Sevgi Soysal’s Liberation of the Mind

Sevgi Soysal’s Liberation of the Mind

The Mind of a Materialist

Sevgi Soysal’s novel of post-1971 Turkey. 


In 1971, the Turkish novelist Sevgi Soysal found herself in prison. The charges? Obscenity, communism, and losing her ID. The first two were beyond dispute: The candor of her fiction, alongside her (complicated) commitment to communism, challenged the country’s conservative mores. But the last charge remains apocryphal. During an argument between friends, she apparently bellowed the word yeter (“enough!”) so loudly that it drew the attention of the police. With martial law in effect, “enough!” was enough to be mistaken for political protest. The police booked her, nominally for not producing an identification card, and she was soon shipped off to the Yildirim region’s Women’s Ward.

In the years leading up to her arrest, scandalous works with subtle titles (Aunt Rosa, 1969; Walking, 1971) had won Soysal quiet admirers within the Turkish literary establishment. But the incident—one of the consequences of the March 12, 1971, military “coup by memorandum”—was thought likely to torpedo her chances of wider success. Rather than stalling her literary ascent, however, the eight months she spent in prison only provided more ballast for the work that would follow. In prison, Soysal wrote six pages a day between breakfast and the exercise period. Three years later, a free Soysal cobbled those pages into Noontime in Yenişehir (1974), which assured Soysal’s place in the Turkish literary pantheon. The novel is notable for its modernist innovations, namely a roving, ever-shifting stream of consciousness seemingly inspired by forebears like Virginia Woolf. With each chapter, Noontime features a new narrator and new perspective on a theme both classically modernist and specific to the young Turkish Republic: the clash of generations. Pitting mothers against daughters, fathers against sons, the novel explores the tensions, both quiet and loud, that were produced when Ottoman and Republican attitudes collided.

Soysal improved upon Noontime in Yenişehir’s cubist mosaic of characters in Dawn, a novel published just one year later. Expertly translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely—who has introduced the English-speaking world to Orhan Pamuk, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, and Sabahattin Ali as well—Dawn also convenes a multitude of voices but refines Soysal’s sense of narrative experimentation. Unfolding across three parts, the novel documents a harrowing evening from the perspective of a zealous young revolutionary named Oya, following an interrogation by the Adana police. The first part of the novel is told more or less from her point of view, but subsequent sections present her through the eyes of comrades dismissive of her efforts to raise class consciousness—and her gender. The novel’s final section spotlights the inner workings of the police state, following the interrogators who attempt to quash the dissent of Oya and her cohort. Spliced with graphic scenes of violence—and the gallows humor of the imprisoned—the evening gradually undoes everyone’s firmly held convictions. By the end of the novel, Oya turns over the scars she’s accumulated through a young life in activism, while her captors wax introspective as well: Oya only escapes after her interrogator decides to interrogate the validity of his own cause.

The novel proposes that any account of a revolutionary period of history, such as the post-coup chaos of 1970s Turkey, requires equally revolutionary artistic methods. Through its variety of perspectives, it provides a narration for the way that different characters grapple with a significant pause in their lives—a pause not unlike the one Soysal experienced herself in 1971. Armed with the most dangerous weapon of all—time spent alone with one’s thoughts—and nudged to new conclusions by virtue of their proximity to new ideas, even the novel’s most engagé of revolutionaries begin to entertain doubts. These doubts, however, reflect less of a loss of political faith during a period of ideological ferment than they do a fundamental inner reckoning.

In 1936, Sevgi Yenen was born in Turkey to a German mother and a Greek father. Though she was born in Istanbul, she spent most of her life in Ankara, the country’s capital, where she enjoyed a cultured upbringing and attended an elite secondary school. She took an interest in fine arts, juggling dance, piano, and even tennis lessons. Her ambition to become a writer started early as well; she told an interviewer before her death in 1976 that she wrote her first stories at age 8. Her precocity followed a familiar logic:

One, [I wrote to] attract my mother’s attention who satisfied all my needs but stared at me with empty eyes; two, the jealousy towards my father—because my mother would write love poems for my father as if she was talking to herself—brought me to the idea of writing poetry. However, annoying relatives got involved. They made me recite poetry here and there. My being a poet ended as quickly as it began.

While her home life was decidedly bourgeois and peaceful, if at times emotionally stressful, Soysal grew up in the wake of a period of historic political, social, and cultural change in Turkey. During the decade prior to her birth, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk modernized the country through a process of westernization: In the 1920s, the new Turkish Republic adopted the Latin script, Gregorian calendar, and French secularism, banning the fez and discouraging the headscarf along the way. Freely begins her preface to Dawn by saying that Atatürk “put women at the epicenter of his modernizing vision,” but she also acknowledges that “his authoritarian single-party regime saw no need for women to organize on behalf of women.” Inheritor of these rapid social changes, but sensing she could push them still further, Soysal expanded the limits of what was conceivable—what was imaginable—through the very life she lived.

That life was shaped by fearless, if turbulent, exchanges with new people, cultures, and politics. In 1955, after marrying the poet Özdemir Nutku, she traveled to Germany to study archeology—the subject of her undergraduate studies—as well as theater at the University of Göttingen. Upon her return to Ankara, she began to translate stage plays while working for Turkish Radio and Television. (She would go on to translate Kafka, Rilke, and Brecht into Turkish). In 1962, she self-published her first work of fiction—an existentialist short-story collection called Passionate Fringe—before leaving Nutku for an actor she met while performing at a small theater in Ankara. There she crossed paths with a law professor named Mumtaz Soysal. This union, too, would be star-crossed: as soon as they married, the 1971 coup took place. As Dawn recounts, many leftist writers and intellectuals were thrown in jail in its aftermath. First they came for Mumtaz—whom she officially married in the Mamak prison—and then Soysal herself. Just five years later, she died of cancer at age 40, after briefly receiving treatment in London.

More so than her family, travels, or relationships, prison was the formative experience of Soysal’s life. Her sentence led directly to the publication of Noontime in Yenişehir, Dawn, and Yildirim District Women’s Barracks. These works, autobiographical in character, inaugurate a shift in her aesthetic. Whereas her earlier work lingered on external experience—Walking, for example, examines relationships between young people of the opposite sex, while Aunt Rosa fictionalizes her aunt’s series of misfortunes—imprisonment turned her gaze irrevocably inward, prompting her mind, for better or worse, to investigate itself.

Oya is alone in her jail cell, and her thoughts make for bad company. The anarchist “nest” she visited earlier that night was busted. Whisked to the police station, she hears demands for information and threats of violence. (Also, some humor: “What did you hear, god damn it?” one police officer asks the other. “One of them…one of them was talking about the bourgeoisie, sir…”) With that, Oya’s life—already upended by sundry revolutionary commitments—becomes unmoored once more. Before her arrest, she fretted about improving the material conditions of the proletariat. After, her mind spins in loops that soon take center stage:

Better not to think at all, she tells the walls. But because it has always been her habit to probe every situation from every angle both before it has happened and after, she knows she can’t stop herself. Even if she knows full well that it serves her no purpose here. She just needs to stay focused. Fix her eyes on the here and now. Face whatever she has to face. Keep her mind from straying beyond these limits. She must use that mind to get herself through this, to keep herself strong.

The imperative mood of these sentences betrays how little control she has over her inner life. The novel’s granular descriptions of her tortured consciousness represents an achievement for Turkish modernism—and real anguish for this character. Oya thinks so much that she even forgets she has a body. “Same absent-minded Oya,” she tells herself. Finding the situation unbearable, “she longed to make a shell for her thoughts and climb inside.” She’s not the only one: Others in her anarchist collective walk the streets to calm themselves, hoping that they might “stop themselves thinking, to breathe new life into their cramped quarters, to escape the stranglehold of monotonous routine, to crack the damn shell, just in time to keep the joy inside from dying.” With life on hold, prison unleashes the cacophony of their minds. As the novel progresses, these interior battles become more and more the main event.

Indeed, for all its talk of communism and materialism, Dawn seriously entertains a strain of philosophical idealism. While its characters yearn to uplift the collective material prosperity of workers, they seek, above all, what Descartes called rules for the direction of the mind. Dawn swiftly becomes a meditation on meditations, its inner monologues zeroing in on the wandering movement of consciousness itself. Unlike in Noontime in Yenişehir, in which the individual characters get distinct chapters for their interior monologues, Dawn’s streams of consciousness are strikingly fluid, one mind’s thoughts bleeding into the next. It’s sometimes difficult to know who is speaking. In the novel’s occasional confluence of voices, the stirrings of a common mental consciousness reflect the stirrings of a common class consciousness.

Thus, while Milton once called the mind a place of its own, Soysal recounts how minds under strain seek to connect with those of others. Though a minor character jokes that “parapsychologists…[have] established that two people in two different places can communicate by brainwaves,” Dawn is, to be sure, not invested in the esoteric. Instead, the novel’s omniscient, nosy narrator best captures its interest in other minds. This narrator periodically drifts into the first-person “I” of its various protagonists before subtly making an exit. Take one example from the novel’s middle section:

She’s sure now they’ll release her in the morning. All they want is to ruffle her feathers for a while. Having brought her this far. So why did I fly off the handle like that? I was close to committing an offense. I’m so inexperienced.… She notices that her eyes keep returning to the truncheon sitting on the table across from her.

Moving from a third-person omniscient perspective to Oya’s first-person and back—all within a few sentences—the passage characterizes the subtle unity of consciousness that courses through the novel. These exchanges in point of view reflect the novel’s interest in how ideas are trafficked, exchanged, and mutated through much more conventional conversations between characters. While Oya’s conversion to idealism may appear surprising, it almost becomes a refrain: “She must live by her ideas,” the narrator says. But as she lives out those ideas, Oya chooses neither solipsism nor solitude, but instead a different sort of mentality that integrates the communal ethos of her old life: “[Oya] wants to stay connected. Work with others.

Taking us beyond Orhan Pamuk’s cosmopolitan Istanbul, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar’s melancholy satire of modernization, or Sabahattin Ali’s sweet sorrows, Freely’s translation of Dawn marks a new chapter for Turkish literature in the (English-speaking) world. Sevgi Soysal elucidates how the turbulent political battles of 1970s Turkey fashioned an intimate citizenship within the confines of their minds, revealing how political tumult happens both individually and collectively.

Yet, as the novel indexes a period of political instability in Turkey through its experimental form, it asks a much older question that exceeds its local context, namely: What is the relationship between literature and politics? Or more boldly—between literature and revolution? Dawn’s very existence compels this line of questioning. What role did Soysal imagine for a political novel like hers in 1970s Turkey? Is “engaged” art viable, or even useful, in light of a military coup? Oya wavers. “What use will beautiful sentences do for me in here?” she asks in the cell. “Here I am again, turning life into literature,” she thinks, conflating reality and fiction instead of harnessing the latter to revitalize the former.

But if her evening of questioning sours her on belletrism, it also teaches her the importance of the way she perceives the world and those she shares it with. To survive, she must discipline the mind. While that discipline eludes her by the end of the novel, the insight alone is key. For it enables her to go beyond the distinction between life and art that causes her so much suffering. Instead, by the novel’s end, Soysal offers us two paths to liberation. One route seeks material prosperity for the workers it salutes. The other reminds us that economic questions mean nothing if we lack lucid minds with which to perceive them. When material and ideal questions collide in Oya’s mind, a breakthrough takes place. She notices how inner life leads to outer life; that interiority begets exteriority. In the process, she adds a corollary to the well-known line from Marx: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” To change the world, she reminds us, you first have to see it clearly.

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