Turkish Literature as World Literature – Book Review

By Simla Dogangun

There has been a drastic change in the traditional conception of world literature in the last two decades: from a space that consists of canonical, high-cultural texts which have traditionally acted as arbiters of literary value, it has transformed into a capitalist-driven nebulous field in which literary works circulate in the same manner as goods do. Once monodirectional, this present unidirectional circulation has made it urgent to focus on the methodological issues that emerge from the global production and dissemination of literary texts, specifically, those coming from the non-West.

The pioneer in the field, David Damrosch’s view on the canon of world literature speaks to the consequences of postcolonial studies, postcolonial literatures and relevant fields. In the tripartite structure he proposes (hypercanon, countercanon and the shadowcanon) the uneven relationship between the hypercanon and the countercanon is a significant issue in terms of discussing the role of the peripheries of the literature. What happens when the alternative voices from the world canon are introduced is that they do not compete with the hypercanon, but they compete with one other. The reason is that the space of the countercanon is limited and only few works get to enter that space and only few of them get to be introduced as world literature.

The countercanon that is supposed to challenge the hypercanon as an alternative voice and its potentiality is subject to discussion particularly when non-Western works get to articulate themselves into this charged space. Threading their work into this circuitous discussion, the editors of Turkish Literature as World Literature situate their work as originating from and focusing on “a geographical and cultural threshold, a transit-space both literally and metaphorically, while introducing a “national” literature in its “world literary-ness.” This approach anticipates the use of the preposition “as” in the title, showing a sense of flow that is marked by a constant state of becoming and a refusal of being categorized exclusively as one thing or another.

As contemporary world literature is increasingly aligned with non-English texts that target transnational appeal and readership, other recently established disciplines, such as translation studies, have come to be integral modes of inquiry in studying how to write and read literature on a global scale. The linguistic difficulty of reading works in very different language groups with adequate understanding, and the solution to that problem puts translation at a critical position in world literature studies.  This brings us to the factors that determine which works are translated and published. If world literature constitutes “writing that gains in translation” (Damrosch), then the modalities of translation and publication assume an equal level of significance in studying national literatures as world literature. In Turkish Literature as World Literature, the editors Burcu Alkan and Cimen Gunay-Erkol point at the ideological impulse that manifests itself in the dynamics of publication and translation of works and claim that the essential access point to world literature is, therefore, complicated because the global literary market operates by way of stereotypes. Works that thematize politics, domestic violence, women’s rights sell better.

Furthermore, when the lack of accessibility in terms of related (peripheral) scholarly discussion is taken into consideration, thinking the role of Turkish literature at the triadic juncture of translation, the countercanon and globalization becomes even more difficult, yet, equally essential. The editors thus pose apt and pertinent questions: How can we examine the multitude of works within the Turkish literary tradition fares in relation to the dynamics” of world literature studies? How can the reconciliation with the reality of building this discussion on Turkish literature in English be made possible in the collection of chapters so that the idea of Turkish literature as world literature may deliver a scholarly circulation? (p. 3). Turkish Literature as World Literature is a timely attempt to lay bare the complexities of discussing Turkish literature in world literary context. The book is also an important intervention in comparative literary studies which have mainly focused on the influence of Western literary tradition on Turkish literature. The Eurocentric vision which is informed by imperialism, and which locates the West as the sole representative of modernity is also at the target of this work as it seeks to foreground the role of Turkish literature (as an agent) and attempts to reverse the direction of literary impact.

To this end, the book is structured around three interconnected concepts that mark the dynamic process of thinking Turkish literature as world literature. Titled as “Breathing Turkish in the World Stage,” Part I centres on the dichotomy of core-periphery and particularly zooms in on literary figures of a period before the birth of modern Turkey and threading them to issues of multilingualism in the Ottoman empire to not only familiarize the readers with the history of late Ottoman-early Republican literature, but also to emphasize the historical specificities of Turkish literature. Fatih Altug and Etienne Charriere tackle the particularities of linguistic pluralism pinpointing, respectively, “the beginnings of Ottoman literary modernity” and the competition among the different languages of the empire behind the Turkish script revolution of 1928. Joseph Twist’s chapter can be read as a nod to this cosmopolitan history. Twist analyzes Zafer Şenocak’s translations of Yunus Emre’s teachings (into German) and aims at taking their influence beyond the Turkish context.

Part II, “Turkish Literature in Transnational Waters”, further expands on literature by putting on Ottoman-Turkish subjects of the empire during the turn of the century in dialogue with their mediators (Casanova) from the centre and peripheries of world literature. The valuable contributions point at the importance of making visible the periphery-periphery dynamics and discuss the ways in which “Turkish literature influenced its counterparts not only in the West but also in the North (the Soviet Union) and the East (India and the Arab world), along the rising tides of nationalism and socialist internationalism” (p. 11). Peter Cherry deals with the harem as a hub of stereotypical images in world literature. He suggests that women’s travelogues (Grace Ellison and Zeyneb Hanim) provide effective examples in clarifying the cultural hegemonies and dynamics between Britain and Turkey. Sima Imsir and Anirudha Dhanawade focus on Halide Edip’s 1935 trip to India to show how the influence of Turkish literature bifurcates into several directions in Asia. The chapters of Mediha Gobenli, Kenan Behzat Sharpe and Mehmet Hakki Sucin focus on Nazim Hikmet and his work and analyze the multifarious ways in which they become “representative of Turkish literature as world literature”.

Titled as “Contemporary Forms and Cosmopolitanism”, Part III connects contemporary works and figures of Turkish literature (such as Orhan Pamuk and Elif Safak) within the context of global neoliberal capital and pinpoints the link between Turkish literature and the world. The four chapters dwell on the multidimensionality of power mechanisms that operate within the world literary system. Using a comparative outlook, Basak Candar takes Orhan Pamuk and Juan Guytisolo as both national and global writers and evaluates them within “the elliptical model of circulation postulated by Damrosch”. Irmak Ertuna Howison locates Pamuk’s work The Museum of Innocence in a pedagogical context and delineates how the book (along with Özge Samancı’s Dare to Disappoint and Marjan Strapi’s Persepolis) can show, in myriad ways, the wider reach of literature in comprehending global issues. Simla Dogangun’s chapter discusses Elif Safak and her two works, The Saint of Incipient Insanities (2004) and The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi (2010) to show the ways in which they speak to relevant issues in world literature and to expose her continued re-positioning in the face of global issues. She argues that Safak’s writing is more in tune with the Zeitgeist, and more conscious of the multidimensionality of power mechanisms that operate in the “World Republic of Letters” and that influence writers’ choices. The last chapter by Kaitlin Staudt turns to literary prizes and institutions and focus on what they entail within the present political and cultural conjuncture of contemporary Turkey that is defined by Ottoman-Islamist policies. Staudt explores how literary prizes in Turkey and in the West are perceived and appreciated differently. She elaborates on how this polarization is reflected in the world literature system (as in the case of Asli Erdogan).

The editors are aware of the possible shortcomings of this book, and they add that due to time, space, and material constraints many names with international reputations have not been included. Nonetheless, as it is a first in its attempt to situate Turkish literature in a broader context, they are optimistic about future collaborative research attempts that will continue. Turkish Literature as World Literature yields important insights into the ways in which national and cosmopolitan attachments converge and become a source of influence in world literary studies.

Alkan and Erkol’s undertaking show us that thinking Turkish literature in relation to the idea of world literature can contribute to world literary studies in different. Most importantly, it can extend the contours of national literary studies and thus prove to be a remedy to the parochialism that pervades comparative literary studies. The essays found in this book bring valuable responses to this issue and deliver a literary perspective on literary scholarship that is open to the world, but one that is not pulled to its centre.


Simla Dogangun is Assistant Professor at Marmara University.

Burcu Alkan is a EUME Fellow 2021–23 at the Forum Transregionale Studien.

Çimen Günay-Erkol is Associate Professor at Ozyegin University.


Citation: Turkish Literature as World Literature – Book Review by Simla Dogangun, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 01.09.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/40494


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