Ece Temelkuran is one of the Turkey’s best known authors and political commentators. She lives in Zagreb and is at work on a book on populism. Temelkuran’s latest novel The Time of Mute Swans is set in Turkey’s capital Ankara on the eve of the 1980 coup d’etat. It envisions the period leading up to the coup as the beginning of the end of democratic activism and the rise of populist authoritarianism in Turkey.
The following interview was conducted during the author’s visit to Portland State University and Powell’s Bookstore to promote her novel The Time of Mute Swans (trans. Kenneth Dakan, 2017). It has been lightly edited for concision and clarity.
—Pelin Başcı and Craig Epplin
Pelin Başcı: Music seems to play an important role in your fictional and journalistic narratives. In Deep Mountain: Across the Turkish-Armenian Divide for instance, there is a scene that depicts people dancing together to the tune of “Çadırımın Üstüne Şıp Dedi Damladı.” Likewise, The Time of Mute Swans mentions various songs from Turkish folk and classical music. Popular songs like “Zühtü” seem to capture the spirit of its times. Singing binds young revolutionary women together, while other songs capture characters’ (like Nejla Hanım’s) deep sense of melancholy. In Sırrı Süreyya Önder’s film The Internationale (2006), you briefly played the part of the journalist who recognized the international socialist anthem as it was being performed by clueless folk musicians in front of the generals determined to criminalize such songs. Does music play a prominent role in your life or writing?
Ece Temelkuran: Well, apparently it does. Considering that Arab Diva Fairuz is on the acknowledgment in Banana Sounds and Oum Khaltoum and Warda are several times mentioned in Women Who Blow on Knots, I guess my writing is quite connected to music. To be frank, I get a little bit obsessive when I am writing and I listen a single voice throughout the writing process. Cesária Évora was that voice for Deep Mountain, and for The Time of Mute Swans it was a playlist of the popular Turkish pop songs from the summer of 1980, which features in the plot of the novel. I am not a music person, I keep telling people, but then when considering how much space music is occupying in my writing I have to admit that I am, in fact, a music person.
PB: It seems to me that more films had been produced to commemorate the trauma of the 1980 coup than there have novels or literary fiction. Your novel is part of an increasing number of works inviting audiences to take a broader view of the events of 1980. Such a literary assessment has been slow to take place, especially when we consider that, during the 1970s, literature was far more responsive to political trauma (the so-called “March 12 novel” is a case in point). Fiction about 1980 has been slow to emerge.
ET: One of the reasons for this “slowness,” so to speak, is that the 1980 coup, with all its social, political, and psychological consequences, is still going on. When a historical incident is not totally over, it becomes almost impossible to talk about it through the serene lens of literature. Also, our generation, at least the majority of it, has been raised with the concern of keeping politics out of our lives. Only few of us are able to know about the past and think about it. Also, I guess forty years is not too long for such a massive trauma…
PB: The Turkish experience during the Cold War has gone largely unnoticed in the West despite the fact that Turkey was at the forefront of the conflict geographically and ideologically. Turkey had become a staging ground for a bloody proxy war between the Soviets and the USA.
ET: I guess the story of Turkey—and what an entire progressive generation has been through—is not very well known. Latin American countries that have been through similar experiences made their stories more open through literature and political resistance. Due to several reasons, the Turkish couldn’t manage that. One of the reasons was, of course, our relation to our collective memory and our acquired habit of forgetting. Once you start forgetting your own story, you cannot expect others to remember.
PB: Some people have argued that recent events in Turkey are similarly quite traumatic, even comparable to the 1980 coup.
ET: I believe that they are even more traumatic. During the 1970s and 80s, there was a certain clarity to what was happening: the line between good and bad was intact. Whereas today the main trauma comes from the blurriness of the situation. When the cruelty comes from the so-called “oppressed people,” as it happens in all the countries when right wing populism is on the rise, it becomes quite impossible to differentiate between right and wrong.
PB: Most of the scholarship in the US focuses on Turkey’s Ottoman heritage. Partly due to the depth and breadth of this heritage, Turkey has been framed first and foremost as a Middle Eastern country, despite the fact that since the nineteenth century the country’s arts, culture, and politics have been shaped through close encounters with Europe, not to mention significant ties to the Balkans, Mediterranean, and Caucasus. As a writer who regularly comments on Turkish culture and politics, what is your take on Turkey and its place in Western academia?
ET: Oh, that is a very long and funny subject. And the fluidness of it, the ever-shifting perspective on Turkey due to the requirements of the orientalism of the day, is a rich subject. However, I would better comment on where Turkey stands. I’d rather locate my country as a Mediterranean country. As Nazım Hikmet once said, Anatolia is like a mare’s head leaning from Asia to Mare Nostrum (a pun rooted in Mare Nostrum, “our sea,” being Latin for the Mediterranean Sea).
PB: Let’s discuss your latest novel to appear in English, The Time of Mute Swans. Why the focus on the muteness of swans?
ET: There are several reasons for that, but the most important is that memory itself is like the mute swans. These swans are believed to be mute and only when they are dying they sing a song. That is pretty much how memory works. It is silent until it is about to be erased or about to disappear. Like mute swans that make sounds at the moment of extinction, memories of another Turkey, now almost forgotten, surface. Also, the swans in the book are symbols of silent determination and grace in times of crudeness and cruelty.
PB: The novel is narrated from the point of view of children who have experienced street violence, political tension, and tanks rolling on to the streets. Why did you choose to narrate the eve of the military coup from their vantage point?
ET: For moral clarity, in fact. If it were the grownups telling the story, then the issue of their political affiliation would come up, which would have complicated the main storyline. The storyline that I wanted to follow is about the line between good and evil, and during such a complicated time this is not easy without the simplicity of a child’s view.
PB: Your novel features iconic locations in Ankara: Kuğulupark and Meclis, among others. Many novels that portray a cosmopolitan Turkey use Istanbul as their setting. And if I’m not mistaken, you yourself are from Izmir. Why set the novel in Ankara?
ET: Ankara represents the story of the Turkish Republic. The city itself represents the ideals of modern Turkey. It resists the crude binaries dividing the East from the West. Ankara represents how a place viewed primarily as the East could also become the West. Whereas Istanbul is too convenient as a plot device for orientalist storytelling, even if the storyteller is not an orientalist. I wanted to tell the story of others, the ones who went unnoticed, the ones who were neglected by the rest of the world when everyone was watching Istanbul.
PB: References in the novel to Turkish education and other institutional practices going back to the 1970s will be striking due to the exuberant use of local color and idiom for audiences familiar with Turkey. The impact of these references is not easy to render in another language. What can you tell us about the translation process of your novel?
ET: It was very difficult and we owe the magnificent translation to Kenneth Dakan. We worked together during the last stage to take out some details that would be inaccessible to an English reading audience, in order to keep the story intact.
Craig Epplin: Following up on that question, when reading Turkey, the Insane and the Melancholy, I caught myself thinking about the balance between writing for readers who know the history and culture of a place versus writing for readers who need more context. It must be a tough balance for a writer engaged in commenting on current politics and culture. In light of this challenge, how do you think about your audience?
ET: That is why I kept the narrative quite casual in the book. The book is told as though I were taking a foreign friend on a journey through Turkish history and its current situation. That was the only way to keep the narrative simple for beginners and exciting for those who know what really is happening in the country. There is also the personal aspect of the narrative, which made it a little more exciting than those academic books that have been multiplying since Turkey became a hot topic.
CE: I was also struck by the use of the family photo album as a means of understanding history—not only because it is an elegant metaphor, but also because the photo album is necessarily incomplete on its own and thus needs a narrator (you, in this case) to make sense of it. In your travels, what images of Turkey do you find to be most commonly mis-narrated or misunderstood?
ET: Well, when it comes to misunderstanding Turkey or mis-narrating it, it would be giving myself too much credit if I completely excluded myself from that mistake. Probably I did make some mistakes as well. Some Western readers, for instance, believe the book is biased and not objective enough. They probably have this idea that objectivity is neutrality. On the other hand, Turkey is a very complicated country and one narration cannot tell the entire story. But I’d like to believe that I was telling my part of the story honestly.
CE: One of my passions when I travel is to discover what small presses are putting out interesting literature, either locally or in translation. What presses or other literary institutions have been important for your own career as a writer?
ET: I am mostly doing focused reading and the material I put my hands on is typically related to what I am writing at the time. As for literature, I like the epic and pure. From “Dosto” to Clarice Lispector, Homeros to Ali Smith, I try to breathe in literature, not get lured into banality.
CE: And coming back to Pelin’s question about translation, are there authors not translated into Turkish that you wish were translated? Or Turkish writers that non-Turkish-speaking readers are missing out on because they are not widely translated?
ET: The first name that should be mentioned is Murathan Mungan. The world is missing out on the magnificent work of this giant of Turkish letters. As for the younger generation, my choice would be Murat Menteş, a writer who deserves to be more widely translated.
Ece Temelkuran is a well-known novelist, journalist, and political commentator who has written for The Guardian, The New York Times, The New Statesman, Frankfurter Allgemeine, and Der Spiegel, among other international outlets. She is the author of fifteen books, including Deep Mountain (Turkish 2008, English 2010), Book of the Edge (Turkish 2004, English 2011), Women Who Blow on Knots (Turkish 2013, English 2017), and The Time of Mute Swans (Turkish 2015, English 2017). Her non-fiction work about rising authoritarianism in Turkey, Turkey: The Insane And The Melancholy, was published in English and German in 2016 to wide critical acclaim. She delivered the “Freedom Lecture,” given as a guest of Amnesty International and Holland’s Prince Claus Foundation. Her public appearances include talks at the House of Commons in British Parliament, the “Women in the World Conference,” moderated by former Secretary of State and US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Temelkuran worked for twenty years as a widely-read journalist before she lost her job due to political oppression in Turkey. Now a resident of Zagreb, Croatia, Temelkuran is currently working on her next book, How to Lose a Country, forthcoming in 2019.
Pelin Başcı is a professor of Turkish Studies at Portland State University. Her work focuses on modern Turkey’s literature and culture. She teaches and writes on the novel and film, and on issues of women and gender, nationalism, and popular culture from the 1920s to the present. Her book, Social Trauma and Telecinematic Memory (2017), discusses how films and telenovelas made between 1980 and 2010 remember the 1980 military takeover in Turkey.
Craig Epplin has taught at Portland State University since 2012. His research and teaching focuses on contemporary Latin American literature, film, and media culture. Author of many articles and a volume entitled Late Book Culture in Argentina (2014), Professor Epplin is currently working on a book about representations of underground spaces in contemporary Mexican literature and visual culture.
Banner image: Photograph by Eric Kim.