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“After Gezi I think I know what to write and I do not know what to do.”

“After Gezi I think I know what to write and I do not know what to do.”

Interview with Writer-in-Residence Birgül Oğuz

This Writer-in-Residence studio is reserved for writers from the black sea region. Is it even necessary to talk about “nations” or “regions” when it comes to literature?

I cannot say that it is necessary but we do find ourselves talking about nations and regions when it comes to literature. It is true that literature is always local although only by means of being local it can approach the universal. For me, this makes the question of “regional or national literature” insignificant altogether. Of course, when I am reading Joyce I know that he is Irish; how can one forget that? But am I really reading something that is peculiar to a nation or a region? Or is it the articulation of a subjective experience from a subjective point of view which will be received by a subjective narratee again? Literature assumes that subjective experience is transferable. And it believes in the transgression of borders. We should be careful about the distinction between literary and ethnographic issues, I guess.  Authenticity of literature does not arouse by regional aspects. It arouses by its power to interpret, remould, communicate and transgress.  

What connects you with a Bulgarian writer rather than with a French one?

Well, nothing in particular. Indeed, I feel more connected to a French or a Latin American writer as long as I think about the library assembled behind my back while I am writing. This doesn’t mean that the intellectual concerns and tensions of a French writer and his/her way of conveying them into a literary narrative is much more familiar to me than a Bulgarian one’s. I think this is a natural consequence of the means of dissemination and particularly the politics of dissemination. And you know, we do not only write, we are written by what we read.

Birgül Oğuz in her studio, Photo: Eva Ellersdorfer-Meissnerová

For instance, we still do not have any translations from the poet Pencho Slaveykov in Turkish, and his is a key name to understand modern Bulgarian literature. For me, the only way to approach his poetry is to understand his unique way of conveying European metaphysics into poetry. In the end – and to be honest – if I were to read modern Bulgarian literature without understanding French or Russian symbolism I would only feel like a kind of tourist, an outsider who is looking at things and passing them by unable to ask the true questions that would unveil what is beneath.  

Here the key term is belated modernity or modernity as belatedness. What would connect me to a modern Bulgarian writer is this tension to catch what is already past. And reading literature in terms of belated modernity is like discussing “politics as literature” as if literature were a sub-genre of politics. And I prefer not to.

How have you experienced the political issues in your country since the protests at Gezi Park in May 2013?

Gezi was a collective outburst, a carnivalesque laughter of the oppressed. The thin line between fear and laughter was transgressed, and all at once people were in the streets shouting and singing and inhaling tear gas and fighting for each other. Out of this bloomed a strange rhetoric, quite uncanny and creative, which, I guess, is peculiar to the rhetoric of crisis and social outburst. And it was through this rhetoric that for the first time in my life I felt Istanbul was my home, I felt safe though I was in a barricade wearing a gas mask and a helmet. However, this feeling of safety was accompanied by a confusion of feelings like anger and awe and happiness and fear which made everything ambiguous all at once. We cannot draw a convincing parallel between Gezi and some recent civil right movements such as Occupy Wall Street.  Many young people were killed by the police during the Gezi protests, more than 8000 were injured, over 3000 people were arrested. State violence and the excessive use of police force is still going on in every aspect. Nothing has changed. But something was triggered. Now the oppressed are much more conscious that oppressive powers are not absolute and that they can be defeated.

Photo: Eva Ellersdorfer-Meissnerová

Gezi is the most significant nationwide movement in decades. It is not only a natural consequence of a long-term oppression but also a sign that the nationwide disquiet for decades has approached its end now.

Do the protests already influence contemporary art and literature in Istanbul?

Well, contemporary art and literature was already there at Gezi. Gezi itself was like a huge installation after the police withdrew from Taksim Square. We were strolling around only to look at “new installations” such as burnt public buses standing in the middle of a street like huge statues in which you could sit and rest. We had a revolution market, a barber shop, a library, an infirmary, public kitchens (anything that you would need for daily life) all made out of  readily available materials. I remember seeing a severely harmed bus stop which had been turned into a middle-class sitting room with curtains and pillows. The graffiti were astonishing in the sense that they were highly rich in literary references and associations, and their poetic creativity with that enigmatic sense of humour was remarkable. 

I think from now on it will be almost impossible to produce a work of art without taking this bloom of artistic creativity in consideration. The language of the “victim” or the “oppressed” has been stripped of its serious and grave tone and taken a revolutionary and a cheerful stance there. Indeed the dark humour, the melancholic laughter, the highly grotesque imagery of transformation which epitomized the atmosphere of Gezi already had its roots in the writings of the 1950s generation; however, from now on it will seek and find its most rigorous expressions in contemporary art and literature. I know that it is too early to make such definite statements, but why not dream of it since it has been Gezi that made this possible?

Writer-in-Residence Birgül Oğuz, Photo: Eva Ellersdorfer-Meissnerová

The last two years you have been working on the “psychology of mourning and melancholia”, and politics of mourning in particular. Has your work become more topical than ever, now that there’s a bloom of civil rights movements (mourning and struggling) in your country?

I was once more convinced of Marc Nichanian’s statement that “there is no art without mourning.” The political history of Turkey is full of severe crimes, pogroms, unlawful acts, human rights violations, unsolved political murders, etc.? The executioner sare still untried, they are protected by the state and the state still disavows the crimes it committed. Therefore, the archives of the Executioner still remain out of reach. Without an archive you cannot historicize and convey all those atrocious events into a meaningful narrative. Without coming to terms with a past event you cannot prevent another one, because you do not know how to speak, whom to speak to, whom to struggle with. Mourning has been prohibited by the state for decades and the result is a sustained collective mourning that cannot be rehabilitated, a sustained mourning which I now call collective melancholy.

After Gezi I couldn’t help thinking that this collective melancholy will give way to a new political agency. And this political agency was what I sought for in my book Hah:  How can one mourn when mourning is impossible? How can one write about mourning when it is impossible to find the means to narrate it? And how can one not write when writing is the only way to mourn? For me, writing was the only way to mourn after my father and bear witness to his generation although by writing I was, in a sense, betraying the fact that my position as a witness and an impossible mourner defied all means of articulation. After Gezi too many things changed and nothing changed. After Gezi I think I know what to write and I do not know what to do. Somehow I feel that I am asking the true questions; and the melancholic and uncanny laughter which, to me, was the essence of the Gezi protests, reinforced my feelings in this way. But I really do not know, everything is floating on an obscure surface.

Photo: Eva Ellersdorfer-Meissnerová

Anyway, fictional writing is your primary concern. What have you written during your stay, what can we expect from your next book?

I have written a short story about Istanbul, a depiction of the city (as the victim of a severe urban transformation which has been ongoing for a decade now) through the mental disorder of the protagonist. Now I am working on a short story about Vienna’s tramways which will be published here in German in a small anthology for literature passage. And apart from a couple of proofreadings of my previous stories which are to be published in Turkey, I also tried to figure out an outline – to a certain extent of course – of a novella which will consist of independent short stories about the same protagonists, which are in a crisis of mourning and revolution, of paying tribute to the past and desiring to demolish it urgently. Maybe this is what you can expect from my next book; however, I am not sure yet since this is not even a work in progress. Moreover, Vienna has been a great influence on me, particularly in terms of the traces of the interwar era that are still remarkably visible in the city. Though not too intense, I have already done some reading about Red Vienna and I am sure that all those impressions about the intellectual concerns of interwar Vienna that I have accumulated till now will be a great help to me when I begin writing my Phd thesis at the end of this summer.

The Writer-in-Residence program of quartier21/MQ is supported by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs/cultural department 

Interview: Margit Mössmer
Photographs: Eva Ellersdorfer-Meissnerova

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