Books of shame and the case of Hasan Ali Toptaş
No book is worth normalizing or romanticizing a culture of harassment. As for the writers, they do not owe us any moral purity or virtue, yes, but we readers in return do not owe them loyalties of any kind either. Let the abusers go. I assure you, there are more than enough books to read and more than enough writers to love.
Like every self-respecting adult, I have a “books of shame” section in my library that I am not particularly proud of: The how to lose five pounds in five days, the how to be rich in five days (basically anything that offers to do anything in five days), the unauthorized New Kids On The Block biography that I once inhaled on a plane ride, a signed copy of a bestseller from that creepy author I once met and so on. You get the gist of it. Usually I hide these on a top shelf or behind a large vase but luckily there is a design trend to put books backwards now, so I started doing that. Now all my books of shame sit on a shelf together, their jacket-sides turned around so that only the beige color of their pages are on display, giving me an air of Architectural Digestness and vainness at the same time, just the way I like it.
The other day I needed to expand this section because of some décor related emergency- and I randomly picked the books of Hasan Ali Toptaş that I own from the next shelf, a total of five, including Heba (Reckless) which is close to my heart because one of the protagonists is also called Binnaz, and the Kuşlar Yasına Gider (Birds Go to His Mourning) which makes me laugh every time I see it although it is a very serious and dark book, because once my husband brought it to a summer vacation and cried at the ending, so that we were the saddest people on a beach ever and the stupidest because who picks Hasan Ali Toptaş for a summer read? No-one that’s who.
Hasan Ali Toptaş or HAT as he is called in literary circles is a serious writer, a high-brow one, one with a devoted following and a list of prestigious awards under his belt, one whose works are published in the United States, Britain, Germany, Finland, Sweden, France, South Korea to name a few, one whose works are adopted to film and plays. He is defined as “the Eastern Kafka” not just because of the similarities in their respective styles but also because HAT used to be a state official, worked as a bailiff for more than twenty years. He is also somewhat of a mysterious character who still lives in Ankara instead of the cultural epitome İstanbul, marketed as a humble-genius type. On his official website, under the section “letter to the reader” he writes about himself: “you do not need to know this guy who lives an exaggeratedly ordinary life”. HAT is not a beach-read or a writer for my shame shelf. So I put his books back and picked something else, I have plenty to choose from.
A couple of days later, I stumbled upon Toptaş’s name in Twitter. Under a video of him saying he does not trust young translators because they cannot possibly possess the required command over a language as an old person can, with his oh so serious writer tone, women went ballistic. One wrote “How many of us are waiting for this man to be exposed?" and exposed he got. More than twenty women told their experiences of being sexually harassed and/or assaulted by Toptaş, proving a systemic pattern of abuse spanning years. One of the women was writer Pelin Buzluk who detailed how Toptaş physically assaulted her and then tried to shame her for the attack by questioning her attire. Toptaş released a sort of apology, saying: “One can make mistakes without knowing, realizing, or thinking about the wounds inflicted on the other party, without understanding what it is to be a patriarchal perpetrator. Today, women are teaching us the meaning of autonomy. I apologize to all the people I hurt, upset, and injured through actions which I took unknowingly". Umm, I am not sure what a “patriarchal perpetrator” is, but I am pretty sure I never heard Kafka using the term. I am also not sure why women have to teach you not to sexually assault someone. You are a renowned writer over sixty, don’t you know that already?
Toptaş is of course not the first writer accused of sexual assault or harassment. In the aftermath of the #metoo movement, Junot Diaz, Sherman Alexie, David Foster Wallace are all exposed for past behaviors, some previously known but ignored in a cultural climate too eager to enable their male geniuses and money makers. Writer Zinzi Clemmons accused Junot Diaz of harassment at a panel, to his face. She then repeated her case in Twitter followed by dozens of other women, mostly writers. The case of Diaz got author Mary Karr to repeat her incidents of abuse by David Foster Wallace, this time in Twitter to the horror of a new generation of readers (including me) who do not find Wallace’s behavior “oh so quirky”. National Book Award winner Sherman Alexie was accused by numerous women of harassment. Other young adult and children’s authors including James Dashner, Daniel Handler, and Jay Asher whose best-seller Thirteen Reasons Why is now a popular Netflix series were among the names accused of sexual misconduct.
Sexual harassment exists in every sector. Yet cultural industries where institutional structures are looser and male creators are worshipped are more prone to impunity. Writing is seen as a male vocation by default and male writers are given advances for their criminal behavior with artful excuses like having larger than life personas, eccentricities, being a genius or the plain old “oh he gets like that when he drinks”. Exposing a harasser has consequences for women especially in Turkey where the rate of femicides is sky high and the rate of sentencing is dangerously low. Women who speak up are ignored, not-believed, threatened, humiliated and more often than not, alienated in their industries. Toptaş once said in an interview: “Being powerful is actually a shameful thing. Really, a shameful thing.” Powerful men rarely face any consequences especially in creative sectors where allegiances are tight and bromances run deep.
And when they do, women still get chastised for it. Such was the case when writer-publisher İbrahim Çolak committed suicide on December 10 after being exposed for harassment and sexually explicit messages he has sent to women many years his junior. The #metoo movement was quick to get blamed for “going too far”. Although a person’s suicide is very tragic as a principle, social media and the exposé and cancel culture are powerful tools for social justice movements, and an especially essential tool for women’s movements in highly patriarchal countries where crimes against women are rampant. When the fear of losing one’s career or reputation is more of a possibility than having criminal repercussions, women will continue to rightfully aim for men’s status and platforms.
That is why this cultural moment and the slice of #metoo that we are experiencing in Turkey is as precious as it gets. In the aftermath of the Toptaş exposé, other male writers like Bora Abdo and Hüseyin İnan were also accused of harassment and an unprecedented level of support came from literary institutions thanks to the resilient pressure applied by women. Toptaş was fired from his Turkish publishing house and his long term agent quit. Abdo was also fired by his publisher. Writers Syndicate of Turkey released a statement saying publishing houses and award juries should include a clause to exclude sexual predators from their roster. Toptaş’s international publisher Bloomsbury is yet to comment on the matter. Let us note that Bloomsbury is also J.K. Rowling’s publisher and did not condemn her recent anti trans remarks. #Metoo activists have also created an anonymous email account for women to expose sexual predators in the creative industries, a hint that this moment is here to stay. Names of other predators in music, arts, cinema and academia continue to be released in social media.
So what will happen to the books? What will happen to the words we once loved, sentences once made us cry on a beach? We will forget them, that’s what. Because no book is worth normalizing or romanticizing a culture of harassment. As for the writers, they do not owe us any moral purity or virtue, yes, but we readers in return do not owe them loyalties of any kind either. Let the abusers go. I assure you, there are more than enough books to read and more than enough writers to love.
As for my books of shame, I decided Mr. Toptaş does not belong there after all. A writer of his statue does not belong to my humble shelf. So I let him go, like the abuser he is.