INTERVIEW: Kaya Genç on ‘rage and revolution in modern Turkey’

INTERVIEW: Kaya Genç on ‘rage and revolution in modern Turkey’

William Armstrong -
INTERVIEW: Kaya Genç on ‘rage and revolution in modern Turkey’

People run as riot police use water cannon to disperse demonstrators in Istanbul on Nov. 5. AFP photo

Turkey’s feverish news agenda shifts so rapidly that it can induce vertigo among locals. Citizens face a truly daunting set of challenges - economic strife, hydra-headed terrorism, authoritarianism, and politics as a grim culture war. 

INTERVIEW: Kaya Genç on ‘rage and revolution in modern Turkey’Author Kaya Genç’s new book, “Under the Shadow: Rage and Revolution in Modern Turkey,” takes a step back from the day to day. Profiling young Turks from across the political spectrum – from young leftist activists to government-supporting construction magnates - the book gives welcome perspective on the social undercurrents feeding into the country’s political turf war. 

Genç sat down with the Hürriyet Daily News to talk about “Under the Shadow” and what it can tell us about today’s Turkey.

What did you want to achieve with this book?

I didn't start with a thesis. I wanted to listen to people, hear their stories, hear the way they articulate their views. I wanted to be a fly on the wall and just hear them out. I see lots of intelligent people, passionate about their political beliefs, who mostly disagree with each other but who all make legitimate points. The most difficult thing was to pick who to speak to. You can pick people from political parties, or you can pick people from the right and left, but what is right and left in Turkey? These are not very clear cut things. 

I wanted this book to be about young people, so I had to find young articulate people who were willing to communicate their views to me. But I had to find people from different spheres of life: People from the cultural world, the political world, businesspeople. I wanted there to be lots of different voices that would somehow create the impression of the Turkish youth speaking throughout the book. It's curated and constructed, but the writer's role is to make it seem like a natural thing, as if we're just listening to the Turkish streets. 

You started writing after the anti-government Gezi Park protests in summer 2013 and you finished just before the military coup attempt earlier this year. Things move so fast in Turkey that anything you write can quickly end up out of date. Was that a challenge for you?

When I was writing the book, Gezi Park was closed to all kinds of protests. If you went there with five people and started saying anything out loud you'd get in trouble with the police. It was very heavily guarded. There was stifling of people's voices across the whole political sphere, so for my book people were whispering their stories to me - people from both the left and the right. Then there were the 2015 general elections. One of my interviewees was running for election for the ruling AK Party, and there were others who supported left-wing MP Sırrı Süreyya Önder. So politics was everywhere. People had dreams.

The military coup attempt [of July 15, 2016] happened after I had finished the book and was working on its proofs and its index. I suddenly found myself in a very different place, thinking "how could I even publish the book now?" And then Gezi Park, close to where I live, was suddenly opened to all kinds of demonstrations and political views. It felt like everyone could go there and do whatever they wanted. The police became invisible. Suddenly the police were texting people to come and demonstrate in the park. It was a remarkable change in the course of Turkish politics.  

The book includes voices from across the spectrum – each chapter is a kind of pen portrait of a different voice. There aren't many interjections from yourself.

I have both a scholarly and a journalistic temperament and I wanted to bring those things together. I wanted to hear the voices of the young people in the book. But it didn't really matter what I thought about things. What mattered was that I represented their beautifully articulated views in a truthful way. What I could also do, as a scholar-cum-journalist, was point to historical similarities. I'm an avid reader of late-19th century Ottoman literature and I can see reflections of the late Ottoman era in contemporary young people. The old Young Turkey spirit is there to be found in very different incarnations. My authorial voice should not be to say, "look at this conservative person, he's saying this but it's not really true," or "look at this progressive and how dreamy he is." Instead, let's put their views into historical perspective and show their historical echoes. I thought that would be a more subtle and elegant way of speaking as a writer. 

The voice of the “other Turkey” - the conservative, nationalist, government-supporting majority - is rarely heard by English readers. Was there a deliberate attempt from you to get their voice across in the book?

Lots of the conservative people I spoke to were coming from what people used to call the "liberal tradition" in Turkey. But Turkish liberalism was something that had a very ambiguous meaning throughout the 2000s. If you supported the locking up of secularists, you were called a liberal. That was very strange. These people supported the governing party and also called themselves liberals. Because the ruling party was pro-EU and had a Europeanizing agenda, conservatives felt like they weren't properly articulating themselves. 

But in recent years, in the past three years, the conservatives have found their voice. It's a voice that liberals don't like at all. The source of their voice comes from a kind of young Ottoman movement, which is a combination of Islamism, Ottomanism and constitutionalism. During the first decade of the AK Party, that voice was not articulated in the way it is now. It's a voice that's a bit violent and not easy to listen to. The last few years show us that we're having a post-liberal moment in Turkey. Liberalism was previously perceived as something behind which one could hide, as a way of not openly articulating your views. But the last few years have changed all that.

How did the fact that the book is in English and the audience is an English-reading audience change how you approached the subject? What would have been different if you were writing for a Turkish audience?

I've gotten used to writing for a British and American audience. First of all, English writing has to be very lucid and free of some stylistic playfulness. It has to be plain and understandable, like Hemingway. You are not writing for stylistic reasons; you want it to be very clear and open. You're writing for people who may not have seen the city or the culture before, so it's a big responsibility. Your writing will be their truth. 

I used to write for Turkish book reviews and magazines. Here, everyone knows what you're writing about, so the trick is to articulate yourself in a different way so people recognize your voice and are able to say "Ah, that's Kaya Genç." But when I write in English it's a different game. I find it very liberating and educating to write in English because editors are very engaged in the act of writing and suggesting things to smooth your prose and make it more far-reaching. In Turkish, that's something we lack. I used to work as an editor for newspapers and book reviews and writers don't like editors to change what they write. They want to protect it and the editor doesn't play a big role of smoothing the prose. In English you get used to what editors pay attention to and how they're trying to make your writing more accessible. In Turkish if your writing is too accessible it's sometimes seen as a bad thing; people want to be more difficult.

You paint a picture of a Turkey defined by these various social groups. You say that understanding those fissures are the way to understand what’s happening in the country. Doesn’t that neglect the important questions of raw power and how it is wielded?

I'm also fascinated by that "raw power" and how it is produced and disseminated in society. Political discourse, speech-writing, and the lofty concepts we hear in political speeches are something I'm working on for another book at the moment. But for a book where I wanted to hear different people's voices articulating themselves, I didn't want to press political discourse or political ideology on them and give a particular shape to their articulations through my own understanding of political power.

So I consciously saved all that material for another book and chose in the limited space of this book to hear people's stories. I wanted to point to historical echoes but I didn't want to impose Turkish political history or current political discourse on these things. I wanted to hear young people and their stories.

What about the current situation? There’s an awful lot of pessimism around amid the crackdown after the coup attempt.   

People say current events are the last nail in the coffin for Turkish democracy. But people have been saying that for the past three years, so I don't know if that feeling has much to do with reality or how observers look at reality. There is a certain pessimism among people who are very depressed and thinking, "let's leave the country, it has become unlivable, let's go to the U.S. where it's going to be great." But if you look at the world situation in France, Britain or the U.S., politics are changing everywhere and you cannot escape from it.

There is the reality of the electorate everywhere. Politics are definitely changing here but people don't want to spend time understanding what's really going on. 

In Turkey we have to pay more attention to why people right now are more intent on things like "independence" and "sovereignty." Why are politicians really successful when they talk about these things? Why does it strike a chord? If we don’t pay more attention to this people will keep on articulating these views and we'll continue not to understand them. 

We have to try to understand why people get these notions from their families and their grandparents. They hear these stories about fighting against foreigners and trying to keep the country independent from foreigners, so it's like family heritage for a lot of people. And politicians use these personal stories and transform them into political machines. Some politicians are more successful at doing that than others, but we have to understand how they succeed in doing it, how that mood is recreated and instrumentalized. That is a responsibility of writers and intellectuals. You cannot just be pessimistic and escape from the country. You have to pay attention to what people say and how politicians make use of that.

* Listen to Kaya Genç discuss the book on the Turkey Book Talk podcast via iTunes here, Stitcher here, Podbean here, or Facebook here.