Turkish Literature in Retrospect

A swift, a puddle, a piece of sky.

They must have dropped from a poem.

So said the passerby.

—Ilhan Berk

Turkey, as the country I got to know, is a country caught in-between parallels: East and West; Asia and Europe; fundamentalism and secularity; the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Turkey; the written and the spoken. This fluidity of appurtenance and its manifold identity, as I found out later, is deeply rooted in Turkish literature.


Turkish literature can be separated into the First Wave (the 1940s and 1950s) and the Second Wave (the 1960s and 1970s). The First Wave poets—Orhan Veli, Melih Cevdet and Oktay Rifat—are remembered by the name of the first poetic collection they published together: Garip, or Strange. They brought the language of the streets into modern poetry. Magnificent with their wit, these poets rejected the formal conventions of the official language, as well as the oppressive, authoritarian world that they reflected. These poets are important because, until the republican period, Turkish poetry was dominated by arcane Ottoman conventions that obeyed rather rigid and ornate rules. Thanks to the modernizing language reforms of the 1920s and 1930s, however, poetry changed, too. Nazım Hikmet was the pioneer to revolutionize poetic language and shatter the old inviolate rules. The Garip poets followed and build on Hikmet’s smashing of the status quo while addressing the reading masses. Thus, poetry followed the internal logic of the Turkish society and started to become a better reflection of its collective consciousness, its passions, and its complexity.


During my stay in Turkey, I was also inspired by those of the Second Wave (Cemal Süreya, Turgut Uyar, and Ilhan Berk, to name some) who took this innovative spirit to the next generation. They introduced narrative to poetry, and imbued it with expressiveness, while at the same time bringing a mixture of Dadaist, surrealistic and ornamental motifs into its compositions. Unlike the First Wave poets, they resisted what they saw as its restrictive tendency to address “ordinary” concerns. Inspired by the European avant-garde, their poetry no longer obeyed the ordinary rules of grammar and semantical structure. Rather, their beauty was in the disrupted word order and grammatical rules, in their deformed lines and long blank space in between words. This is how 19th-century French symbolism emerged 100 years later in Turkey.


Once again, the history of the Turkish of poetry showed me that literature and its country’s social-political issues go hand-in-hand. Struggling for survival among the crushing impact of Westernization and Europe, what could the local poets save from the rapidly disappearing Ottoman-Turkish literary traditions? How could they achieve that? Which of the Diwan poetry created by the Ottoman elite under the influence of Persian literature would survive? And what was its significance for modern poetry now when its beauties and literary traits could be understood by later generations only with the help of dictionaries?


I found the answers while I was sloping towards the Bosporus from the backstreets of Çukurcuma. My gaze was diverted to a bloody red house. This derelict building was no one’s home. A writer’s imagination turned it into a collection of items straight from a work of fiction. This was “The Museum of Innocence,”  a namesake of Orhan Pamuk’s novel. Inside the museum were objects that evoked stories and memories of the Istanbul of the 1970s. National Lottery tickets, bags of buttons and a quince grater were a part of the exhibition. Pamuk’s attempt to construct a novel based on scavenged objects was what made them so remarkable.


What I liked the most about this place was not the objects themselves but the story behind them. I knew from his book The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist that Pamuk had bought many of them on impulse from flea markets. For instance, he had bought Füsun’s dress (one of the main characters in the book) from a second-hand bookstore because he decided it was just right for his heroine. Then he proceeded on describing how she was learning to drive while wearing that very dress. On another occasion, he spotted a black-and-white photo from the 1930s. He imagined that it shows a scene from the early life of one of his characters and channelled his story through the objects is depicted.


Evoking the authenticity of sounds, smells and images of the world from the novel to life itself was what fascinated me. It removed the feeling of possessiveness I had when reading a novel. Because of my efforts to understand and visualize the written, I often felt that I was the one that brought it into existence. Alas, it was the writer who completed the realization of a novel.


This was further proven to me by a book, which was often strongly recommended by my Turkish friends – Hah by Birgül Oğuz. This novel starts from the mourning of the individual, passes through the childhood memories of a grieving daughter, and ends with the shock and the mourning of a society experiencing severe traumas. It was a book like no other—a hymn, a parable, and a poem poured into a rhythmic prose. The author defined the genre with the multifaceted literary term “öykü.” This in Turkish means a novel, a tale, a parable, a legend.   Hah is highly intertextual as it draws upon texts from the Old Testament to 20th-century European poetry, from 16th-century ghazals to contemporary Turkish verse, from cornerstones of Turkish literature to the likes of James Joyce and William Shakespeare, from workers’ anthems to folk songs. This is what makes it a universal work of fiction. Although it is a product of specific time and place, it resonates with anyone who has ever experienced loss.


I once again came to the realization that literature is unbridled, yet malleable. It is susceptible to the ethos of the culture, the processes of class struggle, and to the mind of its writers. As such, literature can become a tool for challenging a country’s socio-political status and ultimately changing it. This is of great significance in times of Westernization and rapid modernization that many countries face today. The main issue – not only for Turkish literature but also for all literature outside the West – is the difficulty of describing the dreams of tomorrow with the colours of today, dreaming of a modern country with modern values, while enjoying the pleasures of everyday tradition. Writers, whose dreams of a radical future have pushed them into political conflicts, often ended in jail, and misfortunes gave their voices and views a hard and bitter tone.


Nazım Hikmet was the most important Turkish poet in the 1930s before he went to jail for his revolutionary ideas. Fast forward to 2016, there is Aslı Erdoğan – a writer and a prominent defender of Kurdish minority rights, blamed by the authorities for “disloyalty to the state”. One could make a whole library of memoirs, novels, and stories of Turkish intellectuals and journalists who had been imprisoned.


Ultimately, it was the Museum of Innocence and my friends’ recommendation that showed me that literature is the mirror of society. It is literature that has shaped civilizations, changed political systems and exposed injustice. It confirms the real complexity of human experience, which allows us to connect on basic levels of emotion. Literary traditions do not disappear, they just take a different form and adapt themselves to the pressing needs of the society.


Nesrin Nazlieva is a Psychology student at Erasmus University.  She decided to follow the example of her predecessors who, back in 1460, left the Karamanid beylik and immigrated to Bulgaria.  Instead of Bulgaria, however, she chose the Netherlands.  Her short story with a not so short title ‘The Story of a Wanderer Who Traveled the World in Search of His Hat’ earned her a second place in one of the most prestigious national literary contests in 2015.  When she is not glued to a book, she spends time working out in the garden, learning Spanish, and trying very hard not to be the worst player at Ludo.