Interview with Kurdish writers that do not write in their own language
PEN/Opp has posed the following question to some authors with a Kurdish background, who write in other languages, first and foremost in Turkish:
– In the history of literature, we find authors who voluntarily have gone from their own language to another one, while others have changed because they have not been allowed or not been able to write in their native language. In spite of the great wave of assimilation, you have still not forgotten your native tongue and you can speak it without any problems, but you have not been writing in your native language. What is the reason for that? How does it feel not to be able to write in one’s mother tongue?
Cemîl Tûran Bazîdî was born in the Turkish part of Kurdistan. In 1980 he was imprisoned in Turkey for his political activities and he was exposed to torture of all forms. He managed to escape to Greece in 1984 and he became a Greek citizen. He has worked as a journalist for the Greek state press and has published a dozen books in Greek. He lives and works in Greece.
– During the Turkish military junta in 1980 I was arrested for my political activity and I suffered through the most barabarish torture. When I was released from prison I was forced to leave my country and seek political asylum in Greece (1984). To become a part of Greece, I quickly learnt Greek.
At that time it was impossible to publish Kurdish literature in Turkey. Therefore I decided to switch language and to write in Greek. I knew the potential of art and literature to bridge the language barrier and to bring people closer to each other.
My first book, The Snowdrops Are in the Blood, was published in the year 2000 in the Greek language. Since then I have published twelve books in Greek. I have fallen in love with my Greek intellectual friends and the greek people in general. I do not only write about the pain the Kurds have experienced, but I also try to bring out the thousand years old Kurdish culture and the Kurdish traditions. Even so, I feel sad about not being able to write in my mother tongue, which is Kurdish. That feeling lies in my heart like a bird with broken wings.
Kemal Varol was born in 1977 in Diyarbarkir in the province of Ergani. His first book was published in 2001. Since then he has published around ten works in Turkish. His books have been translated into a number of languages and he has received several literary prizes in Turkey. He lives and works in Turkey.
– I grew up in a family and a home where not a single word of Turkish was spoken. But I wrote in Turkish because there was no Kurdish literature available and because I did not master Kurdish as a written language. Turkish was not my mother tongue, but when I started writing in Turkish I used the rich Kurdish oral tradition that I had inherited. In spite of the fact that I wrote in Turkish, I did not feel that I belonged in the Turkish literature either. I was on the other side of the border with both languages. I must say that I experienced that feeling more strongly when I transitioned from poetry to prose.
I am aware that I am a less interesting author for Kurdish writers and readers because of the fact that I write in Turkish. Without any doubt there lies a great grief in this, that I so to speak has been standing on the side of the Kurdish, and at the same time have tried to say: “I’m also a part of you.”
It was for sure joyful to see how a mother tongue was resurrected after all of these years of opression, but at the same time I was sad not being able to participate in the process. But there have also been moments in which I have experienced that this situation, that I saw as part of my fate, also was a part of my happiness. Experiences of the language border have not just brought limitations but also possibilities. Maybe the whole point of it is that I am so clear about my feeling of shame. When some of my friends stopped writing in Turkish and went over to Kurdish, I felt this shame even more strongly.
Murat Özyaşar was born in 1979 in Diyarbakir. His first book was book was published in 2008. He has published several books in Turkish and his works have been translated to a number of languages and have been awarded with several prizes. He lives and works in Turkey.
– Why don’t you write in Kurdish?
– I have got that question for years, and with good reasons because I am Kurdish and write in Turkish. I will probably get the question in the future too.
I always try to answer the question in a responsive way. If a French person asked me, I would be able to explain for days. But I most often get the question from Kurds and Turks. I know that they already have an answer, but the question is always politically charged.
As concerns literary history, there have always existed two versions of why not writing in the native language. Either poets and prose writers have changed language volotarily, they have made an intellectual choice, or they have changed to another language because of the fact that theyr mother tongue has been forbidden. I don’t know what linguists say, but it is true that Kurdish is my mother tongue. It is also true that my nightly dreams sometimes are in Kurdish, but others are in a combination of Kurdish and Turkish. I know of course that I have to express myself carefully since the discussion about these two languages is so politically charged. And politically I of course defend the “the question of the mother tongue”, the right to one’s native tongue. I am also aware that some have spent their lives within this issue. I have to admit though, that I, who have grown up in this country, have a hard time being persuaded that my native language has to be ‘pure’ Kurdish, exactly in the same way that I could not be persuaded that I write in ‘pure’ Turkish. There is a ‘split language’ that permeates my mental world, my understanding, and my way of perceiving the world.
Muharrem Erbey was born in 1969 in Diyarbakir. He is a solicitor and a writer and he has written several novels and biographies in Turkish and his works have been translated into several languages. In 2014 he was rewarded the Swedish PEN’s Tucholsky Prize. He lives and works in Turkey.
– In my childhood I spoke Kurdish with my mother and grandmother. I was fed with Kurdish tales and fairytales. But I could not read and write in Kurdish. We did in fact not know that Kurdish was a written language, and there were no Kurdish books available. The settings in my books are most often placed in a Kurdish geography. Most of the characters in the books are Kurdish too. It is hard to be bilingual. It is hard to socialise during daytime by subjecting yourself to to another language with tougher rules than in the Kurdish tales I listened to at home. Kurdish was the magical language in which happy conversations were held and secret stories were told, and Turkish was the language for public speech and the language in which education was conducted. I would love to write in my mother tongue. I tried it for a while, but I was not familiar with the Kurdish alphabet. Long after that I found out that there actually existed a Kurdish written language. I tried again, but realised that my knowledge was too limited.
I supply myself with both Kurdish and Turkish world literature. I like reading historical novels. The characters of my books and the narratives, rituals, places and similies, all belong to the Kurdish world and geography. In addition to the language, everything is about the place in which I was born. During my childhood, Kurdish was a forbidden language and according to the Turkish authorities, Kurdish did not even exist. Much later, when I studied at the university, I learned a great deal more about the Kurdish language and its history. I also acquired Kurdish books. I feel bad about not being able to write and to express myself in my native language.
Sayyidhan Kömürcü was born in 1978 in Mardin, Derik. He debuted in 2003 and he has since then published several books. All of these were written in Turkish and he has been awarded prizes in Turkey, where he also lives and works.
– I think that genreally it is not enough to know one language to be able to write in that language. To write in a language that one can already speak, “If I can speak, why should I write?”—I think there is a risk that such a feeling may arise. Maybe one speaks in a language that one knows well and writes in a language one knows less well. I don’t know. But we may have to transform the language we cannot speak into writing, rather than the language we can speak.
On the other hand: in parallel with what is created through assimilation, the thing of speaking and listening in Kurdish has become a way of existing for me, and I repeatedly return to my mother tongue, to the subjects, fairytales and traditions that have been made in Kurdish and which have not survived without a cost. The most important method to preserve our native language is to keep recycling it, but the set terms are different in an artistic activity. Sometimes it is possible to protect certain things without touching them—or by doing precisely that. In spite of everything, I feel that I will in the future try to write in my mother tongue, Kurdish, and I will be attentive to all of the sensitive aspects of this.