In a welcome move to break the near-monopoly of fiction sourced from a familiar pool of American, European and Japanese writers, a batch of new Turkish works will be appearing in bookstores throughout China in 2017. And they won’t be limited to further releases by Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, whose name is virtually synonymous with Istanbul among Chinese readers, or Turkey’s most popular female novelist Elif Şafak (The Bastard of Istanbul).
One of the fresh faces coming to China is Ece Temelkuran’s. Notably, she will have not one but three books — including two novels — out in Chinese within
2017. The first of these, 香蕉的低语 (Banana Sounds), set in war-torn Beirut, launched in October 2016. Now under translation are a novel about four women motoring across North Africa, 《下诅咒的女人》（暂译）(Why Have a Revolution if I Can’t Dance), and a book-length exploration of “Turkishness,” intriguingly entitled 我的祖国：土耳其的疯狂与忧愁 (Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy).
At long last, Turkey’s most classic novel of the 20th century, The Time Regulation Institute, was published in Chinese earlier this year (时间调校研究所). Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar’s satirical look at the effects of a social engineering project gone awry — in which the Turkish authorities urge the public to jettison its Ottoman culture and ape the West no matter how bizarre the result — has been rendered by a German-based Chinese translator, Tan Lin (谭琳). Regrettably, the Chinese is based upon the German translation of Tanpınar’s original; indeed, there is a dearth of well-trained Turkish-Chinese literary translators, though several of Pamuk’s novels have been translated from the Turkish for Horizon Books.
The Time Regulation Institute joins a series of five Chinese renditions of contemporary Turkish novels already published by Shanghai Literature and Art Publishing (土耳其当代文学丛书). They include novels by some of Turkey’s best known living writers, such as Oya Baydar and Mario Levi. An additional four Turkish novels will join the series in 2017. They are: The Dervish Gate by Ahmet Ümit (托钵僧之门); Hakan Günday’s The Few (黑暗边缘); Hakan Bıçakçı’s Dark Room (黑屋), and Secrets Dreamed in Istanbul (伊斯坦布尔寻梦记,暂译) by Nermin Yıldırım.
Temelkuran is a female columnist, investigative journalist and novelist who, like any journalist worth her salt in today’s Turkey, was fired from her job at a newspaper for penning commentary that the government of the day deemed politically incorrect. She is the author of Deep Mountain, Across the Armenian-Turkish Divide, which explores how memory is constructed on both sides of the Armenian-Turkish conflict. Her novels are edgy too, touching on hypersensitive social and political issues.
Her literary debut in China comes at an extraordinarily tempestuous time in her home country. Since the failed coup of July 2016, the government has declared a state of emergency and carried out a far-reaching crack-down mainly targeting citizens with ties to the Gülenist network — allegedly the force behind the coup — as well as those accused of supporting the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is waging an armed struggle to win limited autonomy for Turkey’s Kurdish population. Estimates are that over 100,000 people, including military professionals, civil servants, teachers and businesspeople have been investigated for such ties, forced to resign from their posts or fired, formally blacklisted in lists published on the Internet, or even arrested and jailed.
It is a particularly worrisome time for journalists. According to Britain’s The Guardian newspaper, as of end October more than 100 Turkish journalists had been arrested, and 160 media outlets seized by the government or closed outright.
Interestingly, the Chinese rights to Temulkuran’s latest work of non-fiction — a controversial one in her home country — Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy, have also been purchased by Horizon Books (世纪文景), a firm that had so far focused on Turkish fiction, most notably as publisher of many of Pamuk’s novels.
“I first heard about the book at a meeting held to discuss potential purchases after our copyright division returned from the 2016 London Book Fair,” explains Horizon’s Cheng Yuzhen (成昱臻). “I admired Ece’s reflections on the history of Turkey, its present and its future, and particularly the impact of the past on the convoluted relationships between various ethnicities in contemporary Turkey. Some of the questions she ponders in the book are those that humankind encounters in any form of society, not just Turkey’s. It can even be said that they could exist wherever people inhabit in groups or in multiethnic regions.”
Below are excerpts from my interview with Ece Temelkuran conducted by e-mail:
Humes: Until recently, only a handful of contemporary Turkish authors had been published in China. The best known were certainly Orhan Pamuk (most of his essays and fiction have appeared in Chinese) and Elif Şafak. Two of your novels are also now being rendered into Chinese. PRC-based fans of Pamuk – who likely have no other image of “Turkey” or “Turkishness” – have been fed a diet that focuses on Istanbul, hüzün and the occasional kafkaesque plot. What sort of themes will they find in your novels?
Temulkuran: Every writer has a different tale to tell of her or his country. And Istanbul, as we all know, is the city that everyone focuses on, whereas I set my latest novel in Ankara, the nation’s capital. If you tell the story of Turkey from Ankara, you start talking about the “real” Turkey, the dream that originated in 1923 when the Turkish Republic was founded, and how it failed. Istanbul is Empire, Ankara is Republic. Istanbul is bohemian, Ankara is caring for the disenfranchised. Istanbul is leisure, Ankara is struggling for the country. Istanbul is always associated with a long history, while Istanbul intelligentsia look down on Ankara for not having a history. Praising Istanbul is easy with its natural magnificence but praising Ankara requires faith in humankind, because Ankara represents the human struggle to build something out of nothing.
Humes: Relatively little contemporary Chinese fiction has been translated into Turkish. Examples include Gao Xingjian’s One Man’s Bible and Soul Mountain, Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem, and Su Tong’s Rice. Since Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize in 2012, however, several of his novels have appeared in Turkish, including Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum and Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out. Have you read any Chinese literature in translation?
Temelkuran: As a matter of fact, I’ve just started Mo Yan’s Big Breasts and Wide Hips, and this is the first time I’ve read Chinese fiction. Except for The Little Red Book and Maoist political literature — I’m embarrassed to say — I’m quite ignorant about Chinese authors. I guess that is not entirely my fault, however. Chinese literature for some reason seems to be opening up to the world recently.
Humes: Coup d’état literature is a curiously Turkish genre of fiction. According to research by one scholar, Ece Cihan Ertem’s Political Novels of 1980 Coup d’état in Turkey, it alone generated some 200 political novels in Turkish. Your latest novel, Time of the Mute Swans (Devir), deals with the 1971-80 period when not one but two putsches took place. Why have so many Turkish authors chosen to write about life under military rule, and what unique aspects does your new novel bring to the genre?
Temelkuran: Considering the massive significance of the incident, if anything, I’d argue there hasn’t been enough literary output about the 1980 military coup. Those days were the origin of today’s chaos, totalitarianism and turmoil, which have impacted not just Turkey but all the Middle East. It was the turning point in Turkish history when the organized attack on the educated, progressive and secular became unstoppable. September 12, 1980 is when all the elegance in this country that we associate with that which is nice, good and humane crumbled. It was not just a political turning point; it was also an ethical one for society as a whole. Henceforth, the powerful became the almighty, and questioning authority became inconceivable.
This is why in my novel there are Swans — symbolizing elegance —and two children who try to rescue them from the hands of the Dictator.
One of the most important things about the novel that separates it from earlier ones about the 1980 coup is that I wrote it after the 2013 Gezi Protests. There were actually kids during that summer who tried to save the birds in Ankara’s Swan Park when the police fired tear gas to disperse the encampment. You see, it is a cycle of Dictators, and kids striving to rescue the Beautiful; a tale of Turkey, and not just another “coup” novel.
Humes: In a recent interview with Refinery29, you said:
Now I mostly write articles in English, and only write literature in my mother tongue. I guess a woman should be like a phoenix in a part of the world where justice is so rare.
What motivated you to move on from your work as a columnist and investigative journalist, and turn to writing fiction? Why the “split” – articles in English, fiction in Turkish? And what do you think of Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s brand of non-fiction?
Temelkuran: I started by writing fiction and continued doing so when I was a journalist. After I was fired from my job as a columnist in 2012, I felt my only option was to return to my roots. What do you do when you’re kicked out on the street? You go home! Since then I have been commissioned to write by the likes of New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spiegel and Le Monde. Therefore I simply publish where my writing is welcome. I am fine with it because it also gives me the chance to look at my homeland from a distance, using from another language.
As for Alexievich, we conversed recently on Skype about her book published in Turkish, Second-Hand Time. What we do is similar in a way: Orchestrating human voices to document our era, while playing with the border that is said to divide journalism and literature. Considering that all my novels are based on true stories and feed on reality’s magic, I guess we both mock the ‘separation’ between journalism and literature.
Humes: In Banana Sounds, Deniz, a Turkish grad student at Oxford, utters this sentence in a chat with a local scholar:
“Let’s not say I’m Turkish,” Deniz said, smiling. “Let’s simply say I’m from Turkey.”
What does she mean?
Temelkuran: This is a scene in the novel that touches on the problem of ‘national identity’ sarcastically. We know every kind of nationalism assumes a vocal superiority — masking a deep-seated sense of inferiority — that is completely unnecessary, in my opinion. Our heroine Deniz touches on the topic the only briefly. There are Syrians, Lebanese, British, Palestinians, Japanese, Italians and Filipinas in this novel, and ultimately you realize that each of them is actually comprised of star matter; some from dead stars, some from living ones.
Humes: There are a number of brief but poignant lines in Banana Sounds about the city of Beirut. They include:
Yes, Beirut . . . that city is the subconscious of the Middle East. You can see what’s happening in the Middle East from anywhere, but as for why it’s happening . . .You can only see that from Beirut.
Why did you set the novel in Beirut? Have you lived there? Does Beirut have special significance for the typical Turkish reader?
Temelkuran: Beirut is not a place; it’s more of an ‘idea’. It has been so during its entire history, I suppose. Beirut is the idea of West meeting East, the place where anything can happen. That’s why I set the novel there, and why I chose to live in the city for a year. My first time there I was a journalist covering Israel’s attack on Hezbollah in 2006. Something got under my skin, and I found myself being attracted by the city. In the midst of the war I heard tell of “banana sounds” — the sound they make as they grow — but it was too noisy to hear them then, so I had to go back. Which I did eventually, in 2008. Beirut is a long, long story but if you want me to reduce it to one sentence, it would be: “It’s complicated!” [End]