Tales of Beauty, Hope, and Laughter: An Interview with Burhan Sönmez

Source: Words without Borders / www.wordswithoutborders.org / By Canan Magasligil /

Award-winning writer Burhan Sönmez has authored three novels, most recently Istanbul Istanbul (trans. Ümit Hussein, OR books, May 2016). His writing has appeared in international media, including the Guardian, Der Spiegel, Die Zeit, and La Repubblica. Sönmez received the 2017 Vaclav Havel Library Foundation’s “Disturbing the Peace” Award for his courageous dissent in Turkey. Before turning to writing, Sönmez worked as a human rights lawyer in Istanbul. He currently divides his time between Istanbul and Cambridge.

We spoke with Sönmez about his childhood fairy tales, literature in translation, and the city of Istanbul and its place in literature and in our collective memories.

Canan Marasligil (CM): You were born and grew up in Anatolia and your mother would tell you fairy tales in Kurdish when you were young. How did these tales and your childhood environment influence the writer you are today?

Burhan Sönmez (BS): When I was a kid living in a small village, I would make wishes in the hope that they would eventually become true. That’s because in fairy tales, good people’s wishes would always come true. I believed I was a good child—the only thing I needed was a miracle to happen, just like in the tales. Throughout the years, I came to realize that the miracle was in the words pronounced by my mother. She would sit in the dim light of an oil lamp and create another world that was very close to ours in the village, yet also far away from it. Her words were elegant and had the power to transform the life of those in the tales. My belief in words is deeply rooted there. Without that remote village in the middle of nowhere, and those fairy tales of long nights, and the magical words, I wouldn’t be able to write.

CM: Words Without Borders celebrates literature in translation, and I personally believe that translation is a powerful way to build many bridges between our different understandings of the world. What were the first books in translation that you read? Were they in Turkish or in Kurdish?  And which book in translation are you currently reading?

BS: Living in my village meant living in translation. Kurdish was our mother tongue, but it was officially banned in schools, in institutions, and on television and the radio. We had a life in Kurdish but we had to communicate in Turkish. We had to think in two languages at the same time: one of our languages was denigrated while the other was praised on every level. That’s a life in translation. The first book in translation that I read was a prayer book. It contained some verses and prayers in Arabic and in Turkish. I was seven years old. Then I started to read adventure stories. Among those I remember most vividly are Jules Verne novels.

As for now, I am currently reading Noise: The Political Economy of Music by French writer Jacques Attali, which has been published in Turkish under the title Gürültüden Müziğe (translated by Gülüş Gülcügil)—the Turkish title can literally be translated as “From Noise to Music.”

CM: Translation is key in creating a space for writers from different places in the world to share their ideas and their imaginations. This is sometimes difficult for writers coming from countries in conflict or political turmoil, like Turkey, because of certain expectations publishers, promoters of literature, and readers may have. We cannot ignore that Turkey is deeply polarized at the moment, but we also see similar levels of polarization and antidemocratic practices happening everywhere (including the US). Do you ever feel you are being cornered into a specific role when in translation? That you are expected to become a spokesperson for a whole country or even region? How do you think literary communities—be it writers, editors, festival organizers, or translators—can create better spaces for equitable dialogue without putting writers in specific boxes?

BS: We all are having a similar fate to Kafka’s book Metamorphosis. My latest novel, Istanbul Istanbul, tells the story of four people who are being tortured in a cell beneath Istanbul, as well as the stories they tell each other. The novel has now been published in more than twenty countries around the world, and apart from a few exceptions, there is always a photograph of a big mosque on the cover of the novel in translation. Does this image have anything to do with the story told in the book? In a letter to his publisher, Kafka asked that there be no drawing of any insect appearing on the book’s cover, not even one to be seen from a distance. A century later, it is almost impossible to see a cover of Metamorphosis without an insect on it. Kafka is cornered and so are we. Wherever I go attending festivals and giving readings, I am expected to act as a political commentator rather than a man of literature. I am happy to speak about political and social issues as long as I am also given enough space to speak about literature. Place and time define our destiny. Because I am from a country bordering Europe and the Middle East in the twenty-first century, I get my share of that place and time.

I am expected to act as a political commentator rather than a man of literature. I am happy to speak about political and social issues as long as I am also given enough space to speak about literature.

CM: You first set foot in Istanbul when you were seventeen, to study law. In a Guardian piece, you describe your arrival to the city via the famous Haydarpaşa Station—that’s where all journeys of people coming to the big city from Anatolia begin. It must have been breathtaking at the time, and a lot greener. Istanbul is a very different city today, eaten up by harsh capitalist ventures, gentrification, and ongoing destruction, not only of its heritage but also its nature. How do you feel when you look at your city today?

BS: When I arrived in Istanbul as a teenager, it really was a big city for me. Lots of cars, tall buildings, and crowded with people from all nations. The old Istanbulites would complain about it and recall the olden golden days of a more beautiful city. We are now having the same sense. I believe Istanbul was more beautiful when I first saw it. And in the future people will remember today’s Istanbul as more beautiful. Because Istanbul has been, and still is, in the hands of bad politicians and corrupt administrators. They don’t care about beauty; their only interest is in financial achievement. Many people in Istanbul act in the same way. There is a mind here degenerated by a financial view of the world. They destroy and build, but they don’t know how to create. Because there is a deep cliff between building and creating.

CM: How do you think people can reclaim their city?

BS: Memory and dream: We need to be yearning for both. One comes from the past, while the other from the future. If we don’t yearn for them, we will be given distorted memories and sold superficial dreams. Literature is about someone who is in the current of a river fed by the memories of the past and the dreams of the future. We can regain our cities with that person’s power for remembering and dreaming: with both memories and dreams.

CM: I believe you do that with your novel Istanbul Istanbul, which transports us far beyond the melancholic depiction of the city that many readers will probably recognize.

BS: Melancholy is something we are fond of. It has a different kind of energy. But it also blurs the view of present time. Under the opium of melancholy, we lose our sense of direction. We always look at the past and long for it. If we want to gain Istanbul back, we need to see it in the light of a sun-shining today. You cannot dry today’s washing with yesterday’s sun, as a proverb says (“Dünün güneşiyle bugünkü çamaşırları kurutamazsın” in Turkish).

When I put my four protagonists in a dark cell, three floors underground, my goal was not to intensify their suffering, I rather wanted them to have a new sense of direction and time. In an underground cell, you will not know where the East or West is. The only direction you can look is “upward”: toward above-ground. Since all directions gather in a center of the underground cell, then all times—past and future—can gather in that same center by creating a certain sense of “now.” They get to that point through pain, and out of it they embellish the stories. Their view is based on the beauty of Istanbul; they believe in it.

CM: You indeed offer a more complex depiction of their world than just “dark vs. light,” or “us vs. them.” Just like the two Istanbuls of your title.

BS: Because they are not “others.” The others are within us. Victims of war or sufferers of love are the same. We can walk in the same shoes as those who are in pain right now. Thanks to literature, we can see that no one is exempt from sadness or happiness. The question is: how do we draw our path? Istanbul has always had two dimensions—one belongs to the past that was glorious, while the other belongs to today’s chaos. Melancholy flourishes on this borderline. Our literature fed that view in the last century but now we need a new approach. That is to bring two Istanbuls together and see them as a single entity. That way, we can understand that we are both the ugly and the beautiful in Istanbul. We are good and bad at the same time. We should always be aware of it when we try to praise good deeds.

Thanks to literature, we can see that no one is exempt from sadness or happiness. The question is: how do we draw our path?

CM: Freedom can mean many different things—some may think that not being imprisoned is freedom, but it is more complex than that, as you suggest throughout your writing and in your many interviews. One can also not be free while “outside.” Do you think this is what happens to many people in Turkey, where everyday life can become a matter of survival?

BS: You are right. Freedom is a relative concept. You can be free anywhere, even when you are locked in prison. Your mind and beliefs can keep you free. Having stated this, we still need to promote physical freedom for all people. Otherwise we will not be able to achieve a peaceful life for everyone.

CM: I know it is very cliché to talk about hope in the current state of the world, but it is a question that many of us have on our minds, especially when trying to fight for social justice: where to find hope? And many in Turkey seem to be losing hope. You said in an interview that we cannot talk about suffering without hope. Is this why you also choose never to describe torture in your book, even though it is something you have personally experienced? Is hope something you think about?

BS: Without hope I wouldn’t be able to live in Turkey. Hope is something you need in the state of catastrophe and chaos. If you were in a peaceful environment or had a prosperous life, you wouldn’t need nor remember hope. It is nutrition your heart craves for when you go through darkness. It prevents you from losing faith in life. Having said that, I suddenly feel hesitant. How can I be so sure about hope? While there is not any positive sign about the near future of my country, region, and world, aren’t those hopeless people right? They seem to be more realistic. Then my feelings shift again and I sense that I should carry more hope in order to get over the much hopelessness around. Otherwise this avalanche of despair will suffocate me.

CM: Maybe one way of feeling hope is through humor and laughter? These are very important in your writing: your characters are funny—in many moments I laughed reading Istanbul Istanbul.

BS: Humor is in the texture of mankind: to be able to find a way of happiness in any circumstance. That’s the source of survival. When you get tortured and put in a prison ward, one of the first things you do with your cellmates is to make up funny jokes about the guards. Rulers can suppress anything except humor. They cannot stop the humor created by their subjects.

CM: We talked about freedom and hope, what they may mean, and the role literature plays in expressing these. Where else do you find freedom and hope?

BS: Believing that you are doing the right thing is the best foundation for freedom and hope. If you start to look for other things in which to entrust your freedom and hope, you may easily get disappointed. Journalists ask me where my hope comes from—they want to hear some political and social facts and statistics. I cannot be of help. It is not facts or statistics that keep me happy here; it is an optimism rooted in my mind.

CM: If you could whisper in the ear of the seventeen-year-old Burhan looking at Istanbul from Haydarpaşa, what would you tell him?

BS: Walk in the same streets and get lost in the same dark nights. Appreciate the beauty more, and read more books.

Born in Central Anatolia in 1965, Burhan Sönmez grew up speaking Kurdish and Turkish, and later moved to Istanbul where he studied law. The recipient of a number of literary prizes, he was seriously injured following an assault by Turkish police. With the assistance of the Freedom from Torture foundation, he spent five years in the U.K. undergoing rehabilitation. Sönmez received the 2017 Vaclav Havel Library Foundation’s “Disturbing the Peace” Award for his courageous dissent in Turkey, and he is on the board of PEN International. He now divides his time between Istanbul and Cambridge, UK. His novels have been published in thirty-two languages and his most recent novel, Istanbul Istanbul, was published in English by OR Books. His website is http://www.burhansonmez.com/en.

The Vaclav Havel Center