When Turkey stepped into the international spotlight as guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2008 with the slogan “Turkey in all its colors,” the country’s publishing sector welcomed the advent of a long-awaited revolution in Turkish publishing history.
Speaking at İstanbul’s historic Cezayir Hall on Tuesday on the impact of cultural policies on publishing as part of a writers’ tour organized by the British Council Turkey with the aim of promoting the country’s tenure as the Market Focus Country for next year’s London Book Fair, Müge Sökmen, the co-founder of Metis Publications, reflected that while Turkey’s publishing industry has come along in leaps and bounds over the past few years, the country still has a long way to go in terms of promoting Turkish literature outside the country, cracking down on piracy and affording their writers the right to freedom of expression.
Sökmen, who was joined on Tuesday by Kenan Kocatürk of the Turkish Publishers Association (TYB) and Münir Üstün of the Printing and Publishing Union (BYB), said that if there was a better understanding of Turkey in all its dimensions and colors then we could all be “speaking the same language.”
“The world is currently reading İstanbul through the eyes of Orhan Pamuk, but English speakers need to experience different perspectives of the city,” Sökmen said adding: “The media give a reductionist snapshot of reality that can be misleading or even manipulating. Literature is important because it is a more difficult medium of writing to contain; it has more colors and diversity. Turks know English literature inside out; however, the British need to get to know Turkish authors as well.”
Reflecting on both the successes and setbacks facing writers, publishers and translators in Turkey today, Kocatürk of the TYB said it is a credit to the passion of those working in the sector and the increased willingness of the government to engage with the industry that great strides have been made in Turkish publishing in the past two years.
“Despite the differing political stances of publishing organizations and unions in Turkey, we have been united in our desire to redefine the vision of publishing in Turkey and raise the profile of Turkish literature abroad,” Kocatürk said, citing the literary translation project, TEDA, as a key development in introducing Turkish authors to a global audience. Figures released at the end of last year indicated that the project has supported over 1,000 translations in 40 different languages since the project was launched in 2005.
While expressing optimism about the government’s FATİH Project, an innovative venture currently in its pilot stage that aims to completely replace textbooks in schools with tablet PCs, Kocatürk noted that it is still early yet. “If successful, the project could be a revolution in global publishing, but the small percentage of the TL 3 billion budget that has been allocated to the protection of copyright is a cause of concern for us,” he said.
Humor is our strongest weapon
Indeed the struggle to protect copyright and crack down on piracy is one of the most critical problems facing the Turkish publishing industry. Sökmen related that if a book is a bestseller, then it will definitely be available in a pirate copy, adding that if a book has been suggested on a university reading list it is likely it will be duplicated in photocopy form, an activity that is not a breach of law and can only be prosecuted upon complaint.
Kocatürk told the audience that he has been lobbying against piracy in literature, a struggle he describes as a social, political and cultural issue, since 1989. “Enacting legislation is not the solution to this problem. Instead we need to consult with international publishers and consider successful measures implemented in other countries,” he said, adding that it is of the utmost importance that the industry be consulted before the government legislates on such matters.
The panel also touched on the sensitive issue of freedom of expression, or lack of it, a problem that has marred the Turkish publishing industry for decades with many prominent writers and commentators, including Elif Şafak and Perihan Mağden, having been prosecuted under the constitution’s notorious Article 301, which criminalizes “defaming Turkishness.”
“Our friends and colleagues are behind bars, and if we really have any kind of empathy we can’t keep our silence on this issue. These people are not terrorists or criminals,” Karatürk said, adding that the current imprisonment of the head of the TYB’s Freedom to Publish Committee, Ragip Zarakolu, speaks volumes for Turkey’s current stance on freedom of expression. Members of the Swedish parliament nominated Zarakolu for the Nobel Peace Prize last month.
Üstün said that a new draft law for which unions have submitted a number of proposals is presently being worked on in an effort to rethink the current regulations. “We need a commonsensical approach that will help nurture an environment where thoughts can be expressed freely,” he said.
Despite the challenges that continue to confront the Turkish publishing industry, hope remains that spring is round the corner. “In many ways we have come a long way,” Sökmen said, adding: “Humor is our strongest weapon, and ambition and stubbornness keep our spirits up. We just hope the right opportunities open up to present the colors of Turkey in all their vibrancy.”