‘Exile is the fate of the contemporary poet, regardless of whether he lives in his native land or abroad, because he is almost always torn away from the little familiar world of customs and beliefs that he knew in his childhood.’
– Czesław Miłosz, The Land of Ulro, translated from the Polish by Louis Iribarne
The first time I heard the word exile – sürgün – in Turkish, I was a child. It struck me how closely it rhymed with another word: hüzün – melancholy. I was seven years old and had just started primary school in Ankara. Our house was in a deeply patriarchal, conservative neighbourhood. Having arrived here from France, and unable to keep pace with the other children, I often felt misplaced, different, weird.
I was born in Strasbourg. A small flat in a tower block full of leftist students, immigrants, reading Fanon and Althusser, smoking strong tobacco, mostly Gauloises. Not long after, my parents’ marriage came to an end. My father stayed in France and got married again while my mother brought me to Ankara, to Grandma’s house. For my mother, Turkey was ‘the motherland’, the country where we belonged. For me, it was a new place altogether, one that I had to discover on my own.
Thus we arrived in Grandma’s universe. Two-storey houses, small gardens with cherry trees, aromas of fried eggplants and garlicky yogurt and dried apples, evil-eye beads, invisible djinn dancing around after sunset . . . A twilight world. All the other children in the vicinity came from large, extended families with fathers as the heads of the households, whereas I was raised by two women. Once a boy called me ‘bastard’ to my face and I remember the word did not hurt me, for I had no idea what it meant, but the coldness of his tone pierced me.
My grandmother and my mother were as different as night and day, or a tavern and a mosque. Mum is secular, modern, rational, urban and very fond of written culture. She passed on to me the love of books. Grandma was spiritual, highly irrational and yet remarkably wise. She was fond of oral culture – legends, myths, folk tales. She taught me to listen carefully to stories – but also to silences.
By the time I started primary school, it was the moral teachings of these two women that I carried with me when I walked into a classroom of forty-three children. The teacher – a tall, sinewy and strict woman with perfectly manicured fingernails and a wooden ruler she did not hesitate to put to use when someone misbehaved – wasn’t pleased to learn that I was left-handed.
‘Every year there are one or two,’ she said. ‘Don’t worry. We’ll take care of it.’
It was common practice back then. Left-handed children had to be corrected. There was another student in the classroom who, although seemingly in the same boat as me, was able to make the transition without a hitch. He was ambidextrous. I was not. I found it extremely hard to write with my right hand, and perhaps, just perhaps, something in me kept resisting.
‘It’s not working,’ the teacher said one day in the middle of spring. She looked tired and somehow older. I knew she was disappointed in me. ‘There is no other way. We must send your left hand into exile.’
‘Where?’ I asked anxiously. Here was another word I had never heard before.
‘Yes we must.’ She nodded her head, agreeing with herself. ‘We’ll pretend your left hand has gone to another country.’
I was flabbergasted. How could one part of me be somewhere else while the rest of me was here? How could I be whole if I remained divided?
‘Until you have fully learned to make good use of your right hand,’ the teacher carried on, as if sensing my confusion. ‘Afterwards your left hand can return.’
Thus I was instructed to keep my left hand under the desk at all times. During class hours, my sinful hand would remain banished. Meanwhile, I would do everything with my right hand, my good hand – holding a pencil, opening a book, asking permission to speak . . .
This is how I came to learn that the world under the desk was the Land of Exile. Dusty, dark, unwanted. A place of rejection, punishment and forsakenness. Once something was sent into exile, you did not have to think about it much. It was out of sight, out of mind.
After a full year of repeated failures and a few detentions, I was able to learn how to write with my right hand and my right hand only. And years later, as a novelist who has always been dependent on all kinds of typewriters, computers and laptops, I hate my own handwriting and feel uncomfortable if I have to hold a pencil or a pen for longer than a few minutes. Today, when readers ask me to sign their books, I am happy to do that, but I cannot help murmuring apologies every now and then for my illegible handwriting.
Turkey has a long history of sending its writers and poets into exile. This tradition, if that’s what it is, goes all the way back to the Ottoman Empire. Every poet, novelist, academic or intellectual today knows that words are loaded. Because of a poem, a novel, an article, a sentence uttered in an interview or even a retweet, one can get into trouble overnight. The next day you may wake up to pro-government papers branding you a ‘traitor’ and trolls on social media bombarding you with insults and slander. In only a matter of hours you can be sued, arrested, sacked or exiled. We all know this: there is, therefore, widespread self-censorship among writers.
Osman Kavala, a leading philanthropist and businessman, and one of the most gentle souls and kindest people I have ever known, is still being held unlawfully in jail. Ahmet Altan, the novelist and journalist, has been sentenced to life in prison. Selahattin Demirtaş, the leader of the majority-Kurdish political party HDP, is in jail, his voice silenced. In 2018 alone, 113,000 Turks left Turkey.
Since my childhood, life has always been nomadic. Besides Ankara I have lived in Madrid, Amman and Cologne. Then, in my early twenties, I moved to Istanbul on my own. I did not know a single soul and I did not have a job, but I strongly believed that the city was calling me and that it was here that I should write my novels. For years, I studied Istanbul’s history, questioned its collective amnesia, roamed its side streets and alleys, recorded its graffiti, researched its nooks and crannies, tried to give a voice to its untold stories. I fell in love with Istanbul. But she was a difficult lover, and always has been. Feeling suffocated, I went to Boston, Michigan and Arizona. Later, I returned to Istanbul, and continued to write and publish here. But things did not get easier. After I wrote The Bastard of Istanbul in 2006, there were ultra-nationalist mobs on the streets burning my photograph next to the EU flag. My novel focused on two families, one Turkish, the other Armenian-American, telling the painful stories of the Armenian genocide through the eyes of generations of women. I was put on trial for ‘insulting Turkishness’ under Article 301. My Turkish lawyer had to defend my Armenian fictional characters in the courtroom and for two years I lived with a bodyguard. Today my fiction is once again being scrutinised by the authorities, this time for the ‘crime of obscenity’ – for writing about issues such as sexual harassment, child abuse and gender-based violence.
About ten years ago, I uprooted myself once again and moved to London. Self-imposed exile is hard to explain to yourself, let alone to others. It does involve a geographical displacement, a physical separation from language, culture, familiarity. But more than that it is a feeling you cannot shed: a sense of being only partly present.
My grandmother passed away recently. I could not attend her funeral. I did not feel comfortable travelling to Turkey at a time when academics, journalists and writers were being arrested or targeted on the most baseless of charges. I did not want to talk about this either. It didn’t seem right to even mention it when so many other people were going through enormous difficulties and injustices. And yet I have carried this sense of separation from Istanbul within me for so long now that it surfaces involuntarily sometimes, when I hear a song or miss the taste of fried mussels, the sound of a seagull’s cry, the smell of the salty wind.
Friends who travel back and forth ask me sometimes if there is anything I would like them to bring. This I don’t say. But I wish they could bring me my coffee-stained copy of Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, left on a wooden bench on the upper deck of a ferry boat zigzagging between the islands. I’d like to believe that it is still there, its pages turning in the breeze. But I know the book is not there any more: that moment in time is gone, and so is, perhaps, the country that I used to know and call home.
Photogaph courtesy of the author; the author’s grandmother and great-grandmother