Writing and publishing in Kurdish was seen as a crime – interview with Burhan Sonmez
As an admirable reader of his second novel Masumlar (Innocents) I was looking for an opportunity to meet with Burhan Sonmez in person, but it was not realized until our common friend Moris Farhi put us in touch then after we met in Kadıköy, one of the main districts of Istanbul in a friendly coffee house, since then we became friends and met again in different locations related to PEN or our common literary circles, such as Montova Literature Festival, during the event of launching his novel Labyrinth where I assisted carrying out the interview with him for Trafika Europe Radio. The last time we met was a couple of months ago in Gezi-Istanbul Cafehouse in Taksim, Istanbul, where we decided to make this interview while we were at a dinner with Norwegian and Turkish PEN members together to discuss issues of freedom of expression and writers in prison.
Burhan Sonmez is the author of five award-winning novels and president of PEN International. His novels have been translated into forty-two languages. He was born in Turkey and grew up speaking Turkish and Kurdish. Sonmez worked as a lawyer in Istanbul before going to Britain as a political exile. His writing has appeared in papers including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, and La Republica. Sonmez lectured in Literature at the university of METU. He received the Vaclav Havel Library Award and the EBRD Literature Prize. He lives between Istanbul and Cambridge.
You are a writer of Kurdish origin, who was born in Haymana of Anatolia, but you are writing in Turkish. Yaşar Kemal was the epitome of such a situation too. Was it a choice or sort of obligation for you when you decided to write for the first time?
– It was not a decision, it was rather a situation that we found ourselves in. When I was in school, from primary school to the university, the Kurdish language was banned in the education system. We were brought up with the education in Turkish. Writing and publishing in Kurdish was seen as a crime. Now I am happy that we have a young generation – after the new Kurdish enlightenment and with the age of internet – who are writing in Kurdish, even though the publication and distribution still is limited.
Your second novel Masumlar (Innocents) partially depicts also Haymana and brings storytelling into the novel as a part of the oral Dengbej tradition of Kurdish literature that was somehow also related to your childhood, as we acknowledged in the novel, but you perpetuated it one way or another in each of your books. In that case, how would you say that different stories and storytelling take shape in your novels, as well as generally in the Kurdish and Turkish literature of today?
– As the Kurdish language has been oppressed, oral literature has still got a great importance in our tradition. Our homeland is divided by four countries, Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, and all countries have been oppressive and merciless against the Kurdish people and culture in the last century. When there was not a space for us in daily life we kept our oral tradition within our families and villages. I learned Turkish at the primary school and grew up with my mother’s Kurdish stories. I have them in my memory and imagination, and I re-created them in my novels, in terms of their style, plot and atmosphere. If there is a soul in my novels, I can say that that soul speaks and carries two languages, namely both Turkish and Kurdish.
Despite the fact that there have been many novels written about Istanbul up until now, which are connected to various writers, such as Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar and Orhan Pamuk, your third novel Istanbul Istanbul became your most successful book abroad and it gained the Vaclav Havel Award in the USA and the EBRD Literature Award in Britain. Wasn’t it sort of taking a risk for you when writing another Istanbul novel since so many have been written already? What was your justification?
– You are right, it was risky, since we have a powerful tradition of Istanbul novels and movies in our culture. But I felt something like: as Istanbul novels are getting more and more popular, they all share more or less the same approach; they divide the time of Istanbul and always glorify the past. On the other hand, they unite two different lands (east and west) in Istanbul. I felt that I needed to collect the past and future in the present time and create a singularity of time in Istanbul. And also, instead of the east and west I felt I had to bring two different Istanbuls together: one is the Istanbul of the underground and the other of over ground. When I decided this, the story was easily woven together, even though it was a hard story to go through.
We are PEN friends and recently worked together in the Turkish PEN for Writers in Prison Committee especially for the solidarity campaigns for the imprisoned Kurdish poet İlhan Sami Çomak. Furthermore, we witnessed your remarkable efforts for Turkish PEN in the Peace Committee. You have been working on the board of International PEN too for years with the same respect and you became the first Kurdish-Turkish International PEN president. Is there any particular mission that you want to achieve during your presidency, such as something specific for Turkish or Kurdish PEN centers or writers in prison?
– I have many things in my mind I want to achieve for the global movement of PEN International. My focus is not only on Turkish PEN and Kurdish PEN any more, I work for all PEN centres in more than a hundred countries. We are now in the second century of our history and we need to renew our organisation in accordance with the new situation in the world. As we are witnessing the new challenges that affect writers and the freedom of expression, we need to address these new challenges such as fake news, hate crime, survelliance and climate crisis. Another focus will be about the younger generation of writers. I would like to promote new approaches to connect young writers.
It is often said by some literary authorities or critics in Turkey that it was difficult to categorize your novels as belonging to specific genres. They were neither purely social novels nor magical realism, not fantastic, and even not stream of consciousness, like Faulkner or Virgina Wolf wrote, but something of a taste of all in a mix. Once you referred to the philosopher Farabi as a lute player: “There is no single chord in novel writing”. By giving vast opportunities to readers without any certain conclusions in your writings, do you want to deliberately liberate your readers from their expectations and reading habits?
– That is an important point for me. People tried to find reflections of either Dostoevsky or Marquez or Calvino or Camus or Borges in my writing. Maybe all comments were right or all wrong. Because, with every novel, I felt a new call in relation to it and wrote each book in a different way. This was not a decision that I made delibaretly, it was a feeling that I followed with every new story I wanted to write.
It is often argued that for some writers, the novels which they wrote resembled their lives by being sub-conciously driven by the motive of their own experiences. For example, in The Labyrinth “Boratin”, the main character loses his memory when escaping from his current life. Once you lost your memory too after being exposed to a police assult. I get the impression that your novels, from the very first to the most recent one, are parts of one big novel, in the way that the reader in each and every one of them discerns Burhan Sonmez's personality and hears his voice. Have you ever experienced that connection when you move from one novel to the next?
I experience that feeling after every finished novel. When I write I don’t consciously think of the personal or things related to my past, but when the book is finished I start to discern shades of myself. That is the subconscious that we cannot deny. I think this is something that literary historians and biographers will be interested in. An author can be analysed in the best way after he/she passed away and left our world.
Your last novel, Taş ve Gölge (Stone and Shadow), moves between different levels of time and these levels’ stories and characters. The wealth of these fictional worlds affect the reader strongly. In October, Italian readers will meet the novel too. Soon after it was published in Turkey, this novel was considered your mature work by the critics and it won the “Orhan Kemal” Literature Award. Do you think your writing matures with each novel?
– I can say yes to your question, yes our writing matures with each new novel. But maturity doesn’t mean writing better novels always. Because, immature creativity has another kind of power that can be destroyed by the experience, if it is not dealt with in a good way.
Your writing career started with poetry. I know also that you translated William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell into Turkish. We often observe your love of poetry in your novels. For instance, in Istanbul Istanbul, Baudelaire appears. How is poetry and the art of writing novels intertwined in your writing?
- It makes me happy when I read critics often say that I have a poetic language. One can say that I have a poet in my chest, who tries to emerge in the language of my novels.
The circumstances are difficult for Kurdish writers to write in
Kurdish, what traces leaves the Kurdish language in your Turkish language, and what images are added to the Turkish language from your mother tongue?
– When I met Yaşar Kemal, after some reviews had named me as a new Yaşar Kemal in our literature, he told me this: "We both have an advantage, that is we are writing in a language with the spirit of a forbidden language." I thought he was right. It was not something like writing in any other language, for example in English, apart from your mother tongue. That would be a free choice. In our case, our tongue Kurdish was oppressed and beaten, so it was the sound of sorrow and dream. That is why people like me recreate the Turkish language with the shadow of a hidden language. Harold Pinter, after his visit to Turkey following the military coup of 1980 with Arthur Miller, wrote a play titled "Mountain Language". This came out of the things he heard about the situation of Kurdish culture as it has been continuously labelled as a mountain language, meaning that Kurds don't exist, because they used to be Turk but because they lived on the highlands of Kurdistan they were cut off from the rest of great Turkish nation and so their language has changed. That is the official Turkish state discourse that has been repeated in the last hundred years.
Thank you Burhan Sonmez for taking your time for this interview!