There have been numerous books of analysis published about contemporary Turkey, but few come close to Kaya Genç’s Under the Shadow: Rage and Revolution in Modern Turkey, published last December, for sheer humanism and breadth of perspective. Instead of presenting a blow-by-blow account of events in Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), or a specific political viewpoint, Genç opts instead to interview a broad range of Turks, many of them activists and artists, about their lives and their own ideological development. What emerges is a portrait of a complex society where people often hold contradictory views on a variety of political subjects. Following the passage of Turkey’s April 16th referendum — which amended the country’s constitution and began the shift from a parliamentary to a presidential system, which many feel will give Erdogan even more complete control over the country — I reached out to Genç to get his impressions on recent events and to learn more about the origins of his book.
Village Voice: What are your thoughts on the April 16th referendum and its immediate aftermath?
Kaya Genç: There was a lack of closure for many on the night of the referendum. The margin for the “Yes” vote was not as high as expected, and the outcome resembled Brexit results in the U.K. The Supreme Election Board made a last-minute intervention about the acceptance of unstamped votes, and that rubbed many the wrong way. There was also a sense of acceptance, since most people expected the proposed constitutional amendments to pass. In the past three years, Turkey had already been ruled by its president rather than its prime minister, so the new system seems to have arrived gradually and the result will legalize the current situation. In 2019, there will be two new elections, so after a few weeks of rest, the atmosphere of intense politicking will return and define the upcoming months.
What was the atmosphere in Turkey like leading up to the referendum?
The “Yes” camp tried to sell an argument, while the “No” camp had to play the role of the negator. There was a touch of revolutionary excitement in the “Yes” camp, with immense hope in the future, which reminded me of my socialist youth and some of my naïveté. And the “No” camp seemed a bit Adorno-like, resisting all the temptations of optimism, and their deep skepticism of the future was both appealing and troubling. I watched almost all the rallies on YouTube the first thing in the morning. There were so many rallies, and they must have resulted in an incredible workload for speechwriters.
Your book is a fascinating glimpse into the minds of many different Turks in the wake of the 2013 uprising at Gezi Park. Since then, however, there have been numerous pivotal events in Turkey — the elections of 2015, the failed coup of 2016, and now the big referendum of 2017. Do you feel that ordinary citizens’ attitudes have changed dramatically since you wrote the book?
It is quite difficult to get a sense of what folks here are really thinking about public affairs, because so many layers exist between their gut feelings and thoughts and their articulation. So many people have been relating to the political narrative unfolding in Turkey, albeit in different ways: For some, the mythical story of Erdogan’s struggle for survival provides inspiration. In their private lives, they identify with him in a way similar to how Victorians had identified with Charles Dickens characters. His story is reminiscent of bildungsromans of the nineteenth century, and no comparable story exists among Turkish politicians today. For others, he is a literary character of a different sort: Frodo with the irresistible ring in his possession, contaminated by its vast powers.
These varying perspectives concerning a career politician had come to define so much of how people feel about Turkey that it is difficult to say folks would change their views on a daily basis. I think there is a certain continuity in their views, which have their roots in the nineteenth century, when modernity entered public life here and quickly turned into a problematic issue. Alongside the historicity of these political positions, there is also a psychological reason behind people’s unwillingness to change their stances: Changing political positions is considered almost sacrilegious here, and those who do that are quickly labeled “spineless.”
What prompted you to write Under the Shadow? And to what extent did the finished work reflect what you originally envisioned?
For a long time, I spent all my time studying and interpreting writings and ideas of dead authors, particularly from the Victorian age. A century between the author’s death and my present time would provide me with a comforting distance where I could calmly reflect on the text at hand. As a literary scholar, close reading and then distant reading texts is much of what you do on a daily basis — a new book appears on your desk, followed by another, and another, almost always written by the dead. But in 2013, around the time of the Gezi protests, I found myself more interested in Istanbul, its people and the life on its streets. I moved out of my cocoon, in a sense, and walked away from my footnote-obsessed life.
I started to think of ways of writing about contemporaneous subjects and found that the form of the novel was providing today’s nonfiction authors with numerous possibilities. I could create a microcosm of the country through a set of characters whose lives would all be affected by a central event, the Gezi protests. They would have completely different views on the matter, and the event would force them to re-evaluate the meaning of their lives. I also wanted to show the echoes of the dead, the kind of types that I had long been obsessed with — nineteenth-century intellectuals — and how their voices could still be heard in the lives and sayings of these young people. A third thing I wanted to do with this book was to be totally detached from my subjects, in the tradition of Joyce and Flaubert – only in the last chapter would I allow my “feelings” to enter the text, and I wanted that to provide a moment of catharsis in a book where the lives of young people with strong opinions would be observed coolly, without passing any judgement.
What was the most surprising thing you discovered while writing this book? Which of your individual subjects surprised you the most?
I was surprised by how much people are willing to talk about their lives, about their childhoods, about the things that really got on their nerves and that make them tick. People don’t listen to one another in this country, and I found myself in the role of a psychoanalyst, hearing out the traumas and pleasures of my subjects’ lives. I think the public discussion following Gezi provided both conservatives and progressives with a space for articulating themselves. I was startled by the passion and originality of the views expressed by my subjects. Betül Kayahan, a conservative journalist, expressed her sympathies for an atheist singer after the latter was lynched on social media, in a way similar to what she had suffered some time ago. Lara Fresko, a postgraduate student who supported Gezi, was crystal clear about her suspicions concerning some of the protestors, and her refusal to romanticize the movement was really inspiring for me in writing the book.
Another thing your book does is, by presenting each individual’s unique journey to their current political stance, it breaks through the reader’s own assumptions: We see how perfectly reasonable people, through any number of real circumstances, can come to hold opinions that we may consider unacceptable.
I wanted to write a nonfiction book in the form of a novel where the reader would find herself in the shoes of people with diametrically opposing views. E.M. Forster famously made a distinction between flat and round characters; I wanted my subjects to be round characters rather than caricatures of their political views. I tried to explain their motivations and the things that make them tick. Nowadays I am writing a new book titled The Soul of Turkey. There I want to explore the distinctions between people’s public and private personas. The title of the book comes from Oguz Atay, the Turkish novelist, who wanted to write a novel with that title but died too early to finish that work. In other words, my nonfiction work is largely informed by the conventions of the novel, for the latter art form, in my eyes, is the most sophisticated tool with which we can understand the human soul.
From my point of view, as a Turk living abroad, I see the political divides in Turkey as being almost unbreachable at this point. Does it seem different to you?
In Turkey, people have been developing a capacity for what George Orwell called “doublethink” in his novel 1984 — the ability to hold two contradictory views in your mind without feeling any confusion. The divides here may seem unbreachable, but over time people seem to have been getting a better sense of what “the other side” is thinking. The pace of politicization had been so swift that contradictory political discourses had disseminated along people’s lives like never before. Since the Gezi protests, the arguments of Erdogan and those voiced by his opponents have been articulated so regularly that they have reached this level of utmost crystallization. In the so-called liberal first decade of conservative rule, people had little idea about each other’s passionate feelings. I favor our current state of dissensus over the fake consensus of those ostensibly liberal years. Disagreements and conflicts have energized Turkey’s society.
It’s also fascinating to look at Turkish history and see the current events through the perspective of the past. As much as we may bemoan political divisiveness in Turkey today, there were times in the 1970s when entire neighborhoods belonged to opposing political militias. There were failed coups in the 1960s. Political disappearances and newspaper closings throughout the 1980s. Sometimes it seems as if the Turkey playbook never really changes. It just gets reinterpreted by different players every decade or so.
Just read Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in My Mind, which covers those violent decades. There have always been those extremely ideological types on both sides of Turkey’s divide who devote their lives to politicking. But more interesting are the lives of people like Mevlut, Pamuk’s protagonist, who find themselves amidst the violence of society, just struggling to make ends meet and have a small, safe life. Many of us want freedom, dream about sacrificing everything for it, then end up preferring order and stability. These conflicting desires exist in most of us, and it is mere fantasy to dream of a society whose conservative or progressive limbs are severed, a society that no more desires stability or freedom. They should coexist in an uneasy way, which is a great challenge for the country — and it is far from accomplished.
This interview has been edited and condensed.