Generations, Diasporas, and Translations.
A Fortnightly Review.
Ayse Papatya Bucak
The Trojan War Museum
The Lion and the Nightingale
By MATT A. HANSON.
“I said, what would that poet fellow eat, drink, write
if he didn’t steal the cherry from the garden of Turkish!”
—“Love’s Inflection in Turkish” by Haydar Ergülen, from Pomegranate Garden, trans. Saliha Paker and Mel Kenne
IT IS THE year 2145 on the Aegean coast, whether in Greece or Turkey is of no matter, because it is the setting for the title story of Ayse Papatya Bucak’s debut book of short fiction, The Trojan War Museum. The museum of the author’s wild imagination had by then gone through eight incarnations, immediately prior situated in Times Square, its lucrative gift shop overwhelmed by tourists, and ultimately riots.
“At the eighth Trojan War Museum, there is a room of lost languages, indecipherable symbols, and unidentified emotions,” she writes. As a metaphor for the passage of time and the relativity of place as concerns the dissolution and reintegration of culture as a narrative collection of artifacts, The Trojan War Museum reflects a contemporary conundrum in which culture itself struggles to survive its inherent flexibility in the face of mass, social overhaul.
Bucak is a creative writing professor at Florida Atlantic University. And although she identifies as half-Turkish, and does not speak Turkish, she is an avid reader of Anglophone writing on Turkey. She dedicated her first book to her parents, “who could be separated into my American half and my Turkish half but are really so much more”.
The ten stories in the collection all feature Turkish characters, and deal with matters pertaining to Turkish history, and the cultures of its people. The book, which was named by Publisher’s Weekly on one of its lists of most anticipated titles (it will be published in paperback in the US and UK in August 2020), is bracing for its idiosyncratic literary approach to language, bearing the creative license of new fiction, and for the humor and personality of her voice as she navigates complex social histories.
Bucak foregrounds female perspectives, a fertile metaphor for an underrepresented Turkish cultural identity. The struggles born of skin and sex are never about physical distinction alone, but are emblematic of larger political orientations in the fight for civil and human rights. In her opening story, “The History of Girls”, she mixes her conversational and abstruse tone: “Maybe, we thought, the world needs enemies it can love, enemies who are no threat at all. Maybe, we thought, that is the story inside the history of girls.”
In the book’s penultimate story, “An Ottoman’s Arabesque”, Bucak pierces the eye of Turkey’s prevailing nationalist medievalism, embodied by the glorification of Ottoman elites, which arguably has defined much of contemporary Turkey’s politicized cultural identity under President Erdogan. Its protagonist, Khalil Bey, is an aristocratic Ottoman diplomat with a double life in Paris as a peerless collector of highbrow erotic art. The story is an historiographic pastiche, one that includes the backstories of famous works of Orientalist art and blends them with facts about the Turkish sultans in Constantinople yet keeps a clear focus on the lives and characters of women who would otherwise be subordinate to male chauvinism.
Bucak consciously plays with the imaginary flights of fancy prompted by the idea of Turkey in the West, also entertained by those with ample distance from its daily, lived realities. By writing in the vein of magical realism, she navigates cultural tropes prevalent in its history and its representation in literature. Portraying the culture of her immigrant heritage with a fine, artistic sensibility, personalized and informed by history, removed from political commentary to tell an amusing, creative story, she plays with motifs of prejudice. As she writes in “A Cautionary Tale”, “It’s true some of the Terrible Turks were fakes, not actually Turks at all.”
Her fictional, late nineteenth-century champion wrestler Yusuf Ismail bears the brunt of her meta-fictive wit: “It’s said he had a dagger in his turban even when on the mat”, and a “sluggish Oriental brain”.
As a writer of historical fiction, Bucak wears the historian’s hat in her researched prose, curating more or less dry lines of history that date and contextualize tangential, fictive portraits. Arguably, writing history is unavoidable for a literary treatment of Turkish culture in English, even given Bucak’s highly original, even experimental style. Ultimately, the globalizing momentum is for Turkish culture to become Western history (and likewise, for Turkish history to become Western culture) — or finally, an obscure, literary curiosity for Anglophone readers.
Entire languages may lost to the touch of modernism — but in the case of Ottoman Turkish, not before novelist Ahmed Hamdi Tanpinar enshrined its legacy. Born at the turn-of-the-century when Istanbul was better known as Constantinople, Tanpinar came of age with the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923. His writing exemplifies modern Turkish literature, particularly his 1961 novel, The Time Regulation Institute, which, while satirizing modernism, also revitalized the dying Ottoman dialect, preserving its rich Arabic and Persian lexicons in his characterful narrative prose. The erasure of that dialect at the hands of Ataturk’s single-party liberal secularization began at the founding of modern Turkey and was renewed in the country’s first democratic election in 1950, 27 years after its declaration as a republic.
As Haydar Ergülen observed: “I see a dual otherness in you / one sharp and orphaned / the other proud and silken”. The translation by Şehnaz Tahir Gürçağlar, of the poem “Borrowed Dagger”, from his 1996 collection Once a Tailor (Eskiden Terzi) relays his bitter, accusatory language for a duplicitous figure who has knifed someone in the back and can not be trusted, like a lover who leans in for a kiss with a blade between her teeth.
Pomegranate Garden, a collection of poems by Ergülen, published by Parthian Books in October, is the result of efforts by thirteen translators working on the poet’s output for nearly fifteen years. Also in October, Kaya Genç saw the release of The Lion and the Nightingale, his second nonfiction book in English, after working as a journalist based in Istanbul for Anglophone publications since the mid-2000s.
To the translators of Ergülen, the modernism of the author’s adherence to twentieth-century literary movements would seem to make for an otherwise forward depiction of Turkish culture, but Ergülen was also nostalgic for the history of his language, and the lost art of its expression.
İdil Karacadağ and Mel Kenne translated four lines midway through the long poem “Borrowed Like Sorrow” (2005) that testify to Ergülen’s wistful retrospective glance:
In the old script
‘face’ when written meant a picture
‘eye’ when written meant love
and a ‘word’ when written was poetry”.
And signing many of his pieces as “Hafiz”, a religious honorific for a memorizer of the entire Quran, the bearded, academic poet pays homage to his premodern Turkish culture, straddling the authenticity and endangerment of its historical, multicultural identities.
Ergülen exclaimed, “we are all orphans” and disowned Turkey following the assassination of Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. In his poem “Gazel of Orphans”, Ergülen wrote: “a country dies with each friend, with each teardrop / so does God again, and a thousand cranes with each dove…”
What to most are the indecipherable symbols of Anatolian civilizations remain a testament to a more innately pluralist past than that preordained upon residents of modern-day Asia Minor by the current national government. As for unidentified emotions, it is a point of Turkish pride that certain concepts in its usage are untranslatable, like hüzün, that enigma of melancholic nostalgia popularly conveyed by Turkey’s Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk.
For journalist Kaya Genç there is a Freudian dualism to the national character of Turkey, one that may assume the qualities of the death drive, which he illustrated in The Lion and the Nightingale, as symbolically, lions, the strongmen and populists of the familial, patriarchal order. On the other hand, there is the pleasure principle, which Genç symbolizes as nightingales, those interested in cultural free expression above all.
Though remaining in Turkey, journalist Kaya Genç has embarked on a successful career writing in English, a choice he explained in “How to Lose a Language″, a May 2019 essay for The Point. He began by dissecting the debut of Paris-based novelist Aysegul Savas, whose Walking on the Ceiling attracted attention, not because it was written in English by a Turkish writer about a woman from Istanbul, but simply for the strength of the author’s voice, identity politics aside.
Referring to a peer closer to his generation, Genç retraced the American career of writer and journalist Elif Batuman. He quoted her essay, “Summer in Samarkand”, published in issue 7 of n+1, where she wrote, “The thing that immediately struck one about the Turkish novel was that nobody read it, not even Turkish people”.
She is “on the mark”, Genç asserted, confessing to having fruitlessly written one novel in Turkish himself. He reflected on his knack for first-person English-language nonfiction: “Absence of critical and scholarly attention, of financial reward and global reach, and lack of interest from peers all played a part in my decision to write in English. I have no regrets.”
THESE THREE BOOKS — Trojan War Museum, The Lion and the Nightingale and Pomegranate Garden — all appeared in the last year. They demonstrate contemporary Turkish literature’s grappling with the double-edged advantages of national reformation in the wake of twentieth-century globalization. Ergülen’s poetry is translated into English from Turkish, while the other two books are written in English by younger authors. Yet, they each maintain, approximate and reveal their linguistic and cultural roots from various angles, whilst sharing questions common to many contemporary, non-Western cultures. That books in Turkish, or by Turkish authors are subject to English translation to reach their broadest readership is inevitable under the worldwide hegemony of the English language. As Susan Bernofsky pointed out in her Translationista blog, the common industry assessment, based on an earlier Bowker estimate, is that only three percent of books sold in the US are works in translation. According to Chad W. Post, editor of the University of Rochester’s Three Percent website, “in terms of literary fiction and poetry, the number is actually closer to 0.7 percent.” (That percentage is said to rise significantly in countries across Europe.)
Readers of international literature with a special interest in Turkey may discover a significant body of writing from Turkish perspectives or on Turkish themes, either in translation, or by writers, such as Elif Shafak and Ece Temelkuran, who identify as partly or wholly Turkish. That stream of literary production contrasts with that authored by outsider identities, exemplified by such Western travel writers as John Freely and Hilary Sumner-Boyd, co-authors of Strolling Through Istanbul, and going back to Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which galvanized early nineteenth-century Europe’s fascination with Ottoman lands.
For Anglophone readers with an eye on Turkey, using site-specific terminologies and describing the present distinctly requires explanation, often connecting back to narratives familiar to the curricula of Western education and its popular culture, the renown of its heritage, with reference to the intellectuals, artists and leaders of its great cities.
In his journalistic monitoring, Genç wrote: “Among middle-class Turks, I noticed another intriguing pattern. Men and women seemingly despised authoritarian politicians and objected to their love for ‘neo-Ottomanism’, the recent renaissance of Turkey’s Ottoman heritage. Still some among Turkish men do their best to resemble young Ottoman sultans….Turks felt one way, and acted another.”
The universality of contemporary culture around the world delivers a lack of social definition and in turn provokes the appearance of regressive forms of non-Western representation and identity, both in the West, and for export from nations like Turkey. At the same time, Turkish literature, whether in Turkish or in translation, assumes a geopolitical cause. Its writers and critics are compelled to transcend their inherited oppositions and assimilations to Western culture, whether emerging from a provocative Islamic guise, an exaggerated Eastern obscurity, or from some other indigenous exclusivity.
That stereotyping of historic enmity, as between Islam and the West, has its internal manifestation inside Turkey where the ruling government’s religious playbook demonizes the cultural sector as a liberal, political pariah. The social climate of diametric otherness has two primary effects. Firstly, it fixes media coverage, and cultural interest within narrow frames, on neo-Ottomans and Orientalists. Secondly, it normalizes and desensitizes its own citizenry to the failings of its liberalization projects, such that implicit in EU accession plans.
Genç mused on the pitfalls of his assuming the role of Turkish diplomat for readers in the UK while promoting the first book he wrote in English, Under the Shadow: Rage and Revolution in Modern Turkey, about the 2016 coup attempt. There was, at the time, much talk of Turkey’s worsening censorships, purges and tendency to isolationism. Genç found that he was as surprised by his unfeeling response to the unbroken history of undemocratic activity in Turkey as by the concerns of those living far from Istanbul. As a journalist tasked with translating everything from the speeches of Erdogan to the media landscape of his country for Anglophone readers of A-list publications such as The New York Times, The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker, Genç could still admit his apathetic cynicism in the face of interminable oppressions by state actors.
About the coverage of thousands of detained academics and civil servants following the failed coup attempt, he wrote of the fading shock of headlines: “Words had lost their impact” as Turkey had lost its identity, he wrote, and had become merely symbolic for a disillusioned idealism, especially among its diaspora, including, he told a television reporter, those “who had never been to Turkey.”
As he explained elsewhere, “I realized that the word ‘Turkey’ was just an excuse to discuss people’s dreams and frustrations.” As an authoritative observer of his society from inside and out, Genç felt there was no end in sight when attempting to resolve the byzantine multiplicity and numbing monotony of Turkey’s political history.
And in confrontation with Erdogan supporters, and those sympathetic to the success of Turkish populism, its ambitious industrial statism and apparent appeal to disenfranchised Islamic voters, Genç entered murky waters:
I came across Turks talking passionately about their imaginary homelands in different countries. Coming from Turkey, I found their descriptions out of touch with reality. They were too nostalgic or utopian, too pessimistic or naively positive. They were too critical or too adoring.’
While ostensibly written by a nightingale — a liberal leftist with a secular upbringing — The Lion and the Nightingale is reliably neutral in its assessment of Turkey’s political spectrum, critical of the shortcomings and benefits on both sides, and aware of how, in Turkey, they remarkably overlap and occupy each other’s space according to the changing guards of what might be called, simply, the power establishment.
When critiquing the élitist airs of his immediate circle of educated intellectuals in Turkey, Genç pointed out how everyone is potentially susceptible to the corruptions of power: “Most liberals mistakenly thought the secular condescension was about the Enlightenment ideas, or the French tradition of laïcité“, he wrote. “In fact, it was merely about being in power. Political power had that morally degrading influence.’
Matt A. Hanson is an art writer and freelance journalist. For the past three years, he has published weekly art reviews on Turkish and Middle Eastern contemporary artists and art histories, and has written for Tablet Magazine, Al-Monitor, ArtAsiaPacific, The Millions, Hyperallergic, and Words Without Borders and he has work forthcoming from the Jewish Review of Books and Rudaw English. As a former resident of Egypt, Canada, Mexico and Peru, his writings have been translated into Arabic, Hebrew, Turkish and Ladino. He also writes poetry and short fiction and he is currently working on an immigrant novel reflecting on his endangered Romaniote heritage. He reports for the Fortnightly from Istanbul.