Temelkuran Speaks on Turkish Politics and Her New Novel The Time of Mute Swans


By Aram Arkun

Mirror-Spectator Staff


CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Turkish journalist and author Ece Temelkuran presented a talk organized by the BostonBul organization at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on November 27. This event was part of the tour for the newly published English translation of her book, The Time of Mute Swans.

Temelkuran said that though this was a novel, it was at the same time a political work, so she would also speak about current Turkish politics.

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“I have been a political person since I have been 8 years old so I see no harm in combining politics with literature,” she explained at the start of her talk.

Temelkuran was introduced by Emrah Altindis of BostonBul to a primarily young and Turkish audience. She began speaking in fluent and wry English.

Temelkuran said that popular literature did not often deal with the history of the Turkish republic, and instead focused on the Ottoman Empire, as if the former were not poetic enough to be portrayed. She decided to rectify this with her novel, and was inspired by a number of true stories, including episodes from her childhood.

Apparently the leading general of the 1980 coup in Turkey, Kenan Evren, decided to build a new park in the Turkish capital of Ankara and took swans from the already existing Swan Park to the new location. To prevent them from attempting to fly back, he ordered veterinarians to take decisive measures, and they operated on the swans to remove a certain bone. As a consequence, the swans could no longer fly.

Eventually, people in Ankara forgot that swans normally could fly, and thought this was the natural state of swans. Temelkuran used this as a metaphor for Turks after the military coup, when people forget their human capacity for creation and resistance.

Another symbolic event in 1980 was the visit of migrating swans from Siberia for the first time. Temelkuran in wonderment exclaimed that it was if they were trying to remind the people of Turkey that swans can actually fly, and that people can do things. They returned every year until 2013, which was the year of the Gezi Park uprising. Again, it was as if their mission was accomplished and people finally were aware that swans can fly and people can resist. During the Gezi uprising, university students in Ankara ran to protect the swans from teargas, just as her two eight-year-old characters attempted to protect the swans from the crippling effects of the 1980 coup.

The subtitle of Temelkuran’s talk was “Remembering as a Cure for Global Political Sickness.” Temelkuran said that she learned from her work on the Armenians and the Kurds that when society is offered the chance to remember, it rejects it, yet remembering is the cure for many social sicknesses, including the 1980 coup, which has almost been completely erased from Turkish social memory.

Temelkuran said that Evren had set the stage for Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the changes instituted by the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Turkey was forced into a market society, being forced to “descend to the nadirs of banality by encouraging the evil in human nature.”

The rest of the world also has endured the tribulations of a market society, she said, and reacts with a movement called “rising populism.” Though she did not like this nomenclature, because it disconnected the present with the economic and social changes of the 1980s, she felt that there was a global movement and Turkey had much to contribute to it because “unfortunately Turkey has a lot of experience when it comes to insanity.”

She concluded, “I don’t believe that words are strong enough to change the world. …they are too fragile to do that kind of work. But I do believe that words can preserve beauty and remind people of their capacity to create beauty. It can also remind people that they can fly.”

The audience for the most part appeared to agree with Temelkuran’s analysis. In the question session, they peppered her with requests for guidance on the best way to resist in a world where, as one questioner said, there is no balance and things are tipped toward the powerful. Another audience member asked how to get through to the ignorant and indifferent, who today form a majority.

Temelkuran said that it was not possible to prove facts in a post-truth society. Instead, she said, one needs to come up with a solid counter-narrative, and to do this it is necessary to remember, and to think in literature. A socialist, Temelkuran placed her hope on collective thinking and progress in small steps.

An audience member asked about the identity of minorities like Armenians, Jews or Kurds in a society which keeps forgetting its history. Temelkuran said that as far as Armenians or Jews were concerned, they were feeling intimidated not only due to the hostile discourse directed against them from the highest levels of power, but also because they know that nothing will protect them. Temelkuran pointed out that with Turkish secularists now under attack, that suddenly they too learned how it felt to be a minority, and how horrible it was.

Temelkuran, a graduate of Ankara University’s Faculty of Law, began her career as a journalist for the newspaper Cumhuriyet in 1993. She was a columnist for the Turkish newspapers Milliyet (2000-2009) and Habertürk (2009-January 2012), but lost her positions after being critical of the Turkish government. She is the author of many books, including Deep Mountain: Across the Turkish-Armenian Divide (first published in Turkish in 2008 and in English translation in 2010), which received a mixed reception among Armenians. Her most recent nonfiction book, Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy, was published in English translation in 2016. Her articles appear in the Guardian, New York Times, Le Monde diplomatique, and Bookforum magazine. She has won many awards, such as PEN for Peace, Turkish Journalist of the Year, and in 2008 the Aysenur Zarakoglu Award for Freedom of Thought and Expression.

The BostonBul organization describes itself on its Facebook site as follows: “We are students, academics, intellectuals, artists, workers, business people and citizens of Turkey and citizens of Boston. We are here to show our continued solidarity with our friends in Turkey who have been subjected to immense police brutality by the current administration as a reaction to their mass protests since the beginning of the Gezi Park demonstrations.”



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