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.

Reading the Gothic in the 21st Century

Reading the GothicDarkness, mystery, eeriness, the supernatural, setting, isolation, and morality – a combination of these components forms the skeleton of the Gothic genre. Whilst its origins are often attributed to Horace Walpole’sThe Castle of Otranto, the genre evolved into famous classic novels such as Dracula and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde subsequently leading to modern works like The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories and The Wasp Factory. With the advancement of technology in the 20thand 21stcenturies, the platform of cinema has embraced the Gothic by spinning existing tales into visual masterpieces and creating original stories inspired by the genre, increasing its accessibility. From reading classic and modern pieces to viewing cinema in the 21stcentury, the Gothic still retains its charm in serving as an escapism into a fantastical world, spooking and prompting questions of morality along the way.

The Allure


And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern—it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads

– The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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The Unsparing Confessions of an Outsider: James Baldwin & Istanbul

All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique.

All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story;

 to vomit the anguish up.

—James Baldwin

Courtesy of Fatih Yürür

When my lit professor asked: “Who has heard of Yaşar Kemal?” – the room immediately filled up with raised hands. And “Engin Cezzar?” – she asked over the excited buzz in the room. As an exchange student in Turkey, those names didn’t evoke any emotions in me. Nor did the next name: James Baldwin. Upon mentioning Baldwin’s name, the class fell silent. We didn’t know who he was.

His name would remain with us over the next two weeks as we studied the novel Giovanni’s Room. The story centres on David—an American in France. Separated from his girlfriend Hella, who has gone to Spain to find herself, he meets an Italian, Giovanni. The two men begin an affair and they spend their time together in a room that Giovanni rents from a maid. When Hella returns, David decides to marry her and submit himself to mid-century American norms and expectations. In turn, the already penniless Giovanni succumbs to poverty and desperation, [spoiler alert] until he commits a murder and is then sentenced to death.

The novel offers an internal portrait of David’s sexual awakening, and the frustrations that prevent him from achieving a stable romantic and sexual relationship with another man. It’s in David’s homosexuality—his identity and internal struggle as an ‘outsider’—that Baldwin empathised with. As an African-American living in Paris and as a gay man himself, Baldwin knew what it was like to be the ‘other.’ Read More

What Do Writers Read?

That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.

—F. Scott Fitzgerald.

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.

—James Baldwin

Courtesy of Suzy Hazelwood

Reading a good book is like spending time with a good friend. When you leave, feeling warmhearted and thankful, you look forward to coming back to them as soon as possible. To me, they are both a privilege and a treasure. Reading, like friendship, is essential to our quality of life—helping us relax or sleep, enhancing empathy or reducing stress by sharing new realities—but it also stimulates memory, critical thinking, and intelligence. In addition, and especially if you are a writer, you might have heard that the best advice for good writing is good reading.

So, what do writers read? What can we call a good book? Of course, the options are innumerable, as vast as people and tastes are on Earth, but I have narrowed a list of writers and books that have talked to me in the past, or hopefully will touch my life soon. I am quoting below the reading preferences of the following extraordinary authors: Ernest Hemingway, Joan Didion, Ray Bradbury, Vladimir Nabokov, Samuel Beckett, J.K. Rowling, Maya Angelou, Henry Miller, Jhumpa Lahiri, Haruki Murakami, Paul Auster, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Barak Obama. Read More

Culture Shock: A Literary Passage from New Zealand to Poland

Courtesy of Jerzy Gorecki

In New Zealand, the only borders are where land stops and water begins. There we speak of going overseas. For that is the only possibility to travel, one must literally go overseas to get to another country, be it on boat or aeroplane. But what do Europeans mean by ‘going abroad?’ Is it to go where the language is different, where they live under different rules and regulations, where they have something else for breakfast, where they behave differently? All while sharing the same piece of land?

The first time I came to Europe I was excited. The thought I’d be breathing the same air that Kafka had, walking the same dog-shit Parisian streets Celine did, seeing the same night sky that Hamsun saw… but then I realised it wasn’t the same as I’d imagined; it was actually similar to what I already knew. I’d dreamed of Dostoevsky’s adventures across the continent. Instead, when I got off the train, having arrived in yet another European city, the kids were listening to Eminem and wearing T-shirts with cheap English phrases on them. My dream of Europe was a myth, a romantic notion, a ridiculous expectation, an idealisation. The reality was different: I certainly wasn’t drinking whiskey with James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. Read More

Why I Read Poetry

Courtesy of John-Mark Smith

In Arabic, the word for poem شعر comes from the word “felt”. This simple fact encapsulates why I read poetry.

Back in time immemorial, the first poems were read aloud. Their regular patterns helped memorization of oral history, genealogy, and law. The performance aspect of poetry never disappeared; Robert Frost toured the country and earned a living mainly through poetry readings. In 2012, there were 7,427 poetry readings in April, National Poetry Month in the US. Some would even say poetry is meant to be read aloud only.

This poetic tradition can further be related to orators, who craft messages to be delivered aloud to an audience. Like the earliest poets, the best of political speeches live on in collective memories. It is of no coincidence that the speeches of JFK and Martin Luther King use common poetic techniques. Read More

How I Write Poetry

Courtesy of Mohammad Bahmanyar

Dawn has just broken in New Zealand—and here, the tui song is what greets you, though here is just one place out of the many we have lived in in the last twelve months. If life were normal at the moment, it would be dawn in New Hampshire that would have woken us.

I’m always the first to wake up. My wife, the prolific sleeper, dozes until eight (though she likes to think that seven thirty is more accurate). The morning routine is the same, really, no matter where in the world we are. Wash first and coffee second. Breakfast table conversation is non-existent until the hot coffee has done its job. Back home, I would be the breakfast chef, and have lunch packed and ready before watching my wife depart for work and settling myself into a day at home.

At some point in the last two years I became a full time writer. It was more by accident—a by-product of falling in love, you could say—rather than a purposeful fruition; a temporary luxury, perhaps, as the life of being a full time writer is a rare one, but one that has shaped the way in which I compose my art.

I’ve written poetry since I was young. Initially it was the not-so-good kind of poetry that hormonally charged teenagers scratch out between panging bouts of broken-heartedness or love. I would write about whatever I believed was important to me, scribbling in journals or on the back of books, or whatever came to hand. As I matured artistically, the number of times I wrote diminished. After finishing my education, I headed out into the world. But always, there was this longing to be a poet that travelled with me wherever I went. Read More

My Greatest Challenges Writing Creatively

I have been there many times – staring at the empty virtual page as I question my own existence and ability to write. It is usually referred to as a writer’s block – although some say it is a disease that only creative workers succumb to. Some say it is a curse. Others argue that it does not exist at all. But I have experienced sitting in front of a blank screen, fingers itching to create a masterpiece, yet nothing happens. It is as if my mind is overwhelmed with ideas, scenarios, characters, plot, but I fail to write anything down as the words are somehow eluding me.

At times like this, I usually take a break. Most often it occurs by re-reading some books on writing such as On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King or The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist by Orhan Pamuk. One cannot produce without consuming. Quite often, reading books inspires me and gives me the needed level of confidence to start writing again. Read More