Beginning a writing career under Turkey's more liberal constitution of 1960, Adalet Agaoglu (born 1929), a playwright, author, and human rights activist, became Turkey's most prized female novelist. A revered intellectual and a co-founder of the Arena Theatre Company, she got her start in drama while directing Turkish national radio. In her sixties, she lent her support to human rights causes and to liberals protesting the suffering of Kurdish political prisoners.
Adalet Agaoglu was born in 1929 in Nallihan in the Ankara Province of west central Turkey. After completing a degree in French literature from the University of Ankara, she began graduate work in Paris. On return to Turkey, she assisted with cultural programming for the state radio and co-founded the Arena Theatre Company. At the start of her writing career, she pursued free expression of controversial subject matter during a period of intellectual and ethical ferment and published essays and drama reviews in Ulus, an Ankara daily newspaper and verse in Kaynak, a literary journal. Later, under the nation's liberalized 1960 constitution, she exploited the writer's freedom to examine complex issues.
From Radio to Print
When Agaoglu initiated a career as playwright, she focused on drama, beginning with Let's Write a Play (1953). While preparing literary programming and directing plays for Ankara Radio Theatre, she produced an original work, Yasamak (Doing It) (1955), which was presented on French and German stations. She broached serious issues of sexual repression in 1964 with Evcilik Oyunu (Playing House). Her stage works appeared in a collection of eight titles covering 1964 to 1971. In 1974, she received a drama award from the Turkish Language Society.
In addition to stage works. Agaoglu produced award-winning short fiction and novels in the 1970s and 1980s. These included the anthology Yuksek Gerilim (High Voltage) (1974), winner of the 1975 Sait Faik short fiction award, and two subsequent collections, Sessizligin ilk Sesi (The First Sound of Silence) (1978) and Hadi Gidelim (Come On, Let's Go) (1982). Longer fiction included Olmeye Yatmak (Lie Down to Die) (1974), Fikrimin Ince Gulu (The Delicate Rose of My Mind) (1976), and The Wedding Night (1979), which received the Sedat Simavi prize, the Orhan Kemal award, and the 1980 Madarali award. She followed with Yazsonu (The End of Summer) (1980) and the autobiographical Goc Temizligi (Clean-up before Moving) (1985), an anthology of memoirs. In addition to plays, she issued Gecerken (In Passing) (1986), a collection of literary commentaries and essays. Her published titles include translations of the works of classic French dramatists Jean Anouilh and Bertolt Brecht and fiction writer Jean-Paul Sartre.
Fiction with a Personal Touch
After nearly being sideswiped by a careless driver at a seaside bench, Agaoglu composed Hayati Savunma Bicimleri (Ways of Defending Life), a collection of eight stories. Focused on the theme of self-protection from a variety of threats—violence, want, madness, insensitivity, corruption, tyranny, annihilation, and brutality—the stories characterize the acts of survivalists combatting physical and emotional attack. In "Cinlama" (Ringing), the character Seyfi Bey battles an internal demon, a Jekyll-and-Hyde motif that results in his slaughtering a neighbor's child who threatens the beauty of his yard. In "Sehrin Gozyaslari" (The Tears of the City), Agaoglu describes a sociologist who collects quirky human behaviors, including outmoded dress and deportment and a pattern of dining each night at the same restaurant. The last of the eight stories, "Tanrinin Sonuncu Tebligi" (God's Last Declaration), satirizes the perversion of religion by insensitive practitioners.
One popular title written in 1984, Uc Bes Kisi (Curfew), translated into English by John Goulden, Britain's ambassador to Turkey, studies the country during a revolutionary period, when the government fought terrorism by banning political parties and arresting party leaders and militants. Against a backdrop of suspicion, military coups, and martial law, seven characters in Ankara, Istanbul, and the Anatolian town of Eskisehir reflect before making critical life decisions prior to the evening's mandated 2:00 A. M. curfew. Along with four familiar character types, she spotlights three emerging figures—the young idealist, the liberated housewife, and the cutthroat capitalist. Through their seven dramatic scenarios, Agaoglu symbolizes the dilemmas of the nation as a whole from the foundation of the republic through the Cold War and its hopes for a more promising future.
Recreated Turkish Themes
At the heart of Agaoglu's thoughtful, tightly constructed prose is a balance between a realistic milieu of the Turkey she knows firsthand and the broader, more humanistic elements of gender prejudice, social pressure, and personal action. The social texture of her writings expresses the influence of Ottoman Turkish history on a people exiting an agrarian past. As the nation wrote its own script for the future, her themes illuminated hidden social and economic problems, particularly those faced by peasant families and villagers living far from cities. In an unfamiliar urban world, her fictional newcomers to modernity struggle with age-old issues complicated by perplexing political, religious, economic, and social forces.
For her perception of subtle and overt changes in modern Turkish society, in December 1998, Agaoglu journeyed to Columbus, Ohio, to receive an honorary Ph.D. in literature from Ohio State University. The faculty acknowledged her work with a ceremony before an audience of Turkish students and officials at the Turkish Consulate General in Chicago. The occasion concluded with a two-day symposium on her writing and social activism entitled "Modernism and Social Change." The event earned media attention as the first time the award recognized a Turkish writer.
Agaoglu the Activist
In August 1998, Agaoglu joined hundreds of artists, leftists, and citizen protesters in Istanbul's Ortakoy District Square to demand attention to the plight of some 24,708 inmates jailed since the 1970s as terrorists and subversives. Calling for a general amnesty prior to the Turkish Republic's 75th anniversary, the gathering stressed the innocence of Kurds seeking self-determination for their ancestral homeland in southeastern Turkey. Agaoglu risked jailing as an illegal separatist. Nonetheless, she joined 500 signers of a petition demanding action to free political prisoners. The signing paralleled a previous collection of signatures in October 1996, when Agaoglu joined one million to press the Turkish Grand National Assembly for peace amid the nation's ongoing internal conflicts.
During Human Rights Week in December 2000, Agaoglu took part in human rights demonstrations on behalf of Kurdish political prisoners participating in hunger strikes. Sympathizers demanded the closure of F-type prison cells, which isolated inmates, some of whom suffered torture. A petition stated: "We hereby declare that the Minister of Justice and the government will be responsible for any deaths, impairments and any and all sad results with no return." Additional demands called for a revocation of unjust sentences and stringent anti-terrorist statutes, closure of state security courts, and monitoring of prisons to prevent human rights violations. Agaoglu and other respected Turkish journalists, artists, and writers offered their services to negotiate with the Ministry of Justice the rights and needs of striking prisoners.
In August 2001, Agaoglu joined 65 intellectuals in pressing for greater freedom of speech and action. Along with artists, attorneys, musicians, politicians, and other writers, she endorsed a pamphlet, "Freedom of Thought-For Everyone." As a result of the action, she and the other signers were threatened with eight years' imprisonment.
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