Introduction to a Turkish Personal Anthology

This is a Turkey-centric list: nearly all the stories feature Turkey and – with the exception of one – are by authors who are from there or who have ancestral ties to the country. Like my upcoming novel, a few take ‘Istanbul’ and key moments of political upheaval in Turkey as themes. Opting to select the majority of the stories from one country inevitably narrowed my list: I could only consider stories that had been written in or translated into English. This, for me, reinforced the obvious, which can easily be overlooked: the tremendous value translation brings to literature. Regrettably, since his novels have yet to be translated into English, I was unable to include a novel excerpt from one of my most favourite authors Ayhan Geçgin, on this list.

‘5th Day Told by the Student Demirtay: The Night Lights’ by Burhan Sönmez, translated from Turkish by Ümit Hussein

“The odd thing about Istanbul was the way she preferred questions to answers. She could turn happiness into nightmare, or the other way round, make a joyous morning dawn after a night devoid of all hope. She gained strength from uncertainty. They called this the city’s destiny.”

The novel Istanbul Istanbul centres on four inmates who are locked up, after a military coup, in a dark prison cell below the vibrant streets of Istanbul. When not being tortured and interrogated by guards, they share stories to pass the time. Despite the grimness of its plot, this novel is compassionate and heart-warming, underscoring the power of storytelling; how it can connect people, heal their wounds and free their minds. Every chapter is narrated by an inmate. In this chapter, Student Demirtay travels back to the days leading up to his arrest. I particularly loved his descriptions of Istanbul and the freedom of his narrative. Towards the end, when he absconds from the safehouse he’s been hiding in, under the supervision of a little girl and her blind grandmother, the boundaries between real and fantasy begin to blur. As he leaves their shanty house and enters a vegetable garden, he hears someone calling his name. When he realises it’s one of the inmates in his cell, trying to awaken him, the reader is as surprised as he is, to be roused from this hypnotic journey of a story within a story.

Published in Istanbul Istanbul: A Novel, Telegram, 2016

‘Tribades’ by Nazlı Karabıyıkoğlu, translated from Turkish by Ralph Hubbell

Over a decade after breaking up, ex-lovers bump into one another in a corner shop in Istanbul. In the intervening period, one has transitioned into a man, while the other has had to fight her own battle as a queer woman. During their encounter, they review their past choices and actions, reflecting too on the huge challenges facing LGBTQ+ people in Turkey today. ‘Tribades’ renders the loneliness and the struggles of being the ‘other’. At one point Emir says to Elfiye:

Who are you up against? And which comes first? What are we trying to defeat and who are we going to shout our victory cry at? It’s called breaking free from society, declaring yourself before they declare you the other [] This isn’t just a social challenge, it’s a revolt against the established order.”

Published online on Words Without Borders, New Fiction for the PEN Centenary, 2021 and available to read here, as a translated excerpt is from the author’s novel Elfiye

‘Transaction’ by Menekşe Toprak, translated from Turkish by İdil Aydoğan

“Her rage was fuelled even more after reading the short story the man had recommended[…] The detailed description of sex bordered on pornography, and the fact that the story was about a prostitute and her client drove her absolutely insane. She was furious at the man’s bravado, at the message he was sending, that he had intended to get her into bed that very same night, and the fact that she, knowing exactly his intentions, had almost gone all the way with the game.”

A young woman is in Istanbul on a short business trip. Influenced by the city’s reckless energy where anything goes, she accepts a dinner invitation from an older man she has met by chance that day at a conference. At dinner, one minute he’s affectionately brushing aside strands of her hair that have fallen on her forehead as if he were her older brother. The next minute, he’s openly making sexual references. Having noticed a John Updike book in her bag – a recent purchase – he recommends she reads one of the stories in it: ‘Transaction’. Going further, he invites her to his private flat, which he calls his hideout, to listen to it as an audiobook, boasting about how marvellously the story describes sexual desire. She thinks she has everything under control, yet as the evening progresses, she begins to lose her sense of boundaries and only ‘just’ manages to end the night on her own terms. Even so, after she returns to her home city, haunted by his erotic memory, she becomes obsessed with him. Toprak diligently explores the range of emotions – intimidation, fear, rage, depression, and lust – the young woman experiences in this game of seduction where eventually, switching the roles she becomes the pursuer.

Published in Istanbul in Women’s Short Stories, edited by Hande Öğüt, Milet Publishing, 2012

‘The Woman the Book Read’ by Sarah Hall

“That same sensation, of wanting to hold her. She’d been a restless soul, would often shrug him off. ‘Küçük kuş.’ He’d loved teaching her words, little phrases. Sentences were harder, she didn’t understand the order of the syntax, but then neither had he at first, in reverse.”

The title of this story, with the noun at the beginning and the verb at the end, grammatically mimics how sentences are constructed in Turkish. In a Mediterranean coastal town in Turkey (possibly Kaş) a local man sitting at a café notices a young woman tourist when her female companion calls out her name. Her unusual name ‘Ara’ suddenly unleashes the past. Both comforting and painful memories run through his mind as he stealthily follows the two women down to the beach. Hall masterfully guides the reader through the tension generated in every moment. Until, near the end, when the nature of their past relationship becomes clear, the reader is kept on the hook, questioning the man’s intentions, whether he will get spotted by Ara or eventually have the courage to walk up to her and say hello. In 2018, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Hall for the Turkish online newspaper ‘T24’. During our discussion, while referring to ‘Who Pays?’ – a fairy-tale-like story of hers loosely also set in Turkey – I asked the author about her experience of setting a story in a country which she’s not from. Hall had responded, “There is something about the short story form that allows you to go in and come out. You don’t necessarily need to have known the place all your life. Whereas this wouldn’t be possible in a novel.”

First published in The New Statesman, July 2019, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Sudden Traveller, Faber & Faber, 2019

‘Tomato Seeds’ by Melisa Kesmez, translated from Turkish by Ralph Hubbell

“What a wonderful thing to be a woman’s daughter. Even if just a hook nose or a forefinger that doesn’t look like anything but itself, it’s one of life’s miracles that we get to carry all the way to death those sacred gifts endowed to us by our noble mothers. With these secret marks they’ll always tell us, “You came from me,” from my clay, from my soil, from my roots.”

Travelling on a ferry boat on the Bosphorus, the narrator notices two other passengers: women who she takes to be a mother and a daughter. She carefully examines their body language, their very different features, to notice their identically shaped noses. Then she considers her own relationship with her mother (apparently her left forefinger is identical to hers). At times, intensely moving, the story goes onto explore the very special mother-daughter bond which travels through generations.

Published online on The Bospohrus Review of Books, September 2018 and available to read here

‘Summer in Samarkand’ by Elif Batuman

A student of Russian literature intends to go to Moscow in her sophomore year to improve her Russian, yet a chain of unlikely events takes her on an eventful journey that starts in Turkey. From Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book to Alexander Pushkin’s travelogue A Journey to Arzrum, the story – a travelogue itself – cleverly weaves together references to Russian and Turkish literature, funny personal anecdotes and cultural idiosyncrasies of cities the narrator visits in Turkey before ending up in Samarkand. Batuman’s relentless energy as she incorporates the personal with the literary is highly impressive.

First published in The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010. Available to read online here

‘Ökkeş and Jengaver’ by Murathan Mungan, translated from Turkish by Aron Aji and David Gramling

“Was custom testing this friendship too? But hadn’t they already tested it themselves with their hearts together over these years? But now they weren’t testing it, just losing it. Losing it fragrantly. […] ‘Customs are like spells,’ his mother had said. ‘You don’t reason with them, you follow their reason.’”

The limits of love and friendship are tried in this heart-wrenching story about two fifteen-year-old boys. Ökkeşand Jengaver are set against each other in a two-day trial, as part of a longstanding village ‘custom’ to prove their manhood. Told from his viewpoint, Ökkeş is torn between tradition, his mother’s expectations and his deep feelings for Jengaver and his own of sense justice. In those two days, the dilemmas brought on with each new challenge are rendered with emotional complexity, and the Eastern Mediterranean landscape, as spring gives way to summer, with lyrical finesse.

Published in Valor Stories, Northwestern University Press, 2022

‘Muzaffer and Bananas’ by Yalçın Tosun translated from Turkish by Abby Comstock-Gay

“I wasn’t sure if he really knew more about women than me or not, but he liked it to look that way, so I believed him. Yet I was sure that we both had the same doubts, which we had never shared with each other, about the unlikelihood of our fat bodies ever appealing to anyone. Not saying these things aloud was one of the secret agreements between us.”

This is a tender, funny story about friendship, loss and sexual awakening. Reading it immediately took me back to my mindset as a teenager. It reminded me of the lack of confidence one could harbour towards one’s developing body, as well as one’s ever-present sexual curiosity and hard-to-contain desires.

Published online on Words Without Borders, What Unites Us: Turkish Short Stories, 2017 and can be read here

‘The Morning Visitor’ by Aslı Erdoğan, translated from Turkish by Sevinç Türkkan

“Perhaps I should have mumbled a greeting, should have shaken his freezing-cold hand. Maybe I should have been afraid. But there was nothing to fear in this quiet port city…Not even death, it seemed. It too, would arrive exactly on time, just like the trams, neither early nor late…”

A migrant woman, at a boarding house located somewhere in Northern Europe (possibly a Scandinavian country), has just woken up after a night of very little sleep. She hears someone call out her name in her mother tongue. She invites the short and swarthy man who has turned up into her dim bedroom where all the contents of her room, like her, are bruised and damaged – the clothes are stained, the books are tattered, the small mirror on the wall has lost most of its silvering. They are all witnesses to her solitude. The visitor tells her that soon, the sun will barely rise, and the day will consist of a single night. His eyes resemble a pair of endless, pitch-black tunnels. She finally recognizes his eerie voice – he’s a ghost from the past who reappears inside the dark, eternal cell she’s never left. Perhaps an allegory to haunting past traumas and the dread of the uncertainties that lie ahead in the life of a migrant, ‘The Morning Visitor’ resuscitates the ominous feeling that accompanies one’s worst nightmares.

Published in The Stone Building and Other Places, City Lights Books, 2018

‘Why I Killed Myself in Istanbul’ by Mine Söğüt, translated by İdil Aydoğan

“This city has been a man for centuries and doesn’t know how to love women. That is why, in this city, I kill myself over and over again each day. I explode like a bomb; jump off its towers, its bridges.”

Bearing some resemblance to the Netflix series ‘Russian Doll’ where Nadia is struck by a different death in each new episode, in this hard-edged, high-paced satire, Söğüt’s female protagonist leads multiple lives with tragic endings. The story draws attention to how violence against women and femicides have become commonplace. Sadly, since 2008, when this story was first published in its Turkish original, year after year there has been a tangible rise in femicides in Turkey.

Published in Istanbul in Women’s Short Stories, Edited by Hande Öğüt, Milet Publishing, 2012

‘A Friendly Face’ by Sevgi Soysal, translated from Turkish by Maureen Freely

At the beginning of the 1970s when the military had seized control in Turkey and imposed martial law, ‘Oya’ a left-wing journalist recently released from prison, is a political exile in Adana – a city in the south of Turkey. Living in a hotel room she’s daily surveyed by undercover policemen stationed at the building across from hers.

“Staring right at her, every time she opened her curtains. In the end it gave her strength, to watch them watching her. To wonder what they made of their pointless job, and where they found the patience. To have to sit there, staring at her curtains, day after day, for months on end – this was a sentence not much different from Oya’s.”

She leads a lonely existence in this strange, angry, concrete city, keeping her head down and never going out after dark, until one night, feeling desperately bored and longing for some company, an unexpected dinner invitation causes her to leave all caution behind. Sevgi Soysal (1936-76) is one of the most important literary voices to have emerged in the second half of the twentieth century in Turkey. Her final complete novel Dawn(Şafak, 1975) – only recently published in English – centres around the events of a single night when a house raid takes place. This excerpt is a fine example of how the entire novel’s narrative is driven by the characters’ internal worlds, moving from the mind of one character to the other’s, and in this way, giving a multifaceted perspective on the atmosphere and shared psychology of that time.

Published in Dawn, Archipelago Books, 2022. This excerpt was published online on Words Without Borders, 2022 and can be read here

‘We Love Our City’ by Ece Temelkuran, translated from Turkish by Kenneth Dakan

“‘Want to look out at the police station? Sometimes they play games there.’

The girl scoots over to the window by the bed and put her face up against the glass. They don’t play games at police stations. What’s she talking about?

‘Come here. You can’t see anything from way over there! You have to look from this spot. See! There they are. They put the big brothers and sisters inside. Then they try to get out. I throw them dried chickpeas. But we can’t do it right now. Nobody’s there today.’

Told through the eyes of two eight-year-olds, The Time of Mute Swans is an endearing novel which explores another dark period in Turkey’s history: the turbulent weeks leading up to the September 12, 1980 coup. Set in Ankara in the summer of that year, it focuses on the special friendship between Ali, an Alevi boy from the poorer suburbs (whose house is burnt down by right-wing extremists), and Ayşe, the daughter of a lefty middle-class couple.

The streets of Ankara are no longer a safe place for a child when clashes between revolutionaries and right-wing militia have become the daily norm, and Ayşe spends most of her summer days at home in the company of her grandmother. Her bedroom overlooks the police station on their street. When the police detain some leftist students and deprive them of food, some mothers begin to throw cookies up to the windows of the detention cells. When Ayşe notices this her grandmother makes up a story: the mothers are playing a game to see who has the best aim and who could toss the most cookies through the window. To take part in the ‘game’, when Ayşe sees detainees at the police station, she starts throwing them dried chickpeas. Ali’s mother takes on a cleaning job at Ayşe’s house. In this chapter, he accompanies his mother on her first day in her new job – the first-person narration switches playfully between Ali and Ayşe, as they individually evaluate, in an unrestrained, funny fashion fitting to children, the experience of meeting the other for the very first time.

Published in The Time of Mute Swans: A Novel, Arcade Publishing, 2017