dialogues from the ongoing trial reminded me of a poorly-written dystopian novel. The judge asked Günay if he ever supported terrorism with his reviews. He even interrogated Günay’s criteria in choosing books to review. (First and foremost, correct grammar is a requirement to be reviewed, said Günay.) At one point, the editor told the judge: ‘Do you also want me to talk about my divorces?’ It was such a surreal trial that the judge went so far as to ask Günay about his ‘biggest secret’: his youthful appearance. (At 72, Turhan Günay looks much younger than his age.)

To my surprise, one of the accusations leveled against Turhan Günay is his phone conversations with Ali Çolak, Zaman‘s culture editor. Ali Çolak, my longtime colleague, is a prominent essayist and one of the kindest people I know. He is a romantic who daydreams in the newsroom of living by a lake, like Thoreau, and writing his long-planned ‘Book of Trees’. Ali Çolak always wanted to live as a recluse, like Salinger, or in a vast library, like Borges. But the Turkish government accuses him of being part of a so-called terrorist organisation. Apparently even talking to him on the phone is a crime. The absurdity of these accusations is beyond anyone’s comprehension. Both Turhan Günay and Ali Çolak edited culture and arts pages and book reviews for years and helped to keep intellectual life alive in Turkey. In a democratic country, their dedication to books and literature would have been cherished and they would have been given lifetime honors. But in the dark age of anti-intellectualism and autocracy, Turkish authorities want to keep the two editors in prison for life.

It is obvious that political journalism is not the only dangerous occupation in Turkey: editing a culture and arts page or a book review is just as perilous. The trial of Turhan Günay highlights a troubling reality that goes beyond the political grudge the Islamist Turkish government bears against its opponents. While ignorant oppressors want to silence the free press and divergent voices, they also have no tolerance for the intellectual and/or artistic pursuits of writers and editors, whatsoever.

Turkey’s recent experiences show that anti-intellectualism, a result of populism in politics, is an imminent threat. People who cherish freedom of speech around the world have to unite and resist against the hostility towards intellect, the arts, and literature. Either at home or in exile, it is our responsibility to keep our inner fire ablaze and resist the falling darkness.

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About the Author

Can Bahadır Yüce is a poet, academic, and editor. He edited Zaman newspaper’s literary supplement, Kitap Zamanı, for ten years. Yüce has published three poetry collections. Like many Turkish journalists he cannot go back to his country.

Additional Information

With so many of our fellow writers and journalists currently imprisoned or on trial in Turkey it is essential that we come together to support them.  English PEN is proud to be  working with other  organisations on the Free Turkey Media campaign. Please get involved and spread the word.  #FreeTurkeyMedia

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