By Meghan Cahill
Twentieth-century Turkey can be characterized by tensions between old and new, East and West. These were caused by the claiming of her new identity as the modern Turkish Republic. Modern Turkish literature reflects this in a number of ways. As Turkey transitioned from Ottoman to European, so did literature. Stories from oral traditions were largely replaced by short stories and novels, as well as literary imports from Europe. With the founding of the Turkish Republic, the educational efforts of the Turkish language reform actually caused literacy rates to skyrocket. This increased not only the consumption of literature, but also gave more citizens the ability to write. Republican authors were apt to write about a variety of social and political themes that grappled with these tensions. They utilized three main genres, which I will cover in this chapter: poetry, short stories, and novels.
Poetry: A Spectrum of Simple to Complex Styles
While poetry was undoubtedly a fixture of Ottoman era literature, it remained important throughout the Republican era, as well. In twentieth century Turkey, poetry was often synonymous with politics. The new, simpler style and folk influence that emerged during this period as part of the Garip Movement was the antithesis to the ornate and philosophical Ottoman Era poetry (see the Early Literature chapter). This change in poetic style represented how far-reaching the restructuring of Turkey’s new identity was. Poetry also began to focus more on the everyday lives of ordinary Turks, reinforcing a shared national identity. For example, “Full of”, a poem by Orhan Veli:
We have seas, full of the sun;
We have trees, full of leaves;
From dawn to dusk we go and go and come
Among our seas, among our trees
(Translated by Murat Nemet-Nejat)
However, not all poets agreed with this simplicity of structure and thought. Yahya Kemal Beyatlı, one of the most famous Turkish poets of all time, was known for his neo-Ottoman style. Beyatlı was from a wealthy, bureaucratic family and had studied extensively in France. His poetry blended ornate French and Ottoman styles. Known both for his Parisian tendencies and service in Parliament, his poetic style incorporated the European aspect that Turkey longed for, but was also reminiscent of a past that the new administration was trying to forget (Arslanbenzer).
The Short Story: A Literary Form Suited to Critique
Short stories made their Turkish debut at the turn of the century and proved to be immensely popular during the Republican Era. Like poetry, short stories were entwined with politics, especially as many authors used short stories as a means of “social edification and commentary” (Turkish Literature). Two authors, Sait Faik Abasıyanık and Sabahattin Ali, had great influence via their writing style and political assertions. Similar to poetic styles of the time, both authors emphasized the everyday life of their characters. Unlike the heroic epics of the previous eras, these stories often focused on the mundane. Abasıyanık, in particular, was known for introducing the stream of consciousness approach to Turkish literature. This took the emphasis off of the plot and placed it on the character’s experience. Ali, on the other hand, was most remembered for his political themes in his short stories. He was killed shortly after its publication, an event which his daughter believes was an assassination (Battersby, 2017). She believes he was targeted for his ideas which “challenged accepted attitudes about men and women,” (Battersby, 2017) especially his novel Madonna in a Fur Coat
The Novel: A Prolific Form of Literature in Turkey
Like short stories, novels were a new literary style in Turkey. Turkish novels do not shy away from political and social themes and often address issues such as class, gender, national identity, and history. However, they did not become extremely popular until the latter half of the twentieth century, when authors such as Orhan Pamuk and Latife Tekin made novels more accessible to readers, both inside and outside of Turkey. Orhan Pamuk is one of the most famous Turkish novelists outside of Turkey — he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006.
Turkey’s many novelists have made a significant impact on the country’s unique literary landscape. Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar was a jack of all trades and one of the most highly regarded writers of the twentieth century. He was a scholar, author, literary critic, and poet that was best known both for his introduction of modernist fiction to Turkey and for his construction of highly complex novels that were unrivaled by any Turkish authors before him. He was a student of Beyatlı and he greatly influenced contemporary authors, especially Orhan Pamuk. Several influential female authors, such as Halide Edib Adıvar and Elif Shafak, became well known both for their novels and their advocacy work, although they were active at very different times in Turkey’s history.
Two contemporary novelists, Orhan Pamuk and Latife Tekin, have equally influential, but very different, approaches to writing. Tekin, who was a poor Anatolian village transplant in Istanbul, is known for her semi-autobiographical novels. She also introduced magic realism as a genre to Turkey. Pamuk, on the other hand, came from an upper class family and was highly educated. His novels are complex and meticulous. While both Tekin and Pamuk tackle controversial themes such as identity, history, modernity, class, and the tensions between East and West, their different backgrounds and styles allow them to approach the same issues in their own unique ways.
Conclusion: Literature as a Significant Means for Political Engagement in Turkey
This chapter emphasized the political dimensions of literature in Turkey because literature served as an important means to advocate for political stances, often becoming a source of controversy. Censorship has been a prominent issue since the late Ottoman period due to critique apparent in literary texts, especially with regard to policies and cultural movements which severed Turkey from its past. In more recent years, contemporary authors like Orhan Pamuk and Elif Şafak have been put on trial for their political commentary, or the commentary of their fictional characters. Both authors were eventually acquitted amidst international outcry. Şafak, however, continues to face scrutiny for her advocacy work for LGBTQ rights and gender equality.
Yahya Kemal Beyatli was a highly renowned Turkish poet who was known for his French and Ottoman inspirations.
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