A Sour Love Affair: Literature and Politics in Turkey
There was a time when literature and politics were inseparable in Turkey. But gradually, perhaps with the impact of years of abuse of the ruling governments, literature seems to have taken a step away from politics, and even history, writes Aslihan Agaoglu. © YME Illustration department
A Sour Love Affair: Literature and Politics in Turkey
Last updated: December 11, 2013

A Sour Love Affair: Literature and Politics in Turkey

Banner Icon There was a time when literature and politics were inseparable in Turkey. But gradually, perhaps with the impact of years of abuse of the ruling governments, literature seems to have taken a step away from politics, and even history, writes Aslihan Agaoglu.

The power of literature over communities and societies cannot be denied. Good literature is able to plant something in the minds of individuals, which may unify and form masses that can start revolutions, overthrow dictators, change laws and tradition and reshape the future. That “something” is an idea and there is no doubt that literature is the most efficient way to get that idea out there and plant it into minds.

Like any powerful tool, while it is considered to be the key to changing our lives by some, others may consider it to be a weapon of mass destruction. It is no surprise then, there was a time in Turkish history when books were considered to be enough “evidence” to arrest young people and imprison them for the crime of being corrupt and even an enemy of the state. There was a time in Turkey, like in many other countries in the course of the world’s history, when books were read, hastily devoured, then burnt or buried deep in the ground, like dead bodies, with the fear of getting captured, thrown into prison, tortured and perhaps even murdered.

"We have already begun to forget our past and literature’s divorce with politics had a lot to do with this collective amnesia"

These times I speak of were during the sixties and seventies, when there was a military coup every decade and freedom of the mind was not considered a human right. Intellectuals of the time, who were captured, escaped or sent into exile, wrote about ideas like Islam, Marxism, communism, freedom or any other particular way they believed would serve the better interest of the Turkish nation. However, this dangerous love affair between politics and literature flourished long before the time of the military coups. It actually laid the groundwork for Turkish nationalism and thus enabled Turkey to be born from the ashes of the “sick man of Europe,” the Ottoman Empire.

In the 1910s and early 1920s, a large group of Turkish intellectuals, including Omer Seyfettin, Ziya Gokalp, Yakup Kadri, Halide Edib and Yusuf Akcura, were among the writers who shaped the views of the Turkish nation during World War I and injected ideas of Turkism and nationalism during the tough times of occupation and Turkish War of Independence. Once independence was earned and the new republic was established, they kept on guiding and reflecting people of Turkey with their writings. They wrote articles for newspapers and magazines, plays, short stories and novels to reshape the minds of the public and gave them enough courage to fight for independence. If this does not prove the power of the written word, I don’t know what does.

Today, if we wish to grasp a better, deeper understand of the transition period from Ottoman Empire to Republic of Turkey, our best chance of getting there is through literature. The profound and rich literature from the said era lays out reasons, causes and effects of the transition – the reforms, the attempts of westernisation through the eyes of everyday people and their everyday lives. We witness the change in the Turkish psyche, the re-construction of Turkish national identity and understand how the reforms in education, law, clothing and language affected the individual as well as the society as a whole. The literature of the period is a far better, and perhaps more objective, record than any political archive.

It could be said that there was a time when literature and politics were inseparable in Turkey: you could not get one without the other. Today, however, in contemporary Turkish literature, this is not the case. Gradually, perhaps with the impact of years of abuse of the ruling governments, literature seems to have taken a step away from politics, and even history. The mentioned writers’ works are being treated as text books in history classes, students dreadfully go through them for good grades and then, like writings on water, they disappear from their minds. This is sad, but it goes beyond that. It is also alarming because it means that we have already begun to forget our past and literature’s divorce with politics had a lot to do with this collective amnesia.

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In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera writes: “Forgetting is a form of death ever present within life… but forgetting is also the great problem of politics. When a big power wants to deprive a small country of its national consciousness it uses the method of organised forgetting… A nation which loses awareness of its past gradually loses its self.” I happen to believe the best antidote for forgetfulness, or collective amnesia, is literature. It is, after all, our shared past, a record of events, thoughts, feelings, discoveries, struggles and accomplishments in written form. Without it, we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.

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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