Earlier this week, writer Adalet Ağaoğlu died at the age of 91. Ağaoğlu spent nearly 65 years of her life producing plays, stories, novels, and novellas. These works expanded the horizons of Turkish literature and offered commentary on Turkish politics and society that remain deeply relevant today. 

Ağaoğlu is best known for her “Narrow Times” trilogy. The narrative of the first book, Lying Down to Die (1973), is crammed into one hour and twenty minutes that the protagonist Aysel spends in a hotel room. Through this character’s reflections and recollections on her life as a woman and educator, we receive a scathing picture of the contradictions of life in the mid-twentieth-century Turkish Republic. 

The other two books in the trilogy, A Wedding Night (1979) and No (1989) center on the relationship between classes, the connections between Turkish capitalism and the military, and state violence. Ağaoğlu’s generation lived through the three military interventions of 1960, 1971, and 1980. These traumatic historical events created intense repression, particularly against the ascendant left-wing movements of the period. 

“Narrow Times” (Dar Zamanlar) is a powerful way of describing the pressures and traumas of Ağaoğlu’s generation. In an interview with Cansu Çamlıbel, Ağaoğlu once described the republic as a “narrow” or “tight” shirt on Turkish society. In the 1970s, she was one of the first writers to attempt to rip this shirt off. She described her early novels as “laying the Republic out on the surgical table.” She took on certain taboos about Turkey’s approach to westernization and modernization, particularly with regards to how it affected individual lives. 

Though Ağaoğlu long rejected the label of being a “female writer” (why is it that men write literature but women write something called women’s literature?), her works are filled with insights on the specific pressures that the Republic placed on its first and second generation of women. She disliked being made into a symbol, as if her success as a writer only existed to prove how benevolent the state had been towards its female citizens. Her novels showed that the price of women being accepted in public life was giving up their sexuality and even awareness of their own bodies. 

To tell these stories, Ağaoğlu sought out new literary forms. For her, the language of the classic realist novel was too constricting. In works like Summer’s End (1980), she combined past, present, and future and elements of letters, memoirs, and dream narratives to reveal the internal life of a woman living on the Mediterranean coast whose son had been killed in the political violence of the 1970s. 

This approach would come to be known as “postmodern,” though Ağaoğlu always stood aloof from labels of all kinds—whether political or literary. She supported various left-wing movements, from the Labor Party of Turkey (TİP) to the Freedom and Solidarity Party (ÖDP) but refrained from becoming a card-carrying member of either. 

Despite being a fierce defender of left-wing causes, in her life Ağaoğlu made some political moves that led to fierce criticism. In 2010, for example, she supported the constitutional referendum proposed by then-Prime Minister Erdoğan. The referendum asked citizens to vote for or against amendments to the constitution created by the regime of the 1980 military coup. Like Ağaoğlu, some liberal intellectuals and public figures who had lived through this period of violence argued for a position of “Yes, but it is not enough.” In response, they were lambasted by people on the left who were more suspicious of the AKP’s motives and saw the referendum as cover for the government’s further consolidation political power in its own hands. Ağaoğlu herself quickly became disillusioned, losing her hope in the government’s language of change and reform. 

Ağaoğlu’s generation grew up in a different set of “narrow times” than we live in today and the lessons gleaned from these two periods do not always translate easily. Yet her work remains powerful in showing what does remain the same, particularly the political obsession with a single “great man” to rule the nation. Ağaoğlu’s search for a way out of the narrow constraints, whether political or personal, of her own historical moment remains both inspirational and instructive.