Dual Realities: An Interview with Burhan Sönmez
by Peter Dziedzic
The author of five award-winning novels and president of PEN International, Burhan Sönmez is one of the most exciting, innovative voices in Turkish and Kurdish literature today. Following the publication of his latest novel and in advance of its publication in English as Stone and Shadow, I sat down with Sönmez to learn more about his thoughts on craft, storytelling, writerly vocations, and the future of literature in translation.
Peter Dziedzic: What does your typical writing schedule look like, if you have one?
Burhan Sönmez: My writing habits have changed significantly over the years. When I was starting out as a novelist, I wrote mostly in my bedroom in the late nights and early mornings. What I very much cherished in these moments was how still, dark, and quiet the world was. I found this to be very conducive to the imaginative task of writing. At the time, I suffered from insomnia and other health problems following an accident, so I took these sleepless nights as opportunities to write—in fact, it seemed that writing was the only thing that could get me through the night.
With my third novel, Istanbul Istanbul, I gradually began to write more during the day. I would usually go to cafés and write among the chaotic crowds of Istanbul’s neighborhoods. I would usually write in Kadıköy, a neighborhood on the Asian side. I appreciated the vibrant, whirling energy of the passing crowds. It all felt very conducive to writing—the crowd was a kind of muse, different from the one I found in quiet nights.
Nowadays, I have returned to writing mostly at night, since I have a little son at home who now determines my schedule. When I work at my writing, it is usually up to eight hours a day for four or five days a week. On a good day, I manage to get a clean single page. Any writer would understand, I think, this kind of labor for such a seemingly small project. The victory of a single clean page cannot be achieved every day, of course, but when it happens, it makes the hard work worth it.
The most difficult part of the writing process, I find, is beginning—the first words, first paragraph, and first page of any project. These beginnings usually take one year; the rest, naturally, comes more easily.
PD: Who have been some of your primary literary influences—in English, Turkish, or otherwise?
BS: My influences have been quite diverse. The names that come to mind immediately: Russians like Dostoevsky, Britons like Woolf, French like Aragon, Turks like Nazim Hikmet, Americans like Melville and Faulkner, and Latin Americans like Márquez and Borges.
We didn’t find these writers in our books or classes; rather, they came through our friends and elders, through our social and political environment. I was raised in a very “bookish” circle, so we were always discussing books. French poetry or Latin American storytelling, for example, were ways of understanding life in our young age—and they still are, in many ways.
I think this early literary formation certainly shaped my eventual life as a writer, but more primally, it shaped a way of being in and thinking about the world—a very broad, intercultural, and expansive reception to human experience.
PD: You grew up in a remote Kurdish village without electricity, and your mother was a gifted storyteller. You have credited this as the source of your calling as a writer. Could you share more about how your mother’s storytelling inspired you as a child?
BS: Growing up in a small village gave me a sense of the richness of the interior world—the possibilities of the life of the mind, of reflection. In the village, the world expanded inward rather than outward. Whenever my mother told a tale, there weren’t any props or scenes—we didn’t have the Internet or movies to frame these stories. We learned to use our imaginations. One of my favorite stories, which my mother told often, was about a princess in Istanbul. The descriptions of the beauty of the princess mingled with descriptions of the beauty of Istanbul—the identity of person and place, character and scene—became richly intertwined, effused in an imaginal landscape. This story became so vivid in my mind, I would capture the entire universe of the princess and old Istanbul in strokes. It was as if the life of the outer world and the life of the imagination existed side-by-side in different yet equally powerful dimensions. I wanted to capture, and share, these moments. This instilled in me an understanding of the richness of the human imagination; it is this faculty that I seek to engage in my readers. I want my readers to exercise the same brilliance of imagination I encountered as a child.
This sense of a dual reality—of the outer and inner, the world and the imagination—was also informed by the linguistic fracturing of my childhood. In the village, we spoke and thought in Kurdish, but this language was forbidden from use in public life, so we had to learn and study Turkish. Thus, Turkish became the language of reality—of our comings and goings in the marketplace and schools and workplaces—while Kurdish, with our village stories and legends and songs, served as a kind of language of imagination. That sense of double existence guided my later pen strokes.
PD: Even though you connect your native Kurdish language to the life of the imagination—to your own beginnings as a storyteller—you write primarily in Turkish. Have you considered writing more in Kurdish?
BS: Writing in Turkish was not my choice. For people like me who were raised in Turkey, it was the only option to read, to work, to socialize. We didn’t have an education in Kurdish, and there weren’t any opportunities available. For example, we didn’t see any Kurdish books in our schools. Around the time I completed university studies and began my legal career, Kurdish books became legally available in Turkey, but it was still not easy to find them. There wasn’t yet the same kind of literary infrastructure available for this market. The Kurdish diaspora around the world had different opportunities, where Kurdish intellectuals focused on the cultivation and preservation of Kurdish language and literature. Now, the situation, thankfully, is changing. We have a few Kurdish publishing houses in Turkey, and a new generation of young Kurdish writers are publishing with greater frequency and success. Kurdish has been the language of imagination for me, so a part of my hope is to eventually write a book in my native Kurdish. This will be a dream come true, and I hope to tackle it soon.
PD: You were a poet before you became a successful novelist. What is it about prose that attracts you, as opposed to poetry? In other words, what can be expressed and explored in the prose, specifically the novel, that cannot be explored in poetry?
BS: My prose writing didn’t start because of a conscious decision—I didn’t wake up one day and decide to start writing prose instead of poetry. It was a calling that came itself, and I had no choice but to follow it.
When I was involved in an incident that caused brain trauma, my insomnia began. I could barely function and was not working. I was nearing a total breakdown. On those long, sleepless, tortured nights, I began writing in notebooks. After several months, I realized that I had been composing stories. This continued to flow naturally, but it took me another few years to accept that my pen was working toward writing a novel. This was what led me to the first novel and those that eventually followed. I think it was a calling in the truest sense—something kept compelling me forward until the novel draft was finished.
An old-fashioned thinker would say that poetry is the most sublime literary genre. I would agree with that analysis. That is why, when I write novels, I aim for poetic and lyrical diction, to have poetry infuse my prose. I know the novel has become the popular, common literary genre in this age because of its power of exploring both the world and human interiority. Prose, specifically the novel, has the power to blend the boundaries between the inner psychological universe of humans and the outer world of the cosmos—the universe can become psychologized in our analysis, and human psychology is explored with the same depths as we find in the diversity and vastness of the world. Everything emerges, and is immersed, in narrative—history, poetry, sociology, philosophy, cinema, etc. Narrative encompasses all things, and this is why prose is so powerful in our age.
PD: Your first career was as a lawyer, and you were quite active in human rights advocacy. How did this work shape your vocation as a storyteller?
BS: This work shaped my path as a novelist, but mostly indirectly. While working as a lawyer, I was assaulted by state security forces and was heavily wounded in the process. Around the same time, I had some court cases and faced going to prison in Turkey. Due to both legal problems and health issues, I ended up in exile in Great Britain. There, I was no longer a lawyer; I was now a refugee without qualities or status or community. That was the period when I started writing stories more seriously, and when I began my work as a novelist in earnest.
PD: How have you found the literary scene in Great Britain compared with Turkey? Have you found a welcoming and productive home there as a novelist writing in Turkish?
BS: The English publishing sector, in my experience, has a very small market for literature in translation. Since English is the global language of our age, writers from all other countries—thousands of them—flock to English-language publishers with the hope of finding a space for their work. But, of course, the chances are very low. Thankfully, this opportunity opened for me with the translation of my second novel, Sins & Innocents; the success of this translation paved the way for my other novels to be translated and sold in English markets. Were this not possible, I do not think I would have been as productive a writer in a predominantly Anglophone literary world.
PD: Your writing style has sometimes been described as “a fever dream,” and your previous books, such as Istanbul Istanbul and Labyrinth, have been praised for innovative, nonlinear narrative styles. What are some themes or concerns you hope to explore through this?
BS: I don’t have a specific idea of writing about certain themes. I just want to write what I feel and what I dream. In countries like Turkey, our writing is overshadowed by politics because our life is invaded and plagued by it. Instead of this, I would rather focus on the destiny of my characters and the way that the story is told—I am more interested in the psychology and lives of characters than exploring new political fads. Of course, politics necessarily enters into writing—as it does all things—but this is secondary and the product of a well-flowing, well-crafted narrative. In each novel, I like to try something new with how I tell the story—this is very much in honor of my mother, who would always tell the same story in a different way, to keep things always living and always fresh.
PD: You have been described as the leading magical realist author in Turkey. Would you agree with this? If so, what about this tradition inspires you as a storyteller?
BS: People have been attributing this label of “magical realism” to my work for many years now. I like it, and am a bit flattered, but I don’t think that it accurately reflects my writing. On the contrary, when I am labeled a “magical realist,” all the other aspects of my style—all the things with which I wish to experiment—are excluded. While I admire magical realists like Márquez greatly, I hope to avoid being tied up with a certain tradition or movement. Rather, I keep trying different styles and approaches as a way to find my own voice, constantly—I think it’s an exploration a writer can never escape, it is a part of the writer’s journey throughout their entire life.
PD: You are one of the most prolific Turkish-Kurdish authors today. What is the literary scene like in Turkey? Are there any up-and-coming Turkish authors whose works excite you?
BS: It is a very promising scene. We have many good writers, especially a new generation of Turkish women writers. They know our literary tradition well—they are good, well-read critics, and they also follow world literature with piercing intelligence. Their stories are hauntingly beautiful in the Turkish, and I hope there will be more translations of their works. Writers like Nermin Yıldırım or Seray Şahiner are only a couple of examples in a rising generation.
PD: What about the future of Kurdish literature?
BS: As I said earlier, Kurdish literature is currently building its future—there are currently many dedicated Kurdish writers in Turkey. Of course, Kurdish literature is not limited to Turkey, since the land of Kurds, Kurdistan, is divided by four modern nation-states. Kurdish culture is improving with different aspects—different “colors” and “flavors”—in the other areas of Kurdistan in Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Novelists like Bachtyar Ali and Firat Cewerî, and poets like Kawa Nemir and Berken Bereh, have already published significant works. Their books now serve as the standard for a younger generation. Again, I have high hopes for Kurdish literature, and expect to see many more Kurdish books translated into Turkish and English in the coming decades.
PD: With Stone and Shadow now published and soon to be released in English translation, are you now working on any new projects?
BS: I am currently working on another novel; however, given my flair for experimentation, I think it is best to keep the theme and content private for now. At this stage, the effervescence should really be a kind of private dance between me and my characters in this new story. One day, I look forward to sharing this with you and all my readers.
Read an excerpt from Burhan Sönmez’s forthcoming Stone and Shadow (translated by Alexander Dawe, forthcoming from Other Press).
Published on January 20, 2022