Interview with Izzet Celasin

The End of Innocence

Izzet Celasin's novel 'Black Sky, Black Sea' addresses one of Turkey's taboos: the civil unrest of the 1970s. Celasin, who spent several years in prison, talks to Amin Farzanefar about his exile in Norway and the 1968 movement in Turkey

Izzet Celasin (photo: Christian Elgvin)
"Is there such a thing as good violence?" asks Izzet Celasin. Baris, the protagonist of his novel, demonstrates an alternative: retreat, the refusal to get involved, without feelings of revenge

​​How did you end up in Norway?

Izzet Celasin: As a political quota refugee. After many adventures I was accepted by the refugee commission in Belgrade, then spent a year and a half in transit in Yugoslavia, and was admitted to Norway in December 1988.

I was familiar with Ibsen, Hamsun and Amundsen, and that was about all. From the very first day I began learning the language – in Yugoslavia I had realized that you don't have a chance if you don't speak the language of the country. I enrolled in a language school for refugees and immigrants, borrowed books and cassettes from the Oslo library, and after three months I could more or less communicate.

Did you have any contact with other Turks?

Celasin: A total of 12,000 to 13,000 Turks live in Norway, with about 5,000 in Oslo, but these contacts weren't important to me. When you go into exile, you must adapt to the host country, or else you remain in your ghetto.

Right now the legacy of the 1968ers is under debate. That is the background of your story, too…

Celasin: When I decided to write about the past, I thought I wouldn't have much of a chance in Norway, but to my surprise people were very interested and taken by the idea. The novel is a tribute to my generation, which we called the '78ers' in Turkey – after all, 1968 lasted on into the 80s, even in Germany, if you count the RAF, or the Red Brigades in Italy.

Is this more or less your own story, then?

Celasin: The book begins with the Mayday Demonstration on Labour Day 1977, and with a young man who drifts along with the crowd to Taksim Square. After about ten pages I stopped and decided that it shouldn't be an autobiography. So, right after the shooting on Taksim Square a young woman appears, the hero's antagonist, and with that it turned into a novel.

​​ The novel examines the conflict between violence and ideals. Violence traumatises your protagonists, shaping their biographies and changing them. But the narrator, the young man, refuses to take part in this violence; his development is an inner maturation, based on personal experiences, not ones forced upon him.

Celasin: 'Baris' means 'peace', and he is for peace. But is that the right thing? In this country, at this time? I examine the question on the basis of dialectical materialism, which says that everything is connected with everything else.

Baris' father is a factory worker, but he is given the opportunity to get a higher education, to make something of himself and change his class. And he can't identify with the working class, can't become part of the revolution; his only connection is Zuhal, the girl he follows without knowing why, the girl who has the gift of influencing people…

He is always under someone's influence. He thinks of himself as a poet, but the girls around him write better poems and generally do everything better than he does.

Celasin: He is not a strong character, but he is loyal and affectionate, and he respects women, which they very much appreciate. He is charming and witty, and he can tell stories. Through him, I tell about love, about its different varieties: when he first falls in love, he is 17 and she is 15; Ayfer comes from a working-class family, and he goes to a good school

The novel alludes not just to Marx, but to the old Turkish films as well: the rich boy and the poor girl – or the other way around. Zuhal is a challenge to him; he follows her to find out more about himself. This unfulfilled love is incredibly depressing for him; he knows almost nothing about her; she knows him, but has made her priorities clear.

So there is the private sphere and the political sphere, and the individual does not always reflect his or her socio-economic background. These are two vectors that often run counter to each other.

Celasin: That is exactly what I end up showing: Zuhal wants to propel the political course of events, and Baris loves his professor's garden. But in this garden he hears bombs explode, and he knows that something is going on outside. He attends the wedding of his friend, the soldier, gets drunk and has fun, but when he wakes up, there are no ships on the Bosporus, no cars on the streets, and only then does he realize that there has been a putsch – after a wedding that gave him a huge hangover.

Has your book appeared in Turkish?

Celasin: There are no plans for that, and no queries from Turkish publishers. It would be a translation problem, too. If I were to translate it myself, it would be a new version. But it has now appeared in English, and soon it will appear in Spanish as well. Norwegian readers say: 'We can identify with the characters, in the 1970s it was like that here too.'

I think the Germans will feel just the same. This way my novel also revives the long-forgotten discussion about the political novel: post-modernism usurped epic writing, but now all these discussions are coming back.

Many people who are speaking up on the subject now paint a false picture: 'Oh, we were so innocent, and those Fascists beat us and tortured us.' But when you want to start a revolution, you leave your innocence at home, because you want to seize power!

And there are always people who draw a distinction between good violence and bad violence: 'Our violence is good, the others' is bad.'

Celasin: That is what I wanted to show: is there such a thing as good violence? On the other hand, I have Baris. He shows an alternative – retreat, not getting involved. You sit in the stands and watch the game. Violence is a central issue in my book, which is otherwise very romantic.

It is about a hero who doesn't want to choose either side, and by doing just that, he has already made his choice.

Celasin: Above all, I didn't want to romanticize violence. Revenge is very dangerous: 'If you murder my comrade, I'll murder your comrade' – these thoughts are common in Turkey. Baris is shot at, but he doesn't seek revenge. And that is an option too.

Interview: Amin Farzanefar

© 2009

Izzet Celasin, born in 1958 in Istanbul, was active in left-wing politics in his homeland and spent several years in prison after the military putsch of 1980. In 1988 he was admitted to Norway as a political refugee and worked as an interpreter in Oslo. 'Black Sky, Black Sea' is his first novel.

Translated from the German by Isabel Cole

Izzet Celasin: "Black Sky, Black Sea"
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Izzet Celasin was imprisoned for many years as a left-wing activist after the 1980 Turkish military putsch. He has now written a novel about the leftist revolt in his country. At the centre of the novel are women who provide his male characters with a sense of direction. A review by Volker Kaminski

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