Burhan Sönmez: Imagination is shaped by our upbringing

The award-winning Turkish novelist tells Al Majalla about the importance of literary expression and why he chose to write his next book in his mother tongue of Kurdish

Turkish novelist Burhan Sönmez, whose next book will be in Kurdish.
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Turkish novelist Burhan Sönmez, whose next book will be in Kurdish.

Burhan Sönmez: Imagination is shaped by our upbringing

Turkish novelist Burhan Sönmez has told Al Majalla that he is writing his latest book in Kurdish, his mother tongue.

His published novels include The North, Sins and the Innocents, Istanbul, Istanbul, and Labyrinth. They have been translated into more than 40 languages, including Arabic.

He won Turkey’s prestigious Orhan Kemal Award in 2022 and also won an award for Disturbing the Peace in 2017.

Issued by the Vaclav Havel Library, this recognised his boldness in raising issues of oppression and human rights in his novels.

Born in 1965, Sönmez studied law at Istanbul University and then worked as a human rights lawyer before becoming an author.

He is the president of PEN International, the writers’ foundation that defends free expression and supports authors who are at risk.

Al Majalla talked to him about his work, the fight for artistic freedom during the war, and his decision to use the Kurdish language for his latest novel.

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Turkish novelist Burhan Sönmez is president of PEN International.

Your work often explores people’s struggles against oppressive systems and personal identity within shifting sociopolitical landscapes. Does your background or politics inform your work?

Our identity is shaped by our experiences and by the ideas we develop, which are influenced by everything around us, including society, history, and books.

When I write, I don’t have a certain direction in mind. I just follow my instincts and imagination, which are nothing but a reflection of my personality, which has been shaped throughout my life.

In your latest novel, Stone and Shadow, you explored Turkey's social and cultural complexities from the 1930s. Tell me more.

In that, I tried to understand the lifeline of a man reflected by the society he lives in.

How are we shaped and influenced by our conditions? How do we direct our own destiny despite all the difficulties around us?

I wanted to explore how a person's and a country's destiny can be connected and how much they can be free from each other.

I wanted to explore how the destiny of a person and the destiny of a country can be connected, and how much they can be free from each other. 

Turkish author Burhan Sönmez

That is why I told the story of an old man, following his life from childhood in the 1930s through the 20th century, reflecting the many cultural and political events that emerged along the way in the Middle East and Europe.

You use both the living and the dead to discuss the Alevi tribes, whom the Ottomans victimised. Avado, who lived in a cemetery for over 20 years, says: "I'm not afraid of the dead. I'm afraid of the people in those houses."

What kind of preparation work did you undertake to write the novel?

That was the difficulty. Even though I already had knowledge of many things in the story, I needed to go deeper and widen my view by reading and researching.

That is a joy for a writer. Searching for a story's sake always gives me pleasure and energy.

In your novel Istanbul, you evoke the sights, sounds, and smells of the old city. Why are people so much more attached to old cities like Istanbul, Cairo, and Damascus than to modern ones?

Culture is not something that can be described in academic papers. It is alive; it lives with us. Right from the time of our birth, we collect sounds, smells, and colours.

Everything in this life is formed by different aspects of our memory. The places we are part of, like our village or our city, are drawn like paintings on our souls.

They have a special communication to our brain and heart.

That is why every person has a different feeling of attachment to their place; each person has a different psychology. Our city grows with a special psychology in our soul.

How do the four main prisoners in the underground cell—Demirtay, the doctor, Kamo, and Uncle Küheylan—represent different facets of Turkish society?  

I wouldn't like to comment because I want my characters to speak for themselves and for every reader to interpret them in their own way.

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Frankfurt International Book Fair 2023. A Palestinian author's awards ceremony was cancelled because she showed support for the Palestinian cause.

An award ceremony for Palestinian writer Adania Shibli at the Frankfurt Book Fair was cancelled because of her support for the Palestinian cause. More than 100 journalists have been killed by Israel in Gaza.

As president of PEN International, which fights for freedom of expression, and as a human rights lawyer, how do you evaluate the West's double standards?

I was at the fair when Adania Shibli's ceremony was cancelled there. We immediately criticised this and defended her freedom of expression.

Sadly, in this age, we see double standards in almost every country, including my own country, Turkey.

As writers and intellectuals, we reject this and defend freedom of expression for everyone. It is wrong to boycott or cancel writers.

We see this in every part of the world, from Ukraine to the United States to the Middle East. Culture and literature should remain untouched.

We must create bridges between nations and societies because war and hatred always divide. We need understanding, tolerance, and dialogue for a future of peace and equality.

Before writing your first novel, North, you wrote poems. Do you think poetry is a gateway to novels?

Poetry is the mother of literature and is always with us, even when we are unaware.

Of course, many writers do not have a connection with poetry before or during their novel writing. But I belong to the other group of writers who see every form of literature as having sprouted from poetry.

I was at the fair when Palestinian author Adania Shibli's ceremony was cancelled. We reject this and defend freedom of expression for everyone.

Turkish author Burhan Sönmez

You are a Kurdish writer, but you write in Turkish. Tell me about the influence of the language on the spread and translation of your fiction.

I write in Turkish because that was the official language of my education. My mother tongue was forbidden and not used in education, so we had no choice but to write in Turkish.

I believe that every language has its own specific beauty. Turkish, too, has a special beauty that cannot be reflected in other languages.

But hearing your question makes me happy because I have some news that I can share with you here.

After writing five novels in Turkish, I am now writing in Kurdish. My first Kurdish novel, Lovers of Franz K., will be published next month.

It is the story of two lovers who join a resistance group during the 1968 student uprising in Paris. It takes place in West Berlin, Paris, and Istanbul.

I do not know what kind of reaction I will get in Turkey. The rights of the Kurdish people are a serious issue. This is currently the biggest political issue in Turkey.

You were born in a small Kurdish village, and your mother used to tell you stories. Did your upbringing support your imagination?

Yes, indeed, it supported my imagination very much. As we talked about the cities formed with colours, sounds, and smells in our minds, the same thing happens, maybe more decisively, about our childhood.

The environment we are born in and grow up in is the foundation of our imagination and dreams.

Who are the writers that inspired you?

The other influence on our intellect and imagination comes from what we learn from other writers.

Thank God for the countless books that have been written throughout human history.

We live in an ocean of books, from 1001 Nights to Shakespeare. I have been influenced by many writers, from Dostoevsky to Marquez.

Unlike some, I believe that being influenced by the great creations in literature is something to enjoy and to work on.

What is your writing routine?

It can change depending on my life at the time. I can easily adapt to new conditions. Currently, I write at night. I have insomnia, so I use this to my advantage and stay up in the dark to write stories.

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