Skyline of Levent, one of the main business districts in Istanbul and home to the city's tallest buildings, as seen from the Bosphorus.
© Ben Morlok
Skyline of Levent, one of the main business districts in Istanbul and home to the city's tallest buildings, as seen from the Bosphorus.
Last updated: September 12, 2013

Turkey through the eyes of literature

Banner Icon Literature Aslihan Agaouglu has picked her favourite Turkish novels from the Ottoman era to today, all by female authors. They take you through love, loss, the mutation of society from Ottomans to Turks, modernisation and its price, the Kurdish “issue”, generational conflict, the influence of East and West and much more…

Dear Shameless Death by Latife Tekin

One of the most influential female authors in contemporary Turkish literature has written eight novels, one play and a memoire. However, Dear Shameless Death is the only one that has been translated into English. Tekin’s debut novel is also semi-autobiographic, drawing many of its characters and events from reality.

Published in 1983, it is a “strange, magical story of a young girl growing up in modern Turkey, from her birth in a small rural village haunted by fairies and demons to her traumatic move to the big city.” We follow the story of the Aktas family, bearing witness to their struggle with modernity. The novel paints a portrait of village life towards the end of 1960s, as well as focusing on women’s issues such as education, marriage and family dynamics. Set against the pressures of a rapidly changing society, the story is moulded with Anatolian folklore and traditions.

The Clown and His Daughter by Halide Edib Adivar

Halide Edib Adivar was one of the very first female writers in Turkey and a very prolific one at that. A corporal in Ataturk’s army during the Independence War, she was the pioneer of Turkish feminism as well as the first female professor, focusing on issues such as the influence of East and West on Turkish national identity, women’s issues and the transition from Ottoman to Turkish identity.

She struggles to balance the traditional with the modern.

Clown and His Daughter, the most celebrated work of Edib, was originally written in English and published in England in 1935. The Turkish version followed a year later. It mirrors the last period of the Ottoman sultanate, specifically the Abdulhamid II era, when Westernisation and modernization began to show its effects on society. We witness the protagonist Rabia’s journey as she struggles to balance the traditional with the modern.

I am Istanbul by Buket Uzuner

It is not easy to write a story that takes place in a city like Istanbul and not make it one of the main characters, which is exactly what Buket Uzuner does with her novel, I am Istanbul. The story largely takes place in one venue that could truly capture the mosaic-like essence of Istanbul: the Ataturk international Airport. Our main character is a woman named Belgin, an Istanbul-born college professor who has given up her cushy job and apartment in New York to go back home and marry a sculptor named Ayhan. Who can resist a well-constructed homecoming story?

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Today, Istanbul is a cosmopolitan city with more than 13 million inhabitants. It is vibrant, diverse and intriguing and here’s a novel that captures all of these things, telling a story of Istanbul from the eyes of Istanbullians.

The Aziz Bey Incident by Ayfer Tunc

Ayfer Tunc is one of my all time favourite storytellers and this particular collection of short stories titled The Aziz Bey Incident is number one on my list! There is a deep sense of melancholy throughout the story of Mr. Aziz (or Aziz Bey, as its called in Turkish), and it is largely caused by the collision of urban traditions and modern life. We follow Aziz Bey, a master tambour player of local fame, whose life starches from Istanbul to Beirut because of his obsessive love for Maryam. And page by page we witness the fading of this love with the passage of time and change of circumstances.

The Lost Word by Oya Baydar

Baydar was an activist in the social movement during the 1960s, for which she was arrested and dismissed from her job as a researcher of socio-political structures. After her release she wrote for newspapers until the 1980s and had to flee Turkey after the 1980 coup; she lived mainly in Frankfurt and Moscow until 1992. She now lives in Istanbul and is one of country’s most celebrated authors.

One of the most powerful novels of modern Turkish literature, The Lost Word has the Turkish-Kurdish conflict at its heart. A mixture of thriller, love story and political novel, it uncovers an issue that has been, and still is, very sensitive in Turkey. The ideologies, traditions, obsessions behind the Kurdish issue are explored by a variety of characters.

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Aslihan Agaoglu
Aslihan Agaoglu was born in İstanbul and worked as a lawyer before she moved to England, where she did her MA in creative writing at the University of Kent. She is currently completing her Ph.D. at the department of Middle Eastern studies, King's College London.
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