Sema Kaygusuz was born in 1972 in Samsun, Turkey. Due to her father’s itinerant military career, she lived in various regions across Turkey. A wide range of folk tales, legends and stories remain her greatest sources of inspiration. She is the author of four critically acclaimed collections of short stories, three award-winning novels and a forthcoming play, ‘The Sultan and the Poet’. Her work has been translated into German, French, Swedish and Norwegian. Alongside Inci Aral, Denise Mina and Panos Karnezis, she was a keynote speaker at the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference: Izmir in February 2013.
We spoke to Sema from her home in Istanbul, ahead of her participation in this weekend’s Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. She’ll be discussing the Future of the Novel with China Miéville and Hari Kunzru this Saturday at 5pm. During the course of our conversation the noise from the demonstration outside Sema’s window interrupted us and forced a hiatus, so we begin with:
EWWC: How are things in Istanbul at the moment?
SK: Things are a little bit difficult, but exciting. The demonstrations taking place at the moment are very important; we’re trying to build a new Turkey. Every day people continue to meet together in parks all over Istanbul, working together in small groups to talk about the future of Turkey.
EWWC: You took part in the EWWC Izmir last March, delivering a fascinating keynote speech on National Literature. In your speech you said “the fiction that is ‘country’ is to me an inner trouble and an outer burden that increases day by day. I do not want to be represented by it, or to be its representative”. Have your views changed since you gave that speech?
SK: At the time I wrote that speech, I had no hope. I was a total pessimist. But after the demonstrations started my feelings changed – and I felt OK, I do have a country after all. And now I am feeling very optimistic, because in these demonstrations all the different classes of people are coming together. There is no homophobia or sexism; all rights groups are clinging together. It’s the first time I’ve seen this in Turkey. Before I always felt alone – I never felt that I had a country. I realise now that I can take a deep breath; it feels very modern, very democratic and very exciting. It’s a time to make things new.
From the West Turkey is often seen as a very exotic place, and viewed from a very clichéd Orientalist viewpoint. Of course the reality is very diverse. For example, 50% of the literature sold in Turkey is translated, and that’s across all genres. We have a very vibrant, diverse literary culture. But when I go outside of Turkey all I am asked about is political issues, women’s issues, Islam …
The Conference was very useful, it’s so important to talk together and to meet new writers. The student audience was very focused, asking probing and important questions. We felt very connected to each other.
EWWC: At the Edinburgh conference event last August, Ahdaf Soueif, in her keynote address on literature and current affairs, said: “In Egypt, in the decade of slow, simmering discontent before the revolution, novelists produced texts of critique, dystopia, of nightmare. Now, we all seem to have given up – for the moment – on fiction.” Can you talk a little about how writers in Turkey are reacting and responding to the current unrest?
SK: In the 1950s in Turkey there was a very strong political, polemical strand to literature – not just novelists but from writers across the board. But now writers know to use allegory and metaphor; they know that if you make things directly political the literature will be flat. Sometimes, I know, a country needs to hear its reality from its writers. Right now in Turkey there are some books being published following swiftly in the wake of the demonstrations. They are interesting, sociologically- based texts – but these are the grapes; in the next five years we will be able to drink our wine.
EWWC: Do you feel there is such thing as a community of writers in Turkey?
SK: In Turkey there are lots of opportunities to talk to other writers – we have a lot of projects together and there are lots of conferences. So much so that it can sometimes be difficult to find an audience! Every weekend people have so many speeches and events to choose from, particularly in terms of commercial literature – people always want to talk to bestselling writers.
Literature is such an important vehicle with which to talk about sociology, history, and so on. Since this year’s demonstrations began, people’s confidence in themselves to speak and express themselves has increased – the atmosphere of Turkey has completely changed. When they’re speaking publicly people are less cynical and less prudent even, than before. And there is always a lot of humour.
EWWC: If there was a writers’ conference in 50 years time, what questions do you think it would address?
SK: Literature is changing. Some forms of literature are going to die. In some places like France for example, nobody wants to read short stories any more, it’s difficult to get them published. In Germany, it’s the same with poetry. Maybe in the next 50 years – when I’m a very old lady – I would make a case for short stories being very big art. I have written a play recently and found it to be a very difficult form – you only have dialogue and the stage and lighting directions at your disposal. The novel on the other hand is a very elastic form. I like the novel.
EWWC: If you had to choose one or two writers from the Turkish canon to recommend, who would that be?
Thank you Sema!
To buy tickets for The Novel: Tenacious as a Cockroach? EWWC event on 17th August at Edinburgh International Book Festival, with Sema Kaygusuz, Hari Kunzru and China Miéville, click here.