A Cataclysmic Innovator: PEN Turkey President Tarik Günersel
“No one else in Turkey recreates life and language with Günersel’s cataclysmic innovations,” says Talat Sait Halman in a fall 1990 issue of World Literature Today. Tarik Günersel began writing at the age of eight. He is an impressive reservoir of history, not only of his home country Turkey, but also of the world. He has made his mark on several artistic genres: poetry, translation, short story, opera, film, and he has served as dramaturge and actor for the Istanbul Municipality Theatre since 1991.
In this interview, conducted via Skype and email, Günersel discusses his dual role as PEN Turkey president and world citizen, shares his goals for the future, acutely analyzes and gives insight on historical and current events in Turkey, and stresses the need to continue struggling for all types of freedom.
How long have you been working with PEN Turkey? How did you get involved with the PEN organization?
I became a member in 1997 because I wanted to establish a World Poetry Day. The idea was accepted by PEN Turkey, and then I went to Edinburgh in the summer of 1997 to the World Congress PEN. The proposal was unanimously accepted, and now the 21st of March is celebrated as World Poetry Day.
I was elected as president of PEN Turkey five years ago. Two years ago, in Tokyo, I was elected to the PEN international board, and my two year term recently ended. I didn’t want to run for the international position for a second time because there are more important problems in Turkey on which I need to concentrate.
What led you to want to create World Poetry Day?
In 1992 I started a poetry workshop, which was not common in Turkey. A friend of mine suggested I lead the formation of a poetry institute. Then the internet came, and I thought, “Why should an institute be limited to a building when the whole world can now meet and be together?”
I suggested what I call the Poetics Space Lab, a multilingual, international, unofficial space without a hierarchy. Later, while walking by the sea in Istanbul, I realized that there was World Music Day, there was World Theatre Day, but there was not World Poetry Day.
Poetry is short and it can be remembered. That’s why poets are very dangerous. That’s why all over the world they put us in prison and try to kill us. When I was in Bosnia two years ago I told Serbian, Bosnian, and Croatian high school students, “We should not be upset because we are put in prison. That is normal.” The hegemonic groups are clever, and they understand that poets are dangerous. We shouldn’t ask, “Why are they putting pressure on us?” Of course they have tried to put pressure on us. We should laugh and try to struggle better.
In what ways does PEN Turkey engage with Turkish writers and citizens?
First of all, nearly forty languages are spoken in Turkey and secularism is vital. When I say PEN Turkey, I mean not only those who write in Turkish but also Kurdish, Armenian, Arabic, Georgian, and Hebrew. The richness of ethnic diversity in Turkey is echoed in our organization, which has not been easy. Our Middle Eastern colleagues understand the importance of secularism more than our western friends, who are used to certain liberties and do not appreciate the value of secularism enough. As PEN Turkey we are in favor of secularism, democratization, linguistic rights, women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights, and labor rights. For example, PEN Turkey celebrates May 1st, International Workers’ Day. Why? Not because we are necessarily supporting the working class or the proletariat, but because literature is hard labor and we are all laborers.
There is a lot more to do. We have started recently to give international awards in three genres: poetry, novel, and short story. We try to focus on so-called “non-dominant” languages. Western capitalist countries are relatively rich and their languages are well-known. Those countries’ writers are lucky from a marketing perspective. But what about those writing in less-spoken languages? We should draw attention to quality writing that is shadowed because of marketing difficulties.
As president, what are your goals for PEN Turkey?
We have been trying to inform the secular and democratic people of the world about negative processes in Turkey. I have done my best to overcome the official propaganda of the government in Turkey. Our international president, colleague, and friend John Ralston Saul will travel to Turkey this November with a group of international PEN intellectuals. We will hopefully visit writers in prison, meet with a few ministers, and prepare an activity for International Day of Writers in Prison on November 15. International Day of Writers in Prison is a contribution of PEN for decades now, and PEN Turkey is trying to communicate the problems of the people in Turkey to the world.
The Turkish government has been accused of “criminalizing dissent.” Is this a new trend in Turkey? Has “terrorism” become a default tool of repression in Turkey?
Yes, indeed. That does not mean that there is no terror in Turkey, though. PEN International is against violence and terror no matter by whom or for what cause. State terror and terror by an organization or an individual have existed in the world for a long time. Human rights awareness must be accompanied by action.
But the courts today are worse than during the military dictatorship because today they sentence you based on an impression. They don’t have to have solid proof.
Has the ruling party become more oppressive in the past few years?
Yes. They are heavily religious, and unfortunately in the past they have been supported by the US government. As early as 1950 the US government has been promoting Islam in Turkey as part of an anti-Soviet strategy to form a so-called green belt, an Islamic belt, around the Soviet Union.
To the hegemonic groups in history, who rule and exploit the rest of the population, governing and using knowledge production or information production is part of ruling. Usually every government produces an official history book, which excludes a lot and enforces an official perspective in an attempt to produce flexible robots –that’s what I call humans. These flexible robots will function within the desired limits for ongoing exploitation and governing.
Now, who are dangerous people? Creative people are dangerous, thinking, questioning people are dangerous. That is why, usually, government doesn’t like philosophy but encourages this or that religion because religion usually is a matter of obeying and not revolting.
Is PEN Turkey involved with Turkey’s biggest trial against members of the press, including 44 journalists?
We have been supporting the imprisoned journalists, translators, and writers.
There is a trend of people singling out intellectuals in the opposition and say that he or she is related to this organization or that organization; Then these accused people are put in prison where they are kept for a year or two while the accusation is officially prepared. Sometimes people are freed but have already spent two years in prison. That’s terrible.
At the age of 19 you created a personal manifesto in which you vowed to “live as if taking revenge against limitedness.” Do you have any encouraging words for these journalists being forced to operate within a box of restricted freedom?
Freedom is a process rather than a fixed entity. Constant struggle is vital, and we can do it even when we are in chains -mentally, at least. We are not defeated unless we give up. Otherwise you may be in a disadvantage. Objectively, your situation may even seem to be a loss or a defeat, but if you keep the idea of struggling for real peace then you have not been defeated, you are still struggling. Each person’s struggle is a vitamin for someone else.
Literature, poetry especially, is important because sometimes a few sentences are stronger than other things.
Do you have any works in progress?
I have a new visual poem. I’ll send it to the United States. It says Spartacus [above a cross] and down here [below the cross says] Freedom. The title is Alternative Cross. I’m inviting people not to forget Jesus, but also to remember Spartacus, who fought bravely as a slave for freedom against oppressors.
I am also preparing a world history book. Jesus was born in the 40th century. Muhammad migrated in the 47th century. The communist manifesto was written in the 59th century, World War I started in 5914, and the first man on the moon 5969. Now look at the richness of this chronology. Now what good will it do? Psychologically, mentally, I think it will help a lot because we stand firmly on the solid ground of human creativity and labor, not something related to an assumed messenger.
You once said, “Life is words in action, literature is action in words.” Are the two inseparable? Can there just be action or words? Can one stand alone?
Action and words are not inseparable. At least theoretically. I prefer to accept them not only separable but also usually separated -in a fruitless or even harmful way. This assumption helps me concentrate more on their ‘partnership’.