The Turkish education system’s decades-old flawed approach to the way literature is taught remains the main cause behind low levels of readership, according to author Selim İleri, who is the Writer of Honor of this year’s International Istanbul Book Fair, which starts on Nov. 11.
İleri, who participated in the first Istanbul Book Fair 37 years ago, has told the Hürriyet Daily News that due to this approach, literature has been seen and continues to be seen as a superfluous part of the curriculum.
Q: What is your view on Turkey’s reading culture? There is a general belief that Turks do not read much.
A: It is difficult to talk about big masses of readers. But we focus on the result rather than the cause. Ever since the 1940s, the art of literature has been treated in our education policy purely as a course.
Literature is not explained to students in the context of its direct relationship with life; its interaction with the practices of life. I have had several occasions to talk about it to several education ministers and even though ministers together with other shareholders have jointly agreed to change this approach, the change has never taken place. Rather than taking one work of an author and talking about that novel, students have to learn when that author was born and when he or she wrote the book, etc.
This approach consolidated especially in the 80s and 90s when the tests became multiple choice. Literature was seen and continued to be seen as a superfluous part of the curriculum.
But I have to underline that there is a serious rise in book sales in the course of the past 20-25 years and diversification in terms of book subjects. I think this tells us that the spectrum of the readership has widened.
Q: How do you think this approach toward literature affects the society?
A: It is possible to say that our problems on understanding each other stem from the absence of literature in our lives. A good novel can make you understand others better. A good story or a poem indirectly plays an educational role in putting yourself in others shoes. In the absence of literature, we are not learning how to understand each other.
Q: But in today’s world for instance, social media users are known to restrict themselves to follow people they think have the same lifestyles or are of the same world views. That was also the case in the past in Turkey. People of right-wing political tendency preferred to read authors known to be of right-wing ideology and the same was valid for left wingers.
A: Indeed, for many years there was this ideological polarization in Turkey and authors also belonged to these ideological camps. Few tried to exist by maintaining neutral. The internet is something else and I have little connection with the internet. But I am hearing that people are being lynched via social media.
But I would rather say the ideological divides of the past are no longer valid, especially among youth. I think young readers do not insist that the author they read needs to share their world view.
Q: Do you think it is difficult to be a novelist in Turkey? Or do you think you would have gone through similar experiences had you been born in another country?
A: I personally feel deep gratitude to my country. For the past 50 years, I have only been involved with literature. I could have lost in the beginning. But from day one, the reader held my hand and did not leave it. I earned my living from literature, so I feel I am pretty lucky.
Q: What do you see when you look at the developments in Turkey and in the world?
A: When I was 18, I had confidence that literature could change the world. I thought it could take us to a better, more peaceful and humanist world. The past 50 years have shown me the weapons of life and the weapons of literature are way different; literature does not have the lethal weapons of real life. I no longer think literature can change the world. But what I think now is that even if we address a small number of people with literature, what will change the world will be the approach of this small number of people.
Q: Why have you remained distant to the digital world?
A: I wanted to write a novel about Ottoman Sultan Murad IV. It remained unfinished due to the internet. There were unbelievable differences between the information in the history books I had and that on the internet. There is tremendous information pollution and that scares me.
My friends have insisted I should switch from a typewriter to a computer. It has become very difficult to find typewriter ribbon. I received a brand new computer as a present. For three months, I took courses on learning how to use it. I can switch it on and off and I can write one sentence. But that is it.
“Today is rainy” full stop; the rest did not come. My long sentences were lost. We managed to find the ribbons and I went back to typewriting.
Q: Last week on Nov. 1, on the anniversary of the introduction of the new Turkish alphabet based on the Latin alphabet, we again witnessed the debate over whether or not it was a wise decision. Some criticize it claiming it has cut our ties to our past since we are unable to read Ottoman writing, whereas others praise it, claiming it was thanks to it that we have registered progress in literature and science. What is your view?
A: This is a debate that keeps going and I think it is a rather very unnecessary one. The answer is very simple: We can no longer go back to the old writing. But that does not mean those who want to learn it should not learn it; let them learn it. But those who claim had we known the old writing we could have read everything from the past are wrong. Because they were not printed.
Then, there is always the possibility of reprinting the old writing with the new alphabet. Why is this not being done? I always believe we should look at both sides of a debate.
Q: So you like to remain in the gray area?
A: Completely in the gray area.
Q: But some might criticize you that sometimes certain things are black and white, which requires to take one clear position.
A: In Turkey, the real challenge is to remain in the gray area. Be it a writer, a politician, a musician; the most difficult thing is to choose to remain in the gray area. But I think the gray area is the only exit strategy. But no one wants that exit strategy, they prefer tension and fighting.
Q: But how do you define the gray area? Some can define it as being opportunist and avoiding any risks by taking sides.
A: That is not how I define it. In order to walk towards a peaceful future, we have to make sense out of everything and derive synthesis from all that.
We are both Western and Eastern. We have to accept that first. We need to pursue the absolute synthesis of the East and West.
We can neither turn our back to the West nor deny the East. What I find terrible is that conservatives on one side and those who call themselves progressivists on the other side have this take it or leave it attitude toward one another. That has made us tumble for the last 60 years.