Dusk is quietly settling over Delhi on a September evening. In a dimly-lit room at Instituto Cervantes, the Netherlands-based Turkish writer Çiler Ilhan, 47, is gearing up for interactions. The room breathes an air of intimacy; here to meet her are “passionate Indian readers” keen to know more about her life and her work.
In short, succinct sentences, Ilhan answers all their queries — that’s pretty much the way she writes; none of her stories exceeds three pages. Brevity has been the hallmark of Ilhan’s two collections of interconnected short stories — Rüya Tacirleri Odasi (Chamber of Dream Merchants, 2006, and Sürgün (Exile, 2010). Sürgün won the EU Prize for Literature in 2011. Five years later, it was translated into English by Istros Books, London. Exile, featuring 45 stories, has so far been published in over 20 countries, and has also been translated into Urdu (Jamhoori Publications, Pakistan, 2016) and Hindi (Bhartiya Anuvad Parishad, 2012). This year, the anthology will travel to four countries as it is set for its Persian (Shourafarin Press), Bosnian (Buybook), Polish (Klimaty) and Mongolian (Nepko) translations.
Ilhan dedicates Exile, translated from the Turkish by Aysegül Toroser Ates (the English translation was edited by Feyza Howell), to all those “exiled from their homes, their homelands, their bodies, and their souls… in the hope that they may return to their homelands within.” In the opening story, Zobar and Basa, a couple in Istanbul yearns for their home in Sulukule province, which they have been forced to give up. Basa, the narrator, concludes that crying over what they had left behind was of no help, and whispers in her husband’s ear: “Come, almond eyes, let ourselves be our homeland.”
Another story, set in Iraq after the 2003 American invasion, is an elegy to a lost world, narrated by a woman who, in her short monologue, realises how “power makes the sons of Adam lose their humanity,” chastising herself for failing to “envisage that my Iraq would from then on live by night, by night alone, as if now located at the poles, where the sun would never again be able to extend its fragile visage over daybreak.”
In Ilhan’s fiction, the quest to return to the homeland, within or outside (home, body or soul), has parallels with her own condition. Born in Denizli and raised in Izmir, Ilhan moved to Istanbul when she was 18. She graduated in international relations and political science from Bosphorus University in 1994. Subsequently, she studied hotel administration from Glion Hotel School in Switzerland. In August 2017, Ilhan moved to the Netherlands to raise her nine-year-old daughter “in a free environment”, where she could think for herself, decide for herself and where “scientific and critical thinking” was present. Leaving Istanbul, Ilhan experienced what it meant to leave one’s home. “Things seemed different from the moment I landed at the airport. It was not a feeling of being at home. I had started to lose that wonderful feeling of belonging,” she says. Istanbul was home. It was a place that “let me be myself, realise myself”.
While she was the editor of Condé Nast Traveller Turkey between 2015-17 in Istanbul, at Gouda in South Holland, where she is based now, she is a full-time writer. Even as she has longed for home, over the years, Ilhan has discovered that language, too, could be her home. “It’s very tiring to try to think and speak in another language all the time,” says the author, who is quite comfortable with English, and also possesses a smattering of Dutch, German and French.
But expressing herself in many tongues, she says, gives her a new way of looking at the world. “Reading in three-four languages makes my world bigger. I was always curious about words, now I’m even more. I keep comparing words, grammar between languages I speak well or little, try to find common features or the roots of words,” says Ilhan, a member of Turkish and Dutch PEN.
As the Turkey government continues a crackdown on writers and journalists, the curbs on their freedom of expression has led writers to find newer, ingenious ways to voice their concerns over several social issues, especially those involving women. “Being a writer has never been easy in Turkey, and it’s not getting any easier. Oppression of media is tremendous, most of the media outlets have been ‘taken over’ by the government. You can find yourself behind bars if you’re critical. In that respect, being a journalist is as hard as it would be in times of a coup. Printing and distribution of books that do not praise the government have become much more challenging. The government has lists of their chosen few favoured writers; and the rest, which comprise a lot, are in the blacklist,” says Ilhan.
Ilhan looks up to, and sees herself as part of, a set of Turkish women writers who have dwelled on the darkness in their country, and written about the power that corrupts — Asli Erdogan, who was arrested after the failed military coup in 2016, and now lives in exile in Germany; Sema Kaygusuz who concerns herself with questions of identity and individuality; Asli Tohumcu who writes about the violent face of today’s Turkey; and Nermin Yildirim, who draws on social and individual memories to construct her novels around the similarities between souls — both of places and individuals. The themes of Ilhan’s stories are also identity and individuality in a larger context. “My books do dwell on social and political issues, women and human rights, but not necessarily and not only,” she says, adding that Exile is a “political book”.
Being a woman in today’s Turkey is a fraught exercise, she says. The laws that are supposed to be protecting women rights remain. However, the judiciary system is not what it was supposed to be anymore. “This is the real danger. When it comes to women rights, we’re heading backward. They want to put women back in the kitchen, and let girls marry young. Files of child abuse keep piling up. In some serious cases, a state executive, for instance, might step forward to protect the perpetrator and say, ‘It happened only once, nothing major, hence it’s not a crime.’”
Ilhan says, writing helps her “turn mainstream values upside down”. She says, “As a writer, you try to look at things differently, see them in another way than others.” Her experience in journalism has taught her to be direct, and dive into the essence of things. However, the language of journalism and the language of literature are different. “When I hold a position of being an editor, it’s easier to switch sides — editing during the day, writing at night or on weekends. “But, at periods, I need to watch out and try not to lose the poetry in it,” she says.
Years of doing yoga regularly has taught Ilhan to “live in the moment, and doing your best even if the world around you seems to be falling apart.” She also harbours a hope: “I hold a feeling of longing and the idea of going back — some day, one day.”