On Europe Day (9 May), the European Cultural Foundation (ECF) has presented four outstanding laureates with the 2017 ECF Princess Margriet Award for Culture: literary writer and columnist Aslı Erdoğan (Istanbul); writer and scholar Navid Kermani (Cologne); musician Luc Mishalle (Brussels); and visual artist Marina Naprushkina (Berlin).
ECF Princess Margriet Award curator Wietske Maas talked to writer and columnist Aslı Erdoğan, whose literary oeuvre includes novels, novellas and short stories, all of which engage readers as they display humanity in all its fragility. Hers is a defiant literary voice in Turkey, contributing to a vision of a 21st-century society with political and cultural inclusivity at its centre. On 16 August 2016, she was arrested and remained in pre-trial detention until her release in January. She is unable to leave Turkey as her trial continues. This is an edited version of the conversation that took place on 6 March 2017 in Istanbul.
Let’s start with your early influences and inspirations. What makes the writer in you?
For some, writing is a lifestyle; for me, it is an act of survival. I have to write to be able to continue living. I started to write seriously when I was working as a high-energy particle physicist at CERN [the European Organization for Nuclear Research]. I used to write all night until 5 or 6, then I’d go to sleep for two hours. I did this for seven months. This process lasted five years and resulted in my first book The Miraculous Mandarin. A nocturnal book, and not aimed at an audience, an amateur book, really. This is how it started. Sometimes I miss those days of amateur creation.
Was it also a certain solitude you sought?
All my writing is a profound solitude. In that book, the main protagonist is a one-eyed woman. A very early metaphor to say that, as a reader, you can only be told half of the truth.
I also explore the theme of the “self”. If you go deeper and deeper into your own story, it becomes totally anonymous. The more anonymously you try to speak on behalf of the world, the more you go down into your own little story. This is the boundary I like to walk around: the expansion and contraction of the self is one of my major themes.
In the deeper levels, I look at the world as a physicist. I see concepts like symmetry: symmetry and the breaking of symmetry. When seeking truth, elementary questions are very important in physics. This naive approach looking at the world with very basic questions and concepts, I owe this to my physicist’s background. I am not trained in social sciences. I must discover things myself.
You are also a fully trained dancer. Perhaps this interest in movement and momentum also has a resonance with physics?
People are often very surprised when they learn I am a dancer because I have this intellectual image that disregards the body. I learned a lot from different dances, including Brazilian Candomblé. There is a lot from music in my writing. Maybe you can hear that rhythm only in the original language. I almost composed The Stone Building with rules of harmony and counterpoint. Music is the one form of art I very much look up to. I try to build up my novellas as if I was composing chamber music. I’m a difficult writer to translate.
There is a profound materiality in your work, for instance in the way you describe the texture, the viscerality of the city in The City in Crimson Cloak.
Yes, that’s a city novel, it takes place in Rio and the body is its theme. Usually the way I treat the body is as a wound. My protagonists, women most of the time – although I do write about men too – are usually wounded, or visibly scarred. The whole city of Rio is used as the main protagonist’s body, also as a prison – the enlargement and contraction of the self. As if her body is reflected onto the city. It’s a game of mirrors between her and the city and they are reflecting each other. The body exists in all its secretions – it is rare in literature to read about women’s bodily fluids. It becomes more and more oppressive on the reader. Violence is one of the themes I tackle, in many indirect ways, first embedded in the language. Even in my columnist work, I try to use what I learned from writing The City in Crimson Cloak.
If you go deep into the truth, the human truth, you can create a physical effect on the reader, on his or her body. To make the reader cry is easy literature. But, sometimes you can go deep so the reader wants to vomit. This is where literature starts: when you touch the reader’s body.
That’s why I try to make my protagonists as naked as possible. I rip away their personalities, identities, pasts, all these things they don’t need. I don’t let my protagonists form their sentences very easily. I strip them off one-by-one to their very essential, simple existence, and this is also where I want to meet the reader, in this very essential existence.
In my quest for deeper truths, I also ask questions: How do you tell the untellable? How far should you go into a torture chamber with literature, and what is the point of doing that? Is it a catharsis or is it another imprisonment? Captivity and exile are two states I often describe in my work. It is where I find the human being. I grew up in a largely oppressive country: politically, gender-wise, my whole life had elements of oppression. But I don’t want to narrow this to my own psychology. This is the basis of the human story itself.
There’s a strange paradox in that you write about captivity to create awareness of how one is held captive to be able to set yourself free, but it is also an uncanny premonition of your recent imprisonment.
When I was in custody, I thought a lot of The Stone Building, which deals with the themes of incarceration. I wondered: how did I know about being in exile without being in exile? Once you go through the experience yourself it becomes more difficult to write because you start normalising the trauma, and you distance yourself from your own story. I now have to take a bigger step, gather more courage to be able to tackle such subjects.
Are you able to continue writing now?
No. I have stopped writing. Many people ask me, especially from abroad, to write columns about prison. It takes me a lot of time to digest an experience and to put it in a form that is worth reading. I take literature very seriously. To write a sentence worth reading can sometimes take a lifetime. So, I am waiting.
Could you tell us about your work in journalism?
I have never worked as a journalist. I am very slow to react and I can digest very little information. I had only one little column back in 1998, in the mainstream but leftist newspaper Radikal. I named my column “The Others”. Once a week, I would write about the story of those we would never hear about. I usually focused on women, victims of rape, tortured people, prisoners…
I always tell the story of the victim. And this column very soon started touching on taboos. Oppression is not something abstract. It is always political. So, I became more and more politicised in the eyes of the reader, which resulted in me being fired after three years. Then I did not write a column for a long time, until 2010, before I got fired again.
Then I decided to write a column for Özgür Gündem, which is now considered a very big crime in the eyes of the State and the people. Writing there for five years, writing has turned into a criminal act: they demand capital punishment for that act of writing. But that tells more about the State than my own writing.
I was never an ideological writer and I avoided political discourse. The pedagogical approach is the biggest enemy of literature, and the populist approach has easy tricks to catch the reader, which I try to avoid. I always wanted to concentrate on the human tragedy.
What is it in your writing that makes people so angry or so afraid?
I guess it is the literature. When I try to tell the story of the victim, they hear that voice which they have always avoided. I put them in front of a mirror, and the image they see is the image they hate. I have written lines about people being burned alive. I do not tell who they are, but maybe my writing does bring the smell of burnt flesh. Their entire life is built so as not to get the odour of burnt corpses. And here is a woman, an insignificant woman, an unimportant, unthreatening woman, appearing with her sentences that pierce their reality.
Personally, I am not a threat.
But obviously, you touch a raw nerve: the underbelly of Turkish society. Is there a certain risky role literature plays in Turkish culture?
Nationalist countries usually adore their writers. An entire state system is being built through literature. Almost all well-known writers have been to jail. I think we have very little influence in Turkish society, as literature is seen as very elite and very boring. So why this fear? Why have so many writers been put in jail? Literature tries to show you that things are more complex. And that itself perhaps creates a reaction. They want to see things more black and white and when shadows are talking, they shout: “get out of our path!” Journalists are taking bigger risks. They are under more pressure because of their closer contact with society.
It is a question we must continue to ask: Why the writer or the artist who is so much on the margins of everyday society is seen as a threat? We are passing through from the authoritarian to a totalitarian regime. And that regime needs certain symbols for their witch hunt to show their full power.
My arrest and its circumstance all came as a shock. The initial days were so difficult. The best part was the company of women and the solidarity. In prison solidarity is an everyday reality. It is an act of survival. If you get sick, someone will give you their own blanket. I have learned a lot from the prisoners. I owe it to them that I tell their story. The homework they gave me: is to tell their reality. Without them I wouldn’t be able to survive.
When talking to the media across the world about your arrest and trial, you have described the whole process as Kafkaesque.
I hope it is not an insult to Kafka. It is beyond reasoning. It is clearly a political order – it is easy to say that someone belongs to a terrorist organisation, then I have to prove to them that I am not! It is Kafkaesque in that sense. I have been writing a column for almost 17 years. None of my articles have supported any terrorist organisation. This is clear proof that I am not an ideologically engaged writer.
Consistently, I have written about anti-violence to denounce violence. I have tried to make a theory of anti-violence: How do you become an anti-violent person in a system that creates violence all the time? Without using its methods. It is more than Kafkaesque. I have never touched any weapons, as I’ve publicly said. Which organisation would keep me after such an announcement?
While most other countries in Europe may not be comparable to Turkey, we are seeing a pernicious slippage into undemocratic tactics that suppress any public debate. Can democracy still be salvaged and enacted? What does democracy mean to you? And what role does culture play in achieving it?
I’ve always seen democracy as a myth, but a beautiful myth. Myth in the past meant truth, mythology told us the truth. In the 20th century, myth acquired the meaning it has today, that it is something unreachable. We have lost contact with the word. So, democracy is something that must be built every day. It is not a black and white border line.
I have seen two military juntas in Turkey. I am very aware of this populism and chauvinism increasing around the world. A growing number of people are quite happy about it, just like many people were back in the 1930s in Germany. Even after the concentration camps. It seems to be one of the dilemmas of democracy that people do vote for a less and less democratic regime, choosing stronger and stronger leaders.
In my literature, I am trying to tell a story of the victim, but I sometimes wonder who cares? What if I’m trying to tell a story that no one wants to listen to? I touch on the concepts of equality and freedom. I have been to prison and there I learned that solidarity is not just a fancy word. That is where the role of culture starts: it gives some meaning to these words. People think they know the concepts, when in reality, they have no idea. Maybe the role of the writer can start there to make you think of these words: liberation, freedom, equality...
You have a profound belief in a voice and manifesting that voice. How do you think that voice will call you into the future?
I don’t have the luxury of considering the future. Before these Kafkaesque things happened to me I did not look into the future. I have a debt. I owe a story to the victims, which are the prisoners. They need to be free. So that their voice reaches out beyond jail.
All images are stills from the ECF Princess Margriet Award for Culture portrait film directed by Berke Baş and Melis Birder
The Stone Building and Other Places is a volume of short stories, the latest of Aslı Erdoğan’s literary work translated into English. Translated by Sevinç Türkkan and published by City Lights. Forthcoming November 2017.