Writing to Unite People: An Interview with Adalet Ağaoğlu

Conducted in Turkish and translated into English by Figen Bingül 

Adalet Ağaoğlu’s works are significant not only for their rich content, surveying the dialectic between the individual and society, but also for their technical and stylistic innovations. One of Turkey’s leading writers, Ağaoğlu has written about the social upheavals of the Republican era, namely the period of Westernization resulting from reforms and the struggles of individuals during this time. She has also dealt with issues relating to the intellectual’s confrontation with him or herself and with society.

Born in 1929, Ağaoğlu first achieved prominence as a playwright, writing for various theaters during the ’50s and ’60s. In the early ’70s, she began writing novels; the first, Lying Down to Die (1973), was heralded as a groundbreaking departure from the classical Turkish novel, and her first short story book, High Tension (1975), won the Story Award of the year. She has continued winning major prizes in Turkey ever since. Ağaoğlu was awarded an honorary doctorate in literature by Ohio State University in 1998.

My English translation of Summer’s End (Talisman House, $ 18.95), one of the author’s major novels, has just been published. Summer’s End is a good example of Ağaoğlu’s works, as the main theme is the search for individual happiness amidst the harsh realities of society. Taking place in an Eastern Mediterranean town at the end of the ’70s, the novel deals with issues springing from modernization and social conflict. While transporting the reader to a region with unmatched natural beauty and historical and mythological richness, Ağaoğlu analyzes her characters, affected by the political upheaval in the country at the time, as they struggle to find meaning in their lives.

In this interview, conducted late last year in Instanbul, Ağaoğlu talks about everything from the Turkish avant-garde to the political problems facing her country.

Figen Bingül: Your 1980 novel Summer’s End is now being published in the U.S. Why did you choose this specific novel for American readers?

Adalet Ağaoğlu: For America, or let’s say for the Western world, I chose this book because it talks about a region in the Eastern Mediterranean that has had a connection to both the East and the West, and the conflict between secular and religious cultures today. Since Turkey is a country whose three sides are surrounded by sea—the Mediterranean, the Aegean, and the Black Seas—we are considered to be a Mediterranean country. However, when the Mediterranean is mentioned, especially in literature, it’s mostly about the Aegean shore which neighbors Greece. But there’s a different reality in the Eastern Mediterranean, which stretches from Alanya to Iskenderun, to Mesopotamia, to the Middle East. The Western Mediterranean was already Westernized long ago; for foreigners to understand Turkish society, they need to know about the Eastern Mediterranean, too. Also, historically there are many cultures that have prospered here. Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Seljuk, and Ottoman civilizations have left many traces in this region. You can see many Roman and Byzantine ruins; there are bridges from the Roman era even in the forests. A portion of the Silk Road, along which spice caravans from Mesopotamia and Egypt passed, was located in this region. And according to mythology, Cleopatra lived here at one time. I talk about all these things in this novel, which in a way represents the cultural diversity and the conflicts of Turkey.

FB: It has been 27 years since this novel was published in Turkey. And during this time there has been a change in the Eastern Mediterranean, too. You predicted this change in your novel in terms of modernization, the building boom for the sake of tourism, and you voiced a concern that the natural beauty there would be ruined. Now, when you compare today with that time, do you see that your predictions have come true?

AA: I wrote this novel because that region had extraordinary natural beauty; it is located on the skirts of the Taurus Mountains, and in time, people from the mountain villages have come down here as part of a migration from villages to cities. And therefore, the change here has happened suddenly. The mountain people suddenly saw women in bikinis, men in shorts, when they came down to the shore. The conflict in the Western Mediterranean is not this strong, because in the East, the education level and economic level are much lower than in the West. So I predicted two things here: that the region’s nature will be ruined because of over-development, and I also said that there will be a great clash of sexual mores. You know, in the novel, there is an abandoned old house standing next to a huge motel construction. And now, that shore is full of resorts. Also, the highest rate of rape has been in this region. I had sensed this back then. After the ‘60s, people began to have cars, and this gave them mobility. People from Mid-Anatolia were able to come down to this shore directly, through Konya to Alanya. Back then people used to change their clothes on the beach, however the villagers did not even show their legs. This was the clash of sexual mores I saw. There has been great trauma for these people when they have been exposed to nudity—trauma that could be the subject of a novel. I think what I have predicted has come true.

FB: You have talked about “the geography of a novel” as opposed to “the novel of a geography.” What does this mean?

AA: For the last few years, I have been talking about this in my lectures. Is it the life of the author or the life of the novel that determines its geography? I think that it is more meaningful in terms of literature to say that the life of the novel determines its setting. It’s easy for an author to write about his life, the setting he lives in, the places, the food, the weather, and so forth, but if I’m going to talk about the conflict between secular and religious groups, then the life of the novel should choose the setting. And for this novel, I discovered the setting through living. We had a house in this region for many years. And I knew that that the nature there would not stay the same.

FB: You immortalized that place with this novel.

AA: Yes, I hoped to do that. I said: this place will be ruined by the huge development projects, but this novel will survive. There are numerous descriptions of the natural setting in this novel, unlike my other works. I also wanted to have the politics in the background, not in the foreground. In most of my novels, society and politics exist at equal levels; here, I preferred poetic language because poetry suited that nature. It is the life of the novel that chooses the setting. For instance, I chose Vienna for another novel of mine. What do I know about Vienna? I am a Turkish author who knows about her country, its geography. On the other hand, Turkey is now trying to get into the European Union, and in our history textbooks it’s often recounted how the Ottomans came as far as the “gates of Vienna.” Even though the Austrian Empire was weakened at the time, they got help from the French and the Polish, and they repulsed the Ottomans. I find this similar to our situation today: we are now waiting at the gates of the European Union just like we did at the gates of Vienna. This is also about the denigration of Turkey by the West. They’ve always seen us as a religious state. However, secularism and Westernization started with the reformist period of the Ottoman Empire. Also, the repelling of the Ottomans from Vienna came about through the cooperation of the Western countries. Now, they want to repel us from the European Union. I wanted to talk about these issues, so I chose Vienna as the setting for my novel.

FB: You’ve said, “This novel wrote itself,” about Summer’s End. How so?

AA: I wrote this novel at the end of the ‘70s. The protagonist is a woman whose son has been killed during the political upheaval that took place in that period. She has separated from her husband, but they support each other. These people are in the minority; they are intellectuals. The coup d’état that happened in 1971 isolated the intellectuals. On the one hand, there is grief for her son’s death, on the other hand her isolation and loneliness. Six people—she, her ex-husband, brother, and friends—come together at this remote, quiet place for a vacation. This woman is in such a terrible state that she doesn’t want to write anything—she is a translator who writes once in a while—but even though she doesn’t want to write, things around her, the momentary realities, and her imagination compel her to write this story. It all starts when she sees an abandoned old house and someone walking there; and throughout the vacation, she slowly imagines the story of the people who lived there. The associations evoked by nature, even the waves, bring back her memories and make her write this novel in her mind. She completes it when she goes back to the city. The potential in her finds a way out.

FB: You frequently talk about the ‘moment’ in Summer’s End.

AA: Yes, I always wanted to write novels spanning short periods of time, the novel of a moment. Summer’s End is like that: the narrator writes the novel starting from the moment when a woman is seen under the shower in the garden. I especially expressed this in this novel. My first novel, Lying Down to Die, takes place in a hotel room. It is a novel that spans an hour and twenty minutes. In another novel of mine, ROMANTIC: A Vienna Summer, the story originates from the moment of seeing a retired history teacher. And Summer’s End is a novel about many associations—there are numerous citations from foreign authors like Chekhov and Lermontov. I wrote it without knowing it would be called a postmodern novel. Back then, there was no mention of postmodernism in our literature. Years later, in a study done at the Turkish Studies department of Leiden University in Holland, they examined this novel, and, after evaluating it extensively, they concluded that it was a pre-postmodern novel. Later on, postmodern writing developed in Turkey, too—of course, imported from the West.

FB: You are known as one of the innovators of the modern Turkish novel. What did you change in the classical novel?

AA: I was tired of classical novels. They always used the present tense and the past tense, nothing further. I was not satisfied with the limited usage of grammatical tenses. I thought we needed a multi-tensed narrative, a multi-leveled narrative. Also, there was a genre which was popular at the time called the “rural novel.” It took place in villages or the countryside. There weren’t many “urban novels.” And if there were, they were only about Istanbul. I wasn’t happy with the classical novel, and I wasn’t satisfied with stream of consciousness writing either. This was Freud’s influence upon writing in the West, and then we adopted it. They wrote the parts in the stream of consciousness in italics or underlined and so forth. I thought: might it not be possible for me to write without doing these things, using my own language? When I tried to do this in my first novel, the critics found it odd, because I had used all styles of narrative together: memoir, dream, poetry, letter, and play. Then I also wrote a book of dreams. Dream narration is a different form of narration. What kind of language should you use to describe a dream? I used all grammatical tenses simultaneously. And also, Turkish has a special type of past tense, used when you pass on some information you’ve heard from others, and called the “indirect past tense” or “story past tense,” which other languages don’t have. I used that, too, in my novels. This is how I attained a multi-leveled narrative. I wanted to change both the style and the setting of the novel. I wrote the urban novel by playing with time and using different narrative styles together.

FB: Besides being multi-leveled, there is no definite ending in your novels. Do you refuse to be an omniscient author?

AA: Very true. I have always felt that the classical novel prevented the reader from thinking for himself. I want the reader to have a share in the story I tell. I want his imagination to work, too; I like him to create. I am not a godlike author, I do not know everything. I started writing with plays for theater and radio. If I could have done what I wanted in theater, I would have continued. But theater is a collective art, and there is censorship as well. I thought the novel was a better channel for me to express myself. It is a freer creation—well, of course, there has been the issue of banning books, but still, you’re all by yourself while creating it.

FB: You reject being a godlike author, and you have also said you do not write for the ideology of feminism, and you don’t want to be called a “woman author,” either. What sort of an author can we call you then?

AA: I don’t like to be categorized within any literary trend. I knew that when I wrote ROMANTIC: A Vienna Summer that they would categorize it as a postmodern novel. I even put a note at the beginning of the novel asking the reader not to think of this novel in terms of predefined templates, but determine what it was for himself. And about not being a feminist writer: I believe we write for the sake of the human, we write to understand and describe the human. We have to understand men as well as women. We see mostly a one-sided view for the sake of defending women’s rights: the woman is mostly portrayed as the good one, good mother, good wife, while the man is evil. But this is not about being good or bad. Two sexes live together in a society and there are conditions that shape them, making a person what he or she is. We have to understand these conditions to understand why they are the way they are. If a woman is repressed, why is that? What makes a man macho? I wrote a novel called A Chill in the Soul which takes place in bed, while a man and a woman make love. They both have their own baggage accumulated over the years, their own histories. Of course, as “women authors,” we have experiences a man cannot have, such as giving birth, menstrual pain, and so forth, but my writing is about uniting people. And I always look to answer the “why”.

FB: You’re one of the most prolific and eminent authors of Turkish literature, but your books have never been bestsellers. Why do you think that is?

AA: I think that the consumption economy disintegrates people and estranges them from themselves. I know that a book is a commodity and a tool for making money. But it is not a t-shirt or a kind of cereal. It is an intellectual product, and it never made me happy to see intellectual products on the market emptied of their content. I never wanted to be like that. I see production as a matter of continuity; I wouldn’t want to be here today, gone tomorrow. My publishing house included my works under the classics. They are being taught in schools. I’ve never been a bestseller, but I’ve never made a publisher lose money, either. When they ask me, “How do you regard the bestsellers?” I say, they taste like hormoned fruits. They look shiny and attractive, so one can’t resist buying them, but they taste nothing like real strawberries. I always say, let there be some writers to meet the demand of those who look for organic food.

FB: Is that how you became “a reader’s writer?”

AA: This is how it happened: I was accepted as a playwright in the beginning. Then my first novel, Lying Down to Die, was not received so well by two of the leading critics of the time. And in our literary world, when those two critics did not like your work, you had no chance to survive as an author. However this is not how it happened in my case because despite the negative reviews, readers liked this novel, both in terms of style and intellect. And when the critics realized this, they changed their mind. So I became a reader’s writer. It’s the reader’s appreciation, really. I believe the responsibility of an intellectual is not to go down to the level of the majority, but to raise the level together with them. Also, populism is not for me because I try to understand why the majority is what it is. I don’t expect everyone to embrace me. I accept loneliness. I think we have to question the human mind. We always consider the human mind as something sacred—of course it’s important; we wouldn’t even be able to have this conversation if it weren’t there. However, the same human mind makes inventions to enable massacres. We need to look at things that are exalted, held sacred, too. And also, there are the impossibilities and hardships that make us create and produce. I am a skeptic by nature. If I weren’t, I wouldn’t bother to write. It is always provocation that underlies creativity. Just like the invention of the wheel and fire.

FB: If we can say that there is an inclination to imitate the West in Turkey, has your work ever been compared to those from the West? Have you ever looked up to a Western author?

AA: I certainly might have been influenced by some. I loved reading. I read both native and foreign authors as much as I could. Of course, I had a language barrier. Even though I studied French in college, I cannot say that I understood everything in French, such as philosophy books. But I could read the plays, since dialogues are easy. I remember I was deeply affected by Camus; I have thought about him a lot. This may have had some influence on my writing, but I don’t know anyone that I looked up to. When I published my first novel, they said it sounded like Virginia Woolf or Christa Wolf. This was really strange because I had no idea about their works; I had not read any of them. So I didn’t like these comments. Let me tell you an incident about this: I was 22 years old when my first play was staged for the State Theater in Ankara. I had just graduated from college. And after the final act, I received a big applause—so much bigger than a male playwright would have received. It was as if they were saying: “There it is! The Republic of Turkey has produced its modern Turkish woman!” I felt that I was being presented as the victory of an ideology, and I didn’t like it. So I refused to get on the stage; I didn’t want to be shown to people as if I were a doll. I always wanted to be myself.

FB: Only one novel of yours, Curfew, has previously appeared in English, and it was published by an American university press. Even though you have produced such important works, why are you not translated more into English? Is this a common problem with Turkish literature?

AA: Believe me, I don’t know the answer to this question. Curfew received very good reviews, but it wasn’t printed a second time. On the other hand it has become a course book at Columbia University. I don’t know anything about this business, really. Maybe I don’t have a good agent. I think your agent should be able to comply with the new trends worldwide.

FB: Can we say it is difficult to translate Turkish into Western languages?

AA: Let’s face it, Turkish is not a common language, I mean the language of the Republic of Turkey. Otherwise, there are many Turkic languages. It is sad that many authors who have come before me are still not translated. But there is an interest now in Turkish literature because of the possibility of Turkey entering the European Union. And also, Turkology professors used to know more about Ottoman literature; they were unfamiliar with the new Turkish. There occurred many changes in our language and Turkologists were confused. During the transformation from Ottoman Turkish to the Turkish of the Republic, there were many additions and new concepts, so it took a long time for Turkologists abroad to learn about these changes. Other than this, I don’t know why I haven’t been translated, because there are some new authors who are not widely read in Turkey, but they are translated in such a short time. This still puzzles me. I don’t know how this mechanism works.

FB: You received an Honorary Ph.D. from Ohio State University in 1998. Would you tell us about it?

AA: It was really surprising, because I didn’t even have one book published in America. I was told that Ohio State historian Carter Findley nominated me for this. He had listened to one of my conferences in Turkey, and he was interested in my view about fantasy in literature. My book of dreams had been published recently and I had talked about the contribution of dreams to history. So they evaluated the nomination and bestowed me the award. It’s funny because I had resided in Columbus when my husband was working on his Masters degree at Ohio State from 1957 to 1959. When I went to OSU to receive the award, I had to give a thank you speech. So I told them that I thought they gave me this award because I had helped my husband type his thesis forty years ago!

FB: You’re dealing with so many serious issues, but you never lose your sense of humor.

AA: I am humorous by nature, I am playful. I can laugh at myself easily. I also swear at myself very often. I can see both sides to events—like the comedy and tragedy masks. I told you about uniting things. Things are not all tragic, nor all comic. We should always find the comedy in sad things; this is the only way to bear tragedy.

FB: Turkey is now facing new challenges in terms of secularism. Are you worried?

AA: The latest elections shocked the people who have believed in secularism. But this doesn’t mean anything. Instead of saying, it’s bad, we should look at why this happened. I wish societies were not under any kind of guardianship. The Republic of Turkey has experienced many coup d’états for many years, and it’s still under guardianship. I am against this. It is a republic, and governments should come and go by elections. I want a constitutional state. I don’t want a military government for the sake of secularism. And I cannot say that I approve any government. What we call belief turns into idolization. Someone who believes in the Koran turns it into an idol; you can’t touch it. To adore the military is the same thing. We have to understand the reasons for these beliefs. To be able to live in a humane society we have to have education, harmony, and communication. If everything had been left to elections within the Republic of Turkey, we might have been somewhere different today. We have to have the right to ask why things happened the way they did. Wherever there is an action, there is a reaction. This is the dialectic. I believe life is very strong, and in the end it will find what’s best for itself.

FB: Just like you say in the opening sentence of Summer’s End: “Everything finds what is true for itself.”

AA: Yes, this is the summary of it all: “Everything finds what is true for itself."

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008