Turkish writers meet the world

Being Frankfurt's guest of honor is a very important opportunity for Turkish literature. Just to give an idea, approximately 7,000 publishers from one hundred countries attend this fair, which has been held in the German city of Frankfurt every year since 1949.

“I am here, dear reader, where are you?” This closing sentence of “Demiryolu Hikayecileri” (Railroad Storytellers) by Oğuz Atay, who launched a new current in Turkish fiction with his novel “Tutunamayanlar” (The Disconnected) in 1971-72, describes the overall situation of most writers of Turkish literature with a few exceptions.

For Turkey's writers, however universal their works might be, are compelled to write sometimes not even for a country but for a small community because this great literature has a such a small market. Even the country's major booksellers consist of only a few floors, and there is no shortage of towns without any bookstore at all. Consequently a book, especially one by a young, unknown writer, can end up in a secondhand bookstore in three or four months. 

The publishing sector was not as fortunate as Turkey's other sectors, which immediately embarked on a process of rapid growth when the nation's economy opened up to the world after 1980. The  political, ideological and material reasons for this are still debated today, as are those deriving from the country's educational system. But whatever the reason or reasons may be, in the last analysis writers of Turkish literature, apart from some individual efforts, have not, with few exceptions, been translated into world languages nor have their books found a place on the shelves of world booksellers. And so was born a writer who was 'seeking his readers' both in his own country and in the world, and who did not for even a minute give up his passion of writing for the world. But regardless of how slowly the publishing sector has developed, writers, who follow what's going on in the world even under the most difficult conditions, have been among the first to keep up with Turkey's integration with the world. 

An incident involving one of Turkey's leading short story writers, Sait Faik Abasıyanık, sums up the situation in a nutshell: When Abasıyanık was applying for a passport he gave his profession as 'writer'. But the official issuing the passport nonetheless entered 'unemployed' in the space for occupation.

I get all keyed up then when I think about the Turkish Airlines plane that will take off from Istanbul for Frankfurt on 14 October, because although it doesn't say so in their passports, most of the passengers will be the distinguished writers of Turkish literature, or publishers who specialize in this field due to their passion for books despite the existence of far more lucrative sectors.

There may be some who don't realize just how important being Frankfurt's guest of honor is. Yet this is perhaps the best thing that could happen to Turkish literature. Just to give an idea, approximately seven thousand publishers from one hundred countries attend this fair, which has been held in the German city of Frankfurt every year since 1949. At fair time, the heart of world books and publishing beats in Frankfurt.  

The Frankfurt fair may therefore be a great opportunity for Turkish literature. For the world publishing market is fraught with quotas. A publisher in Europe or the U.S., for example, might say that his quota was full after printing one book by a writer from Turkey. And it frequently happens that a publisher says that one writer from Turkey is enough and doesn't feel a need for another. Similarly, while Italian or French literature may have its own shelf, a book in Turkish may be shelved together with an array of so-called Literature of the East extending as far as China.

What's more, the Frankfurt Book Fair is not limited merely to the fair venue and dates. Throughout the year, over three thousand interviews, panel discussions and lectures are held with the participation of leading writers, researchers, scholars and organizations of civil society from different countries on the subjects of art, literature, science, culture, language and religion, all organized by the Fair committee. 

And at all of these events, the literature and activities of the Guest of Honor Country are brought to the forefront and given special emphasis. This year, for example, Turkish art and literature are going to be promoted in around 250 major events. In addition to panel discussions, interviews and book-signing days, Turkey will stage close to thirty exhibitions, more than fifteen stage productions, concerts and train station readings and close to fifty scholarly meetings.

Not only that, for two months following the fair, Turkish films will be shown and forums held on the Turkish cinema both in the fair area and at the Frankfurt Film Museum. In short, Turkish art and literature are going to be brought to the attention of publishers and agents from all over the world. And this means new contracts for our writers and publishers and the publication of works in other countries, even the translation of works into languages we never even imagined. There was heightened interest in Turkish literature even prior to the fair, as German publishers one after the other brought out anthologies of stories based on the theme of 'Istanbul' or 'Turkish literature'.

Turkey's preparation to be the Guest of Honor Country at the fair, at which Catalonia was guest of honor last year, India the year before that and Korea in 2005, was an encouraging process in itself insofar as Turkey, to support the Culture Ministry's Guest of Honor Project, in 2005 launched the TEDA Project (Opening Up Turkish Literature to the World). In line with the project, 441 works were translated into thirty-five languages, 110 of them into German, thereby overcoming the translation problem which had constituted the major obstacle to Turkish literature entering world booksellers. Turkey allocated a budget of 6.5 million Euros for all of this, and it should immediately be pointed out here that this is the first time that the Turkish government has ever lent such enormous organizational support to writers and the world of literature. It gives a person further hope now to know that those sitting on the Turkish Airlines plane to Frankfurt will be the invited guests of the Ministry of Culture.

Nevertheless, a writer in the 1960's, and one of the greats of Turkish literature to boot, actually considered suicide owing to the lack of interest in his works. Not knowing who his readers were or where they were, and being unable to reach them caused him more mental anguish than penury or poverty. Ditto for writing knowing full well that he didn't stand a chance of winning the Nobel prize no matter how good he was...  This writer is none other than Orhan Kemal, who penned more than 40 works and is one of the best known and most beloved writers in Turkish literature.

How wonderful that some things can change, albeit slowly, with time. For another Turkish writer by the name of Orhan, who is going to give the opening talk at the Frankfurt Book Fair, has, unlike his namesake, managed to find his readers, both in Turkey and in the world, in his own lifetime. What's more, he got the Nobel. It was high time that things changed. And it must be for this reason that Nobel Prize-winning writer Orhan Pamuk is organizing his opening talk at the fair on the topic, 'On Localism and Modernism' and on the whole process that evolved from the day he once told those around him, “I'm going to be a writer,” and they retorted, “What are you going to do as a writer, especially in Turkey?” Who knows? Perhaps the Frankfurt Book Fair will be another turning point for Turkish literature, and Turkish writers will be able to come together with readers living all over the world who are eager to read their novels... Who knows? Perhaps a reader from another country will come to Istanbul just to learn something about the writer of a book he has read, and maybe he'll even pay a visit to the Orhan Kemal Museum in Cihangir which stands idle today for lack of interest. Who knows? It could happen...