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Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk on His New Novel, Turkish Censorship, and Twitter

We met up with the Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author to discuss his 12th novel 'A Strangeness in My Mind.'

by Mary von Aue
Oct 26 2015, 6:45pm

Orhan Pamuk in his apartment in New York. All photos by the author

"After I won the Nobel Prize, my life didn't get easier," Orhan Pamuk recently told me while looking out the window of his Manhattan apartment. Less than a year before winning the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature, the Turkish novelist faced criminal charges for mentioning the Armenian genocide and the killing of 30,000 Kurds to a Swiss newspaper. Winning the Nobel Prize made him an accidental spokesman for the cause and a lightning rod for the government's crackdown on free speech. Hate campaigns became so threatening, Pamuk felt he needed to flee the country. He couldn't celebrate being Turkey's first (and until this year, only) Nobel Laureate because his books were being burned at Turkish nationalist rallies.

For years after his prize, he avoided talking about politics, and few could blame him. The Committee to Protect Journalists states that 20 journalists have been killed in Turkey, while at least seven—including VICE News's Mohammed Ismael Rasool—sit in jail today. Like Pamuk, many writers, musicians, and artists have been prosecuted for breaking Turkey's Article 301 that makes it illegal to insult the republic, while numerous NGOs continue to fight for Turkey's freedom of expression.

Turkey has seen a positive change this year, with both social media and the art world whittling away at President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's ability to censor self-expression. When I first sat down with Pamuk, it was just a few days after I saw his artwork on display at this year's Istanbul Biennial, of which he was honorary chairman. Artists covered the city with over 1,500 pieces of artwork, many of which not only make explicit comments on the Armenian genocide, but explore Turkey's ongoing war against the Kurds. "If an artist said today what I said in 2005, they wouldn't have the problems I had," Orhan told me. Still, while I sat in a bar in Kadiköy, just a few nights after the Biennial premiered, Turkish nationalists stormed the headquarters of the pro-Kurdish party HDP just a few blocks away. The far right had attacked HDP locations across different cities in Turkey, and had attacked newspaper Hürriyet for its left-sympathizing news coverage.

For years, Pamuk resisted conversations that were solely about politics. Not only for his own safety, but the pressure to represent all progressive political causes in Turkey was limiting. "Not only do I have to maneuver myself to fight with the government, but I also have to hear people's demands," he once said in an interview with Agence France-Presse. Not every author has been so blunt in challenging Turkish censorship, and many expected him to speak to their individual cause. "I'd spend six years working on a book," he said, pointing to one of the piles of books that coat his desk, "but the only topic the journalists would ask about is political Islam."

His latest book, A Strangeness in My Mind, is a candid exploration of all the political taboos in today's Istanbul. As his 12th novel, and second since winning the Nobel Prize, the narrative is anchored to the historical events that continue to haunt the country today. Centering on the life of Mevlut, a poor migrant from Anatolia who comes to Istanbul to sell boza, a traditional Turkish fermented drink. His business affords him a floorless home that his family built on the outskirts of the city, and after a few futile attempts to graduate high school, his future seems at the mercy of boza, a drink quickly fading to obscurity. Pamuk examines 40 years of Turkish policies through the eyes of someone reluctant to get involved. Unlike the central characters in Pamuk's bestsellers, which include sultans, the bourgeoisie, and others with a measure of affluence, Pamuk has refocused his lens on the poorest and most underrepresented communities in Turkey. His characters, who range from Marxists to Islamists, witness civil war and fall into the cracks made by urbanization, which remains a major problem facing modern Istanbul.

Pamuk's passion for Istanbul is often compared to Joyce's Dublin or Dickens's London, but that comparison ignores the depth with which Pamuk represents each faction of the city, wandering into relationships, political parties, and lifestyles that are otherwise ignored. "This was originally supposed to be a short novella about a boza seller who loses his fortune when bottled boza becomes a product," Pamuk told me. "But after interviewing so many 80–90 year-old former boza sellers, and hearing about what they saw, I realized there is so much more to tell." Six hundred pages later, Pamuk has written a book in multiple voices, lending his sympathy to each character. "I want the reader to care about people like Mevlut as much as they care about Erdoğan," he said.

No longer rattled by his past experiences with Turkish censorship, Pamuk knows the only place they can never censor him is in his novels. "Dostoyevsky wrote the greatest novels of humanity when he was being censored by the czar," he reminded me. "You watch your step when you criticize the government in real time. They'll take you to court for insulting the military, but I can do so much more with fiction. In my novels, I'll always say what I want."

VICE: At the Istanbul Biennial, many artists were openly discussing the issues that you were persecuted for ten years ago. Do you feel that Turkish censorship has eased in the last few years?
Orhan Pamuk: Political free speech in Turkey is full of ironies. People can speak more freely today about what happened to the Armenians and discuss the rights of the Kurds. If someone says today what I said ten years ago, they wouldn't have my troubles. Things have mellowed, but that still doesn't mean that Turkey is a free-speech country. Newspaper owners are being pressured by the government. Critical journalists are being fired, facing court cases, even beatings. But it wasn't better before the political Islamists, either. This has been ongoing. When they took over, they did so with the same authoritarian nationalist government policies.

"If a Turkish writer was only going to write about butterflies and roses, and nostalgia about the good old days on the Bosphorus, they'd have to have a screw loose in their head."

Why do you think the art world has been able to avoid the censors recently?
Not long ago Turkey tried to ban Twitter and YouTube, trying to control people's reporting, but it's impossible to do that. In fact, when a country is growing economically this much, and individuality is expanding, it's so hard to control it. This is the irony of Erdoğan's government. In the last 14 years, he expanded Istanbul's population, but now all of these people want their own voice and it's so much harder for him to stop that. He can't put pressure on everyone in Istanbul that's tweeting. And because of this, I'm optimistic. The Turkish people are growing economically, and thanks to the internet, can still see what real free speech can look like. They won't submit.

So in this climate, do you feel that artists have a responsibility?
Tough question. Probably the eternal question of my life for the last 50 years. I think it's a matter of measure really. I've seen some of the best writers waste their talent just because they wanted to serve their nation, they did not give enough energy to the quality and beauty of their prose but rather attacking the government. But I've also seen people try to avoid the inevitable, and if a Turkish writer was only going to write about butterflies and roses, and nostalgia about the good old days on the Bosphorus, they'd have to have a screw loose in their head.

In the past you've lamented that "anyone who is in trouble or feels that the government is not doing well for them wants me to represent their problems." Do you still feel that way?
Let me clarify: I'm not lamenting. This had always been the case, but after the Nobel Prize, it became much harder. There is a lot of political dissent in Turkey, but it's not internationally represented. The political opposition wanted me to raise my voice—and I am with them—but they wanted me to raise my voice more than I wanted. I was happy to criticize current policies and lend my voice to that cause, but in the end I'm a literary person, and once you venture to that role of secular political opponent of Erdoğan's party—and I am—that was all anyone ever wanted to talk about.

I understand your reservations about speaking for other people, but now you've written a book about some of the most underrepresented communities in Turkey. Have you just accepted this role?
Yes, but it's a self-imposed role now. For years, I said, "One day I'm going to write a novel not about the bourgeois, but about the lower class." The art of the novel works best if we not only tell our own stories, but can see the world with different lenses: gender, class, religion. I'm writing through the point of view of a street vendor. I wanted to write about the town through that point of view so I could explore those areas.

It was essential for me to include cousins who were AKP and Erdoğan supporters, political Islamists, or [who even harbor] ultra-nationalist sympathies, but then also give Mevlut a Kurdish friend, with revolutionary leanings. Given Mevlut's economic circumstances, his interactions with these parties differ from my own, but I have to navigate both sides.

A Strangeness in My Mind really stands out from past books because it centers on the lives of the poor. Was this more challenging?
I teach a course at Columbia University called "The Art of the Novel," and one thing you learn from the history of the novel is that it's developed to represent the middle class, upper-middle class, and aristocracy. Most of the time, lower classes are background or just entertaining tearjerkers. All of my effort went into making my character convincing without any melodrama. I wanted to explore Mevlut's full livelihood across 40 years, looking at the city through his eyes.

So I started going to villages for interviews, and talking to boza sellers like Mevlut, and more and more people told me their stories. As soon as someone saw me there, all the 80- and 90-year-old boza sellers wanted to talk to me. I loved it. I love chronicling. I have piles of interviews. I regret not doing it 40 years ago. I had the whole history of migration: coming to town, making your house, getting married.

You've also written these characters to chronicle Istanbul's rapid urbanization. Do you share their anxiety about these changes?
Mevlut's experiences are parallel to mine. When I was born in Istanbul, it was a city of one million. Now it's a city of 17 million. There was an immense transformation, but it did not happen overnight. Occasionally, my character is aware of these changes, just like me, and starts to feel like he doesn't belong there anymore. The novel chronicles how this area went from homes like Mevlut's to skyscrapers.

Is there a clear problem of gentrification in Istanbul the way it exists here in New York?
Of course. In the book, Mevlut lives in the neighborhood Tarlabaşi. It used to be a Greek neighborhood, then it became a poor Turkish neighborhood, now presidents live there. If you rent in Istanbul, you'll only continue to be pushed farther and farther away.

Most of the Istanbul of my childhood is demolished, and I've come to realize that a city doesn't have essential qualities that go unchanged. Cancerous, mushrooming high-rises will continue to grow because the government sees more profit in it. Truthfully, it was the same with the previous government. They'll keep destroying historic buildings, because there is a sentiment that we must eat the past to improve today.

In the book, your description of what happened to the Tarlabaşi neighborhood reminds me of what happened to the Black Bottom neighborhood of Detroit. In both cases, the government built a highway that cut through the town, forcing the community into worse conditions.
Yes, roads like these are built to serve the upper classes. The fixtures of life for lower classes are never respected, and this is common in all big cities. But nostalgia can't be our only reaction. I try to spend my time understanding what happened. This novel was an attempt to make sense of it by seeing it through the eyes of a man who lived it. I want people to care about people like Mevlut as much as they care about Erdoğan.

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This book really illuminates how this corruption doesn't just exist in the government, but in places like the construction industry as well.
It's not just the construction industry—it's everywhere now. Political bribery has become part of the lifestyle. It's why so many Turkish people want to join the European Union: that kind of regulation could stop much of this corruption. I spent some time, especially between 2003–8, propagating the idea that it would be good for us to join the EU. I still feel that way. It would force us to be a full democracy.

How do you see Turkey as a "partial" democracy?
There is a lot of disrespect for the separation of powers. Erdoğan's executive branch pressures the courts, and the independence of the court system is in trouble. We may be an electoral democracy—I'll give him that—but we aren't a full democracy. You have to have free speech, and a separation of powers. Courts need to be separated from the executive branch, but they aren't. The government shouldn't be able to pressure the media, but it does. That's why I call us an electoral democracy but not a full democracy.

"Technology has really helped Turkey in the fight for free speech. Now, anyone with internet access can be informed. Attempting to stop us from Twitter won't work—you can't silence us."

Given that it's an "electoral democracy," what do you expect from the snap elections scheduled for November 1?
I'm hoping Erdoğan doesn't get what he wants, but even if he does, I'm optimistic. The only tangible, positive development of Turkish free speech in the last 12 years has happened in the last few months. Free speech has become a legitimate topic for debate. Political parties are asking for free speech for the sake of free speech. Fifteen years ago, opposition parties would criticize the government for giving too much free speech to Kurds, Alevis, Christians, and other minorities. That's not happening at least. Well, there is still one party saying that, but just one. So here's my attempt at being positive: This is clearly an improvement.

Do you feel more relaxed about your own free speech?
Yes. I do, but I still have to have a bodyguard. But so many journalists are saying much more than I say, and have more to worry about. I can make political comments in anti-government newspapers now, but I am protected. Ten years ago, when pro-government newspapers attacked me, I worried someone might shoot me. I don't face the same threats. Technology has really helped Turkey in the fight for free speech. Now, anyone with internet access can be informed. Attempting to stop us from Twitter won't work—you can't silence us.

Are you on Twitter?
No, but I read other people's Twitter all the time. People tell me to join, saying I will have a million followers, but what would I say?

Condensing a great thought to 140 characters is hard.
You think so? Maybe, but tweets can be beautiful too. So many people in Turkey can get the news from Twitter, but it's more than that. It can be like poetry. Who knows, maybe this book is really a lot of my tweets.

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A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk is available in bookstores and online.