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Torn Ballet Shoes, and a Life Upended

For the first time in half a year, the Turkish novelist Asli Erdogan returned the other day to her Istanbul apartment, a home left ransacked when she was arrested and sent to prison in August.

She discovered that many things were missing: flash drives containing her work and reviews from European literary journals, letters written to her by Kurdish prisoners, and books on Kurdish history. Left behind were the objects of another of her passions: her ballet shoes, torn apart.
That is what made her cry.

“Somehow the unfairness of it all hit me with the ballet shoes,” she said in a recent interview. “That was suddenly too much.”
Ms. Erdogan, 49, a physicist—turned—novelist who has always been more celebrated in European literary circles than in Turkish ones, is trying to put her life back together after being imprisoned under the latest crackdown on freedom of expression by the Islamist government of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan (who is not related to the author).

She was arrested and charged with supporting terrorism, not because of her novels but as a result of her affiliation, as an adviser, with a newspaper linked to the Kurdish movement that has since been shut down. She still faces a trial that could land her back in prison, and with that hanging over her, she has been living with her mother, sleeping late, not writing much and dealing with the new fame that her case has brought.

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Nowadays, on the streets of Istanbul, people recognize her.
“It is moving. Sometimes people put their arms on me and cry,” she said. “I receive lots of love. That is a big responsibility.”
There is a downside. “I also receive negative reactions, too: curses and lectures on patriotism,” she said.
That can feel harrowing in Turkey, which has a long tradition of not just locking up writers and journalists but of violence against them, wielded by vigilantes who seem to take their cues from officials who brand as traitors those writers who go beyond what the government deems acceptable language.
In the 1940s, the leftist writer Sabahattin Ali was believed to have been murdered by a state agent. In 2007, the Turkish—Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was assassinated by a nationalist gunman who may have been acting on the orders of the so—called deep state. And, last year, a man outside a courtroom fired a shot at Can Dundar, a newspaper editor accused of publishing state secrets.
Once, Ms. Erdogan said, she “was an out in literary circles” in Turkey for her existentialist writings, which appealed more to a European audience. “I have more readers in Sweden than here,” she said.
Growing up in a household that valued education — her father is an engineer, her mother an economist — she attended the prestigious Bosporus University. Trained as a physicist, she began writing seriously on the side in the early 1990s while pursuing graduate studies in Switzerland.
There, in a tiny room in Geneva, she wrote all night after full days in the research lab, eventually producing the story collection “The Miraculous Mandarin.” A few years later, while studying for her doctorate in Brazil, she gave up physics for good. “One morning I woke up and didn’t go to my exams,” she said.
Now, as her fame in Turkey grows, her books have been selling more, and her publisher has issued new printings. One volume of short stories, “The Stone Building and Other Places,” has become a best seller in Turkey.
“The City in Crimson Cloak” is perhaps her most—known book, and the only one that has been published in English. It is a recreation of the myth of Orpheus set in the gritty and violent back streets of Rio de Janeiro, Ms. Erdogan once lived. She describes her writing as “sublime language plus crude metaphors” that has had only a limited appeal in Turkey, readers tend to flock to realistic works steeped in Ottoman history or nostalgia, the books of Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel—winning novelist.
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“There’s nothing realistic in my books,” she said. “I am a difficult writer.”

The darkness of her writing is a reflection of her personality. She has always lived “a life of extreme loneliness,” she said, and the prevailing theme of her work is the brokenness of human beings, what she refers to as their “wounds.”
“Asli Erdogan’s literature is dark, pessimistic,” said Sema Kaygusuz, a Turkish novelist. “The world in Erdogan’s mind is a wounded body. A body constantly bleeding, a body in anguish. She carries this body both linguistically and psychologically. She identifies with the wound. The pain the author is in is not a personal one in this sense, but it is the pain of the world.”
Even in Europe, in the earlier days of Ms. Erdogan’s writing career, her work was a tough sell, defying the expectations the outside world places on Turkish novelists.

“So many publishers told me, ‘Oh your writing is great, it’s impressive, but, you see, this existentialist stuff, we have done already,’” she said. “‘But why don’t you write us about your own little village?’”

With her arrest and time in prison, Ms. Erdogan has ed many of her Turkish literary contemporaries, and forebears, in a common experience.

Most of the country’s great writers have, at one time or another, run up against Turkey’s restrictions of freedom of expression. The reasons differ in different eras. Ms. Erdogan was arrested for her association with a Kurdish movement that the government now considers a terrorist group. Mr. Pamuk once faced criminal charges for “insulting Turkishness.” Elif Shafak, another of Turkey’s internationally known novelists, once ran afoul of Turkish authorities for writing about the Armenian genocide, still denied by the Turkish government.
“Every writer, every poet and every journalist in Turkey knows that words can get us into serious trouble any day, any moment,” Ms. Shafak wrote in a recent email. “When we write,” she added, “there is this ominous knowledge at the back of our minds.”

At every turn, Ms. Erdogan’s story comes back to books: the books she has already written and the ones she plans to write, the books the police seized from her apartment, the books she read while in prison. To describe the entire experience — navigating the Turkish law and prison bureaucracy — she leans on a literary reference, saying it has been “more than Kafkaesque.”

In prison, which included several days in solitary confinement sleeping, she said, on a bed that smelled of urine, she passed the time and drew comfort from books brought to her by her lawyers, or mailed to her by friends. She read volumes on world history, and novels by J. M. Coetzee, Iris Murdoch, Henry James, Marcel Proust and Kafka, and the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke and Paul Celan, a favorite of hers. From the prison library, she read “Shoah,” the text to the acclaimed 1985 documentary by Claude Lanzman.

So far, Ms. Erdogan said she has resisted calls to write a memoir of her time in prison, saying she is not ready. “I know I could write a best seller very easily about my prison days,” she said.

She still might, although it will most ly take a long time. Sometimes, she said, it takes her six or seven years to write a hundred pages.

“When I hear the right voice, and I catch it, it carries me,” she said. “If I don’t,forget it.”

Tim Arango, Newyork Times


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