The Silencing of Writers in Turkey


By Elif Shafak

The Hungarian-British writer Arthur Koestler, born in Budapest at the turn of the last century, became, over the course of his life, intimately familiar with the dangers of authoritarianism. It was the corroding effects of such rule on the human soul that preoccupied him as much as the unbridled concentration of power. “If power corrupts,” he wrote, “the reverse is also true: persecution corrupts the victim, though perhaps in subtler and more tragic ways.”

If Koestler is correct, and authoritarian regimes end up corrupting, along with themselves, their critics, then the Turkish literati have yet another reason to worry. For years, we have been journeying through a dark, narrowing tunnel of “illiberal democracy.” The ruling élite of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party, the A.K.P., has refused to acknowledge that free elections are not enough to sustain a democracy. There are other necessary constituents: separation of powers, rule of law, freedom of speech, women’s rights and minority rights, and a diverse, independent media. Without these bulwarks, the ballot box alone only paves the way for “majoritarianism” at best and authoritarianism at worst.

The attempted coup in July, which left more than two hundred people dead, was shocking and wrong; it made everything worse. But it is one of the endless ironies of Turkey that the liberals and democrats who were among the first to oppose the putschists’ sinister attempts to overthrow the A.K.P. government would also become the first to be punished and silenced by that very same government. More than a hundred and forty journalists are in prison in Turkey today, making the country the world’s leading jailer of journalists—surpassing even China. Friends and colleagues have been exiled, blacklisted, arrested, imprisoned. The esteemed linguist Necmiye Alpay, who celebrated her seventieth birthday behind bars; the novelist Asli Erdogan; the novelist Ahmet Altan; the scholar Mehmet Altan; the liberal columnist Sahin Alpay; the editor-in-chief of the secularist Cumhuriyet newspaper, Murat Sabuncu, and his literary editor, Turhan Günay — the list of imprisoned writers and journalists is daunting, and we all know, deep down, that it could get even longer any day.

The New York Times recently reported that “mainstream authors have enjoyed an odd, if partial, immunity to the crackdown by the government.” But what we do not know are the effects of the ongoing crackdown on those of us who are “free.” As one commentator wrote on social media, “If all these writers are ‘inside,’ none of the other writers can really said to be ‘outside.’ ”

We need fiction — not less, but more — at times of turbulence and unrest. But it would be naïve to assume that our fiction is immune, untouched by these events. Since the Arab Spring, I have had many exchanges with writers from “wobbly geographies” — Egypt, Pakistan, Libya, Tunisia. We all know that when you are a novelist from such territories, you do not have the luxury of being apolitical. And although every discipline in the arts is susceptible to degeneration and manipulation under authoritarian regimes, fiction is particularly at risk in such circumstances — prose, rather than poetry. In “The Prevention of Literature,” George Orwell considered the fates of the two genres under nondemocratic rule. A poet could survive despotism relatively unscathed, unhurt, Orwell thought, but not a prose writer, who could neither control nor limit the range of his thoughts without “killing his inventiveness.” Orwell examined the ways in which literature had withered away in Germany, Italy, and Russia whenever autocracy was on the rise. Then he warned future writers, “Poetry might survive in a totalitarian age, and certain arts or half-arts, such as architecture, might even find tyranny beneficial, but the prose writer would have no choice between silence or death.”

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Silence is a strange thing, a gooey, sticky substance that sours the longer you keep it inside your mouth, like a gum gone rotten without your being aware. And it carries a contagion: strangely, silence loves company. It is easier to remain silent when others, too, do the same. Silence hates individuality. Silence hates solitude.

Prose, on the other hand, requires those things — which are already difficult to achieve in a society as collectivistic and as polarized as Turkey’s. The challenge is greater, I think, for women writers, who are still regarded as daughters or wives or mothers rather than as individuals who can think and write on their own. In Turkey, age and gender, alongside class and wealth, constitute the main dividing lines, and women writers struggle to earn respect before they are “old” in the eyes of society and, therefore, desexualized, defeminized. Until that moment arrives, the rhetoric of sexism and derogation that you are subjected to as a woman writer will be sharper.

Strikingly, a considerable part of such slander will come from people located inside the new cultural élite. Nothing is sadder than the emergence of opportunistic “journalists” and “writers” under authoritarianism. Some of these figures will be older writers who have not had the kind of success they want, and are determined to take advantage of the crackdown, with hopes of climbing fast. Others will be neophytes eager to reap benefits from darkness and chaos. In Turkey, we now have a cohort of such people, who publicly call for the arrest of their colleagues and celebrate when their wishes come true.

Apart from this opportunistic reaction, there seem to me to be four basic responses among Turkish writers to the loss of intellectual and artistic freedom. First, there is depoliticization — voluntary self-censorship. It is an escape into our own imagination. In The World of Yesterday, a memoir about life in Vienna before the rise of the Nazi Party, Stefan Zweig wrote, “Forget it all, I told myself, escape into your mind and your work, into the place where you are only your living, breathing self, not a citizen of any state, not a stake in that infernal game, the place where only what reason you have can still work to some reasonable effect in a world gone mad.” Those who take this path will mostly choose nonpolitical subjects, writing safe stories about love and heartbreak. In the meantime, things will become more ominous beyond our windows, colleagues and friends will get into trouble, but we will bury our heads in our piles of books, sincere in our passion for creativity but fearful to the core of the forces suppressing creativity.

Then there is the path of over-intellectualization — a change in style rather than in subject. Those who pursue this road will begin to write in a more indirect, more convoluted way, saying, but not exactly saying, the unsayable, keeping their sentences too long, their descriptions too abstract so that they won’t have to call an autocrat an autocrat.

There are also those who will find themselves catapulted into a new public role for which they had not been prepared, having to fight against power, injustice, inequality, oppression. Their art might thrive or it might suffer — not because of the government’s suppression, necessarily, but because too much politics could smother the art of storytelling.

The last and fourth path is satire, a sharp, black humor. What better response to the situation than to make fun of authority, and to make fun of a society that so fears its baba — and also to make fun of ourselves, the writers and artists, who are trying to survive by selling our souls a little bit more every day? Humor is a dangerous business in Turkey, though; it’s no wonder that among those arrested is one of the country’s leading cartoonists, Musa Kart.

While these four paths extend before us, we find ourselves divided into little cells, with glass walls. Even old friendships are fractured. Writers from wobbly geographies are being compelled to write and talk about politics like never before. Every day we face the challenge of how to balance the mundane and the momentous, the banal and the sublime, the “inside” and the “outside.” Every day we face the challenge of how to defend nuances in a culture of gross generalizations, how to build bridges of empathy where pitting one side of the society against the other plays into the hands of populist demagogues. And although the Turkish case is in some ways uniquely depressing, it is part of a much larger trend. Wave after wave of nationalism, isolationism, and tribalism have hit the shores of countries across Europe, and they have reached the United States. Jingoism and xenophobia are on the rise. It is an Age of Angst — and it is a short step from angst to anger and from anger to aggression. If Koestler and Zweig were alive today, they would recognize the symptoms immediately.

(Elif Shafak is a novelist from Turkey. She lives in London and writes in both Turkish and English. This essay originally appeared in the New Yorker on  December 10, 2016.)


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