Turkish writer Aslı Erdoğan was named as this year’s Guest of Honour at the Foire du Livre Bruxelles in recognition of her outspokenness as a human rights activist as well as her literary excellence. On 22 February, at Bozar she joined Turkish-Kurdish writer and activist Burhan Sönmez to discuss writing in Turkey today.
Aslı Erdoğan was trained as a physicist and began her career at CERN in Switzerland. Perhaps surprisingly, for someone who grew up facing torture and who recently spent five months in prison for her writing, she says that she found her experience at CERN “frightening”. It was a male-dominated, extremely competitive environment that she did not want to participate in. And so, in the 1990s, she found her way to writing.
It was at that time In her column in the Turkish newspaper Radikal that she recorded the rape of three Kurdish girls and found herself at the receiving end of death-threats. Aslı Erdoğan says that unlike a typical columnist, she does not “bang the table” and make noise: she is a storyteller who prefers to leave open questions and to invite the reader to form their own judgements. So when she wrote that one of the girls had been killed and that a post-mortem had concluded she had been violated with a bayonet, she did not expect to have “a cannonball hit me in the face”.
But as Burhan Sönmez affirmed, it is impossible to be a writer in Turkey and not be in trouble with the government. Since 2016, over 180 news outlets have been shut down in Turkey and it is the country with the highest number of imprisoned journalists in the world. Writers such as Aslı Erdoğan and Burhan Sönmez refuse to be intimidated. Talking about his novel Istanbul Istanbul, based in part on his own experience of jail, Sönmez said that he wanted to “write about happiness in the language of pain”. The result is a book that has been hailed as a testament to the power of the imagination.
Asked whether it is really possible to imprison a writer who can always be free in mind, Aslı Erdoğan quoted Tolstoy: that there is no absolute freedom, and no absolute captivity. She reminded the audience that even in Auschwitz, people had written and had made beautiful works of art. Nevertheless, she agreed with Buhan Sönmez’s insistence that while an imprisoned writer may have the right to say they are still intellectually free, those outside prisons must demand the physical liberty of their fellows. She highlighted the case of Ahmet Altan, sentenced on 16 February to life in prison for allegedly supporting the coup attempt in 2016. Aslı Erdoğan called on the international community to show solidarity with Ahmet Altan. She added that the Foire du Livre had already shown solidarity by making her the guest of honour, and that the Turkish regime would have to take notice.