Jail can be a spur for creativity. Jawaharlal Nehru wrote “The Discovery of India,” a monumental 600-page history of the subcontinent, while imprisoned by the British from 1942 to 1946. Around the same time, Nazım Hikmet wrote Turkey’s greatest poetic work of the 20th century, “Human Landscapes from My Country,” while serving a 28-year sentence.
Selahattin Demirtaş, the co-chair of Turkey’s Kurdish issue-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), has been in jail since his arrest on “terror” charges in November 2016. But he has spent his time inside constructively, with paintings and writings he has produced in his cell occasionally emerging to the outside world. A selection of 12 of Demirtaş’s stories has now been published by the Dipnot publishing house and has just entered its 5th print run, selling over 100,000 copies since appearing in September.
It is a slim, modest book. The atmosphere is quiet and contemplative. The stories contain political content but stay far from agitprop; Demirtaş’s trademark humor is sprinkled throughout but it remains understated. The book is largely made up of realistic scenes and recognizable characters in cities across Turkey – Istanbul, Adana, Isparta. Some of those characters are a little two-dimensional but at its best “Seher” showcases an unaffected, authentic literary voice.
The collection’s title story is a sensitively-handled tale of the “honor killing” of a young girl at the hands of her family. Demirtaş shows literary flair in his neat contrasting of the contented, intimate opening with the unblinkingly grim ending. In “Nazo the Cleaner” (Temizlikçi Nazo) the protagonist is similarly poor but the tone of the story is more light-hearted. The political message is dealt with more heavy handedly as Nazo ends up unjustly in jail. But again Demirtaş shows flair in the recurring motif of Nazo describing people through the cars she imagines them driving.
The book is dedicated to “all murdered women and victims of violence,” and most of the stories center on the trials of struggling women. But the most complete piece, “As Lonely as History” (Tarih Kadar Yalnız), takes a broader perspective. The penultimate piece in the book, and also the longest, it focuses on a husband and wife and the effect of their work on troubled relations with their family. It is delicately judged and perfectly paced, unfolding to reach a quiet but devastating epiphany.
Demirtaş has an ear for dialogue and a talent for conveying a tone over just a few pages. “Ah, Asuman!” is a fine example of atmospheric writing, capturing the intimacy of an early-hours conversation between a bus driver and his student passenger somewhere in Anatolia. Less impressive are the volume’s more directly autobiographical pieces. The book opens with a slightly clichéd reflection in which the author communicates with visiting birds outside his cell, drawing labored parallels with human society. A brief later piece is addressed to the commission charged with monitoring prisoners’ letters to the outside, but this intriguing idea promises more than the author delivers.
But on the whole there is a winning directness to the volume. Demirtaş doesn’t overstretch himself; instead having the confidence to settle for an unfussy, natural simplicity. Would the book have been as successful if its author was not a prominent jailed opposition politician? Undoubtedly not. Does the book have literary merit? Most certainly.
The first hearing of Demirtaş’s trial has finally been set for Dec. 7 and it looks like he will be staying in prison for the foreseeable future. It will be small compensation to his sympathizers and Turkish readers if he is able to produce more literature during the rest of his time in jail.