Burhan Sönmez, who is president of PEN international, discusses the tension between politics and art and the role of literature in authoritarian societies.
The momentous Turkish presidential election, whose second round will take place on Sunday, has more than just geopolitical consequences; it is a watershed for culture as well. Since 2016, after a failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the government here has cracked down on artists, writers, filmmakers and academics, who have experienced censorship, job losses and a climate of fear.
For the novelist Burhan Sönmez, who is part of the country’s ethnic Kurdish minority, the upheavals of the Erdogan years are only the latest chapter in an ongoing struggle between Turkish power and Turkish art.
Born outside Ankara in 1965, where his first language was Kurdish, he worked as a human rights lawyer but went into exile in Britain after a police assault. He has written five novels, including the prizewinning “Istanbul Istanbul,” “Labyrinth” and “Stone and Shadow,” newly out in English by Other Press. His novels delve into imprisonment and memory, with echoes of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Jorge Luis Borges.
Sönmez now lives in Istanbul and Cambridge, and in 2021 he was named president of PEN International, where he has been an outspoken defender of freedom of expression in Turkey and elsewhere.
I spoke to Sönmez over video a few days after the first round of the Turkish general election, in which Erdogan finished a half-point shy of an absolute majority. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Istanbul has always been a city of arrivals. When did you first come here?
During the military-coup era, the 1980s. I was born and grew up in a small village in central Turkey. It’s in the middle of the countryside, like a desert village, without electricity. I moved to Istanbul to study law, and the next phase of my life began after I went to exile in Britain. So now I can combine those different spaces — small village, big Istanbul and then Europe. They all come together and sometimes they separate.
Frequently, there’s an indeterminacy of setting in your novels, not only of geography but of time. You rarely use the obvious tells of technology or current affairs that some authors use to ground a reader in time.
Particularly in my novel “Istanbul, Istanbul,” I didn’t state a specific year, or period, when the events take place. When people read it, everyone feels that this is the story of their generation.
For better and for worse!
Yes. But, you know, only a naïve writer would feel proud of that. You would say, “OK, I am reflecting the feelings of different generations in a single novel.” In fact, it comes from the society itself in Turkey. Every generation has gone through the same suffering, the same problems, same oppression, same pain. So it is not a literary talent, actually, to bring all those times into a single story.
In “Istanbul, Istanbul,” the narrators are prisoners, held without charge in underground cells, who tell one another stories. What their stories sketch in aggregate is a kind of dream-state Istanbul, where freedom is always abbreviated but with which freethinkers and artists remain hopelessly in love.
This really started in the 1850s, when the first liberal intellectuals were oppressed by the Ottoman sultan and went into European exile. When we look at this history over time, 150 or 170 years, we see that, with every decade, governments used the same methods of oppression against writers, journalists, academics, intellectuals.
But the tradition of oppression also created a tradition of resistance. And now look: After 20 years of the rule of Erdogan, still nearly half of society is against him strongly. We haven’t finished. This is partly our history of resistance.
Turkey, like America, has a strong political fault line between the cities and the countryside. But your novels have crisscrossed from Istanbul to rural Anatolia and back.
Especially in my last novel, “Stone and Shadow,” I wrote about this, comparing the eastern, middle and also the western part of Turkey over the last 100 years.
What’s the difference between life in a small village in rural Turkey and in Istanbul? You could say it’s the difference between living in a small hut with a gas lamp and living on a street with flashing neon lights. Two different worlds, two different eras.
But you should understand: Istanbul is now also part of rural Turkey. There has been a huge migration from the countryside. When I went to study in Istanbul, the population was about five million. Now it’s 17 million. It’s not easy for a big city to create a new citizen, a new cultural spirit.
On that subject, one of the most disturbing themes of this election has been the demonization around refugees. I wonder how it sounds to you, as a former refugee yourself.
The sad thing for Turkey now, we’ve seen a new rise of nationalism — in the color of racism, actually — against immigrants. There’s open racism against Syrians and Afghan people in Turkey. And every side, every political platform, has different ways of legitimizing this.
Right-wingers say, “These people are underdeveloped Arabs. This is a backward race.” From secular progressive people, you hear, “Oh, they’re right-wing Islamist militants. They are here to support Erdogan, and to invade our country, to turn it into an Islamic republic.” In every case, racism or hatred of immigrants is on the top of the agenda.
Nationalism now dominates almost every political movement.
Yet there’s a rare lightness and freedom to your characterization of these political themes. “Labyrinth,” the story of a musician who loses his memory after jumping into the Bosporus, barely hints at the upheavals of the Erdogan years, when the amnesiac sees a torn poster of the president and confuses him for a sultan.
We know the difference between art and journalism. Journalism speaks directly. Speaking this different language of art, we feel that we are no longer in the field of society, of politics. A political matter or a historical fact is just a color in my novel. That is real power. When I write a novel, I feel that I unite the past and the future. Because the past is a story and the future is a dream.
Has there been a self-censorship of artists and writers in Turkey over the last few years?
Well, first, every year more than 500 new Turkish novels are being published. When I was at the university, the number of new novels published in Turkish was about 15 or 20. That’s an enormous difference.
With the young generation, I see that they are brave. Despite all this oppression, this danger of going to prison or being unemployed, young people are writing fearlessly. They are writing about Kurdish issues, about women’s issues, about L.G.B.T. issues, about political crimes in Turkey.
Hundreds of writers are like this: writing openly, and at some point a bit dangerously, for themselves. This is something of which we should be proud.
As president of PEN International, you have a particularly close view of the state of free expression. Have things gotten any better in Turkey since the crackdowns of 2016-2017, when thousands of academics and journalists were arrested or purged?
No, no, it’s not better. In Turkey, we never got to distinguish between bad and good. It was always: bad or worse.
In Turkey, PEN International has been supporting writers in prison. For myself, being a lawyer, I have the opportunity to go to prisons. Anytime I go to Turkey, I use this advantage. I go and I see Selahattin Demirtas, or Osman Kavala, so many people. It is sad to see great people are still in prison.
But also it is great to see that we have solidarity. At the end of my novel “Istanbul, Istanbul,” I used an epigraph by a Persian Sufi from the Middle Ages. He says, “Hell is not the place where we suffer, it’s the place where no one hears us suffering.” I know that if I am arrested, I will never be left alone.
I probably shouldn’t ask you what you expect when Turks vote in the presidential runoff next Sunday. …
No, you should ask. I think we’ll win. I’m too optimistic in life, and very naïve.