In late 2019, politician Selahattin Demirtaş released Leylan, his third book written from his prison cell.
In Turkey’s 2014 presidential elections, this charismatic co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) came in third place with 9.77% of the vote. He was arrested in 2016 under charges of disseminating “terror propaganda.” Today, Demirtaş remains confined in a maximum-security prison despite a 2018 ruling from the European Court of Human Rights that he should be released. In 2018, Demirtaş again ran for president, this time from behind bars.
Despite efforts to silence him, Demirtaş has remained an active figure in Turkey’s political scene, and now its literary scene. His first book of short stories, Seher, was published in 2017. The book has sold more than 200,000 copies in Turkey and has been translated into 14 languages, including a high-profile English translation as Dawn. In 2019, Demirtaş released his second book of short stories, Devran. As journalist Ruşen Çakır remarked in a recent broadcast, Demirtaş’s literary career has ensured continuing interest in his case. Today, walking into most major bookshops in Turkey, one will be greeted by prominent displays of his third book.
Since its release, Leylan has given rise to no small amount of controversy. A social media campaign by supporters of Turkey’s ruling AKP targeted the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality and the Turkish postal service for selling Demirtaş books on their websites. Istanbul mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu responded that he saw no reason why the books should be taken down. The controversy continued in January 2020 after prominent figures from Turkey’s main opposition attended a play in Istanbul based on Demirtaş’s earlier stories. Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu lashed out by stating, “You cannot wash the blood off your hands with theater.” After this, several sympathetic publishing houses issued a statement in defense of Demirtaş’s books.
Amid all these denunciations and counter-denunciations, the literary significance of the work itself gets lost. As it will take time before a translation of Leylan is released, let alone literary criticism in English, I want to give readers a sense of this book’s significance within Turkish letters and Demirtaş’s career as a writer.
As his first full-length novel, Leylan is something of a departure. While the book does have shortcomings, its voice and structure demonstrate newfound confidence. Though not a short story collection, Leylan moves between multiple narrators guiding the reader through the lives of seemingly independent but interconnected characters. These include women and men, Kurds and Turks, and even the grandchild of Irish revolutionaries. The action moves from Dıyarbakır, Nusaybin, and Mardin to Istanbul and as far afield as Zürich.
With regards to its genre, the novel builds on traditions of politically informed realism, oral storytelling (meddahlık), and even science fiction. Like Turkish poet Nâzım Hikmet’s sprawling narrative poem Human Landscape from My Country or novelist Sevgi Soysal’s Noontime in Yenişehir, this cacophony of voices, settings, and styles adds up to an incisive portrait of a complex society and the individuals trying to preserve their humanity within it.
The novel begins with Kudret, our scrappy hero growing up on the streets of Diyarbakır—or, as Kudret refers to the street, “kûçe.” The frequent code-switching between Turkish and Kurdish powerfully expresses the strained bilingualism of Turkey’s southeast. With his characteristic wit, Kudret describes the painful experience of Kurdish children attending public school with no knowledge of Turkish: “If you were to take a Turkish child from the heart of Istanbul and send him to a Chinese-language primary school and ask how much mathematics and general knowledge he acquired, that would be about as much as we learned.”
Elsewhere in the novel, moving between languages gives rise to humorous misunderstandings, as when Kudret and his friends cannot understand why the deri (Turkish for “skin”) of animals sacrificed during religious holidays is donated to the poor—in Kurdish deri means “door.” Then there is the heavily symbolic name of Kudret’s forever out-of-reach childhood love: Leylan in Kurdish and Serap in Turkish, which in both languages means “mirage.”
After Kudret’s tragicomic coming-of-age story, the remaining three-fourths of the book is a novel within a novel. This begins when Netice, Kudret’s former classmate and an academic recently fired for signing a peace petition, visits the auto repair shop where he and his friend work to deliver a manuscript entitled Life Is Always Left Halfway. The story begins at Istanbul’s Esenler central bus station. There, we meet Sema, an accomplished brain surgeon, and her husband Bedirhan, an activist and sacked academic originally from Nusaybin. Their loving but troubled marriage takes a heavy hit from fate when Bedirhan is diagnosed with a brain tumor and then suffers a near-fatal car accident whilst driving to get surgery. Stuck in a vegetative state, Bedirhan’s last hope is an experimental procedure at the University Brain Research Center in Zürich. The narrative veers into Black Mirror territory when the Swiss team links the consciousness of Bedirhan and Sema with a futuristic technological apparatus so that she can enter her husband’s coma dreams and hopefully lead him back to consciousness.
Whatever neuroscientists have to say about this plot twist, the questions Sema and Bedirhan’s adventures raise about consciousness, communication, and closeness across distance are highly relevant to Demirtaş’s philosophy of both literature and politics. Unfortunately, Demirtaş is neither the first nor the last public figure to write from prison. Yet from the confines of his cell, he is able to plumb the depths of his memories and imagination to bring us this polyphony of stories and voices. Similarly, Demirtaş the man and the politician may be inaccessible to us, but just as creating literature gives him a window into the outside world, it provides us with a window into his internal world.
Is there a political message to Leylan? The books makes frequent allusions to recent events as well as a few moments of unfortunately bombastic political rhetoric. Yet what is most political about the book is no particular argument but this philosophy of literature in itself: the opening of two-way communication, the search for what is common, connection across distance.
What Demirtaş’s character Bedirhan says of life is just as true of literature: “While trying to give meaning to life, we sometimes forget life itself. While fighting for a meaningful life, we often instrumentalize [it]. What Leylan strives for is an aesthetics and politics of mutuality—something as simple as a letter from an absent friend.