In this extract Özgür Uyanık explores his cultural identity as a Turkish-born writer raised in the United Kingdom.
Over the next few weeks Wales Arts Review is proud to share a selection of excerpts from a new anthology of marginalised voices, Just So you Know: Essays of Experience, published by Parthian Books on August 1st. This collection aims to bring to light stories, issues and lives that have too often been overlooked, and challenge us to think anew. The anthology includes essays on topics such as self-identity, language and culture, the immigrant experience, as well as BAME, LGBTQ+ and disabled writers confronting heteronormative ideals rarely addressed through a Welsh lens.
A key question for me, a Turkish-born writer raised in the United Kingdom, is whether or not BAME practitioners in the UK are truly able to express themselves freely without the danger of othering themselves in the process. The story of how I managed to make myself foreign to my own cultural heritage – how I became ‘othered’ – begins with an epiphany. Having read quite a few contemporary female Turkish novelists in translation, I realised with a gnawing sense of guilt that I had been avoiding novels by Turkish men, especially the well-established writers of the twentieth century. It felt vaguely as if I had an axe to grind with these men but the reason remained elusive, buried in my subconscious, until I started to dig for potential answers.
I moved to the UK with my architect parents when I was aged six. My younger sister and I were simply expected to pick up the language as we went along and we did. Before that, our infancy in Turkey was spent in an unquestioningly patriarchal society where female relatives spoke of ‘growing up to be big and strong like your father’ and men were routinely tasked with opening jar lids, cooking meat over hot coals and sacrificing their good cheer to deal with local aggressions against their clan, whether it be a fleeing burglar or a disrespectful tradesman. Men had an appealingly distinct place in the scheme of things and I began by identifying strongly with the prescribed masculinity – machismo and all – with a vision of my future self as ‘big and strong’. However, as I grew up, I saw that the women in my family had the better story arc. These women – my mother, sister, grandmother, aunts and female cousins – all had an adversarial position in the status quo from the get go, with weightier obstacles to conquer than the men. My grandmother exemplified the notion of the female rising above the limitations set by the hierarchy. She had withstood an arranged marriage to a man fifteen years her senior and carved out a career as a teacher before entering politics. She acted and spoke of her journey as a woman of the modern Turkish Republic, risen from the ashes of a defunct empire, who had once been in the presence of our founding father Atatürk himself. On the other hand, the men in my family seemed to deal mostly in self-serving anecdotes and jokes, privileged with an identity based on their gender. Maybe then – when it came to Turkish literature – I reasoned that I ought not to bother with the thoughts and feelings of long-dead men who had sailed through life with everything seemingly tipped in their favour. In so far as social fairness was concerned, men had the upper hand in almost every sphere save for the theatre of war. Could that one inequity justify all the others? Peevishly perhaps, I felt not.
I took these thoughts and feelings with me as I stepped inside a bookstore in Bodrum in the south west of Turkey recently. It’s where my mother has been living and working since her divorce almost three decades earlier. In the eighties, she had conducted her own struggle to compete in a man’s world at the architectural firm she worked at in London, impeded by – of all people – her own husband. This sort of wrong made me feel less inclined to express solidarity with my own sex or sympathise with the travails of men, including my father. But when he passed away recently, a certain kinship between us developed posthumously – a hitherto unexamined connection between father and son. I started to wonder: had I been simply a petulantly angry boy who had not measured up to his father and therefore created a watchful distance from all things masculine – a pre-emptive rejection as self-defence?
I certainly felt something very deeply the day I stood in my father’s freshly dug grave and his shroud-encased body was passed down to me and the municipal gravedigger, as is customary. We laid his body to rest on top of his own father’s remains, separated by a few inches of soil and several decades. When the grave was filled and everyone else had drifted away, I stood staring at the place he was buried, paralysed by the thought that walking off was tantamount to abandoning him forever. In those moments of confused distress, I was unable to formulate a way to honour his memory – what was his narrative?
From that point on, I began to reflect on my father’s struggles instead of dismissing them as an inferior category of suffering. He had grown up the youngest by 10 years in a large family; his mother had given birth to him when she was 40. The year was 1945 so this was somewhat of a shameful occurrence. He was in today’s parlance ‘an accident’ and was raised by his older sister. His father passed away when he was nine years old and my father often reminded me that the only sign of affection he had received from him, once, was a pat on the head. Rejected by his mother and ignored by his father, it should not surprise anyone that he had difficulties showing affection to others. To my discredit, I never could find it in me to forgive him that flaw. Following his death however, having rendered him a fallible human being in my mind and deserving of empathy as much as the women in my family, I began to try and excavate my suppressed consciousness as I scanned the shelves in the bookstore. I wondered what he had tried to convey to us as children all those times he had wistfully, out of nowhere, quoted lines from Turkish poets or movingly sung a few lines from a Türkü (Turkish folk song). What sort of connection was he trying to make when he handed over a slim, worn paperback from his own library without explanation? It seemed that literature and song, and the Turkish culture that had animated his soul, overlooked by me into adulthood, was now a very good way for me to understand his condition and, by extension, mine.
Triggered by the bereavement, I felt compelled to reconnect with my father through the literature of my own country, and deal with the fact that it was a male-centric perspective later on. Not understanding or knowing the provenance of lines from poems and songs that my father used to quote with such feeling, and the books that he casually handed to me that I barely glanced at had become a source of embarrassment. In the bookshop, a sense of missed opportunity overwhelmed me as I stared at the hundreds of volumes of Turkish fiction and poetry that had come before me and would be there long after I was gone. I needed to get in touch with my cultural heritage. With the impenetrable barrier of death between us, I yearned to hear my father tell me his thoughts about Yaşar Kemal, Fikret Adil, İlhan Berk, Nazim Hikmet, Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu, Zülfü Livaneli, Can Yücel or Orhan Veli. These names conjured up an unexplored domain of thought and experience that my father had only hinted at. I felt I was on the cusp of something miraculous – that feeling of opening a portal to a quasi-foreign world, uncannily familiar, that I could legitimately call home. There was a past in those pages that had been alive and vital for millions of Turks over the preceding century yet I had become separated and then, over time, alienated from a rich background through various happenstances. How had this reluctance to explore my own tradition transpired for someone who had aspirations of being a Turco-British writer?
I submit that the disavowal of the masculine as outlined above occurred in parallel to a process of holistic self-othering that had shaped my formative years in the UK. In fact, this alignment with the feminine may have obfuscated, in retrospect, a slow and steady Anglicisation. Of course, I could hardly blame my young self for gravitating towards a western leaning mind-set when the Turkish national consciousness since its formal inception in 1923 aspired to ‘modernise’ as its Anatolian, or eastern, intricacies and clan-like cultural paternalism fell away (the irony that the man who had this vision in the first place was named Father of the Turks by a grateful populace came into sharper focus only later). This desired societal progress meant, amongst other things, equality between the sexes and a rejection of the macho Mediterranean mores that blighted the psyche of every Turkish male including, I believed then, its writers. Conceivably I was being too hard on my cultural inheritance because I was unwittingly being steered by the Anglo-Saxon perception of my own country through the British norms and education system.
During the difficult years of alienation in secondary school I was surrounded by mostly English and English-born ethnic minorities who had a deeper connection to the UK than I did. Lacking any sense of belonging in the host country, I was mapping onto my plastic brain a foreigner’s idea of an image of Turkishness that I felt needed to be aligned with so that I might flourish there. After all, we were lucky to have escaped the military oppression and political chaos in Turkey during the eighties to find safe harbour in the UK. Had we therefore subconsciously performed the role of grateful immigrants (technically we were expatriates) by embracing Britishness to the detriment of our Turkishness? I felt instinctively, as I stood in the store with an armful of books in Bodrum, that I had strayed too far from an original sense of self, and that I had allowed my identity to be steered under a ‘Western gaze’ that insidiously infected my taste in literature. Consequently, I had to read the writings of these Turkish men in the original language to learn what had come before me, whether it was in a sphere biased against women or not. Summarily discarding their work would not eliminate the gap in my education as a writer, I decided.
Despite misgivings outside the scope of this essay, I would like to accept the invitation to have my voice heard in the UK, as a Turkish writer based in Wales, but only on my terms. The literary merits of my work should be separate from and not affected by my refusal to be steered by diversity quota-orientated curators with their own unexamined orientalist tendencies. Furthermore, I want to cleave myself from the clichéd idea that ‘Western values’ such as freedom of expression and human rights are exclusive to the Occident – there are plenty of indigenous civil society players and activists fighting for progress in Turkey and they are not by any stretch all NGO’s and foreign-led or influenced efforts. As a counterweight to the argument that the West promotes freedom of expression no matter what, I have experienced forms of, albeit rather sophisticated, censorship that I have often baulked at in my screen and novel writing practices in the UK, a country that advertises itself as a bulwark for free speech. I have witnessed first-hand in Wales, for example, how fellow Turkish artists have been induced to pandering to occidental expectations of storytelling with a concomitant craving for exoticism. We are encouraged, I would argue, to produce palatable cultural artefacts for a post-colonial UK marketplace that offers to sustain us in return for a tacit understanding that we turn our backs on our homeland in a way that the British would never countenance for their own artist-citizens at home or abroad.
When I was a teenager, Turkey had become more of an annual holiday destination and pilgrimage to see relatives rather than my actual home. Many terrible things had happened in the eighties just after we left for the UK, including the torture of my uncle by the military regime, thus the disinclination to return to Turkey. It seemed to be a country that was not advancing towards European ideals as envisaged by our illustrious founding fathers. This cemented my concept of Turkey as a struggling nation trying to find its place on the globe and my sister and I, analogously, were busy dealing with the challenges of finding our places in the UK. We were harassed by xenophobic bullies and a wider undercurrent of racism that could only be evaded once we kept our heads down and became more British than the natives. Our changing personalities did not go unnoticed in Turkey where childhood friends and family members remarked that I, for example, had become ‘cold and reserved like the English’! Were they projecting this persona onto me based on their own limited knowledge the British people or was it true? In contrast, many of my British peers stated that I couldn’t really be a Turk – their evidence, I assumed, being my blue eyes, English accent and paler-than-they-imagined-a-Turk-to-be skin. However, I now know that they had in their mind an engrained image of the Turk, in appearance as well as in manner, that I was somehow failing to match. At the time, I rejected the idea that there was such a thing as outright racism towards Turks but I have been disabused of that notion chiefly in light of recent events where the immigrant has been demonised overall and the Turkish nation targeted in particular during the Leave campaign of 2016. Like Turkey itself, I was torn between the East and the West – an appalling dichotomy for an adolescent in the throes of establishing a basic sense of identity. It may be that, trapped in such a dilemma, I was pulled one way by patriotic zeal inherited from my mother’s side and pulled another by the ambivalence of being in Turkey exhibited by my father who had come from a small town that he had striven to escape and had found the fulfilment of personal success in a foreign land. He admired the famed Great British know-how and his personality sat well with the notorious British sense of reserve. Though he had not eschewed his cultural roots entirely, he had only allowed us a glimpse of what he knew, offering up his lines of poetry and song as tantalising and, to me, mysterious (I was guilty of exoticising my own culture as part of my self-othering) relics from another reality that his children need not be a part of anymore. By the time I graduated from university in Canterbury, I was nothing more than an ersatz European – a young man who had forgotten he was Turkish (I even shot a short film about it, perfectly oblivious that I was making a film about myself). By not attempting to know myself more fully, to acknowledge the issues of identity that were impeding my creativity because I was afraid of being othered, I had – with delicious irony – othered myself.
Perhaps it is due to all of this retrospective speculation that I found myself standing in a Turkish bookshop with an armful of books thinking that I have betrayed my culture and must make amends so as to complete myself as a human being and a writer. It felt right that I explore my inherited traditions as part of a wider literary education that transcended the Eurocentric. In this way, I could enrich my critical thinking and sense of existing in the world, without intervention from the dynamics of privileged power positions that are inherent when one posits that there is a construct called the Other. To be steered by the dominant culture, oh-so-very subtly and ingeniously so that the interventions are hard to pin down and so impossible to call out, is to be asked to choose a side. When you realise that there are no ‘sides’ within a person – only cultural paradigms that threaten to compartmentalise a person’s psyche and affect their creative output in a damaging fashion – you can aspire to write authentically, with sincerity and authority. You can write directly about your own unique experiences on this planet as a human being, or channel those experiences to inform your practice – whether it be poetry, screenwriting or prose.
The balancing act required of BAME practitioners, it seems to me, is about not equivocating the dilemma of the cultural steering that I propose is going on. Although imposed externally at first, it can then become internalised if not scrutinized when detected. The impact of this on one’s work ought to be acknowledged – even embraced – with calm introspection and subsequently resisted if necessary but without further alienating oneself from the realities of the creative industries; keeping the gatekeepers onside is a crucial component of an artist’s praxis as an inferior category of suffering. Without access to distribution networks your work may not be visible. Only by unravelling the self-othering that occurs as an active dialogue between the practitioner and the cultural gatekeepers can there be any hope of true freedom of expression without fear of stigmatisation of any kind, and that outcome can only serve to increase the freedom of speech – in its positive forms – that as humans I believe we all seek.
Just So You Know: Essays of Experience is available to pre-order from Parthian Books.
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Kathryn Tann caught up with Durre Shahwar and Özgür Uyanık, two of the editors of Just So You Know: Essays of Experience, to find out more about how and why the anthology came into existence. Recently published by Parthian Books, Just So You Know is a collection of creative essays from marginalised voices with connections to Wales, each offering insightful perspectives on topics ranging from self-identity to Welsh culture.
Özgür Uyanik is an author and filmmaker whose family moved to the United Kingdom from Turkey in 1980. His darkly comedic debut novel CONCEPTION, about a sociopathic contemporary artist, is released 2nd July 2020, published by Fairlight Books. Currently he is undertaking a PhD in creative and critical writing at Cardiff University and working on his new book ‘The Notetaker—A Revenge Novel’ as well as developing several feature film projects as writer-director.