The Coming Dawn: A Debut of Prison Literature, Selahattin Demirtaş
By Matt Hanson
Editors note: This article contains spoilers for some of the stories in Selahattin Demirtaş’s Dawn
The voice of Selahattin Demirtaş is innocent, but not naive. The former co-chair of the Kurdish-led HDP (People’s Democratic Party) ran for president from behind bars in Turkey’s last national elections in June 2018. He also wrote a collection of short fiction. Dawn is his debut literary work. He penned its twelve stories while in maximum security, F-Type prison in Edirne, where he has been held since the 4th of November, 2016.
The most recent of more than 90 hearings for over 34 cases involving 102 investigations filed against Demirtaş were held at the Bakırkoy Courthouse in Istanbul in January. The judge adjourned proceedings to May 17 to evaluate demands. Although, Demirtaş did not ask for release at his prior hearing in October. The charges lofted at Demirtaş have included "establishing and leading a terrorist organization", "propagandizing for a terrorist organization" and "praising the crime and the criminal".
In the January hearing, the charge of “insulting the president” was repeated, referencing a statement Demirtaş gave at the Atatürk Airport in December 24, 2015 after returning from Russia. “In fact, the people in Turkey don't want war with Russia or any country,” he said. “This is a tension that came into existence because of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) government's wrong decision.”
Kareem Fahim, the Istanbul bureau chief of The Washington Post analyzed the legacy of writing from Turkish prisons last month. He reported that at least eight books have been published from jail in Turkey in the last two years. Demirtaş is a drop in an ocean of tens of thousands of inmates who have endured the suspension of justice in the midst of an unprecedented presidential power grab after an outstanding state-of-emergency followed the July 15 coup attempt in 2016.
Around the time when Demirtaş was arrested, nine other HDP members of parliament were imprisoned, including former co-leader, Figen Yüksekdağ a lifelong activist, and advocacy journalist sentenced to six years in prison for allegedly distributing terrorist propaganda, and Nursel Aydoğan, who served in Diyarbakir and was arrested alongside Demirtaş for protesting behind a banner that read, "May Freedom Grow”. Both were subsequently fired from parliament.
Since the HDP first formed in October, 2012, Demirtaş served as its third co-chairman beside Yüksekdağ and later Serpil Kemalbay until February, 2018. On the 9th of September, 2015, two months before he survived an assassination attempt, Demirtaş denied partiality to the Kurdish Workers’ Party, known by its Turkish acronym PKK. It is blacklisted as a terrorist organization by the US, Turkey and the Council of the European Union, among other countries. On the 8th of January, 2017, told the leftist Turkish daily newspaper, BirGün, that he was not a “manager, member, spokesperson, or sympathizer” of the PKK. It has not been enough to prevent the ongoing slew of sentences amounting to 183 years in prison.
Maureen Freely wrote the foreword to Dawn last November. She irons out some of the details of the political context and marvels at his faith in humanity, his persistence as an agent of the human spirit. She is best known for her translations of Orhan Pamuk, and also the Nobel Laureate’s literary idol Ahmed Hamdi Tanpinar, a 20th century Turkish novelist. The 160-page book is dedicated to “all women who have been murdered or victims of violence”.
The cover of the original Turkish publication, released on the 16 of September in 2017, was designed by Bahar Demirtaş, the author’s sister. It is a warm visualization of the title story’s protagonist “Seher”, the teenage victim of a heart-wrenching family honor killing. The name Seher in Turkish translates as “dawn”, or more exactly, the peculiar emanation of twilight just before sunrise.
The co-translator, Amy Marie Spangler, worked with Kate Ferguson, whose work has been shortlisted for the British Council Young Translators’ Prize in 2012. Spangler is known for her translation work with writer Mustafa Ziyalan on the short story collection, Istanbul Noir, published by the independent Akashic Books in Brooklyn, New York. While working on Dawn, she was quick to say that Demirtas may not make waves in the literary world, but his work is emblematic of hope in the greater struggle for political liberation in Turkey.
In the last year, Dawn went on to win the Montluc Resistance and Liberty Prize. It was shortlisted for the Prix Medicis in France, and has sold rights to fourteen foreign-language publishers including Aram, which prints in Kurmanji Kurdish. The Swedish parliamentarian Thomas Hammarberg recently nominated Demirtaş for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, which he earned for work with Amnesty International.
Last summer, Spangler mentioned that Demirtaş was not reclining in the wake of his debut fiction success. He was writing a novel, she said. On April 12, he published a second collection of short stories, titled, Devran, after another Turkish name with regional Arabic roots. Over 150,000 copies are circulating following its 4th print run. Esra Yazalan wrote a beautiful, literary review of Devran in English for Ahval News, celebrating the stubborn hope of Demirtaş.
“The writing sometimes reaches out with a compassionate hand so that no abandoned pain is left alone. The meanings of his words reach those who need it, reminding them that despite everything, it’s worth it to be alive,” she wrote with heart-wrenching sympathy as one of a few author friends who have signed his name for him at book fairs, while he is in jail.
In his preface, Demirtaş calls for readers to engage with literature for its power to transform people and nations from within. He asserts that political action is incomplete without intellectual development, namely self-education. The revolution will be made into art.
The concepts of peace, democracy and human rights scream out of the subtext and leap from his stories. It is a work of political fiction, but it is not overly dogmatic. His characters border on textbook liberal stereotypes and archetypal social roles that might risk flat narratives, but Demirtaş is a talented storyteller in the tradition of his Zaza roots. He delivers surprises and is effective in his simple, clean, honest prose.
Demirtaş is a human rights lawyer. His writing is richly informed by his practice . He is, what young Americans might call “woke”. His social awareness is primed for the kind of inclusiveness that leads both cultural and political regime change. He is a natural cultural figure. After earning almost six million votes for president in June 2018, his example has drawn comparisons to Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison before serving South Africa as its first black democratically-elected president.
“This book is a collection of stories about everyday people, written by a politician fighting for freedom and equality, after being unjustly imprisoned by an authoritarian regime. It contains short fragments from my own past, which have resurfaced in my memory while I’ve been here in prison,” Demirtaş wrote to preface Dawn. “What lies at the heart of my relationship with politics is not lofty ideals or abstractions, but ordinary people: ordinary people who are capable of changing the world.”
Twelve, the number of short stories in Dawn, is a central figure to the timekeeping traditions of the West. Time is of the essence for a man awaiting his next sentence. Every year is another chain around his body, tightening his movement, shortening his breath. In one of the widest circulating press photos of Demirtaş behind bars, he is seated at a neat desk poised over a piece of paper with a pen in his hand. There is a stack of books beside him. He is dressed in his usual white, collared shirt, as a man representing the people in government.
The solitude of jail has not impeded his resolve to participate in social change. The first story in Dawn is titled, The Man Inside. It reflects the cold, hard reality that grounds people who endure life in maximum security prison. His unadorned prose has a black humor, of a man left to his own devices, with nothing but the ephemera of his mind. But he does not recoil into mere amusement and divergence. He is resolute as ever, immediate, bracing, direct.
His words are not minced. They are hard swallows. It is steely writing, real as iron bars, strong as the walls that separate him from the world, his family, his country. And by his keen sense of perspective, he shows how the world outside is separated from him. Without a soul around for conversation over a tea, he befriends a sparrow perched at his window. Even his cell is communal. The antisocial ants and fear-mongering spiders have rights too.
The Man Inside is an allegory for the corruption of humanity. It is part animal fable and part satire examining male-dominated trends. Nature must fend for itself. History shows that people are not competent stewards of the planet. Demirtaş wrote “The Man Inside” as a critique of sexual oppression. He prompts an appreciation for female strength across the natural world.
The Man Inside plots the resistance of a lone female sparrow against four state officials threatening to tear down her nest and take one of her chicks as a fine because she has built her home without a permit. In the aftermath of the violent episode, the sparrow offers her human neighbor some blunt wisdom: “Kill the man inside you”, she says.
The second story of Dawn is the title piece, Seher, a female name common across the Middle East, in Arabic and Hebrew, as well as in Urdu and Persian. Seher in Dawn is a young woman of a modest, rural nature. She works in a textile factory with a boy named Hayri who asks her out on a date on the eve of a holiday.
There were other girls in her village who had married before they turned eighteen and had begun to raise children. The prospect of a date was thrilling to Seher, who had only known the humdrum toil of work at the factory, and chores at home. Her excitement only soured when she thought of her father, who she imagined would break her legs if he heard about her meeting secretly with Hayri.
Seher delivers unspeakably tragic, emotional power through pithy, unadorned sentences. “One evening in a forest, three men robbed Seher of her dreams,” wrote Demirtaş. “One night in an empty field, three men robbed Seher of her life.” These are likely some of the most potent lines in all of translated contemporary literature.
The women were helpless to save their daughter, their sister, their Seher. She was raped one night by Hayri and two other men. When her father and two brothers discovered what had happened they murdered her in cold, bloody daylight, in a field, like an animal.
The prose is visceral and unflinching. It strikes shame, desperation and madness into the heart of the reader. Not everyone is emotionally intelligent to address the cruelties of the world face to face, and preserve a sense of dignity and righteousness. That is exactly what Demirtaş shows with his fiction. He is not afraid to pierce the tenderest meat of the bone with his trained, humanist gaze, addressing the worse crises of the heart.
As the stories proceed, he remains focused on the segment of society that he calls ordinary people. Nazan the Cleaning Lady is the title of his third story. It introduces people who live in a slum in Ankara, what in Turkey is known as a gecekondu neighborhood where homes are literally built overnight into a squat of makeshift habitations. Everyone knows each other there, and they are all poor, which is a point of solidarity.
Demirtaş has an authenticity in his characterization of poverty. He knows the sacredness of the local for disadvantaged people, whether it be on economic or even racial terms. “It’s really only when we go downtown that the truth slaps us in the face,” he writes from the perspective of an 18-year-old girl cleaning lady from a gecekondu, where people are described as “overworked”, “run-down”, “scruffy”. A turn in the road leads to civilization, where women drive and men are handsome.
Nazan the Cleaning Lady is about the failure of justice across class divides. By the end of the story, a witch hunt smear campaign in the media leaps at the opportunity to denounce the powerless narrator for a crime she never committed. She walks through a violent demonstration in the center of Ankara, in Kızılay, on her way to work, and is struck on the head. The next morning she is discharged from the hospital and sees a bloody photograph of herself in a newspaper under the headline, “Vandals!”
In a leap toward meta-fiction, Demirtaş wrote the story, A Letter To The Prison Letter-Reading Committee. Its inclusion in the book borders on genre-bending, as it is essentially an autobiographical piece of nonfiction in the form of an opinion editorial. But it makes sense within the scope of his collection, because he shows compassion for the workers in the prison system who must thumb through endless letters. He asks, “Fort pity’s sake, what kind of career have you people chosen for yourselves?”
In the story, he exposes himself with a sense of humor. He says he’s not a “real writer”, but that he learned how to express himself creatively from his parents. His mother was a musician, and his father a “wordsmith”, he writes. At one point in the story, he recounts his school days. He was good, but not the best. He ran with troublemakers. He lightly references the HDP system of co-leadership, saying they didn’t have that among his friends.
Prison has revealed a lot to Demirtaş. In the passages of his piece, A Letter To The Prison Letter-Reading Committee, he describes waking up from a dream in the second of what is now 18 months since his imprisonment. A childhood friend spoke to him to remind him thirty-five years later “not to forget the pastırma”. He then tells of how his friend, Bahir, committed suicide while working on staff at Dicle University in Diyarbakir. He concludes his brief story by asserting that he would never want to add to the workload carried by the workers of the world.
One of the more successful literary works is titled, “Kebab Halabi”. It achieves a stunning juxtaposition of narrative imagery. He begins by setting the scene. It is Hatay, a cultural epicenter in Turkey known for its great food, where tourists from across Anatolia and the globe flock to savor the buttery riches of its regional palate. But in contrast, it is the heart attack of the Middle East, where suicide vests and car bombs leave bodies and souls broken from markets to homes, indiscriminate as the very deity of monotheism.
Kebab Halabi is about a man named Hamdullah Usta, who never married. His family extends to Aleppo, where he once fell in love with his cousin, Rukiye, the subject of his unrequited love. Even in adulthood, her beauty is unbearable. Demirtaş describes the marketplace in Aleppo with cinematic vitality. But the story is as tragic as Seher. He executes a dramatic literary device to splice images of mouthwatering local foods, playing on the touristic veneer of the province.
Then a terror attack rips through the scene, dismembering Rukiye one sad day while she is shopping for groceries in Aleppo. With an unsparing hand, Demirtaş writes: “Sifting through all the body parts, Rukiye’s husband was able to pick out a few pieces of his wife by the fabric of her dress that still stuck to them.” Love, suicide, and war are interwoven with an appreciation for the cuisine of Hatay. The visual contrast in his storytelling is as profound as it is effective.
Arguably the most memorable story is titled, As Lonely As History. It follows the life of a young woman from an Anatolian village who ascends beyond her family’s humble rose business to attend university in Istanbul. She becomes a successful architect. The narrative characterization relays her sentiments, as she feels unable to relate to her father. She marries an architect in Istanbul, and they have a busy, rewarding professional life.
The husband and wife and are avid readers. They both cherish the writing of an author named Hasan Vefa Karadağlı, a retired mechanical engineer. After reading his book, “As Lonely As History”, they are changed. When his second novel comes out, titled, “It’s Love That Stays With You”, the daughter hears that her father is ill, and so the couple take leave from work and hit the road. They arrive to the village for the funeral. A man in attendance resembles that of the beloved author. It is Hasan Vefa Karadağlı.
He leads them to the modest home of her father, the rose seller. Inside, there are many scattered notebooks filled with writing from cover to cover. She later asks the alleged author why her father copied his books, only to realize her father wrote the books that had meant the world to her. Karadağlı explains: “They’re much more than just words, they’re his final testament to you, and to people everywhere.”
“As Lonely As History”, although seemingly far-fetched from its outright description, reads as believable. It captivates the reader, transforming imagination into experience. Karadağlı is not a real author. Demirtaş portrays the fictive writer and his books with an authentic knowledge of Anatolia and its people. He develops his fiction to its furthest edge, merging with the elements of fact in the guise of memory.
Dawn is a testament to the voice of a man writing about himself, his people, his nation, and what it means to be human in the 21st century. Literature once leapt from the hierarchal sanctums of religious texts to the bedside tables of dissident secularists whose narratives pronounced humanism above all. Demirtaş is not only a gifted storyteller, he upholds the founding principles of literary work. He is telling the truth.
Matt A Hanson is an art writer and journalist in Istanbul. He has written for Tablet Magazine, Hyperallergic, The Forward, Art Asia Pacific, Tohu, The Millions and Yes!
You can find Dawn here.