Turkey’s prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, led the tributes on Sunday to Turkish author Yasar Kemal, who died at the weekend at the age of 91. The writer’s focus on injustice had often brought him into conflict with the authorities.
Davutoglu praised Kemal’s ability to “maintain his dissident attitude and express the truth … when speaking the truth was hard”.
Best known for his first novel, Ince Memed or Memed, My Hawk, he also turned his pen to promoting Marxism during his early years, and defending the rights of minorities in Turkey, including the Kurdish minority to which he belonged.
Ince Memed, published in 1955, was based on the troubled feudal relations in Turkey's southern, agrarian regions where Kemal grew up. Reflecting the author's leftist views, the book's young peasant-turned-brigand hero takes a stand against injustices suffered by villagers at the hands of powerful landlords.
The character of Memed was drawn in part from Kemal’s memory of his mother’s brother, an outlaw named Mayro – “the best-known outlaw in the eastern Anatolia, Iran and Caucasus areas”.
“Mayro was killed when he was only 25,” Kemal said in an interview with French author Alain Bosquet. “I have heard many lullabies and a lot of national poetry that depict the bravery and heroism of Mayro. Mayro’s adventurous life was quite an inspiration to me when I was a child, and his footprints can clearly be seen in most of my novels.”
Memed was first published in instalments in Cumhuriyet newspaper in 1953 and 1954, where Kemal was a journalist. The book won Turkey's Varlik literary prize in 1956 and it was widely translated, as were most of his more than 35 other books.
“It was one of the coldest Istanbul winters ever. I had no money to put wood in the stove,” Kemal said in a speech in 2003 at Bilkent University, recalling the time he wrote the novel. “Yet, I just pretended that the fire was going strong. I covered myself in a ripped blanket, and typed away on an old typewriter that was missing many keys.”
Memed and eight other novels were made into films.
“My adventures are aimed at exploring the mystery of the human,” he said at an award ceremony at the presidential palace in 2008.
Kemal didn’t promote his Kurdish background and few people knew he was a Kurd. “I’m a Turkish writer – of Kurdish origin,” he said.
But he did speak out during clashes between autonomy-seeking Kurdish guerrillas and Turkish troops in the mid-1990s. He was tried in 1995 under antiterrorism laws, but acquitted, for an article he wrote for the German magazine Der Spiegel, accusing the Turkish army of destroying Kurdish villages.
“One person’s acquittal does not mean freedom of expression has arrived. You can’t have spring with only one flower,” Kemal said at the time. “We still have to work very hard to achieve democracy in Turkey. I will continue to write these things until there are no trials against expression.”
The same year, he received a 20-month suspended sentence for another article for “inciting hatred and promoting racism”.
“I couldn’t sleep at nights for a year,” Kemal said. “I had pangs of conscience. ‘You are a writer. You have to speak up,’ I kept telling myself.”
Although Kemal wasn’t the first writer to be sentenced for writings about the Kurdish issue, his views attracted wider attention. Nobel laureate and playwright Arthur Miller sent a letter of support to Kemal and called his sentence “a painful absurdity”.
Kemal angrily rejected charges from Turkish ultranationalists that he was a traitor and shouldn’t write in Turkish.
“My life has been dedicated to the Turkish language, Turkish culture,” he said. “I don’t want a separate Kurdish state, nobody does. All that the Kurds want is their universal human rights – the right to preserve their language, culture, identity.”
Kemal Sadik Gokceli was born in 1923 – he believed it was sometime in October – in a small village in Adana. He grew up hearing the Kurdish language at home and Turkish outside.
Kemal was blinded in his right eye as a child when a knife slipped out of a butcher's hand. When he was 5, he witnessed his father being murdered by his adopted son, jealous of the father's love for his natural son. Kemal reimagined his father in the autobiographical novel Yagmurcuk Kusu (Rain Bird), granting his father a much longer life.
As a teenager, Kemal dropped out of secondary school and worked as a farm hand, a substitute teacher, a library clerk, a tractor driver and other jobs before moving to Istanbul, where he wrote for Cumhuriyet, taking the pseudonym Yasar Kemal.
He joined the Turkish Labor Party in 1962 and founded the weekly Marxist magazine, Ant, in 1967. His A Guide to Marxism published in Ant led to his prosecution on charges of promoting communism but his 18-month prison sentence was later suspended.
Kemal's poems were first published in local newspapers. His first book, Agitlar or Ballads, published in 1943, was a compilation of folklore he collected during his travels.
Kemal won numerous international awards including the Legion d’honneur from the French government.
"I don't write about issues, I don't write for an audience, I don't even write for myself. I just write," Kemal said in an interview with The Guardian in 2008.
“Yes, there is rebellion in my novels, but it’s rebellion against mortality. As long as man goes from one darkness to another, he will create myths for himself. The only difference between me and others is that I write mine down.”
In 1952, Kemal married Thilda Serrero, who translated some of his works into English and died in 2001. Kemal is survived by their son, Rasit Gokceli, and his second wife, Ayse Semiha Baban, a lecturer at Istanbul’s Bilgi University.
Kemal died on Saturday at Istanbul’s Capa Hospital, where he had been admitted on January 14 suffering from multiple organ failure.