Oya Baydar (photo: dpa)
Interview with the Turkish writer Oya Baydar

''Turkey is a country of miracles''

The writer and journalist Oya Baydar speaks here to Ceyda Nurtsch about the role of the novel in Turkey in exploring the country's history, and why Turkish intellectuals were more optimistic about the democratisation of their country than they are now

In your new book "Bir Dönem – Iki Kadin" ("One Epoch – Two Women") you offer Turkish society a mirror of the country's social developments since the 1940s. In an earlier book too, "Kedi Mektuplan" ("Cats' Letters"), the cats are a mirror of society. Why do you use the metaphor of the mirror as a literary means in your work so often?

Oya Baydar: That wasn't a deliberate decision in this latest book. It emerged rather from the dialogue between me and my co-author and friend Melek Ulagay. We hold a mirror up to each other as two women who experienced an epoch in entirely different ways. And at the same time, we hold a mirror up to the period which we describe. The mirror is a metaphor. We wanted to experience this period again through the other person, and thus make it available to a wider public.

Melek Ulagay and I come from different political camps which were opposed to each other. I come from the pro-Soviet wing; my friend, who is younger than I am, comes from the Maoists. In the past, the two groups almost came to violent conflict.

Cover of Oya Baydra's "The Lost Word" (source: publisher)
Published in Turkish in 2007, "The Lost Word" is set in the recent past, as a war fought with Kurdish separatists since 1984 intensifies. It is Baydar's only novel published in English so far

​​Our family background is also very different: Melek comes from an upper-class family involved in the pharmaceutical industry, whereas mine was more middle class, with soldiers and teachers in the family. We also had very different educations: Melek enjoyed an Anglo-Saxon education, whereas my Catholic education in a French school had a great influence on me. With all these differences between us, we wanted to show how a particular social class experienced this period.

Above all, though, it was important for us to show how all these differences over the years became less important, and how we in the end were able to meet in one place. This possibility of meeting is particularly important in Turkey, where the fronts between the various camps are still very rigid. As far as we were concerned, it was the peace movement which was our common denominator.

The fact that you show this period from a woman's perspective also plays an important role.

Baydar: It is very important that we are writing this history specifically as women. Especially when it comes to political issues, men tend to write history from a position of power, and as a result they can't always tell the truth. They always try to present things as if they had always done everything right. That's particularly true of men in leading positions. We didn't have such a problem. We spoke about everything in a very self-critical, intimate way, in which we criticised our movements and ourselves.

We think that it is particularly important to do so, since that's the only way that the true history can emerge, beyond the official history as it is written down. After all, the left wing also has its own official history. We wanted to know how two women experienced this period beyond the official history. That's why we also write about our love affairs and other private stories: life did not just have one dimension and it wasn't all about politics.

Apart from this last book, you've always written novels. What role does the novel play in the way Turkey deals with its history?

Baydar: The novel plays a very important role. Indeed, throughout the world, the novel is the form of literature which is currently experiencing a boom. In other words, the novel is the form of literature which is most read. That will most likely change some time, but that's how it is now. Every novel which deals in some way with political or social issues is a historical document. That's why many young people who are interested in current affairs read my novels, for example, because they want to know more about the period about which I write. This interest will continue to exist.

A novel can reveal a history that the official history books leave out. I'm not alone in Turkey in this respect. Over the last few years, an increasing number of novels have appeared dealing with the current reality in Turkey as well as with the country's history.

In your novels the characters are searching for their identities.

Baydar: Basically my novels are about the search for identity, as well as about the questioning of power and – most important – challenging the barbarism which rules the world. A different aspect predominates in each novel. In "Sıcak Külleri Kaldı" ("His Hot Ashes Remained"), it's about the power which destroys everything. "Erguvan Kapısı" ("The Judas Tree Gate") deals with the identity which people create for themselves on the basis of their convictions and that, in order to protect this identity, one may have to sacrifice one's life.

Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan (photo: dpa)
"Perhaps the ruling AK Party has reached its limits.the true face of the government has now emerged and everything has come to a standstill," Oya Baydar says. Pictured: Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan

​​"The Lost Word" takes place during the Iraq and Kurdish wars, at a time when – as now – there was much suffering. This is the main topic: violence, which ranges from "soft violence" in the education of children when one wants them to turn out like oneself, all the way to the violence of war. In "Çöplüğün Generali" ("The General of the Rubbish Dump"), which is a fictional novel with a style which is different from that of all the others, it's about the amnesia of an entire society.

After a break of 30 years, you have started to write again. We've spoken about the metaphor of the mirror – what are the things in Turkey today which you think need to have the mirror held up to them?

Baydar: A couple of years ago, I would have spoken more optimistically about Turkey. But my generation has campaigned for more freedom and democracy in Turkey, for an end to the war with the Kurds and for an altogether more peaceful atmosphere in the country. We are all very disappointed and pessimistic. I'm sad about it, and I'm ashamed to have to talk so pessimistically about Turkey.

Three or five years ago, we had hopes that the situation would improve. We thought things were moving, even if slowly. Of course we know that the current government has its limits. After all, it's a conservative, religious, neo-liberal government and that is naturally a long way away from what I and many other would like. But, ironically, this government has assured that things have indeed moved in Turkey. We thought that might go further.

But perhaps the ruling AK Party has reached its limits, and for this reason we are still waiting for democracy. Many of our friends are currently in prison – even those of whom we are 100 percent sure that they do not belong to any organisations. The whole country is affected by this mood. We also had great hopes of the new constitution.

It's true that we didn't vote for this government, but may of us on the left voted in the referendum for the changes to the constitution. We supported this first step, even if we insisted that it didn't go anything like far enough. Many people criticised us for this position, and, indeed, the true face of the government has now emerged and everything has come to a standstill.

You were a member of the Turkish Workers' Party and one of the best-known names in the left-wing movement. All the same you are one of its greatest critics. Why?

Baydar: I was a member of the Turkish Communist Party, but I recognised that its structure was such that the individual counts for nothing. That contradicts the principles of Marxism. It is wrong to sacrifice the individual to save society. That's certainly not the cause for which our generation took to the streets. Our utopia was entirely different. We wanted a world in which people live in justice with one another.

In Turkey, as in the rest of the world, the left-wing movement is very marginal and is engaged in a search for its own identity. And the current opposition is as guilty over the way the country has developed as the government is. It does not behave at all constructively over solving the Kurdish question. But, as I always say: Turkey is a country of miracles. Something happens and suddenly the whole atmosphere is changed.

Interview by Ceyda Nurtsch

© Qantara.de 2012

Oya Bardar's novel "The Lost Word" is available in English.

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

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