Kurdish novelist Burhan Sonmez: ‘The only way out is to criticise loudly’


29/9/2018 19:21:00
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Burhan Sonmez, Kurdish, Turkish Novelist

The award-winning Kurdish novelist Burhan Sonmez, is in Pune to attend the ongoing PEN International Congress. The 54-year-old is a writer of three novels, including Kuzey (North) and Masumlar (Sins and Innocents).
The Marathi translation of his third novel, Istanbul Istanbul, published by Popular Prakashan, will be out in stores this week. Sonmez, who is a board member of PEN International, is a vocal critic of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government. He spoke to Mirror about his journey as a writer and the shrinking space for dissent in his country.

♦ You started out as a lawyer. How did you become a novelist?

I studied law and became a lawyer in 1990. I practiced as a human rights lawyer for some time. But then the course of my life changed. In 1996, I was assaulted by the police and was seriously wounded. It was at the peak of the Kurdish civil war and there were widespread killings on the streets; about 17,000 people were killed. People like me — human rights lawyers, writers, journalists — were the main targets. I was among the lucky ones who survived. I had to deal with health issues for nearly ten years after that, which took me to Germany and eventually I ended up as a refugee in Britain. I received treatment in London from a specialist institution that helped victims of torture. But if you are a refugee in a western country, your qualifications mean nothing. So when I was abroad, I started writing novels. I returned to Turkey as a novelist while I had left as a lawyer. I still have my lawyer’s license, which is a very big advantage. There are so many journalists, academics and activists imprisoned in Turkey. It is impossible for anyone to visit them in prison. But my license allows me to visit them and convey support.

♦ But why did you return to Turkey?

I returned about 10 years ago, although it was not my decision to settle in Turkey. My dream was to spend half of my time in Turkey and the other half in Cambridge, UK. Cambridge is a lovely city to write books and to do your research. I managed that life for a few years. But then the situation worsened in Turkey, and forced me, mostly emotionally, to return. I felt that my country needs people like me now.

♦ What is the situation now?

People, who are not political or involved in politics, are arrested just because they shared something on Facebook. More than 1,000 people are in prison because of what they shared on social media. A couple of days ago, an ordinary man committed suicide because he couldn’t buy trousers for his child to go to school. A journalist who published this news was arrested yesterday — we don’t know on what charge yet. This is normal in Turkey now, not something extraordinary. It sends a message to people, to journalists, to everyone. Without exaggeration, 90 percent of media is directly owned or composed by people of Erdogan’s government.

♦   What is the way out?

The only way is to criticise loudly. Fortunately, in Turkey, we have a strong civic opposition against the government — journalists, lawyers, writers— and they express their views very openly. That is why the government is very harsh. In some countries, oligarchs are managing to stop the civic opposition. Putin has managed it in Russia. We know the kind of tools he’s used—manipulations, imprisonments, and “unknown” assassinations. I believe the strongmen are copying each other —Erdogan is copying Putin and Trump is copying Erdogan in many ways.

♦  You are Kurdish, but you write in Turkish…

The use of Kurdish language was forbidden for about 100 years. The language is not encouraged, not taught in schools, and Kurdish issues are treated undemocratically. At the moment, more than 10 Kurdish parliamentarians and nearly 100 city mayors from Kurdish regions are in prison. I learnt Turkish in school. You become proficient in the language you receive your education in and your mother tongue then becomes an ‘orphan language’, to speak with your siblings and parents. That’s why, in Turkey, we have many Kurdish people writing beautifully in Turkish.

♦ Your first novel, Kuzey, has influences of folk tales, but the latest, Istanbul Istanbul, is outright political. Does that indicate a shift?

Kuzey (North) certainly comes from my personal history. My mother always told us fables. When I was growing up, there was no electricity in my village, only oil lamps. We would gather around and listen to stories. I was influenced by the environment and the power of storytelling in Kurdish language. I wanted to make it survive in another language. But I am not the only one, I know so many people doing that. When I write novels, I never follow politics. At any given moment, I have four or 10 ideas for novels waiting to be written. When I finish one, I know what I will write next, and also the one after that. That’s the way my brain works.



Burhan Sönmez was born in Turkey and grew up speaking Turkish and Kurdish. He worked as a lawyer in Istanbul and was a founder of the social-activist culture organization TAKSAV (Foundation for Social Research, Culture, and Art).
He wrote in various newspapers and magazines on literature, culture, and politics.
He got seriously injured following an assault by police in Turkey and had to move to Britain to receive treatment with the support of Freedom from Torture in London.
He lives in Cambridge and Istanbul.



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