The translator and activist reflects on the role of literature in a country in crisis, ahead of English PEN’s event ‘PEN Atlas presents: the View from Turkey’ on 19 September.
A friend of mine is currently visiting me from Turkey. We of course have long discussions about the state of our native country, where he lives and where I have never lived longer than two months in a row. I write and translate from that privileged position of being both an insider and an outsider. I have the advantage of being ‘in-between’. While I am physically in the heart of Amsterdam, my heart and mind keep going to Turkey. Back and forth, back and forth without ever slowing down the pace. As we sip some locally brewed beer, my friend tells me all the stories of ‘o gece’ – ‘that night’. I can hear the new trauma that has now entered Turkey’s people’s lives through the trembling of his voice as he recounts moments of that night and its aftermath.
Rather than recounting these stories you have probably already read or seen on various mainstream, independent and social media, I’d like to focus on something else he told me. As he was explaining how difficult things were getting in ordinary people’s daily lives –friends losing their jobs, the unbearable Istanbul commutes, the lack of nature and quiet in the city, the tensions among people, the growing hatred against the Kurds, the antipathy against the plight of Syrian refugees… I asked him if he ever thought of leaving Turkey. His answer was quick: no. He explained that he wouldn’t have much hope of finding work outside of Turkey, especially since was older than 30; he would need at least a mid-senior job to be able to get a visa. But then his face got lighter, ‘I have another dream,’ he said. ‘If I can find enough friends to do it with me, I would like to move to a rural area, somewhere in a nice village, and start a commune.’
I stopped for a few seconds to digest that idea. It was a possibility I would never have considered – the first thing I imagined he would like to do is leave the country and get as far away as possible. His idea made me think about literature, the possibilities of invention and creativity, and how important it is to keep and create spaces for imagination, especially when your environment is literally killing you and these spaces day after day, with matters getting worse with each word that I type.
We have seen many crises and wars across our human history, and creativity has always continued to flourish in different ways. Literature has been a space for dissent and resistance. I myself have always been a strong advocate for the role of translation as an act of resistance. All the work I do is around writers and works that defy the norm and those in power. Literature for me can also be a place of hope, and that feeling has been amplified by my friend’s wish to start a commune in a Turkish village. Yes, he wants to escape the turmoil, the worries and the sorrows, but on the other hand he wishes to create something new, and he doesn’t want to do it alone. He needs other people to build this new space with him. It’s a collaborative act that will allow a group of people to live in peace, on their own land, and to bring good to the community among which they will settle.
I believe literature needs to be such a place: where you can allow writers and readers to escape, to invent, to live multiple lives and stories. You need those spaces where you don’t only deal with current issues and politics – these will be part of many background stories anyway. You want writers and artists to be able to go beyond reality and create these places of their imagination, so they can inspire people locally and internationally. That’s why you absolutely need those stories translated. You cannot allow only the voices that deal with political issues to be heard in English. I remember Belgian historian and writer David Van Reybrouck once said, ‘Democracy needs imagination.’ Like him, I believe that this need exists, not just in countries such as Turkey where democracy and the rule of law are close to extinction, but in other places – especially across Europe where we tend to take our basic rights for granted.
By creating a strong literature that will be translated, we will move away from identity politics, and we will stop asking Turkish writers to comment solely on their country’s political situation. Of course they probably care – indeed, some are in prison because they care. This is the case of Aslı Erdoğan, who has been detained since 16 August, and others such as linguist, translator and writer Necmiye Alpay. Why? Because they believe in peace, social justice and basic human rights. That’s how bad things are for people in Turkey. Not just for intellectuals and artists, but for every single citizen who dares to voice an opinion against the current power. So, obviously, we need more than just good literature. That will not solve the current war against the Kurds – many Kurdish cities in Turkey are in ruins, as my friend dreaming of his commune also told me. But I strongly believe that literature, and other artistic disciplines, can give hope and create spaces for all of us to foster empathy, and in turn, build a better world.
The late Pina Bausch famously said, ‘Dance, dance, otherwise we are lost.’ I don’t think I am too naïve when I choose ‘Write, write, otherwise we are lost’ as a title for this piece. And let me tell you why I actually don’t have a choice but to remain optimistic: look at this drawing by comics artist Özge Samancı (I urge you to read her graphic novel Dare to Disappoint, in which she describes her own post-1980 coup childhood and teenage years):
If Aslı Erdogan, all the way from her prison cell, can say, ‘We exist, we are here and we are writing,’ there only is but one response someone in such a privileged position as myself can give: ‘I hear you, I read you and I will translate you.’
Image via Özge Samancı’s Facebook page.