Turkish Novelist Burhan Sönmez to Recieve the Vaclav Havel Library Foundation’s “Disturbing the Peace” Award
The Kurdish novelist Burhan Sönmez is 2017 recipient of the Disturbing the Peace Award. The Disturbing the Peace Award is awarded annually to a distinguished writer of fiction, literary nonfiction, biography, memoire, or drama, who is courageous in dissent and has been punished for challenging an oppressive regime.
Ian Buruma, the editor of the New York Review of Books, will present the award to Sönmez at a ceremony on September 28 at 8:00 p.m. at the Bohemian National Hall in New York. The award ceremony will take place on the second night of “Rehearsal for Truth,” a festival of Central European theater in honor of Vaclav Havel.
Burhan Sönmez Represents a Nation of Writers, Journalists, Artists, Moviemakers, and Academics
By Salil Tripathi
Salil Tripathi is a contributing editor at Mint and at Caravan in India. He is currently Chair, PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee. In 2016, Yale University Press published his book The Colonel Who Would Not Repent: The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy.
Burhan Sönmez is a novelist who has shown enormous courage and persistence in raising his voice against those who wield power in Turkey. He has fought authoritarianism with a firm voice that’s calm and yet confident, which celebrates Turkey’s diversity while opposing violence. He seeks moderation in a world turning extreme; he extolls beauty in a world of cruelty. He has been a victim of human rights abuses, but instead of focusing on his own story, he documents the stories of others, and through them, he shows how victims know no boundaries.
Sönmez is Kurdish and has worked as a human rights lawyer. In 1996, he was taking part in a non-violent demonstration when he was arrested and the police beat him mercilessly, torturing him severely. He received treatment in the United Kingdom where his rehabilitation took five years. While recovering in the UK, he began taking notes, which he noticed, ‘were the branches of long, entangled stories.’ He realised that he had to write, and says, ‘I have believed in writing more than anything else and in the good things that can come out of bad incidents.’
Sönmez wanted to be a poet, but instead became a novelist. He indulges his early passion by including poems in his novels. He has written three novels – Kuzey (North) in 2009, Masumlar (Sins and Innocents) in 2011 (for which he received the Sedat Simavi Literature Prize), and Istanbul, Istanbul in 2015. He has been published in 20 countries, including the United States, many European countries, as well as Ethiopia, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, and Macedonia.
Kuzey is the story of a man who goes north to solve the mystery of his father’s death. Weaving folk tales and legends, the novel questions the nature of identity. Masumlar is the story of a woman and a man who meet in a foreign country. Each has a secret and dark past. Istanbul, Istanbul is about prisoners in a subterrenean prison, who share stories of their lives each other, posing riddles, and remembering the city that buzzes with activity above them, while they recover from being tortured. Their story becomes the story of the city.
“If you are underground, you don’t have the usual directions – east or west, south or north – you only have one, upwards. Time itself doesn’t move forwards or back, it moves upwards too, from underground to overground, or vice versa. So by changing the direction of time I managed to unite, in a single cell, the whole time of the past into today … in the pain that’s suffered by people today,” Sönmez said in an interview.
Sönmez’s Istanbul is divided by time, not space. There is the Istanbul of the past, of the empire, when the city was beautiful, at a glorious time for the nation. Then there is the Istanbul of today, which is melancholic and stressful. Sönmez laments how people acquiesce with the destruction of the old Istanbul, so that new glass towers can emerge, even as they live in apartments that have drawings of the old Istanbul. How to preserve that old? How can the city believe that beauty is possible in the present? Those are some of the questions that Sönmez deals with in his writing. “In Istanbul Istanbul, I pretend to talk about torture and politics, but I don’t actually. Instead I talk about hope and hopelessness, darkness and light, good and evil, love and separation.”
While Sönmez is politically conscious, he does not use his fiction to preach political views. “When I began to write the novel, everybody around me thought it was going to be a political history of Turkey. I pretended, in the opening, to write a political book, but when the reader gets in, they suddenly find themselves seeing that no, it’s not about politics, it’s about love, laughter, pain, hope dreams…”
Sönmez says that in Turkey, being arrested, being tortured, is a social event. When he was a teenager in 1980, there was a military coup in Turkey, and nearly 500,000 people were arrested in the first two years. Most of them were youngsters, trade unionists, or intellectuals. About 30,000 have been arrested in the recent crackdown. “In Turkey, in every family, in every corner, you can come across someone being detained, tortured … so when you are talking about that kind of detention, it is not a personal story anymore; it is just a common theme,” he said.
While Sönmez’s writing mentions torture only in passing, it is because he believes there are many kinds of pain and suffering. Political torture is one aspect, but pain and suffering are everywhere. And hope enables overcoming the pain and suffering. Without hope you cannot talk about suffering, he told the magazine Guernica. “If you talk about suffering without hope it’s enjoying our euthanization. Even though they are being tortured continuously and on the borderline of death, the characters always try to finds a way to laugh by telling funny stories to each other,” he said. Hope reaffirms life through laughter, protecting us against evil and death. “Laughter is something we have against oppression and oppressive people. Dictators hate people who laugh at them. it’s easy for them to destroy people who resist them. But if you create jokes against them, write funny poems or articles against them, then they feel helpless and desperate. They can’t do anything. Laughter is the main way of protecting your soul against defeat from torture,” he said.
Sönmez believes censorship is not justified under any circumstances. “We need to find ways to cross the borderlines of restrictions and, when it happens, be ready to pay the price for it. Words are not up for negotiation. We have known that since the time of Socrates,” he said. “The writer’s only responsibility is to listen to his inner voice. He or she should not listen to any other voice except the voices of those who are in emotional or physical pain.”
The other danger writers face is surveillance, a risk enhanced in recent years. Surveillance is different from what writers do – writers observe, and observation, he once said, is a desire to see something beautiful or good, while surveillance represents the desire to find something dreadful and stigmatize it. “Writers believe in observation, while governments trust in surveillance. And we writers observe everything, including governments, while governments keep us under surveillance,” he said.
Turkey is a deeply divided country today. Other societies are torn apart in this manner too, but in Turkey the separation has become acute, with the groups hating each other, destroying what connects them. “When you go from one part of the community to another, it is like you’re moving form one century to another. People look at each other in a strange way, as if looking at someone from another planet, rather than trying to understand and open space for them,” he says.
That has crucial implications for a democracy. He says, “democracy creates space for all of them and bridges to connect them. In Turkey we are losing those bridges, and everyone is trying to destroy spaces for the opposite side. Istanbul is like different courtyards divided by big, thick walls.” Turkey is on a dangerous borderline at the moment, with many journalists and academics in prison or expelled from their university posts, only because they have called for a peaceful resolution to the Kurdish question. Only the independent people are seeing Turkey clearly today. Explaining the role of a writer, he says: “We are our own nation in this world – a nation of writers, journalists, artists, moviemakers, and academics. We act together. If there is a problem, we act to correct it.”
London, September 6, 2017