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from the June–July 2019 issue

Selahattin Demirtas, Jailed in Turkey since 2016, Makes His Fiction Debut with “Dawn”

Reviewed by Rafia Zakaria

The Turkish writer of Kurdish descent has been jailed since 2016. The stories in Dawn can be read as a series of missives written by Demirtas from the inside, home to so many of the Turkey's best and brightest, dissenters who have refused to bow down to Erdogan’s demands.

The purge has been systematic and unrelenting. In the past few years, as Turkey’s strongman Recep Erdogan has consolidated his power following a failed coup attempt in 2016, thousands of dissenting politicians, activists, intellectuals and university professors have either been imprisoned or forced into exile. Newspapers, literary magazines and other forums of expression and public debate have faced censorship and scrutiny, with many editors harassed for content that does not toe the Erdogan line. 

Democracy as Turks knew it has been sliced and diced, diluted and distorted, and Selahattin Demirtas has been in the middle of the massacre. A member of the Turkish Parliament and co-chair of the People’s Democratic Party, Demirtas was arrested in November 2016 under charges of disseminating “terror propaganda” and thrown into a maximum-security prison, where he remains to this day. Dawn marks his debut as a fiction writer and it reportedly sold more than 200,000 copies in Turkey. It is a book of poignant and prescient short stories which can be read as a series of missives written by Demirtas from the inside, home to so many of the countries best and brightest, dissenters who have refused to bow down to Erdogan’s demands. Literature and politics, in Demirtas’s view, are both avenues of contention. Both, he states in the preface to his book, are “expected to create meaning and to observe their societies closely and reflect upon the issues that the societies face.” 

All the stories in Dawn are examples of this very close and keen observation. “The Man Inside” is an imagined exchange between the narrator and a pair of sparrows that nest inside the prison. It is a curious and sparklingly original rendition; the male sparrow, an exceedingly patriarchal sort, is upset at Demirtas’s offers to help the female. The female lays eggs, an item banned in the prison, a seemingly small event with larger implications, hinting at the inherent feebleness of repression and suggesting that “life will always prevail.” Eventually, some thugs—“inspectors from the Department of Nesting Code Enforcement”—show up. But the adroit, stalwart female refuses to give them access to her precious babies. In her actions, first building a nest and then guarding it, Demirtas gives us a feminist sparrow: unafraid, unrelenting, and eventually victorious.

The feminist theme, of women doing the heavy lifting, continues throughout Dawn. There aren’t always victories, but there is bravery. “Seher,” the title story, tells of a young woman who agrees to go on a date with a colleague from work, despite such interactions being forbidden. The man and his friends kidnap and rape her, leaving her bloody and bereft. This is not the only cruelty in the story. When her father learns of what has happened, he has his own moral purity and community standing to defend, ones that leave no room for forgiveness or empathy, for errant daughters who end up raped. The now “tainted” daughter is taken to a field and killed in the name of honor. As Demirtas puts it: “One evening in a forest, three men robbed Seher of her dreams. One night in an empty field, three men robbed Seher of her life.” The story presents the wretched cruelty of patriarchal power, the violence it inflicts on women’s bodies. Everyone from Seher’s mother to her little brother are complicit, enacting different parts of the murder—mute, submissive, and unendingly cruel.

Many of the stories in Dawn plumb the depths of such societal cruelties, the immovable institutional power of cultural mores that prescribe that women should be “pure,” that men must prevail over women, that the truths of the individual must be discarded in mute obeisance to edicts of oppression and repression. One of the collection’s most remarkable tales presents the story of “Nazan the Cleaning Lady.” She takes the bus to work every day, but her attention is drawn to the cars surrounding her in traffic. Her father taught her that cars can reveal many things about the people driving them, and a look through the bus window is all it takes for Nazan to spot the nuances of Turkish society in the automobiles going by. She finds herself one day in the midst of a political demonstration, while trying to get to work. Struck by a projectile and left bleeding, she ends up in an ambulance and then a hospital. Her physical wounds are tended to, but neither a lawyer nor the doctor can save her from a prison sentence, unthinkingly imposed despite the fact that she was only a bystander caught in the mix. The turn comes unexpectedly at the story’s end, when Nazan ponders the lessons to be taken from her predicament: “Being in here I’ve come to see my neighborhood in a completely different light. And while I may not be in prison much longer, these six months have been enough for me to get to know myself. And there’s an important lesson I’ve learned in here: if you walk with courage and determination sometimes you can move faster than a car.”

The stories in Dawn are indeed experiments in exposing how the world appears in “a different light.” The lives of cleaning ladies and office workers and sparrows are all angled in such a manner that the truths within them are brought into the open. Ordinary people contain multitudes. In excavating them, Demirtas reveals the dissenters and the executioners among them, along with the intransigence of bureaucracy that can engulf and enervate the soul in captivity. It is one thing to observe oppression at a distance, in the lines of newspaper articles. It is quite another to see its impact on ordinary lives captured in such evocative prose. Dawn proves Demirtas’s own pronouncement regarding the similarity between the politician and the writer; here is rebellion in literary form, the cost and cruelty of dissent laid bare and open. In times of trouble, the telling of truths can best be encased in the half-truths of fiction, the author’s act of subterfuge forgiven for its courage. 

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