Burhan Sönmez on story-telling, craft, and taking flight
by Efe Tanci
Writers from Turkey have been on western literature’s radar after The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to a Turkish writer, Orhan Pamuk, in 2006. Since then, many writers have also been translated into English, reaching an even wider western audience. Most of whom are generally portraying the clash of western and eastern cultures, while the opposing forces intertwine culturally, sociologically and geographically in Turkey. Burhan Sönmez, however, is an exceptional figure as he doesn’t simply tell the ‘melancholic’ story of his land and leave the experimental stuff to his western colleagues. Revolving around the archaic/existential questions about time and place, Sönmez’s work seeks to portray an invisible and multi layered bridge between human soul and the notion of place.
Sönmez came to New York this past spring to attend two different panels within the scope of PEN World Voices Festival 2016 to discuss his work, specifically his last novel, İstanbul İstanbul, which has been recently published by OR Books in English. The novel is told from the perspectives of four prisoners in the underground cell of a centre for torture in Istanbul as they exchange their stories with one another. About İstanbul İstanbul, literary critic, Ali Ömer Türkeş says “Istanbul Istanbul looks like a political novel but has nothing to do with the actual politics. We can feel the Decameron by Boccaccio in the novel’s texture, but we can follow footsteps of the Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino in its substance. The characters in Istanbul Istanbul exchange words, desires and memories.”
During his visit to New York, Sönmez was so kind to allocate his precious time for me, a young Turkish writer who has been deeply inspired by his fiction. In the following interview, we discuss story-telling, his journey as a writer, creative writing pedagogy, and his last novel, İstanbul İstanbul.
ET: What is it about the human condition that drives us to tell stories? How do you feel you fit into this tradition?
BS: The life is a simple reality we experience but it is impossible to draw a picture of it by words. We create stories not to describe the world, but instead to remake it. We have two facts in this world, one is the reality we see, the other our mind. There is a third one which is the reflection of the reality in our mind. That is something different and unique. We tell stories to give birth to this new reality in our mind.
ET: Would you share with us a story that you have brought with you from your childhood into your adulthood?
BS: When I was a child in a small village without electricity we used to see supernatural beings like jinn. In the dim light of gas lamps, we would listen to the stories of jinn, fairies, and ogres. Some years after we moved to town I realised that we no longer saw any kind of those creatures and even their stories began to diminish. I asked my mom why we didn’t see any jinn around. Because, she said, we now live in a luminous town, the jinn left us, because they don’t like too many lights. Since then I have been thinking about the power of darkness and the beauty of the night. The imagination is nourished there.
ET: In your last novel, İstanbul İstanbul, the characters describe their own perception of Istanbul, trying to explore what the city means to them. Could you tell us what Istanbul means to Burhan Sönmez?
BS: I like what Oscar Wilde said about the characters in The Picture of Dorian Grey: “Three of characters are reflections of myself. Basil is what I think I am. Lord Henry is what the world thinks of me. Dorian is what I would like to be.”
Following Oscar Wilde, I can say that all characters in İstanbul İstanbul are reflecting my view on Istanbul. Though this view is full of contradictions and dilemmas I believe their unification reflects a strong image of Istanbul which is dark and bright, bitter and sweet, clear and ambiguous. I cannot stick to only one of those specialties.
ET: What is your definition of duende?
BS: This is the most difficult one in your questions. Because I know there is something for an answer, I sense it but I don’t know how to describe it. Some feelings in life are difficult to put in words. It is something that sometimes makes you cry, sometimes gives you happiness, pushes you into melancholy, prevents you from sleeping, and sometimes puts the world in your hand like an oyster. You get frightened of it and also fight for it. And still you can not describe it.
ET: As someone who is now being reached out to as an influence on others, whose present work influences you?
BS: Admiration and influence are not the same thing. I admire so many authors but when it comes to influence I can name only a few. Among them are Dostoyevski, Marquez, Melville, Yaşar Kemal.
ET: Creative writing education hasn’t been fully established/institutionalized in Turkey. There are several private workshops and related courses at some universities (including Middle East Technical University—the one you’re lecturing at) but there aren’t any creative writing programs at the college level. What is the reason of this? Do you think it would change in the future, and lastly, do you believe that creative writing is a teachable thing, pedagogically?
Creative writing is like flying. If people don’t have wings you can not give them wings. Only if they have their own wings you can show them the ways of flying experienced by others before.
BS: In a Kantian way I can say every individual has potential for creative works. They don’t need to be taught. We can share our knowledge with them. We can show our mistakes and faults so they can avoid them. But we can not show people how to do things. Because those things have already been done before we show it. Is learning a discovery or invention? It may contain both. Creative writing is like flying. If people don’t have wings you can not give them wings. Only if they have their own wings you can show them the ways of flying experienced by others before.
We don’t have a strong tradition of creative writing education in Turkey. We may count a few reasons. One of them is that we didn’t used to have a big population of novelists until last decade. From 1870 to 1970, in one hundred years, there were only four hundred novels published by Turkish writers. But today we have a new wave of writers. For example, last year, only in 2015, more than four hundred novels were published. As fiction-writing is getting more and more popular now quite a few places have begun to provide creative writing education.
ET: How do you think we can cultivate/sustain a writing community? What does literary citizenship mean to you?
BS: The species of writers has a multi-communal society like every species. They come together in different forms with different motives. Mostly they prefer to enjoy their individual citizenship and occasionally come together. Festivals are good opportunities for them. They are interested in any kind of pain, oppression, and violation of freedom anywhere in the world. Some of them like to act in big numbers with the aim of stopping violations and expanding freedom. They have an inner ear by which they can hear any painful cry or happy song in their heart.