Mehmet Basutcu - 13/04/2004
She started writing at a very young age. She was about ten years old, she remembers. Then she stopped dead. At least she didn’t write anything during her adolescence, unlike many who start during their first unhappy love affair. The real passion came to her much later, when she was reading science at university. After her physics lessons she would lock herself away in her room to write frantically; night after night, often until the early morning. The torments which inhabited her needed to be evacuated…
The disciplined student quickly became a passionate writer. She was driven by an inner necessity which was neither necessarily narcissistic nor of which she was less and less in control…It took her several years before deciding to have her texts published. However her first works, short stories and qualifying essays in an unusual form, were rewarded from the outset. She was therefore a literary prize-winner well before being exposed in bookshop windows…
Today, Aslı Erdoğan, no longer teaches at the university; she’s also abandoned research in quantum physics. The quarks’ infinitely small that one hunts in the collision of high energy nerve particles, draining away more and more rapidly inside the long, buried canals of the powerful accelerator of the European Centre of Nuclear Research (Centre Européen de Recherches Nucléaires - CERN) near Geneva where she carried out her research from time to time, no longer fascinates her.
Her quest is henceforth quite different, more delicate, more crazy also and more dangerous: the unfathomable human anguishes. She works stubbornly on texts that are rather unclassifiable; they are not short stories, not really essays either, a bit of everything all at the same time, atypical works, dense and richly textured. She’s also recently taken to venturing into the crossed paths of other artistic expressions which take her to the plastic arts, the theatre and the cinema.
Aslı Erdoğan was in Paris early 2004 to attend amongst other things, the inauguration of a French friend’s visual arts exhibition. She prepared a text to accompany the exhibition. More than just a text of introduction, her prose integrates the artistic realm, completing it more than just shedding light on it. In autumn 2003, at the alternative contemporary art exhibition organised at the same time as the almost institutional Biennale in Istanbul, she had penned several surprising texts to accompany and present a few of the young artists’ installations.
It is also quite likely that we will discover her as scriptwriter of a Turkish film. In fact, one of the winners of the last Cannes Film Festival, her old friend and film maker Nuri Bilge Cylane, just made her an offer to think over the scriptwriting of a film with him, about the story of a couple that is breaking up. She is not sure if their very different worlds will be able to find an equal balance in the production or if the project will ever see the light of day, but the idea has nevertheless been launched. Interview with Aslı Erdoğan
Meeting with Ash Erdogan in a Parisian café to talk about her writing and future plans. She also came to Paris last spring for the French publication of her book City in a red cape, a narrative chosen to expose her writing to French readers. One of her short stories has already been translated on the occasion of the ‘Train 2000 of literature’, an initiative from the Year 2000 Mission in France to introduce young European writers and poets. Ash was amongst the three names representing young Turkish literature.
Having a strong scientific background, a Masters and having carried out research in physics on particles, how have you ended up in literature?
During my childhood I had no intention of becoming a writer, but I read an awful lot. Then one day when I was ten, I wrote a poem and a short story. What is extraordinary is that a magazine, edited in Istanbul, published them on my grandma’s initiative. In fact, this really displeased me as I was very shy as a child. Then, nothing! Even when I was a teenager, at the age young people usually scribble a few lines, I no longer felt like writing.
I didn’t put pen to paper until I was 22 to write my first short story which I sent to a competition for unpublished work. It was an award named after Yunus Nadi – founder of the serious Kemalist daily in 1923 Cumhuriyet (Republic). In the beginning I had called this first article Son Elveda (Last farewell) then Veda Notu (Farewell note). In the end I got third prize in this competition. It was in 1990. I didn’t really want my piece to be published after that as I had no real links in the literary world. I distanced myself from this microcosm. In truth, I didn’t want to belong to any sort of group of this circle organised in clans.
The following year I went to study abroad. I was a Masters student in physics and I carried out research activities in the field of high energy particles at the CERN (European Centre for Nuclear Research) near Geneva. I wrote my first collection of stories, Mucizevi Mandarin (Miraculous mandarin). While preparing my degree I wrote at night until the early morning. I had to write, otherwise I would have gone mad…In fact, I wrote this book for myself, not at all with the aim of getting it published. That’s why Mucizevi Mandarin was only published five years later in Turkey.
I wrote my first novel Kabuk Adam (Crust man) in 1993 in Istanbul in two months. I was an assistant at university. My double life was getting better and better. My evenings were spent with African immigrants. There was actually few black Africans in Turkey and they were living under a great pressure. My book, which is a total fiction, tells the story of a passionate relationship, the story of an irrepressible desire between a Caribbean assassin and a white woman who has in her past, been raped. Kabuk Adam introduced a new theme where a woman’s desire was the in forefront. In actual fact this man, hard and toughened from being tortured and an assassin becomes the woman’s object of desire. I define this book as a game of chess between the two protagonists. I regret writing it too quickly. I have the impression of having ruined a very good topic; because I had to go to Rio in Brazil, in order to finish my doctoral thesis, still on physics. In reality I distanced myself more and more from my university life and scientific research. I dropped everything a year later to devote myself entirely to literature.
Kabuk Adam was published in Turkey when I was in Brazil in 1994. I received five copies through the post. I always kept one in my bag without ever opening it. I never actually read this book until today. It is probably because my father stopped talking to me for two years due to one sentence I allowed to slip in. I walked around this foreign town with my book in my bag like a good luck charm. I indeed have a double life. The one which is perceived from the outside, the successes’one, and the tragic one of my relationships with men in general, especially my father. For he was at length subjected to police surveillance due to his left wing political commitments. It is a trauma that stays with you for ever. The violence expressed in City in a red cape reflects the violence of real life. In fact, I describe a dark world in an extreme prose that is morbid and suffocating. I always write by hand. I am a scientist that writes by hand. During the day, in the laboratory, I would type on my computer but to write books I picked up a pen. I feel that a computer is far too ‘metallic’ for literature…
In the end I stayed two years in Rio. After quitting university I lived in materially, very difficult conditions giving English lessons to survive. I only wrote City in a red cape once I was back in Turkey. In Rio, not a single line! I didn’t even take any notes. I wrote and reconstructed everything from memory. Besides, it is boring to write about reality on the spot, you have to let everything settle for there to remain a few metaphors. It is this distanced vision that I must offer the reader, this form of subjectivity which finally distils itself from the reality that has been lived. You must always view the forest from afar rather than bury yourself in the boring detail of the objective reality of a tree. On my return in Turkey I never went back to university. I have abandoned my academic career for good. First I wrote Tahta Kuşlar (Wooden birds), a piece which was a prize-winner in Germany. It was after this that I set about writing City in a red cape.
What does it mean to be a female author in present day Turkey ?
It is not simple just being a woman in Turkey. So being a woman writer is definitely not easy! At the start, the media displayed a stronger degree of interest for women. There are for example, more articles on women published in newspapers and magazines. Which means we get recognition more easily. But as a general rule everything is stereotyped. If you step out of the beaten track just a little, or get away from what the medias expect from you, then suddenly nobody is interested in what you have to say. Even the most serious intellectuals don’t read your articles. Deep down they don’t think a woman can teach them anything new! In fact women writers are sadly still perceived through the traditional image society reflects of them. This two-dimensional perception clings to them. Often they are not identified in connection with the content and form of what they write, but by their looks in general. For example, it is quite frequent for me to be mistaken for an actress simply because I have blue eyes… Yet her blue eyes have played tricks on her. The most unpleasant and the most recent was the publication of an ex-partner’s book last year. Without scruples or ethics, he wrote about their relationship and took great care to let it be known and understood even before the book was released, that it was clearly her he was talking about and that it was all autobiographical. Almost all the female writers and journalists protested against this odious behaviour and denounced the advertising practice used. “Of course this book bothered me and I found it disgusting. Literature cannot be a instrument of vengeance and masturbation. I am against it. Writing is sacred and has to be protected. I will never read this book. Hasan Öztoprak did this to gain popularity for his book, but I am not curious in the least” declared Aslı Erdoğan to the press.
With courage and determination, Aslı Erdoğan continues along the tumultuous paths of literary creation.
About «City in a red cape»
« City in a red cape », second novel by Aslı Erdoğan, was the first to be translated into French. It was published in April 2003 by Actes Sud editors. Here is how Timour Muhidine, who teaches Turkish Literature at INALCO (National institute of oriental languages and civilisations) in Paris, analyses this book in an article entitled “In the jungle of the cities”, published in the monthly newspaper Le Monde diplomatique of July 2003.
(…) Second book of a young Turkish novelist, this book with its unusual title takes place in Brazil: it evokes Ozgur’s discovery of Rio, a gringa who will experience hell on earth. She plans to write a book but the text will rob her of her own existence to the point of swallowing her up like an anaconda. The existential drift of the young woman who has come from the Ancient World will firstly anchor herself in the strangeness of the mixed-race and in the confrontation of two radically different worlds: close relative of Geoffrey Firmin, Malcom Lowry’s consul in Underneath the Volcano (1947), Ozgur makes out to be giving in to the muggy heat and the sensual appeals of dance, she gives way to violence to better seize the world which surrounds her…
Despite several attempts to establish a love that would make the world possible, the price to pay is high. She will have to put her life on the line as she is from then on plunged into a jungle – and the word is by no means excessive… The third-world city leaves her no choice; she is a monster and object of desire at the same time : “Rio, the city which forces its prey to throw the dice with their eyes shut.”
Özgür sways between fear and wanting to die, the exquisite pleasure of being crushed by this terrible metropolis, aspiring to be mulatto and to be dispossessed of her soul: “She had crossed death on every corner; a death that had grown fat, voracious, capricious had infiltrated itself in every word she wrote. Yet what she chased in dark labyrinths was something else. What she searched for in the miserable favelas, in the veiled looks of the homeless, beyond the carnival masks…The desperate passion the body has for life, older and more powerful than any words.”
Ash Erdogan’s clear and lyrical language perfectly expresses the distance which separates more and more Ozgur from this foreign city. If in this teeming contrast, several observations remind of the similarities with the Turkish world, it is nevertheless the Brazilian streets which reign with the wild romanticism of the favellado, the bandido, her love for life, her harshness, her disgust as well as the fascination which inspires her.
Born in 1967 ; the author embodies the young generation of Turkish prose writers : less subjected to the national problems, freed from the thesis novels, they explore the world and imperceptibly establish parallels between the two poles.
Aslı Erdoğan (b. 1967)
Holds an MS degree in physics from Boğaziçi University in Istanbul. Anthropology and Indian American culture are among her areas of interest. A widely-travelled writer, Erdogan published her first novel Kabuk Adam (Crust Man) in 1994. Mucizevi Mandarin (Miraculous Mandarin/1996) is a series of interconnected short stories. Set in Rio, Kırmızı Pelerinli Kent (City in a Red Cape/1998) is her second novel. Erdogan’s short story "Wooden Birds" received first prize in a competition opened by Deutsche Welle Radio in 1997.
2) English translation of "The birds of wood" http://www.turkish-lit.boun.edu.tr/work.asp?CharSet=English&ID=1241