Literary festivals: playground or construction site?

Ece Temelkuran

This week’s PEN Atlas piece reports from the Tanpınar literary festival in Turkey. Journalist Ece Temelkuran gives her personal response to this year’s festival

As world politics becomes bloodier, commercial literature becomes increasingly depoliticised. People eat, pray, love and think Tahrir Square is just crazy Arabs partying all night and the Madrid riots an attempt to break the record for the most crowded flamenco competition. On the bus to work your 10 hour shift you notice a guy casually selling his Ferrari, and yet this literature still says ‘please follow your heart’! Follow your heart, especially while you’re being smuggled across the Mediterranean on an inflatable boat to reach Italian shores… Follow the signs in any case, until you reach the fifty shades of commercial writing.

If literature is where writers play, festivals are playgrounds, but one where we learn about the market. For me the anxiety of networking at these events is painful. Fully equipped with this inappropriate attitude, I joined the Tanpınar Festival in Istanbul.

Although Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar (1901-1962) is not necessarily seen as an issue-driven writer his novels always focused on the main questions of his time. One of the central themes of his writing was the identity crisis at the turn of the century in Turkey, where East and West meet and frequently clash. His masterpieces A Mind at Peace and The Time Regulation Institute focus on the individual torn between enforced state modernisation and the traditional customs of an Eastern society. Ultimately Tanpınar considered what mattered to society, and I would say his ghost was watching over the festival last week.

The writers hadn’t been asked specifically to talk about the political issues of the day, but most of the meetings at some point ended up being political. This tendency is quite understandable as the festival’s theme was ‘the City and Fear’. Istanbul is a city of political clashes and the main conflicts of our times are played out on our doorstep. Politics intruded through both themes of the festival.

I attended a reading by Kader Abdollah and Laia Fabregas on Displaced Identity, Survival through Language, Who is the Other? Laia, a Dutch writer of Spanish origins, read a piece from her book Girl with Nine Fingers, in which the protagonist, an eight year old girl, witnesses the night of a military coup in Spain. Since I witnessed the Turkish coup in 1980 when I was eight, the experience was very moving; Laia’s description of that night reminded me of the beginning of my own enforced politicisation. When Kader was reading from his novel The Journey of the Empty Bottles, I was imagining myself in his place, at the end of my personal political history: a political refugee who had to abandon her mother tongue to tell the story and be entertaining while doing it. This was easy to imagine for me as I come from a country with a history of authoritarianism. It was unexpected, but the event became a mirror that showed me a different version of myself.

The other talk I moderated was Playing with the facts and fiction. I imagine I wasn’t chosen for my spectacular moderating skills but for the novel I wrote about Beirut, Sounds of Bananas. In this novel, I played with the historical facts of the civil war and the 2006 war and made sure that the facts most unexpected to the readers were actually true and the most illogical stories were taken from real life. We gathered round the table to talk about playing with facts, the confusion between facts and fiction, and discussed the theme for next year’s festival: Facts and Fiction.

Although we all tried not to, we couldn’t keep ourselves from real political discussions. Ned Beauman, Jenn Ashworth, Nermin Yıldırım, Soti Triantafillou, Levi Henriksen, Marit Nicolaysen, Can Eryümlü, Doğu Yücel and I, we all ended up going beyond fiction and reached the events of the world that we all want to…well, fix. That was the result of the five hours of discussion on the topic: literature was there to cure reality. And that for me, I think, is the ultimate politics. That is why the title of this little piece is Literary Festivals: playground or construction site? What I took from the Tanpınar festival is that, although the industry wants writers to be depoliticised, the very heart of writing emerges despite all restraints and engages with the reality. By playing with the truth, perhaps we are reconstructing the story of what it is to be human.