Guide to Turkish literature


Reading the local literature before you go is a good way to get a greater understanding of a destination. This excerpt from Lonely Planet’s Turkey guide takes you through the highlights.

Historically, the Turkish literary tradition consisted of epic poetry passed down orally. During the Ottoman era, highly ritualised and formal divan poetry grew popular. It is only in the last century that Turkey has developed a tradition of novel writing.


The notion of writer as social commentator took off in Turkey in the early 20th century, in the fertile grounds of WWI, the Russian Revolution, the demise of the Ottoman Empire and the blossoming Turkish Republic era. Yaşar Kemal was the first major internationally recognisable Turkish novelist. Memed, My HawkHis Memed, My Hawk is a gut-wrenching insight into the desperate lives of villagers battling land-grabbing feudal lords. Of Kurdish extraction and leftist bent, Kemal has been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature on several occasions, and jailed a number of times for supposed pro-separatist sympathies. Following in the footsteps of the grand old man of Turkish literature is internationally acclaimed author and 2006 Nobel Prize Laureate, Orhan Pamuk. While Kemal’s work focuses on the early decades of the republic and village life in Anatolia, Pamuk tends to wrestle with the weighty issues confronting contemporary Turkey. The Black Book-1In the course of several novels he attracted a growing audience, but he shot to international prominence in 2005 for mentioning the dreaded Armenian tragedy. Pamuk is an inventive prose stylist, sometimes compared to Calvino and Borges. His Black Book is an existential whodunit set in İstanbul and told through a series of florid newspaper columns; while My Name is Red, set in the Ottoman era, is a murder mystery which also delves into Eastern and Western concepts of art. In İstanbul, Memoirs and the City Pamuk ruminates on his complex relationship with the beguiling city.

For some time, the Turkish-French writer Elif Şafak has been attracting an international audience. Her novel, The Flea Palace, is a dense and wordy story of an elegant İstanbul apartment building fallen on hard times. The Flea Palace-1The follow-up, The Bastard of Istanbul, is a coming-of-age saga bristling with eccentric family members and fell foul of Article 301Buket Uzuner is another well-regarded female author. Her prize-winning novel Mediterranean Waltz is an unrequited love story set against the backdrop of civil war. Better yet is her Long White Cloud, Gallipoli, describing the fallout after a New Zealand woman claims a soldier revered as a war hero in Turkey is actually her great-grandfather. Meanwhile, Dear Shameless Death by Latife Tekin is a heady whirl of Anatolian folklore and magic realismIrfan Orga’s autobiographical Portrait of a Turkish Family, set during the late Ottoman/early republican era, describes the collapse of his well-to- do İstanbullu family and its struggle to rebuild (beautifully mirroring the times). It offers a peep into the culture of the hamam, the life of leisure in the Bosphorus yalıs (summer houses) and much more. Another autobiographical novel is Young Turk, an elegant tale related in 13 linked stories, by Jewish-Turkish writer Moris Farhi.

There is a growing trend for foreign writers – expat or otherwise – to set their tales in Turkey. Barbara Nadel writes gripping whodunits, usually set in İstanbul, featuring the chain-smoking, stubbled Inspector Çetin İkmen. Belshazzar's Daughter-1Belshazzar’s Daughter, her first, is one of the best, but the award-winning Dance with Death is an easy and enjoyable read, too. Alan Drew’s first novel, Gardens of Water, looks at contemporary Turkey in the aftermath of the earthquakes of 1999. And long-term Turkophile Jason Goodwin’s mysteries, The Janissary Tree, The Snake Stone and The Bellini Card, feature one of modern literatures more unlikely heroes, an Ottoman eunuch named Yashim.


Turkey’s two most famous poets lived roughly seven centuries apart: the mystic poet Yunus Emre lived in the 13th century and Nazım Hıkmet in the 20th century. Poems of Nazim Hikmet-1Nazım Hikmet is not only Turkey’s greatest poet but also one of the world’s best. Although his work is firmly embedded in Turkey and strongly patriotic, he was also a Communist exiled for his beliefs. His poems written while incarcerated are some of his best. He died and is buried in Russia, and sadly his works are still not allowed to be taught in Turkish schools. The best introduction to his work is Poems of Nazım Hıkmet.

More cultural highlights can be found in the Lonely Planet guide to Turkey guide takes you through the highlights.