Selahattin Demirtaş’ brief, bright literary career

Selahattin Demirtaş has been busy since he was imprisoned in late 2016. Not only did the charismatic former co-chair of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) run for president in 2018 from behind bars, but in just three years, he has published three works of fiction and emerged as a surprisingly capable literary figure.

He released a book of short stories, “Seher” (Twilight) in Turkish, in September 2017. Then in April 2019, he published a second book of stories, Devran, which was followed just eight months later by his first novel, Leylan.

Kenan Behzat Sharpe, an academic and columnist who writes mostly about Turkish culture, told Ahval in a podcast that Leylan is an ambitious work that highlights an inventive new voice. He was saddened to read the book’s epilogue, in which Demirtaş writes that Leylan will likely be his last literary work.

“He says he feels he’s done what he wanted to do with literature and expresses his doubts about whether it’s his calling to be a literary writer,” said Sharpe. “But I think these three books, written back-to-back, in Turkey and in the world have had such an exciting response.”

“Seher” became a bestseller in Turkey. It has sold more than 200,000 copies and been translated into 14 languages. In 2018 the book achieved some global renown when Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker was photographed carrying it as she left an event in New York. The next year her imprint, SJP for Hogarth, published it in English as “Dawn: Stories”.

“Demirtaş shares an optimistic vision for Turkey’s future with these neatly constructed, affecting stories of dreamers,” said Publishers Weekly. Kirkus Reviews described it as “a closely observed series of portraits of lives oppressed … a welcome debut collection.”

Last year, Turkish author, editor and columnist Esra Yalazan reviewed “Devran” for Ahval. “It is imbued with optimism, despite everything,” she wrote. “Regardless of his circumstances, he shows himself as genuine, brave, and sincere. In this sense, the intense interest in his books is not directly or solely related to his political identity.”

Demirtaş is of course a polarising figure in Turkey. His charm and broad-mindedness have enabled him to appeal not only to Kurdish voters, but to secular Turks opposed to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and weary of the troubled main opposition People’s Republican Party (CHP).

Yet AKP supporters and nationalists see him as an advocate of Kurdish separatism linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which explains why he was jailed on charges of spreading terrorist propaganda. Today he remains in a maximum-security prison, despite a 2018 ruling from the European Court of Human Rights calling for his release.

Demirtaş’s prison writings link him to a long line of Turkish dissidents who found their muse behind bars. In recent years, novelist Ahmet Altan published a prison memoir; Gültan Kışanak, the jailed mayor of Diyarbakır, the biggest city in the mainly Kurdish southeast, published a book of interviews with fellow inmates; journalist Kadri Gürsel used his prison time to reflect on Turkey’s lost media freedom; former Zaman columnist Ahmet Turan Alkan wrote a novel, “Sağ Yanım”, while in pre-trial detention for two years; and Can Dündar’s book “We Are Arrested”, written in prison after his 2015 arrest, has been turned into a play.

In earlier decades, Islamist thinker Necip Fazıl, who died in 1983, wrote poetry during his stints in prison and was praised by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at a 2018 award ceremony. Famed Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet wrote almost constantly during his 13 years in jail, while Orhan Kemal wrote a memoir of his time sharing a cell with Hikmet. In 1974, Sevgi Soysal received the Orhan Kemal award for “Noontime in Yenişehir”, written while she was in prison. Eight years later, the Cannes Film Festival awarded its top honour to Yılmaz Güney for “Yol”, a film he had written, and co-directed, while in jail.

“There’s a saying in Turkey: if you want to be a writer, you need to go to prison,” author Burhan Sönmez told The Guardian in 2018. This rings truer for Demirtaş than the rest; before prison, he had been a human rights lawyer and a politician, not a writer.

Now that has all changed. Most bookshops in Turkey today will prominently display one or more of Demirtaş’s works. This extends to the online shops of the Turkish postal service and Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, which is now under main opposition Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu after 25 years under the AKP and its predecessors.

A social media campaign by AKP supporters last month prodded the postal service to remove Leylan from its online store, while İmamoğlu said that he saw no reason the city should not sell the book, which has not been banned. That same week, the mayor’s wife and Demirtaş’ wife together attended a play based on a story from “Devran”. İmamoğlu defended them by saying they were contributing to Turkey’s unity and solidarity.

“These books have kept him in our public consciousness,” said Sharpe, adding that literature tends to be better at gaining and holding people’s attention than simple press statements.

“That’s part of why there’s been a pushback in certain circles about these books,” he said. “I don’t think their goal is propaganda, but one of their effects is that we continue to pay attention to Demirtaş’s case, the things he thinks about, the HDP as a party, and I think that makes some nervous.”

Leylan brings together traditions of political realism, oral storytelling and science fiction, according to Sharpe, who in a recent column for Duvar English compared it to works by Hikmet and Soysal. A diverse handful of interconnected narrators take the story from Turkey’s southeast to Istanbul and finally Zurich, where a futuristic apparatus enables a woman to enter her husband’s coma dreams and possibly lead him back to consciousness.

This scene has echoes of the Christopher Nolan film “Inception” and the dark Netflix hit series “Black Mirror”. But far from being heavy-handed, Sharpe saw the metaphor of being able to get into each other’s heads and understand each other as applying to political and personal relationships.

“What makes the novel successful as a novel is that it sees politics on a continuum with all sorts of other questions about what it is to live and be in connection with others,” said Sharpe.

Leylan includes references to real-world situations, such as the Academics for Peace and the difficulty of being brought up speaking only Kurdish at home before attending a Turkish-language school. Sharpe acknowledged a few political discussions poorly weaved into the narrative of the novel, and some bits of overly bombastic political language.

“There are aspects that are uneven. There are moments when you feel Demirtaş the politician or orator, instead of Demirtaş the short story writer or novelist,” he said. “But overall these are powerful works of literature and I hope personally that he keeps writing.”


© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.