“A human being is an animal capable of finding hope in despair”
The Turkish writer Aslı Erdoğan has been living in Germany for two years now. In her home country she was in detention for 132 days in 2016. Today, she is still under trial for terrorist propaganda together with eight other journalists, human rights activists and publishers who worked for the Kurdish-Turkish newspaper Özgür Gündem. With her poetic work "The Stone Building and Other Places" (City Lights Books) about the infamous Istanbul prison Sansaryan Han she seeks words for the trauma.
You just learned that your books have been removed from every university library in Turkey – what are your thoughts about that?
It’s a shame. Turkey doesn't have many writers, especially female writers that are internationally successful. By removing those books from the libraries, the Turkish government shows not only that they have no respect, but also that they can’t stand literature. This is an alarming sign about today’s Turkey. We all associate fascism with bans on books and the burning of books – with those strong images from back then in Nazi-Germany. Their fight against books shows that they have gone too far ahead towards a fascistic regime. But they should be alarmed by that, not me. With “they“ I mean the Turkish government, because information like that is generally withheld from the public – the government doesn’t officially state, reject or deny its actions, not even upon request. However, the fact that my books have been translated into 19 languages shows how powerful literature is, because [by being published in so many countries] it overcame so many barriers of cultural racism
What does it mean for you that your book "The Stone Building and Other Places" has just been published here in Germany – the country where you have lived since 2017 as part of the programme ”Stadt der Zuflucht“ (which is part of the ICORN International Cities of Refuge network)?
I was exhilarated when my first translation was published in French in 2003, because as a female writer in Turkey there were many prejudices held against me – for, or against me. Here in Germany, there is something about me that I am ‘the writer who went to jail’, so I have to carry this image with me. But apart from that, the German reader who buys my book for the first time has much less prejudices. In a way, I see the German publication as a new test, a new challenge, also because I take the German [literary] critics very seriously. If the German critics damn you, it’s a heavy blow. You can’t recover. But if they say something really solid, it stays with you for a long time. The fact that the German literary scene liked the book gave me self-confidence. In contrast, I cannot take American reviews seriously, because I find them, often – not always – very superficial.
During your reading at Weltempfänger-Salon (hosted by LitProm) a month ago in Frankfurt you talked about ”finding a language for trauma” – how difficult is it to describe trauma?
My book The Stone Building and Other Places is like a cloud; nothing is clear. This corresponds to the way my memory recorded the trauma of being in prison. I met a prisoner friend, actually here in Germany; it was the only time in my life I had met someone I knew in prison “outside“. She can’t even remember her ward number [meaning, cell number] any more. Memory has its own language. I think, in that sense, the book was quite successful. However, this book is not a triumph – it’s a confession of failure. One of the main sentences of the book is that I hear a tune, but every time I try to sing it, I can’t catch it. It fails, because nothing can tell the trauma, you can only try to approach it, drive circles around it. The torture room is no place for literature. One can only search how far literary expression and trauma experience can come together, that’s all. To convey the experience of torture accurately is basically impossible. If you can’t even tell it to yourself, if your memory refuses to keep it, how can you tell it to others? It’s doomed to be lost.
You wrote the book in 2009, seven years before you were imprisoned – did your relationship to the text change after your imprisonment?
The fact that I went to prison seven years later really made this book the book of my life. I can’t get out of it anymore. The book wrote my destiny, and now I have to rewrite it again: the prison, all this. For the rest of my life I am in "the stone building", I feel that. That is what I want to tell: Trauma is something you can’t get out of yourself, it’s endless. I remember the prison exactly as in the book, a big cloud and a few, very solid pictures that are ineradicable. You want to rip them off your brain, but you can’t. So in that sense I am at peace with my book. Of course, it could have been more direct, if I would try it now, I would be more outspoken at certain points. But that was a time when I was writing mostly poetry, a time when I had given up on writing fiction and, of course, every book has its defects.
What do you think about the position of the European Union and the German government towards Turkey?
It is a difficult question, because there are many layers to it. Many people in Europe have helped us. Germany has accepted several hundreds of writers and academicians who had to leave Turkey. However, there is a general silence in Europe that gives a lot of courage to the Turkish government. Not entirely silent, no, that would be unfair, but news are spread too inconsistent. There are currently 7,000 people on hunger strike in the Turkish jails, and there is absolutely nothing to be found about it in the German press – should there be? Yes of course! When there is silence, people believe it’s all over. But it’s going on, it’s continuing. Having said that, I can’t accuse Germany without having to look at ourselves; and the Turks are as indifferent, as silent as the Europeans.
So, do you suggest that Europeans should protest more loudly?
How much should I, should one expect from Europe? After all, it’s got its own problems to deal with. The refugee issue is probably [the reason for] this confused approach and the fact that Europe refuses to take a strong hold against Turkey. They are afraid of the three millions Syrians in Turkey. And then there are the economic reasons: German’s economy wouldn’t crash without selling weapons to Turkey, but they would lose money and they don’t want to. I understand that Germany needs to sustain its democratic system with its economic power, but as an intellectual, I am totally against this idea of economic interest. For me, the most important thing is the human right. So generally speaking, yes, Germany should be protesting more loudly.
How do you feel about your literary work often being considered political writing?
Honestly, I was not aware that my writing is portrayed as very political here in Germany. Of course, every literature is political, so there is no distinction between political and literary writing. Even if you don’t say a word about politics, you have made a political choice by for instance making your main character a woman or a man. The reader is free to choose which image of the writer he or she wants to carry. If they believe I am a political writer it’s their right. Then, if they like the poetical figure more that’s fine. But I find there is an element of unfairness here, not to me, but to the real political heroes. It’s almost ironic; I really am a very heavy existentialist, extremely poetic writer. Me a political writer? Most of the people of the Turkish intelligentsia must have laughed! I don’t really like the idea that a writer should be a guru, I mean, we have many limitations. In fact, journalists are much better in analysing, I can only offer perhaps a different view but that’s it.
Prior to your career as a writer, you worked as a physicist for CERN in Geneva – how do you bring these two worlds together?
I am not the only writer who has training in science. There is Herman Broch for example; and Anton Thcekov, who was a doctor. Training in science can be enriching. I don’t see them as two separate worlds, since both can be very beautiful and aesthetic. I am honestly happy that I didn’t study literature, because studying literature is dangerous. It solidifies your approach to literature and can be a block. I wish I would have studied philosophy; that is something that is left in my heart.
What are your plans for the future?
“Stadt der Zuflucht” (part of the ICORN International Cities of Refuge network) is only a two-year programme, so I have started having nightmares about what will happen soon. I will have to find something else, or I have to make the decision whether to ask for asylum in Germany or not. People think you are a famous writer and everything is easy, when really I am just an asylum seeker. I was very naïve in thinking that I would go back [to Turkey], but the court keeps prolonging the trial [in August it will be three years]. There is still no indictment, which leaves me hanging in the air. I mean, they can keep on playing this game for ten years if they want. But you know, a human being is an animal capable of finding hope in despair; and the more desperate you are, the more you’re capable to do so. I was such a pessimistic person leaving Turkey, and even I have started to think now that maybe I will be a quitter, maybe I go back. However, realistically speaking, I can’t trust them. It would be dangerous. If I would go back, the high court would sentence me and then I would get stuck there.
Thank you for this interview.
The interview was first published by Börsenblatt:
The interview was presented in the newsletter of the Frankfurt Book Fair: