In spare, precise prose, the novel Walking on the Ceiling, published last month, recounts the friendship between a middle-aged British novelist whose works are set in Istanbul and a young Turkish student of literature. Charmingly shy and slightly stoop-shouldered, “M.” is tightlipped about his private life. A melancholy flâneuse who has lost her parents, Nunu devotes her time to pondering their absence. M. and Nunu’s companionship begins in Paris after a reading of his at a bookshop. He relishes the petite Turk with an exotic name, and the attraction appears to be mutual, with Nunu cherishing M.’s attention as the couple roams the City of Lights over a fortnight.
Like many first novels, this story of erotic tension and calm introspection has some seemingly autobiographical elements: the novel’s author, Ayşegül Savaş, also left Istanbul at an early age, went on to graduate from an American college and eventually moved to Paris. (Unlike Nunu, her parents are still alive and she hasn’t worked at a Turkish travel magazine.) Savaş, who is a Turkish citizen, teaches writing at the Sorbonne and holds degrees in anthropology, Russian and creative writing. (In addition to her debut novel, she has published in numerous outlets: a short story about a student and her landlady in The New Yorker, a tribute to Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk at The Millions and a thoughtful essay on Wordsworth’s Prelude in the Paris Review, to name a few.) What’s more unusual about Walking on the Ceiling is the language in which it is written. While the book’s English evokes a brief romance in Paris with charm, it doesn’t offer any hints as to why Savaş abandoned her native tongue to compose a debut novel about a fledgling Turkish writer who writes in Turkish.
With Walking on the Ceiling, Savaş has joined a small club of Turkish authors who write in English, some of whom, like Elif Şafak and Ece Temelkuran, are renowned in Turkey. But their histories are different from Savaş’s: Şafak published four novels in Turkish before shifting to English in 2004, and Temelkuran published sixteen books in her mother tongue before turning to English this year to write a nonfiction work on populism.
In this new climate of language-shifting, Orhan Pamuk remains an important counterexample. Pamuk rose to international fame in the wake of 9/11 with My Name is Red, the English translation of which was published in the same month as the attacks. The novel’s mystery centers on the murder of a miniaturist who adopts western perspective in his paintings, and Pamuk uses the tale to scrutinize prevailing West-East dichotomies. Since My Name is Red, English translations of Pamuk’s novels have counted for many tourists and foreign connoisseurs of Turkey as their only encounter with the country’s literature. Yet Pamuk, despite his fame in western capitals, has insisted on continuing to write exclusively in Turkish, even after a Turkish lawyer took him to court for “denigrating the Turkish identity” over comments he made in 2005 about atrocities in Turkey’s history. A year later, not long after being awarded the Nobel Prize, Pamuk fled Istanbul for New York City, reportedly because of credible death threats, but even there, as Everyman’s Library published translations of his books, John Updike and Margaret Atwood published rave reviews of his fictions and he became a lecturer at Columbia University, Pamuk did not take up writing in English.
Over the past decade, the prosecution of famous Turkish journalists by the ruling conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) has changed the calculation about language shifting in Turkey. In March, Granta Books published the memoirs of the Turkish novelist and columnist Ahmet Altan, who is serving a life sentence in a Turkish prison on the charge of attempting to overthrow Turkey’s constitutional order. Although Altan wrote the book in his native language, he decided to publish it only in English.
While a similar fate may await other Turkish dissidents, most exiled Turkish authors living in France, Germany and the U.K. have continued to write in their native tongue. In 2016, the New York Times reported that while some Turkish journalists and newspapers were silenced in the aftermath of that year’s attempted coup, authors were enjoying “an odd, if partial, immunity,” having escaped the notice of censors. Censorship and oppression alone, then, can’t explain the preference of a young writer like Ayşegül Savaş’s for cutting her fictional teeth in English. A more plausible explanation is that by turning to English, Savaş, along with Şafak and Temelkuran, hopes to enjoy the kind of global audience that Turkish writers once took for granted.
As of 2019, Turkish has around 79 million native speakers, which puts it outside the world’s ten most-spoken languages. English ranks first with 379 million native speakers and more than one billion total speakers. Three centuries ago, lisân-ı Osmânî, or Ottoman Turkish, a composite of Arabic, Persian and Turkish, had a far wider reach. Giovanni Molino’s Italian-Turkish dictionary of 1641 states that Ottoman Turkish was the lingua franca in 55 kingdoms under Ottoman rule; native speakers could be found from Aleppo to Tripoli, Cairo to Mecca. According to Geoffrey Lewis, an authority on the Turkish language in his lifetime, Ottoman Turkish is “the only language that ever came close to English in the vastness of its vocabulary.”
Luminaries of Ottoman verse secured a worldwide readership from madrasas filled with clerical students who eagerly followed their poems. Although the reach of their language was global, the giants of Turkish literature confined themselves behind the walls of the Topkapı Palace in Istanbul, where they scribbled metaphorical verse that laymen struggled to comprehend. Arabic and Persian locations and figures dominated their imagery; only in the early nineteenth century did Ottoman Turkish begin to describe the quotidian world of Istanbul’s streets. Soon afterwards, local Turkish sayings replaced the ornate literary stylizations of Ottoman Turkish, and political nationalism followed linguistic localization. But Ottoman territorial disintegration during the Great War curtailed Ottoman Turkish’s global reach, and in the 1920s, Atatürk, a career soldier who founded the Turkish Republic in 1923, fenced off the language and purged it of Arabic and Persian words. With its native speakers confined to a single country, Turkish nationalists turned their literature into a means of forging a new national identity.
Some Turkish writers turned to English in order to protest the ruthless pace of Atatürk’s modernization. Halide Edib Adıvar was an Ottoman feminist and outspoken novelist outraged by the effacement of the historical Islamic identity under the guise of Westernization. In Turkey Adıvar was ostracized and called a traitor; in response she settled in Britain in 1926. Over the next two years she wrote her Memoirs in an English farmhouse not far from the country mansion where Virginia Woolf was working on To The Lighthouse. She also lectured at Columbia University, and in 1935 published The Clown and His Daughter, the first novel in English to be written by a Turk. The same year, accepting an invitation to deliver lectures chaired by Mahatma Gandhi, Adıvar traveled to Delhi and chronicled her impressions of the country and its Third World politics in Inside India (1937), which earned a wide readership in the subcontinent thanks to being written in English.
Another shifter from Turkish to English was Erce Aydıner. A graduate of an American college overlooking the Bosphorus, Aydıner moved to New York City in 1957, when he was twenty, and under the pen name Erje Ayden he wrote a series of pulp novels in English. John Ashbery compared his 1972 book Sadness at Leaving to works by Proust and Simenon, praising it for offering a “little-known but fascinating view of American bohemian and bourgeois society from the point of view of a sympathetically bemused Turkish observer.” But Aydıner, like Adıvar, was an exception. During the twentieth century, writing in Turkish remained a badge of pride for leftists and conservatives alike. Whereas Anglophone scholars produced Turkish editions of postcolonial novels by Chinua Achebe, Anita Desai, V.S. Naipaul and Salman Rushdie, among others, Turkish critics considered writing in the colonizer’s language to be a foreign phenomenon.
It was not until the 1980s, as part of the ruling ANAP party’s economically liberal and culturally conservative Americanization agenda, that English began filtering more strongly into Turkey. Turks learned to say cool, grup seks, loser and supermarket. When the AKP, the ideological heir of ANAP, was elected to power in 2002, its neoliberalism turned aspects of Turkish culture—Istanbul, sufis and Sultans—into marketable brands; they also became subjects to be written about in English.
During the 2000s, Elif Şafak became the most celebrated personification of this cultural climate. Highly regarded by critics for her first three books, she soon became a best-selling author. In 2004, Şafak became a professor of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Arizona and published her first novel written in English, The Saint of Incipient Insanities, with Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Like Ayden, she anglicized her family name and became Elif Shafak.
Turkish critics were unsettled by the shift, which Şafak defended by saying that The Saint of Incipient Insanities defied classification. Living in the U.S. and “breathing” the English language, she emphasized, also played a part, and she assured readers she was not giving up on Turkish; what she wanted was not to “replace” one language in place of another but “to be bilingual.”
Tahsin Yücel, Turkey’s leading literary critic, wasn’t so sure. “Language and literature are the two faces of the same paper, they can’t be separated,” he told a journalist. “A Turkish novel written in English can be considered neither a Turkish or an English novel but something in between.” Some Turkish readers felt abandoned by Şafak, and many others were surprised that a writer with such a supple command of Turkish would migrate to English. But Şafak remained defiant. The themes of her novels became more international; while writing in English she spoke with a new voice.
English brings advantages, large and small, to non-native speakers: attention from publishers and prize juries, and the support of grants and fellowships help authors gain readers and sustain their careers. The Turkish publishing world offers lucrative book deals to opinion leaders, television personalities and their ex-lovers, columnists, relationship consultants and star chefs, but a life of obscurity and poverty awaits the aspiring fiction writer. The best literary journal offers thirty dollars for an essay or a short story; a publisher typically pays three hundred dollars for a new book.
There’s a strong correlation between miserly fees, the output of modern Turkish authors and the lack of popular interest in fiction. “The thing that immediately struck one about the Turkish novel was that nobody read it, not even Turkish people,” wrote Elif Batuman, an American writer of Turkish extraction, in her 2008 essay “Summer in Samarkand.” “I often noticed this when I was in Turkey. Most people just weren’t into novels at all. They liked funny short stories, funny fables, serious fables, essays, letters, short poems, long poems, newspapers, crossword puzzles—they liked practically any kind of printed matter better than novels.”
Batuman’s diagnosis is on the mark. Turkish publishers and editors have failed to cultivate a new generation of Turkish fiction writers; there are no fellowships, grants or residencies that could offer Turkish authors the freedom of time to write; and there is little justification in blaming a Turkish writer for deciding to start a fiction career in a second language. I can attest to this myself, having jumped to English in the mid-2000s after a decade of writing in my native Turkish: a novel, numerous short stories, dozens of essays and hundreds of reviews. Absence of critical and scholarly attention, of financial reward and global reach, and lack of interest from peers all played a part in my decision to write in English. I have no regrets.
In a 2017 essay for the magazine Fare, Ayşegül Savaş described a game she played as a high school student in Istanbul. She and a friend strapped on backpacks and pretended to be foreigners in Istanbul’s tourist quarter. The purpose of “the tourist game,” Savaş remembered, “was to talk to people in English of varying accents, throwing in a handful of mispronounced Turkish words.” They asked locals for directions to Istanbul landmarks, had their pictures taken in front of palaces and felt “overjoyed when our identities were not revealed, all the more if anyone showed an interest in us and asked where we were from.” The game, Savaş explained, “made us feel like we were in control while giving us the freedom to explore as we pleased; our city took on new wonder when viewed from the imaginary foreign gaze.”
In Walking on the Ceiling, Nunu fears silence more than anything else, and as the novel chronicles her reckoning with the silence of her parents, Savaş invents a different kind of game to explore an equally heavy silence associated with the author’s mother tongue.
In a rented studio near the Garde du Nord, Nunu broods over childhood memories of her deceased father, a Turkish poet, who is reduced to silence before her eyes: “My father would be in his study, sitting in the armchair by the window, softly muttering to himself. From the way he rocked back and forth, I thought that he might be cold.” The reason for his silence remains a mystery, but it reverberates in Nunu’s relationship with her mother Nejla, who struggles to understand: “I felt sorry for my mother’s ignorance,” Nunu remembers, “her childish belief that my father was pretending, like the games I played when I lay down dead and listened to life continuing in the city outside.”
In the wake of her father’s death, Nunu plays a “silence game” with Nejla. Making noises while doing the dishes or brushing one’s teeth costs points, so Nunu spends mute days in her bedroom. “During those days when I collected points with each passing hour, I built my paper city,” she says, and recollects designing her paper city with a stack of newspapers to build walls and telephone poles. One paper’s thick black letters pave labyrinthine streets, and other pages are folded to construct a walled-off garden. This city, she says, “did not resemble Istanbul, except that it had two shores, separated by bridges. The boardwalk was dotted with benches that I populated with my paper citizens, letting them watch the city of which they knew so little.” What this city does resemble is a novel written in a second language by an isolated child. The reader can imagine how, in time, that game might have grown into a “foreign imaginary gaze”—which then becomes a craft.
By setting her tale in Paris, Savaş can represent Nunu’s migratory perspective with conviction. Her joy and sadness among Paris crowds recall Charles Baudelaire’s description of the flâneur, a passionate spectator for whom “it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite.” Baudelaire’s spectator rejoices in being “incognito”; he makes the whole world his family and resembles “the lover of pictures who lives in a magical society of dreams painted on canvas.” Similarly, Savaş describes Nunu’s relationship with M. as a dream, giving the novel its title: the romance has “the texture of a dream, an invention, a strange and weightless suspension, like walking on the ceiling.”
In his little book on Marcel Proust, the Polish painter Józef Czapski includes a digression about Joseph Conrad deciding to leave Poland and write in English. Conrad had “to leave his country, leave his language, and become a writer in a foreign language in a foreign land, all in order to find an atmosphere where he might be capable of producing a body of work free of immediate bias, free of didacticism.” English is much less a foreign language now than it was a century ago, but the force of Czapski’s remark may apply to Turkish authors like Savaş. It appears that English has freed them from something that has, or would have, weighed them down in their native language.
Savaş’s reckoning with the silence of her mother tongue in Walking on the Ceiling, however, is not without its own silences. The book remains opaque about Nunu’s sadness, and echoes rather than dissects its hero. Although Savaş lightly interweaves the two narratives—the Paris strolls and the Istanbul silences—the book’s final section may cause many readers to feel as lost as the story’s narrator. What lies behind Nunu’s melancholy? It is never quite clear. Savaş seems reluctant to fully explore the new perspective that she realized in the tourist game. In real life the imaginary foreign gaze liberated her; in fiction, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee freedom or control over the plot.
Ece Temelkuran, whose most recent book is called How to Lose a Country, recently described on BBC Radio the pain she experienced when she started to forget basic Turkish words after moving to a new home in Croatia. “The other day I stood in the middle of the road under the rain in Zagreb for five seconds when I couldn’t come up with the Turkish equivalent of mute … As you walk down the road of telling the story in another language, it is as if your mother tongue is unstitched from you in every step. And looking back turns you into a pillar of salt.” At the same time, loss can bring gains. Although Elif Şafak occasionally tweets in Turkish, she continues to write her books in English. At this point, she has less in common with a disgruntled expat like Halide Edib than with the American novelist Jhumpa Lahiri, who in 2016 published In Other Words, an autobiographical work that she wrote in Italian in order to investigate “the process of learning to express oneself in another language.”
Better to lose a language or learn a new one than to lose one’s joy; better to speak in the stepmother’s tongue than be confined by the mother tongue; better, like Savaş, to learn to walk and write and stumble in English in Paris than face silence back home.
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