We recently asked the early contributors to the Polity of Literature series to tell us about projects or persons or places that make them believe a “polity of literature” is real and can be found here and now. Duygu Erbil, a scholar of literature and activism at Utrech University (who earlier wrote for us about the American Prison Writing Archive), found one example in an anonymous Turkish group of “prison-associated artists and writers” called Görüşeceğiz (a salutation prisoners use, meaning we will see each other again). Görüşeceğiz posts writing and art by prisoners using a variety of online platforms. Presenting the old and canonical alongside the new and unvetted—while also performing as anonymous hosts who model a kind of general appreciation for every act of expression, every disclosure in what is a decidedly egalitarian “space of appearance”—Görüşeceğiz maintains the pluralism that is necessary for a polity. If this is “literature,” then Görüşeceğiz is a functioning Polity of Literature.
Görüşeceğiz thus forces the question, can “literature” exist without a hierarchy? Can there be literature apart from designations of “good” or “bad,” “high” and “low,” or “necessary” versus “disposable?” To enter a polity we must leave our hierarchies at the door. If Görüşeceğiz can teach us how to read and write together—without always talking about our tastes—maybe it can give us a living Polity of Literature, here and now.
I received my sentimental education reading prison literature. Many of us who read in Turkish have—in part anyway—and it’s not a new thing. If you think about it, most readers of so-called World Literature have also studied the work of a lot of cons and ex-cons: from Dostoyevsky’s jail-house humanism to Jean Genet’s queer sensibilities. But it’s slightly different in Turkey, the historic capital of political prisoners, where incarceration has been considered a rite of passage for authors for a very long time. A canonical book of poetry from 1973, Tutuklunun Günlüğü [A Prisoner’s Diary], by Attilâ İlhan, called imprisonment the “two-hundred-year-long fate of the Turkish intellectual.”
Long before Selahattin Demirtas, the currently incarcerated co-leader of the left-wing political party, HDP, became a celebrated (and widely translated) prison writer, the Turkish intelligentsia had embraced and largely defined the category of prison writing. The tradition is now being recalled and developed by an anonymous collective of prison-associated Turkish writers called Görüşeceğiz. Not that we need any reminders. In Turkey we never forget prison writing. But the deep tradition of prison writing is gaining new meanings and a new function as contemporary cultural production in Turkish prisons alters a time-worn script.
Görüşeceğiz was formed recently, starting a twitter account in May 2021. The name comes from the phrase that prisoners commonly use to end their letters: we will see each other again. I could find little information about the group, except that they describe themselves as “prisoner friends and relatives” who share prison art and literature on social media, and depend on “word of mouth,” in part to preserve the anonymity necessary to continue functioning. They do function, at least for now, and I am not interested in who they actually are. The complexities that push prison activists into anonymity are not confounding. What interests me as a reader of prison writing is the fact that they have, in a truly amateur spirit, bracketed all questions of “good” vs. “bad” literature and placed the canonical authors of Turkey alongside anonymous inmates who have no (or limited) readership. Görüşeceğiz’s modus operandi is quite simple and does not involve any institutionalizing methodology: they collect art and writing produced in prisons through friends and friends-of-friends, and then post it on their social media accounts, where they also share prison writing from “old masters,” whom they commemorate.
In this act of commemoration—this mobilization of cultural memory in activism—contemporary prison writing is framed as the legitimate offspring of a canonical Turkish literature. A continuum is implied between those whom everybody reads and those who are hidden from everybody. What interests me, as someone who studies the relationship between cultural memory and activism, is whether or not this implied continuum has the potential to shape prison writing in Turkish prisons into a “polity of literature,” where readers, “old masters,” and new authors all come together as equals. I find the question difficult to answer.
Görüşeceğiz transmits prison writing directly; no editing is involved. They either transcribe and upload the writing themselves, or they post links to published work from prisoners (usually from very small publishing houses) with a brief summary or explanation. If it’s a short piece, as with poetry, they sometimes circulate the text as an image on Twitter. If it’s longer they use other platforms. For a while they used Wattpad, but recently switched to JustPaste.it, an ad-free text-sharing platform that promises better privacy and anonymity. Currently, very few people read what they share. When I was reading their Wattpad posts the views per piece ranged between 2 and 27. My first question (because I didn’t know how view-counts work on Wattpad) was, Does that “two” include me? And swiftly following that question: Is this a failure?
What is the point of putting effort into this project if a story is only going to be read by two people? I became curious who that other reader was and why they read the piece. But then, why did I read it? I could obscure my motivations behind the handy fact that this is my job—I’ve been hired to write about Görüşeceğiz for this series. But my job, which is to say all the professional subject positions I’m paid to take—that of researcher, critic, teacher, etc. (call it déformation professionnelle)—makes it difficult to hold, let alone indulge, the incredulous hopes that animate my real engagement with literature, that precarious belief in what Derek Attridge describes as “encountering the other” (see also Anna Poletti’s “Six Contracting Theses on Literature in the Polity of Literature”). Could I read Görüşeceğiz this way? My earlier, related engagement with writing in the American Prison Writing Archive had a well-defined political motivation—to bear witness, decolonize, and decarcerate literacies, via this intimate encounter with the other. But I’m skittish about bringing the same desires to bear when reading prison writing in my mother tongue, Turkish. And the reason for that is codified in long-established metrics of aesthetic value measuring prison writing in Turkey.
The story I know begins soon after the 1971 Turkish military memorandum that the people of Turkey call “March 12.” It involves Marxist-Leninist militants and cultural actors on trial (the so-called ’68ers), their incarceration, their prison testimonies, and the disapproving literary elite (also occasionally incarcerated), whose aesthetic ideals for prison literature still shape the Turkish discussion of literature and politics today.
Prison-Literature-Politics: 50 years ago
To briefly recall the standard sketch offered by Demet Lüküslü, the Turkish ‘68 Movement began with student protests aimed at reforming the universities then quickly evolved into a revolutionary movement because of Turkey’s geopolitical position in the Cold War. Turkey was a NATO ally neighbouring the Soviet Union, and had obligations to stand against Soviet expansion because of its treaty agreements. In the revolutionary language of the time, Turkey was a tool of U.S. imperialism. The protests turned violent in response to attacks by right-wing groups and riot police, and many students were radicalized. An iconic and telling instance of this shift came during protests against Robert Komer, or “Blowtorch Bob,” who was appointed as the U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, thanks to his “success” in Vietnam, and whose car was set on fire by students protesting his visit to their campus at the Middle East Technical University. Some Leftist students joined the Palestine Liberation Organization to receive guerrilla training (you may be familiar with other, more famous iterations of this story, such as the case of Ulrike Meinhof’s Red Army Faction in West Germany). Several of the radicalized students (including Deniz Gezmiş, who is the subject of my PhD study) formed guerrilla groups committed to armed resistance.
In scholar Charles Tilly’s terms, the 1968 “brawls” among Leftists and right-wing students turned into “coordinated destruction” by both sides during 1969 and 1970. On March 12, 1971, the Turkish military intervened (for the second time in Turkey’s young history) in a “coup by memorandum,” imposing military law and order by decree. Historian E.J. Zürcher characterized it as, in the Cold War spirit of the time, “the high command…mesmerized by the spectre of a communist threat” (Zürcher, 1993, p.258). On April 27 the newly formed National Security Council proclaimed martial law in 11 provinces and a witch-hunt was launched in the guise of an anti-terror campaign, targeting Leftist intelligentsia (Zürcher, 1993, p. 259). Thousands of people with left-wing affiliations were arrested and held in prisons and secret torture chambers. The so-called “March 12 wards” became a seed for the generalized carceral state that Turkey would soon become. Under martial law the mass media became a channel for announcing custody lists and search warrants while the weft and warp of day-to-day Turkish society was ruptured by the broad shift to incarceration. The 1976 prison memoir of celebrated Turkish writer Sevgi Soysal, Yıldırım Area Women’s Ward, offers an eloquently mediated memory of the March 12 era. She writes:
Every night people were hunted in Ankara, every night houses were raided. Houses were patrolled. One that accidentally went to the patrolled house was then taken to somewhere unknown [. . .] Houses and police stations got mixed in Ankara. Friends and the police, acquaintance and the informant were muddled.
Her gece insan avlanıyordu Ankara’da, her gece evler basılıyordu. Evlerde karakollar kuruluyordu. Karakol kurulan eve rasgele giden de bilinmedik yerlere götürülüyordu. Kimse kimsenin evine rasgele gidemez olmuştu. Evlerle karakollar karışmıştı Ankara’da. Dostlarla polisler, tanışlarla muhbirler karışmıştı birbirine. (2013, p. 75)
Insiders and Outsiders (and the Politics of Literature)
“Actually, March 12 literature is an elegy,” argues literary critic A. Ömer Türkeş in his encyclopedia entry on the novels of the Left in the 8th volume of Political Thought in Modern Turkey: The Left (2007, p.1060). His claim for the centrality of mourning in Turkish literary production after the coup of March 12, 1971, voices a consensus among mainstream Leftist literary critics since the 1970s: the writings from that struggle, and especially the prison writings, were elegiac. The other shoe drops with the party-line belief that “it’s not useful for the revolution” to mourn defeats nor to represent the revolutionaries as passive victims of state violence—therefore, March 12 literature is not “good literature.” Prison writing produces false consciousness. Insistent mourning and repeated commemoration of past political defeats must have seemed disspiritingly sentimental, a cultural constraint that the Marxists despised. For these critics (who acted as tastemakers dominating the cultural field that they themselves had defined), literary production should take realist forms depicting and analysing the socio-historical conditions of the time. An analytical mode of writing was preferable to elegiac forms. Accordingly, Türkeş also claimed that the genre of criticism provided “the most correct and clear analysis” of March 12 (2007, p.1061), dismissing the elegiac writing as the work of “outsiders” trying to claim the revolutionary movement and a handful of favoured revolutionaries for their Kemalism (a nationalist movement named for the founding figure of the secular Turkish state, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who shaped the nation in 1923).
The dismissal of prison writing as “elegiac” played out in prominently published debates among Turkey’s Leftist critics. A number of important distinctions were made, adding nuance to the accepted framework for reading prison writing. Among these was academic and literary critic Murat Belge’s distinction between “insiders” and “outsiders.” Originally published in February 1976, in the journal Birikim, Belge’s seminal article “March 12 Novels,” claimed that in an era of mass incarceration, there is an imposed divide between those “inside” of prisons and those “outside.” If the “insiders” are revolutionaries, he explains, the “outsiders” are the people—the reading public—and it is the job of the March 12 novelists to tell the outsiders about the insiders (2012, p.115). Belge reasons that the novelists need to be “close” to the insiders (by being “inside the movement,” essentially) but not necessarily inside the prison itself (ibid.). Imprisonment alone does not de facto make one a perceptive writer about “the inside.” Being incarcerated was not a consecration; the true “insider” of the revolutionary movement also had to analyze the socio-political conditions through a Marxist analytical gaze.
Conspicuously, the contestation over who was an insider of this literary field was also contestation over who was a true revolutionary. Another article by Belge published two months later situated Marxist critical praxis on the “inside,” and a sentimental attachment to the movement on the “outside.” Elegies, mourning the death of revolutionaries, and commemoration were thus “outside” practices, even when they came from inside the prison (Belge 2012, pp.140-150). At the centre of this discussion is the question of remembrance. Belge parallels the then-popular slogan “do not forget March 12,” with the Christian “memento mori,” which he translates as “do not forget death” (p.140), accusing the defeated revolutionaries of copying past struggles they’d been taught about and learned to revere in books (p.142). His grievance unsurprisingly resonates with the much-quoted passage of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte by Marx: “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” The ideal socialist should be involved in Marxist critique, not commemorating the past; “Marxist rationalism” should not be paralyzed by “‘revolutionary’ sentimentality” (p.148). Note the scare quotes.
The drama of the Turkish Left has always been its “true” and “false” revolutionaries, a restless game that is beyond the scope of my essay. But clearly the link they made between elegy and false consciousness continues to colour our expectations of literature. It structures the way we read (or don’t read) prison writing in Turkey. Thus, the tastemakers of the past find their way between the reader (me) and the prisoner/writer, to claim that these often weepy, sentimental writings aren’t worth reading. Having studied Judith Butler I can engage the fight by bringing to it a “politics of mourning.” I believe in grief, not as a privatizing, individualizing affect but as a political force that can “bind us to others, transport us, undo us, implicate us in lives that are not our own” (Butler, Precarious Life, p. 25). Butler’s “politics of mourning” is writ large in the “ideologically impure,” or “confused” accounts of the imprisoned, tortured, and murdered revolutionary youths of the 1970s, and it can still be read, for example in Görüşeceğiz, if we leave the search for (and censure of) “elegy” behind.
A more nuanced and accommodating approach to prison writing and the “March 12” literature was to read it as a form of testimony (Günay-Erkol 2011; Toker 2014). A growing interest in memory studies in Turkey in the 2010s provoked a movement beyond measuring “literary value” to analyzing the memorialization of social trauma and state violence via autobiographical—or more precisely, testimonial—literature. Prison writing can be valid as testimonial literature; thus, the position of the “witness-author” who resists the systematic erasure of memory can be read without measuring it against literary ideals (Toker 2014, pp.48-50). As feminist literary scholar Çimen Günay-Erkol (2016) put it, the “mainstream (and unsurprisingly male-stream) critics of the March 12 novels, such as Berna Moran, Murat Belge, Fethi Naci, Ahmet Oktay, and Ömer Türkeş seem to overlook that March 12 novels stand for a dynamic refraction rather than a static reflection of history” (p.14). Hence, the new critical lens repositioned March 12 authors as “eyewitnesses to the throes of the political chaos” (Günay-Erkol 2016, p.7), instead of dismissing their victim narratives as “bad literature.” Notably, such a lens brings prison writing into focus as an egalitarian space, and potentially a polity of literature.
Prison-Literature-Politics: 50 years later
Why did I tell this complicated story? Because the tradition of that not-so-dead generation of literary critics weighs on me like a nightmare. I turn to Görüşeceğiz to enter a polity of equals, yet the past shouts me down. Indeed, even Görüşeceğiz gives voice to the past, when they commemorate the “old masters” alongside the new, and by recirculating some of the tropes of “March 12” literature. The Twitter account of Görüşeceğiz doesn’t only commemorate the old martyrs but also “Gezi martyrs” (showing the beadwork of prisoners that commemorate the losses of the Istanbul uprisings of 2013) and the “martyrs of the Suruç massacre” (when they post a commemorative poem by Figen Yüksekdağ, who served alongside Selahattin Demirtaş as the co-leader of HDP). It’s worth remembering that Selahattin Demirtaş published her first poetry book in prison, where editorial evaluation was done by other women in the high security F-type prison who had received the poem’s drafts as “kites,” or in their F-type specific version, “balls,” thrown into the air, over the walls of the isolated exercise yards to reach the other prisoners. Political sentimentality in prison writing persists, even among those who resist, and it is still policed by critics and publishers who revive the “prison literature” debate time and time again.
The policing of literature begins long before censorship, and is by no means solely imposed by authoritarians. Any institutional form of production, dissemination, and circulation is a means of policing to varying degrees. Take for instance the question of recognizing a piece of writing as “refugee literature.” Matthew Stadler’s earlier essay for this series observed:
It really doesn’t matter what the writers think they’re doing—to become legible their compositions must conform enough with the frameworks of reading that they’re widely shared and talked about. Further, whatever aspects of their writing do not conform will prove hard to discuss, and probably be dismissed as flaws or shortcomings. Add the filters of professional editing and publishing, plus the market’s relentless needs, and it’s not surprising to find a recognizable form common to all the refugee books.
The recognizability of the refugee book depends on the extent to which it conforms to laws across multiple jurisdictions: the law of genre, the laws of the market, and moral laws being the most prominent. The same is true of prison writing, as the long struggle over canons and quality in Turkey’s “prison literature” shows. Now Görüşeceğiz pressures a handful of related questions to the forefront of our attention—Who are the legitimate arbiters of “literature?” And what if there aren’t any? What if Görüşeceğiz simply is literature?
Choosing boils down to the question of self-image and the subject positions one adopts: am I going to read with authority and pass aesthetic judgments on “literature,” thus maintaining its value as a cultural coin; or will I suspend my aesthetic and moral judgment along with my disbelief? Any polity requires us to leave our heirarchies at the door. Whether suspension of judgment is naiveté, a rational cognitive process, moral ascendence, or an ethical practice depends on your readerly subject position. Mine is a combination of a hard won, professional literacy—my ability to discern—and an adventurous generosity towards the writer who invites me into an encounter about which I’m ignorant—the other. This can make me a bit socially awkward.
In The Singularity of Literature, Derek Attridge reminds us “Not all works will have something to offer to a reader’s openness to alterity [otherness], of course, but when one does, mechanical and instrumental interpretation is complicated by what we may term readerly hospitality, a readiness to have one’s purposes reshaped by the work to which one is responding.” It is this readerly hospitality that, despite some social awkwardness, leads me to encounter the other, to let myself be affected and subjectified differently, without recourse to any heirarchy of value. How strange to find that literature—as defined in this series, that is as a polity—is precisely and only an encounter with writing and reading free from imposed heirarchies. If literature is a polity, maybe Görüşeceğiz is what literature looks like.
The anonymous author of the founding essay in this series, “Potatoes or Rice,” situates literature as a site of politics and speaks of one basic condition for making literature a polity, which is equality: “A polity is born in the decision to leave inequality behind and gather together as equals. It collapses whenever power congeals, or when purpose arises to designate a better or ‘best’ outcome. A polity exists only in the doing, in the open-ended enactment of conflict among equals.” A polity, then, exists in the act of not reading like a corrections officer.
But we were taught to read like corrections officers. It’s strangely easy for me to imagine myself with a stamp in my hand and a bunch of pages in front of me: this is “literature”, this is “bad literature”, this is “good literature.” To judge prison literature I conjure a position of authority based on my academic qualification. I measure a piece of writing against the canon that I studied for many years. Surely my authority is worth at least the price-tag of my education? And then I buttress my self-image of skilled, authoritative reading with the taste I inherited from literary gatekeepers. Yet I would prefer not to. Refusing to read like a corrections officer begins by discerning a new variety of critical literacy, empathetic acts of engaged reading that replace “judgment” with delight or boredom, and then practicing it.
Görüşeceğiz can show us how, and it begins by placing the “old masters” of prison literature right alongside unvetted prison writers, so that we begin to recognize their literature, as such. The administrators of the service follow through with nuanced positioning that helps the nervous researcher find her feet in the flat ground of this egalitarian space. One example was in a Tweet on August 31 this year, announcing a new story by R.Meral Turmuş from Bakırköy Women’s Closed Penitentiary. Görüşeceğiz commented that when they read the story it reminded them of Aziz Nesin, a canonical author, a socialist humorist whose attempt to translate and publish The Satanic Verses, has been considered the trigger for the 1993 Sivas massacre that targeted Alevis, another wounded memory in Turkey’s history. The Tweet continues: “let’s see what is going to come to your mind when you read it.” Though it seems like a familiar social media tactic to ignite engagement, the self-conscious reference operates differently. As far as I could tell, nobody replied to the rhetorical question; but as I read it, I said yes, this resembles something Aziz Nesin would write: literature. The commentator’s aside rendered it legible as such. One could also answer, “this is not remotely comparable to Aziz Nesin, the great master,” sure, and this is what I mean by reading like a corrections officer. The difference is between being hostile and being hospitable in the face of alterity—the unfamiliar, the not-edited-for-legibility, the raw writing of the normal citizens of literature.
Görüşeceğiz has plenty of writing by “normal” people (those who became writers in prison) and it’s impossible to contain their growing collection of prison writing within recognizable genre categories. However, there is one quality common to all prison writing: unlike “outside” literature, every prison narrative comes with a home address—it is epistolary, a letter from inside the prison sent to the outside. Sent as a letter, it also invites a reply. The scholar of letters and Feminist sociologist Liz Stanley calls this, “epistolary intent.” Görüşeceğiz will include the author’s prison address with every new piece. Epistolary intent—the affirmation that literature is collective—is one lesson that the prison writers of Görüşeceğiz teach us, the outsiders, when they do this.
By reading we enter the confined and isolated author’s sociality, constituted by the promise of “görüşeceğiz”—that is, one day we will meet. I cannot guess the longevity of Görüşeceğiz. It might have disappeared already. I can’t tell if they’ll ever extend their reach, or want to. But it is what prisoners call a “kite,” or a “ball,” thrown or flown into the air to reach the outside. We can pick it up and play with it, pass it on to others, or leave it there for someone else to find. Why judge or condemn it? Why declare “this is not a ball” when I can shout “catch?”
This is perhaps the unique affordance of Görüşeceğiz and their amateurism. They don’t stake claims on what literature is—they simply make it possible for outsiders to glimpse the stories told inside of Turkish prisons. Some don’t sound very “literary;” some have syntactic issues; and some are too sentimental for me. But who knows what other readers see in the stories that I don’t “like,” the ones not to my taste. In the end, one or two will stake a claim on my subjectivity, and that’s plenty. Collectively, by attending to what Görüşeceğiz passes on to us, by recognizing ourselves in others (inside or outside) together in a polity, we bring a polity into being.
Beware the glow of generosity I’ve cast over this offering, my kind invitation into a game of “catch” that might help the imprisoned writer enter a polity across prison walls. The polity I’m talking about, the one that I both seek and propose, is as arrogant and self-serving as, for instance, the division between “good” and “bad” prison literature imposed by the party-line critics of March 12. Who gets to impose these divisions, or say that we’ll stop imposing them all together? In “Six Contracting Theses” Anna Poletti writes:
Sometimes studying literature involves reading people who don’t think of themselves as Writers of literature. When I do this (and I do), I’m sometimes recruiting people into a polity of literature without their knowledge or consent. I hand them a membership to a community they have not asked for.
What arrogance authorizes me to do this?
It is the arrogance of The Reader who has been enchanted and changed by the thing they read.
While arrogance helps us claim the conjuring power—to say “welcome to this polity of literature, please, make yourself at home”—that act leads directly to the tempering of our authority, or else the polity will vanish. To sustain a polity we relinquish power over to the collective of writers and readers. It’s the only way we can read. While the classroom insists that only critics and academics can teach us how to read, the polity of prison writing puts the same power squarely in the hands of the prisoners. Their writing teaches us, “this is a ball, catch; this is how it is made; this is how you throw one back; and this is what happens when you do…” Their writing and our reading birth a sociality for “the socially dead” through our belonging in a polity of literature.
In an earlier PoL piece I wrote: “One of the ways that the dehumanization of prisoners occurs is by assuming that they do not have an aesthetic culture…Decarceration at the level of the text, and as a reading practice, starts by learning to read these forms of writing without reshaping them to fit our expectations.” In the same vein, but on refugee literature, Matthew Stadler wrote, “while the stateless whose lives are held captive by this volatile future are learning how to write it, we who are less at risk must learn how to read.” Görüşeceğiz offers us a chance to try.
Stories from Görüşeceğiz on Wattpad
Görüşeceğiz on Twitter
“Turkey’s 1968” by Demet Lukuslu on Verso Books
Article by Aytekin Yılmaz on prison literature (in Turkish)
Interview about prison writing magazine Mahsus Mahal (in Turkish)
Interview with Figen Yuksekdag about his poetry book Yıkılacak Duvarlar (in Turkish)
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