The Writer’s Block Transcripts: A Q&A with Birgül Oğuz and Armen of Armenia
Turkish writer Birgül Oğuz, winner of the European Union Prize for Literature, is the author of Fasulyenin Bildiği, or What the Bean Knows, (2007) and Hah (2012). Armen of Armenia, who incorporates his country into his penname’s wordplay, is a political activist and the author of a collection of interactive short stories entitled The Return of Kikos (2013) and the novel Mommyland (2015). His work was selected to appear in the 2015 edition of Best European Fiction. Birgül and Armen visited City of Asylum Pittsburgh as residents of the International Writer’s Program at the University of Iowa.
Sampsonia Way interviewed the two writers about their countries’ troublesome history, the manifestation of Turkey and Armenia’s political conditions in their writing, and literature as a conduit to dissidence and change. This transcript has been edited for length.
Given your countries’ contentious relationship, what has it been like for a Turkish and Armenian writer to share the same space?
Birgül Oğuz: I didn’t see Armen as an Armenian person coming from somewhere who would look at me as a person from Turkey. Maybe this is a distinction [between] Western Armenians and Eastern Armenians. I don’t know whether [that] has any role in it or not.
Armen of Armenia: Yes, sometimes it’s easier for Eastern Armenians to meet Turkish people than Western Armenians. Genocide is a topic or issue for all Armenians, of course. But for Eastern Armenians it’s easier sometimes to be more open, because once you meet, genocide is not the first [thing that comes up].
Birgül Oğuz: I am more severe about this, actually. The Turkish state still disavows the fact that Armenian genocide happened, and with Armen we were like, “Every state does that.” It is almost inscribed in the very idea of the state itself, to disavow the crimes that it has committed.
Armen of Armenia: There is no more historical injustice than genocide. It’s always hard to go and discuss these issues because once you are talking about this you are in a position [as] a victim of historical injustice. It’s so hard when you have this victim’s point of view.
Just imagine that a miracle happens and tomorrow morning Turkey says “Ok,” and they say sorry. We can’t go and celebrate this. It’s not a baseball match or something.
We can hope that the democratization of both states, Turkey and Armenia, is one of the ways to come up. Once you are a democratic state and you have this widely open society, this society can really overcome some issues.
How do the political climates in Turkey and Armenia influence your writing?
Birgül Oğuz: Just keeping in mind that Dante was politically exiled almost all his life, I think that we should see the fact that we not only inherit a huge tradition of these anti-intellectual and restrictive states who are very good at experiencing, experienced in putting limitations to the freedom of expression, in a variety of ways. But we also inherit a huge tradition of literature, which very well knows how to react, how to cope with, how to subvert, how to undermine, and even sometimes mock the idea of this state and all the severe restrictions that can come out of it. This is a huge tradition. Literature has been doing that for thousands of years. For my own writing, I can say that I kind of inherit the humorous, the whimsical tradition, which is a very strong vein in Turkish literature actually. In general, Turkish literature is always, almost always, in defiance to the state. And I believe that only a sense of humor and only laughter can free us from what terrorizes us.
Generally, if we bring some keywords, like for “art,” the nature of “art” is “freedom”; the keyword is freedom. And the nature of state is “control” and “regulation.” So these two phenomena are in this struggle because they want to control everything and you just want to liberate, and freedom is so important for us.
[I’ve] seen that a lot of people are leaving the country because it’s become a metaphorical closet, a big closet. The Armenian dream, let’s say, is to leave Armenia and love it from far away. [I made] this decision: no I’m staying. I’m staying and I’ve not going to give up.
Are there any topics that you avoid because it is not socially or politically acceptable in Turkey/Armenia?
Birgül Oğuz: How can’t you write about something that you really want to explore? And if you don’t, what are you going to write about? I think writers generally want to write the things that are forbidden to them, or dangerous for them, or kind of hard to convey, or sometimes even impossible to convey, like loss, and death.
I believe that it is at the very heart of writing itself: writers want to bite the forbidden fruit. It doesn’t mean that you can taste it, explore it, understand it and come to a conclusion in the end. I mean, the fruit can poison you. Maybe you find out that it’s the wrong fruit, or someone can punish you for that, or someone makes a hero out of you just because you bite the forbidden fruit. But these are all about the aftermath of writing, right? I mean, these are not there while you are writing what you are going to write.
Armen of Armenia: Nobody is perfect because nobody is free. You just free yourself. It’s internal censorship, coming from your context, political, social, cultural, etc. So once you overcome this inside you, oppression coming from outside doesn’t matter at all. You just go.
Who are your biggest influences as writers?
Armen of Armenia: I adore the contemporary Armenian literature scene. We are [all] so different, but still we are in search of a new language, because Armenian culture is so language-based, and like [we] are liberating the language, trying new tactics, new styles.
There is this opinion that literature, creative writing can’t change the world. But mean art is always about questioning because there are no answers. And I do believe in that, I really see that Shakespeare changed the world somehow. I mean Faulkner has changed America, yes? Maybe he doesn’t change it like Kennedy or Washington, but he did it in his way–
Birgül Oğuz: Maybe he changed Kennedy.
Armen of Armenia: Yes, maybe, but it’s not only questioning and raising questions, it has some kind of answers. But it’s not propaganda. It’s another way of bringing the truth to human heart.
Birgül Oğuz: Inherently, I believe that [literature] is a kind of intervention to history, it is a kind of way to be an agent of your own future.
Armen of Armenia: Everything you can imagine is real. And we strongly believe, I think Birgul also, in the power of word. Word can change the world, let’s say.
Birgül Oğuz: And the world changes [the] word, also.
Armen of Armenia: Yes!
What are the biggest challenges you face as writers?
Armen of Armenia: Oh, the biggest issue for me: to be heard. Once people read you, it will bring feedback. Feedback is such a necessary thing for contemporary Armenian writers.
Everyday life in Armenia is so hard. And socioeconomic situations are also very hard. But I don’t think that creative writers are something else and that other people are something else. We all have all these problems: economic, social, etc. So, I have the problems that ordinary Armenians have, plus some artistic problems. You have to live, you have to survive somehow in this catastrophe situation.
Birgül Oğuz: Well, I mean the economic issue is the same with everyone around the world. I will always live in a very small house by myself, so that I will be able to write by just earning a little money — only enough for myself — but I don’t see this as a sacrifice. This is how I live.
How do you know when a story is finished?
Birgül Oğuz: If I add a comma, and I’m writing it again, writing it again, and the text just refuses the comma, just “Take it out, I don’t want it, take it out!” And I take it out but I have to write it a couple of times more. I am kind of writing to a texture. If I work very slowly and very hard, only then will the texture appear on the page, and I am very surprised by seeing it.
Some texts are really very allergic to any kind of change or intervention. Some texts know how to cope with it. I believe it’s almost like a living organism. Every text has its own way of coping with its interventions and imposes. You impose a lot of things on a text. Some of them accept it, some of them internalize it, some of them just vomit it up.
Armen of Armenia: They say there is this difference between life and art, because life is always interrupted, even at the age of one hundred, even if it’s a suicide, it’s interrupted. And art can be complete and can be ended. So stories end, but they never finish.