INTERVIEW: Lora Sarı on Aras: An Armenian publisher in Istanbul
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Since its establishment by a group of Armenian intellectuals in Istanbul in 1993, the Aras Publishing House has introduced Turkish readers to almost 200 books in both Armenian and Turkish. Its catalogue is rich and varied, including contemporary and historical novels, memoirs, academic studies and lost classics.
This year also saw the appearance of Aras’ first English-language title, Mıgırdıç Margosyan’s “Infidel Quarter.” The book, reviewed in Hürriyet Daily News, is a charming memoir of Margosyan’s experiences growing up as one of the few remaining Armenians in Diyarbakır in the 1940s and 50s.
Lora Sarı, an editor at Aras, spoke to the Hürriyet Daily News about the publisher’s history, changes in reading habits, and shifting challenges in Turkey’s turbulent political landscape.
You’ve just come back from this year’s International Istanbul Book Fair. How was the fair this year?
Among publishers what we see most is that people tend to buy fewer books these days, finding them expensive. Our books, for example, are often translated so they are actually more expensive. Translated books have a lot to do with currency because we buy the copyrights from the U.S. and Britain. With the fall in the value of the lira, we have to make our books more expensive than they used to be. Even though in Turkey books are not as expensive as they are in Western countries, people have started tending to see books as a luxury item. Many of our publisher friends were complaining about how they can't sell many books this year.
As you will have heard, there was also an attack on a writer [Sebahattin Onkibar] at the fair this year at the fair this year. Of course, these kinds of things worry other publishers in terms of freedom of speech. You never know if someone is going to attack you for something irrational one day too. As an Armenian publisher we always have this in mind. We haven't experienced anything really serious, though sometimes people look askance at our books or tut to themselves. But usually our readers and others at the fair are very friendly.
We left this year tired but happy. I think the fair is a kind of resolution, because you publish so many books over the year and then finally go there to sell them. We have 24 new books this year and only four of us are working as editors. Publishing 24 books in a year is a really big thing for us.
Aras was established almost 25 years ago, in 1993 in Istanbul. What was Aras’ goal back when it first started?
The people in the establishment process were very important names in the Istanbul Armenian community. The most famous is Hrant Dink but also there were also others such as Yetvart Tomasyan, who is still with us and is basically our everything. There were many other names who at the time were pioneers of the Armenian intellectual sphere. They had many motivations in setting up Aras. The first one that comes to mind was to introduce Armenian literature to non-Armenians and people who don't speak Armenian. The latter group includes Armenian people who cannot or have forgotten how to speak the Armenian language. The number of them is huge. My parents, for example, cannot speak Armenian and I personally forgot it as I was growing up. I went to Armenian school for eight years from elementary school but I forgot the language at high school. So one of the main aims was to introduce Armenian literature to non-Armenians and to reconnect Armenians with their own culture.
The Agos newspaper was founded at around the same time. The reason Agos was established was that there were only two newspapers for Armenians in Turkey at the time, basically small four-page papers that were only in Armenian. The people behind Aras were worried that many Armenians couldn't learn about their churches, schools and community in a language they understand. So when they founded Aras a group of people around Hrant Dink also decided to establish a newspaper, mainly in Turkish but with Armenian pages.
We are about to publish our 200th book. Around one third of our books are in Armenian and the rest are in Turkish. Armenian readers tend to prefer the Turkish versions because they find them faster and easier to read. We call Armenian our mother tongue but actually Turkish is our mother tongue.
Has there been a trend towards Armenian-origin people relearning the Armenian language in recent years?
I don't think so. I look around and I don't see anything like that happening. But I don't want to speak for everyone. There's an Armenian course at the Hrant Dink Foundation but it's just for beginners. I know a couple of people who attend that course because they forgot Armenian and want to relearn it. But other than that it's not really happening. When Armenian kids grow up they are taught that Armenian isn't a necessary language and there is no country using it. Also we speak Western Armenian so it's really hard to communicate with Armenians in Armenia, who speak Eastern Armenian. Parents have a tendency to tell their kids that it's better to learn English or German or French. In schools the children all talk Turkish. So Armenians don't really feel it's necessary to speak Armenian, which is why Western Armenian is actually an endangered language today.
Aras has published a wide range of titles. Are there any particular books that you’re particularly happy to have worked on, or any particular recommendations?
We tend to look to translate books in Armenian where we find ourselves thinking: "It's a pity that people can't read this in Turkish because it's such a good literature." It's two-sided: Some Armenians have prejudices against Turkish people so when there's a novel that we think will bring people together we are keen to publish it.
One of our beloved writers is Zabel Yessayan. She was one of the first feminist writers in the history of Turkey and people love her books. We understand why and we try to present those writers as writers from this land. That's why Turkish readers, non-Armenians, love those writers too because they can connect with their stories. We also give importance to children's books in the Armenian language, which are great helps in Armenian schools.
The first English language book that you have published is Mıgırdıç Margosyan’s “Infidel Quarter.” Is there any particular reason why you chose it as your first English title to publish?
It wasn't actually planned. “Infidel Quarter” was I think our first Turkish book and to this day it remains our most sold title - I think it's on its 20th print run. I never gets old. This year Margosyan held autograph sessions on four separate days and there were huge lines of people waiting for him, it was crazy. People really love him.
But we didn't actually choose this book. Our partner in London, the Gomidas Institute, wanted to publish the book and buy the rights. So we published it together. It was their plan and we kind of stepped into it. But actually if we ourselves chose a book to publish in English we would still have chosen this one because it's our bestseller.
It's great to have Margosyan with us; he's still alive, still writing and creating. He's actually one of the founders of Aras too. In
“Infidel Quarter” he describes his life among his neighbors, telling the story of his childhood when Turkish, Kurdish and Syrian people lived together in this little neighborhood. Margosyan writes with great humor, which attracts different kinds of people - Armenians, Turks, Kurds. It's a cliché but they all find something from their own lives in his stories. The book doesn't really romanticize anything. He just tells it as it is. He doesn't try to make people cry or try to be funny. And when people meet him in person they can understand that.
Are there any more English-language translations in the pipeline?
I don't know. We have no plans right now. English language publishing is a big decision and I don't know if we'll go along with it right now. We have difficulty because we have limited manpower. We could give the book to a translation agency but we wouldn't know who to trust in the translation and editing process. With “Infidel Quarter,” because we know the Gomidas people we just went along with it.
It’s obviously a pretty turbulent landscape to be working in at the moment in Turkey, with many unpredictable political shifts. Have you experienced any particular difficulties or surprises in recent years?
I think in situations like this the most fragile groups are always minorities. We had books scheduled that we were confident of publishing but now, like everyone, we sometimes censor ourselves or think twice before publishing. We're confident that we're not doing anything wrong. It's not just a publishing house problem, it's more a problem about being an Armenian. That's my feeling and my friends who have nothing to do with publishing feel the same way. Other minorities like Greeks also feel the same. We're just waiting for things to calm down and trying to focus on our work. We try not to think about what could go wrong.