Turkish Delight?

For Turkey, whose publishing past is inextricably linked with controversy, being the Guest of Honor at Frankfurt Book Fair is a unique opportunity. Rather than defending itself and its authors against the historically restrictive government, Frankfurt is a chance for Turkey’s literary community to present a united cultural front on the international stage. Fittingly, Nobel prize–winning author Orhan Pamuk, the figure who possibly best embodies the intersection of Turkish literature and its litigious history, will deliver opening remarks on “Turkey in all its colors.”

Echoing this heads-on approach to the sensitive subject matter at hand, Coordinator of the Turkish presentation, Dr. Ahmet Ari, says that the program will not only focus on Turkish literature, but also provide a forum for discussing political issues (censorship, unfair treatment of ethnic minorities, etc.). And with nearly 250 events on the cultural program and 350 Turkish authors and translators set to attend, there should be plenty of opportunities for fair-goers to delve into both.

But will they? Alas, there’s the catch. Although Turkish forces have worked hard this past year to embrace the fair as a chance to revise and clarify the perceived “otherness” that shrouds Turkey in most Western readers’—and publishers’—minds (one of the most publicized events at the fair is an International Symposium entitled “Imaginary East, Imaginary West”), it’s still questionable whether these efforts will be rewarded.

As of now, the Turkish titles that do make waves overseas are those that have been thoroughly vetted (not to mention translated) by other countries first. Harcourt Associate Editor Sal Robinson says, “We don’t see many Turkish titles, and what we do see usually comes through France, either directly from a publisher or from the French Publishers Agency. I’ve [been] asked to consider a couple of Turkish books from Saqi Books in the UK, but otherwise we’ve probably gotten just two to three Turkish titles yearly for the past five years.” At a time when authors Pamuk and Elif Shafak, author of The Bastard of Istanbul (Penguin, 2007) have both been charged with denigrating “Turkishness,” and books like Sherry Jones’s The Jewel of Medina incite protest and even actual acts of violence, this conservative approach is understandable.

Although Turkey’s democratic record may have improved in some ways, there are still issues that have not yet been resolved. Hikmet Altınkaynak of Onk Agency, a Turkish literary agency, quoted a report entitled “The Freedom of Publishing” presented by the Association of Publishers in Turkey as saying, “In the first half of the year 2008, problems connected to freedom of thought and publishing continued, although less in the book publishing field. However, the confiscation of books awaiting a court verdict has recently been noted.”

That’s not to say, however, that there isn’t hope for Turkish-U.S. traffic. Marcella Berger, VP Director of Sub Rights at Simon & Schuster, said, “It does appear that we are selling more and varied books than in the past—even some lighthearted books.”

And as for imports, Robinson went on to say, “I definitely get the feeling that interest in Turkish literature has been heightened by the Frankfurt ’08 plans, though—I hear more about Turkish authors than I did in the past in general, and German publishing houses have pitched a number of Turkish-German authors to us over the past year.”

Home to the largest Turkish population outside of Turkey for the past few centuries, Germany is no stranger to playing host to the Turkish community. In fact, the countries’ fused literary histories will be one of the topics explored throughout the program, which will overall have a large focus on the diversity of both the Turkey and the literature it breeds. Muge Gursoty Sokmen, co-chair of the Organizing Committee, remarks, “We should be grateful for the historical legacy of cultural diversity in Turkey. It deserves greater respect.”

To evaluate this legacy and perhaps inspire the respect (and deals!) that Sokmen suggests, this month PT presents a few Turkish titles as a sneak peek into what you may find at Frankfurt.

Locally renowned author İhsan Oktay Anar’s fifth and latest novel, The Silent Ones, is a fantastic yet historical tale of one man’s quest for immortality, set in Constantinople before it was Istanbul. Anar weaves a fictional cast of characters into the fabric of a real past. Already said to be multiplying the number of his enthusiastic cult following, Anar infuses humor into the tale of a composer, Pereveli İskender Efendi, and his companion, a twelve-fingered dwarf known as Alessandro Perevelli, who find themselves captured by pirates and sold at a slave market. Efendi’s luck seems to be changing when he falls for Neva, the object of his master’s affection, but when he attempts to win her over with music things only get more complicated, as the tune he composes also serves to wake the dead.

As far as undiscovered contemporary Turkish talent goes, it seems that İhsan Oktay Anar may be the jackpot. Known to have the largest cult following in the country, his five novels have inspired a devoted collection of fans both in Turkey, as well as in France and Germany. Agent Amy Spangler of the Anatolia Lit Agency says it can be described as “Ottoman Pirates of the Caribbean meets Dante’s Inferno.” For more rights information, contact Spangler at amy [at] anatolialit.com.

In his novel Sons and Suffering Souls, Alper Canıgüz makes the familiar seem strange by adopting the perspective of a five-year-old. Part philosopher and part smart ass, Canıgüz invents a narrator with a compellingly unique voice and worldview. Set in an ordinary neighborhood and surrounded by a typical family, the mysteries and fantasies he embarks upon seem more dramatic the protagonist and readers alike.

Born in Istanbul, Canıgüz was a prodigy himself, completing his first novel Sweet Dreams by the age of thirty. Now, with Sons and Suffering Souls drawing even more critical and popular acclaim than his debut, it seems Canıgüz has cemented his reputation as a force to be reckoned with on the Turkish literary scene. Turkish critic Vatan Kitap says, “Alper Canıgüz displays an exquisite performance, playing by all the rules of the mystery novel while poking fun at the genre itself by making a five-year-old boy his detective.” Contact Spangler for rights information.

Our final title, a political thriller, hits a little closer to the topic du jour. Tol: A Novel of Revenge, the literary debut of Murat Uyurkulak, tells the story of a poet and a political activist as they embark on a long train journey that forces them to confront history, society, and themselves. Surrounded by the constant terrorism that wreaks havoc throughout the country, as the two defeated characters head toward their final destination it becomes increasingly clear that a revolution is inevitable. This shift is reflected by the book’s language itself as Uyurkulak breaks the rules of syntax, semantics, and vocabulary right along with the chains of oppression. Familiar with rebelling against authoritative institutions, Uyurkulak was a university dropout before he became a published author. Tol has received wide critical acclaim, been adapted for the theater, and established Uyurkulak as a new and powerful voice in contemporary Turkish literature. For rights information, contact Metis Books ([email protected]).

And in a twist: Raffaella De Angelis, who handles foreign rights for the William Morris Agency, was most enthusiastic about the prospects for Gardens of Water by Alan Drew.  A first novel published by Random House earlier this year, it concerns a romantic relationship between the teenage daughter of a  Muslim Kurd and the equally teenaged son of a Christian American aid worker in Istanbul.  They are literally thrown together during an earthquake in Istanbul.

When they are unable to overcome the objections of her father, predictably, disaster strikes.  Translation rights have been sold in over 20 countries, but not Turkey, and De Angelis is very enthusiastic about future translation prospects.  The author has been invited to attend Frankfurt this year by his German publisher, Droemer Knaur,  and maybe his presence  will pull in a Turkish translation deal.  Early thoughts on why this has not happened yet revolve around the issue of the heroine, a Kurd who is from a very conservative Muslim family.