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.


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

Playwright of Refugee Life – George Tabori


Today or tomorrow, I shall be taken to the camp.

May God help me to overcome this too.

—Regina Kandt, Last Letters from the Holocaust: 1941

Courtesy of Getty Images

The theatre’s nature is one of bringing people together, which makes it an apt medium to fuel collective memories. The type of theatre that best depicts the Holocaust is one that can provoke mourning for the victims and, at the same time, force the spectator to look within himself and ask himself if there is in him something of an executioner or of his accomplice. This is what George Tabori beautifully accomplishes in his plays The Cannibals, Mein Kampf and My Mother’s Courage.


Hungarian by birth, a writer in English, and a director (with occasional spouts of acting in German), Tabori combined his experience of British and American life with the cultural traditions of central Europe. What makes him so exceptional is not his widely known work as a translator and adapter of Bertolt Brecht, nor is it his screenplays of several Hollywood films, including the ones directed by Alfred Hitchcock—it is his experience. Would-be writers are often advised to rely on their own experiences when looking for a fresh subject matter. But there are a few writers that have as much rich material to draw on as George Tabori. His father was a prominent journalist who was arrested by the Nazis and was later killed in Auschwitz. His mother, however, managed to talk her way out of deportation to Auschwitz. Her story is told in Tabori’s play My Mother’s Courage and in the fiction film with the same name, directed by Michael Verhoeven (in which Tabori appears on screen through much of the film). Read More

Psychological Benefits of Creative Writing

Much of the research I am going to discuss is on writing and happiness. It deals with the therapeutic value of writing and its relation to improved well-being and reduced stress levels for those who do it regularly.

Research by Laura King, for instance, shows that writing about achieving future goals and dreams can make people happier and healthier. Another study by Adam Grant supports this claim. He found that when people did stressful fundraising jobs, and they kept a journal about how their work made a difference for a few days, their hourly effort had increased by 29% over the next two weeks.

This indicates that writing is not exclusively only for professional writers. In both emotional intelligence and hard sciences like mathematics, writing has been shown to help people communicate highly complex ideas more effectively. The reason is that writing helps eliminate the “it sounded well in my head” line of thinking by forcing your hand to put it out on a blank sheet and to give the thought a tangible form. Brains might forgive whimsical abstractions, but prose does not. Read More

Review: My Real Name Is Hanna

I am beginning to realize that freedom means you can be who you are meant to be, whatever that is. . . That breathing without any thought to it is a gift. Now, I think about breathing all the time. What is it like to take your last breath? What if the sound of it gave you away?

Tara Lynn Masih has dedicated five years of research and writing into her first novel—My Real Name Is Hanna. The narrative is set in the years of World War II in which fifty-six countries were involved between 1939 and 1945. At the heart of the disputes were rising nationalism, fascism, and unresolved territorial boundaries. Germany and Italy were seeking to control Europe, and in Asia, Japan was expanding its territory by invading the Pacific. From German U-boats and Panzers to Japanese Kamikaze and American atomic bombs destruction and death ruled. Estimates vary about the number of lives lost during the war, but the consensus is that roughly 62 million people died, including the estimated 12 million in the Holocaust. The historical narrative of World War II is distorted with every generation, but one thing remains constant—the stories of the people who survived it.

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

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

The Advantages of Writing Prompts

When I think of writing prompts, I always first think of writing school essays. The teacher’s prompts were usually too vague, or strict and inflexible. I often found them extremely boring, so when I heard that some writers use writing prompts, I thought it absurd. Nonetheless, when I found myself in need of some inspiration, I reached out for writing prompts and I was surprised to acknowledge them as actually conducive to creativity and inspiration. Ever since then, I occasionally use them to start a piece, finish it or add some spice to the story I am working on. They are not only effective for fiction writing but also for journalists, content writers and even in the academic field.

by Brad Stallcup

There are several reasons why writing prompts are so useful. We all know that sometimes it is hard to start writing when faced with a blank page. Focusing on an unrelated prompt for a while helps get the creativity flowing. For instance, if you write for just ten to fifteen minutes on a prompt, you might then find it easier to return to the piece you initially intended to write. This works because when you stop trying to think so hard about what you wanted to write and switch your attention to the prompt instead, the words and ideas for your original piece start to come to the surface of your conscious. Read More