President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been intensifying his crackdown on Turkey’s press, with many journalists and writers either fleeing the country or facing arrest. Meanwhile, Madonna in a Fur Coat, a novel from 1943 by dissident political writer Sabahattin Ali, has returned to bestseller lists in the past few years. World Policy Journal spoke with president of English PEN Maureen Freely, who translated Ali’s work to English, about the state of Turkey’s literary and media culture and why this book resonates so strongly with readers today.
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: This book, Madonna in a Fur Coat, was first published in 1943, but it has become very popular in Turkey in the past three or four years. What accounts for its resurgence?
MAUREEN FREELY: It stayed popular in Bulgaria and other Eastern bloc countries during the Cold War. In Turkey after the Cold War, there was kind of a cultural renaissance, with particular interest in literature, music, and other arts. So it’s in this context that Sabahattin Ali’s novel comes back. About 15 years ago, suddenly, everyone started reading it, especially young people. Now it’s a bestseller. There are larger, cultural reasons for this; a lot of writers in Turkey were suppressed during the Cold War under successive authoritarian regimes, which made very limited space for democracy. A lot of them were popular and important poets and novelists. But this book is different from others that came back to popularity. It was young people in particular that really identified with it, and they’re identifying with it more and more as things get worse and worse in the country.
People under 30 in Turkey have been increasingly connected to the world because of the internet, travel, and tourists coming in. They’re sharing their lives with people their age all over the world. It’s always been a country where family pressure is pretty powerful, because family is your only social insurance. But now Erdoğan and his associates are enforcing an ever-narrower space for young people to shape their lives. The message is: Obey your parents; do something useful; there’s no place for art; there’s no place for you to establish your own identity; and there’s absolutely no place for any kind of sexuality or gender expression that doesn’t fit the president’s incredibly narrow definition.
At the same time, increasingly since the attempted coup [in July 2016], there’s a renewed sense fear for those who belong to the secular portion of the country. Everyone knows that they can’t speak openly in a taxi or in a restaurant. They aren’t even using Erdoğan’s name in public because of the dangers connected to doing so—it’s dangerous to have any political position publicly, teach in a university, or work in a publishing house. It’s almost impossible to work in the media. But here’s a book that’s dealing with all these same things, though it doesn’t take place now—it’s based 90 years ago, so it’s almost like a metaphor for today. People can read it safely, to express the thoughts they cannot share about how they’d like to live. The book is about missed opportunities, which I think is what people often worry about. They worry that if they make the wrong decision, they will miss out on the most beautiful things in life.
WPJ: The book doesn’t seem to have any direct or obvious political themes, but, especially for the 1940s, when it was published, it presents ideas about social norms that might resonate today.
MF: Sabahattin Ali was an admired writer who was friends with all the greats of his day, but he didn’t have independent money, so he depended on working as a teacher or a translator for the state. When the state started cracking down on socialists the way they’re cracking down on all dissidents right now, he was left, as many are today, without any way to make a living, and also without the right to stay in the country. But even though he was much admired by his peers and ran a very daring political newspaper for his time, his friends found this book very embarrassing. They liked his other books, but they didn’t like this one. It’s pretty clear when you look at the book that it’s not taking the traditional understanding of maleness for the time. It feels modern now, but it seemed very strange to people then. There were lots of rumors about how Ali must be homosexual, or in some way wasn’t a “proper man,” because he wrote a book about falling in love with a woman who took the dominant role in the relationship. I think the only time in the book when that dynamic switches around is when she doesn’t wear a coat, and borrows his. The idea that gender roles could be fluid is not quite something people found threatening—they just had no idea what to think about it. But now, in increasingly homophobic Turkey, they know what to think about it.
WPJ: Sabahattin Ali has his own sort of mythos; he was arrested numerous times for his dissident political writings and was killed trying to cross into Bulgaria in 1948. How does his personal history factor into the modern-day popularity of the book?
MF: It’s a shameful story; his family never got his body. They weren’t even notified of his death—when his personal affects were arranged, photographed, and published in a newspaper was the first they heard of it, six months later. When the book came back, it proved to me, and I’m sure to other readers in Turkey, that the book could not only survive, but can go into hibernation and then come back again. In that sense, there are people who read the book and know his history, and can feel some hope knowing that books can survive.
WPJ: Looking at the Turkish literary scene and the increasingly constrained media sphere, do you see any change in the role literature and novels are playing in a space that might have been occupied by more overtly political work?
MF: People read a lot, especially students and the well educated, and there’s a lot of writing coming out. I’m not sure how many independent publishers there are at the moment, but not long ago there were about 600. There’s always been a tradition of oblique art, you might say, and a stronger tradition of poetry that’s still pretty much there. Drama and theater are still happening, despite the fact that Erdoğan disinvested the national theater. Music is still being made as well. There’s a long-term understanding of the art of resistance, and the resistance in art.
We won’t really know for some time what’s come out of this phase. For instance, look at The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk, set just before the 1980 coup. If the 1980 coup hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t have had that book, which itself opened up a new space.
The other thing that has changed in Turkey in recent decades is that so many more young people have plans to work and, even more importantly, study abroad. And so we’re seeing an exodus among those who are in the endangered professions—universities, media, publishing. So I think there’s going to be a lot of interesting writing, not just inside Turkey but outside, and that will travel back in. There’s a diaspora of people who are able to leave, and already have roots outside Turkey already because of their education and professional lives. The writing still goes on, but journalism and academia are still very dangerous professions right now.
WPJ: We seem to be hearing every week of journalists or members of the press arrested, targeted, or purged in some way. Is the government’s response to literature any different? Is there personal danger for the writers?
MF: There can be. There are a lot of writers who are journalists as well as novelists, and who are now in prison. But there are others who are simply very good literary writers, and they are leaving as well if they can find a way. If they aren’t leaving, they’re thinking of leaving, because they just don’t know how secure they are. Better to leave, if only for a while. Just imagine you’re a writer, and you don’t write much political material, but you happen to be Kurdish. Or if you happen to be Alevi. Or, god forbid, if you happen to be Kurdish Alevi. So it might not be just because of your writing—it might be because of your identity. I know publishers that are publishing very daringly, despite what the Erdoğan government has been doing to publishers.
Yet it’s not just about the publishers; there’s a new kind of Muslim puritanism, which involves imposing the state’s norms and views on educational books and children’s books, banning anything that is sexually explicit, and emphasizing xenophobia. In spite of all this, publishers are still putting out daring, interesting stuff, but what they say to me privately is that every time they try to leave the country—and they travel often—they don’t know if that’s the time authorities will try to stop them. They tell their children not to worry if they’re taken, that prisons aren’t as bad as they used to be. That’s the condition people are living in now, whether they’re continuing to keep a sense of themselves and their publishing houses, or not. They’re reliving Turkey of the 1980s, though some people say it’s even worse now than it was then.
WPJ: What do you hope English-speaking audiences will take away from reading Madonna in a Fur Coat?
MF: What has made me happy since the book has come out here in the U.K. is the ways in which different types of readers are connecting with it. One young woman I was speaking to said it’s definitely written in and set in its time, but it’s still so contemporary to her. She said that, wanting to go and have a life in the arts, and being surrounded by and living in a society where we’re constantly told that art has no value, that we should be doing something useful, she doubts herself because of her love for the arts. But the book says more than any of our conversations about Turkey or any of our conversations about Islam, because it is so much a novel on its own terms about people that I, myself, couldn’t have imagined existed: A young man from the Turkish provinces goes to Berlin to study the manufacture of soap, but prefers the arts and then falls in love with an extraordinary woman. It’s almost as if you’re looking back over Germany and Turkey between the world wars and this beautiful story comes out of it. It comes fully formed. I hope it will catch other people’s imaginations the way it caught mine. I’m used to living a world that doesn’t value books and the arts as much as I wish it would, so the story of the book itself, traveling this strange route away from Turkey, then back into Turkey, and now out again, cheers me up as I see a book can do that and speak to each new audience in its own way.
At the university where I work, I was asked to give a lecture on the purpose of translation. I played them two clips. One was the most off-color, bellicose TV commercial for the referendum to make Erdoğan “king of kings,” and it was using all kinds of awful references to Turkish war movies, rewriting history with weapons and swords and horrible bellows and screams. And then I made them listen to someone reading the first page of this book in Turkish, with this lovely, sweet voice. When I try to translate something, the point is to translate in a beautiful way to tell a beautiful story, to cut through all the loud ugliness. And I think it can. If you write well and find a way to translate well, then you can find the readers on the other side.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy interviews.
[Photo courtesy of Other Press]