Turkish Literature

Turkish Literature

Turkish literature has always been an aspiring dimension of Turkish culture. This is best exemplified by the recent establishment of the Signed and First Edition Museum, the first of its kind in Turkey, featuring 386 priceless volumes by Turkish authors. The goal of the initiative is to preserve the deep history and development of printed literature. The museum has a collection of 188 books, signed by their authors, 198 of which are first editions.

When you read Turkish authors, you realize they had been passionate people; you can see the zeal in their literature. Throughout their history, they had war and peace, leaving a lasting mark on the culture and people.

The 2006 Turkish Nobel Prize recipient in literature, Orhan Pamuk (1952- ) once wrote, “After all, nothing can be as astounding as life. Except for writing. Yes, of course, except for writing, the sole consolation.” And his quote along with quotes from other prominent people was included in a time capsule that was sent with the NASA Lucy spacecraft in October 2021.

From Oral to Written Tradition

To fully understand and appreciate Turkish literature, it’s important to divide the oral legend tradition from the Ottoman Divan poetry and prose as well as authors of the 19th and 20th centuries. Turkish literature can also be separated into distinct periods: pre-Islamic, Islamic (Ottoman), and Modern. The literature of the pre-Islamic era is mostly about epic literature and folk poetry. The Book of Dede Korkut, written in the Azerbaijani language and describing the adventures of Koroglu, is a significant example of the epic tradition. Turkish literature began in the 13th century and evolved during the Ottoman Empire until the early 20th century. Unlike written corpus, early oral compositions weren’t influenced by Islam or the Persian language; they were tightly related to the Central Asian nomadic traditions.

The classical period is associated with the Ottoman rule when Turkish literature flourished. During the Turkish Republic, it drifted away from Ottoman Diwan poetry. The process started during the Tanzimat Reforms. The famous quote of Ziya Pasha illustrated this very well: “Our language is not Ottoman; it’s Turkish. What makes up our poetic canon is not gazels and kasides, but rather kayabasis, uclemes, and cogurs.”

Pre-Islamic Period

During the pre-Islamic period, the poets’ works were spoken and sung at religious events, often accompanied by traditional instruments, such as baglama. One example is the series of tales about a young boy, Keloglan, who has a hard time finding a wife, helping his mother, and dealing with the problems caused by his neighbors. Folk poetry, based on pagan religion and secular tradition, was called asiklozan. Late folk literature experienced Sufi influence and became known as tekkes. Asik Pasa, Yunus Emre, and Rumi were the most outstanding poets of the 13th and 14th centuries.

Dede Korkut of Oghus Turkic tradition is a collection of twelve legends, depicting the heroism of the noble men and women. It tells the stories of the leader of the Oghuz Turks and his people as they fight against enemies, free captives, and fall in love.

Islamic Period

As mentioned, Diwan was a dominant Ottoman literature with its genres mesnevi (rhyming couplets) and qasida (praises of God or prominent Muslim leaders). The later Ottoman genres were sarki (song) and taze-gui (free speech).

Gazel poetry was about love and was often performed with musical instruments. The Ottoman poetry toward the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries represented a blend of Turkish, Persian, and Arabic languages. Among notable poets of that time were Baki, Nabi, Cevri and Nesati, Seyh Galib.

Turkish Novelists

The reforms of the 20th century contributed to the formation of Turkish national identity and the transformation of Turkish literature.

We see the first novelists, such as Oguz Atay, Nuri Guntekin, and Mehmet Akif.

Oguz Atay (1934-1977) is considered a pioneer of modern novel in Turkey. His first work, “The Disconnected,” became a bestseller in the 1980s. UNESCO described it as a “challenge to even the most skilled translator with his kaleidoscope of colloquialism and sheer size.”

Resat Nuri Guntekin (1889-1956) is best known for his novel “The Wren,” available in English translation on Amazon.

The author of the Turkish National Anthem, Mehmet Akif Ersoy (1873-1936), was a successful writer, academic, and politician. During the Republican period, he was a literature lecturer at a few universities. His collection of 44 poems, known as Safahat, made him one of the last classic poets of Turkish literature.

The Father of Turkish Literature

Yasar Kemal (1923-2015) can be regarded as the father of Turkish literature because he was able to use the Turkish language as a fully self-sufficient language when Turkish literature went through hard times after Ataturk’s language reforms in the 1930s.

He was a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Memed, My Hawk and received 38 rewards during his lifetime. Kemal was one of the authors who continued folkloric themes. In his articles, he criticized racism in Turkey toward the Kurdish people. “I don’t write about issues, I don’t write for an audience, I don’t even write for myself. I just write.” – this is how Yasar Kemal defined his work as a writer.

The Best Award-Winning Turkish Authors

One should mention Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak when discussing the best Turkish writers.

Orhan Pamuk (1952 -) is the 2006 Nobel Prize recipient for The Black Book and the most acclaimed Turkish novelist, who has sold over 13 million books in 63 languages. Bookworms should check on his works translated into English: Snow, The Red-Haired Woman, My Name is Red, A Strangeness in My Mind, The Black Book, and many others.

An award-winning British-Turkish novelist, Elif Shafak (1971 -) published 19 books. Her latest novel, The Island of Missing Trees, earned international recognition as well as The Forty Rules of Love, ranked by BBC as one of the 100 novels that shaped the world.

Other Modern Turkish Writers

Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak are great novelists but not the only ones. We suggest the three authors below, emphasizing their superb work in Turkish culture and history.

Latife Tekin was born in Central Turkey, Kaseri in 1952. She uses folklore and realism in her work. Dear Shameless Death, published in 1983, is a deep insight into the social change based on her life in Istanbul. She especially highlights the status of women.

The novel Berji Kristin: Tales from the Garbage Hills, published in 1984, describes the realities of living around a slum. The story hinges on the economic and industrial growth in the 1960s that resulted in workers’ migration from villages.

Moris Farhi (1935-2019), a native of Ankara of Jewish Sephardic origin, made his name in the United Kingdom after moving to London. He is the author of the novels Children of the Rainbow and Journey Through the Wilderness, which he wrote for the Dr. Who television series.

His best work, Young Turk, went public in 2004. The novel combines 13 stories – narratives of different people in Turkish society before, during, and after World War II.

A female author, Buker Uzuner (1950 -) published a fascinating book in 1997 called Mediterranean Waltz. It’s a story about love, Istanbul, and the civil war. Her short stories, A Cup of Coffee and the Sound of Fishsteps, The Long White Cloud – Gallipoli, and Istanbullu, are fascinating tales of Turkish cities interweaved with human relationships.

Turkish literature has significantly influenced global culture, showcasing the depth of Turkey's historical and cultural narratives through its evolution from ancient epics to modern novels. Recognized globally through awards and translations, Turkish authors have contributed to the worldwide literary community, blending traditional themes with contemporary issues. This literature not only reflects the rich tapestry of Turkish society but also resonates with universal themes, making it a vital part of world literature.