Yashar Kemal

Yashar Kemal (born 1922) was the most successful and most widely known of modern Turkish novelists. His works, which also include short stories and essays, are local in color and infused with the spirit of Turkish folk traditions. They show the influence of world classics from Homer to Stendal, Steinbeck, and Faulkner.

Yashar Kemal was born Kemal Sadik Göçeli in southwestern Turkey in the small village of Hemite near Osmaniye in the province of Adana. His father came from a line of feudal landlords and his mother from a family of famous brigands in eastern Anatolia. At the age of five Yashar Kemal saw his father shot to death while praying in the mosque and, in the same incident, lost one of his eyes. He did not attend school until he was nine (walking two hours a day in order to do so) and had no formal education beyond eighth grade.

From early childhood, however, he imbibed the oral literature of the Turkish people by listening to storytellers and minstrels and the songs of the villagers as they worked or experienced the joys and tragedies of life. He himself became an accomplished folk singer and extempore minstrel at a young age and in his late teens began serious collection and study of the oral literature. He started to earn a living as a jack-of-all-trades—including construction worker, cobbler's assistant, watchman, and cotton picker. He first went to Istanbul in the early 1940s and worked as a clerk in the gas company. At that time he became acquainted with a group of intellectuals who introduced him to the works of classical and European writers and to art and modern painting.


Beginnings as Writer and Reporter

After a period back in the southwest as a public writer of petitions in the little town of Kadirli, and having been acquitted of a charge of disseminating Communist propaganda, he returned to Istanbul and became a roving reporter for the daily Cumhuriyet. He was later given a weekly column and appointed chief of the paper's Anatolian Bureau. He resigned from Cumhuriyet in 1963, after which he devoted himself to literature—from 1967 to 1971 he also published a leftist political weekly of which he was a cofounder—and continued to contribute to a variety of journals and newspapers. He was among those who founded the Writers Union of Turkey and served as its first chairman during the years 1974 through 1976.

Yashar Kemal's early attempts as a writer were in the realm of poetry, the first of his poems to be published appearing in 1939 in the journal of the Adana Halkevi ("People's House," one of the cultural centers established by the Republican People's Party in the early days of the Turkish Republic). The Halkevi also published his earliest folklore studies (a collection of ballads in 1942 and a study of elegies in 1943). All of these works, as well as poems accepted by journals in the early 1940s, were signed with his real name, Kamal Sadik Göğçeli. He changed his name to Yashar Kemal when he moved to Istanbul in 1951.

Yashar Kemal began to write fiction in the late 1940s and became known in Istanbul as a short story writer as well as an outstanding journalist with a special gift for travel-ogues. Various collections of his journalistic writings and of his short stories have been published in Turkey, and English translations of some of his best short stories are available in Anatolian Tales, published in New York in 1969.


Career as Novelist

It was not until he was 33 years old that he published his first novel, Ince Memed (1955; Mehmet My Hawk, 1961). Set in the Taurus-Chukurova area that he knew so well, it tells of a young village boy who, driven to banditry through the tyranny of the local landowner, becomes a Robin Hood-like figure, an outlaw fighting against injustice, and a legend and inspiration to the villagers of the area. Two sequels, Ince Memed 2 (1969; They Burn the Thistles, 1973) and Ince Memed 3 (1984), continue the saga of this folk hero.

Ortadirek (1960; The Wind from the Plain, 1962), Yer demir gök bakir (1963; Iron Earth, Copper Sky, 1974) and Ölmez otu (1968; The Undying Grass, 1978) form a trilogy that again deals with the ordeals of the poverty-stricken villagers in the Taurus Mountains. Confronted by the forces of nature and the rapacity of landlords, these people survive only by an annual migration to the coastal plain to earn money picking cotton. Set in the same milieu, the novel Akçasazin ağalari centers on the problems of the landlords themselves, especially the old blood feud, and shows the effects of the breakdown of the feudal and tribal orders. It appeared in two volumes: Demirciler çarşisi cinayeti (1974; The Lords of Akchasaz: Murder in the Ironsmiths Market, 1979) and Yusufcuk Yusuf ("Turtledove Yusuf," 1975).

Later Yashar Kemal wrote also of underprivileged groups in other parts of Turkey. Al gözüm seyreyle Salih (1976; Seagull, 1981) is set in a Black Sea fishing town; Deniz küstü (1978; The Sea-crossed Fisherman, 1985) and Kuşlar da gitti (1978; Alors les oiseaux sont partis, 1981) take the reader to Istanbul and its environments.

Much of Yashar Kemal's writing was inspired by the folklore of Anatolia, drawing on well-known tales or the lives of individuals famous in the folk tradition. Such works include Üç Anadolu Efsanesi (1967; Three Anatolian Tales, 1975), Ağridağ Efsanesi (1970; The Legend of Ararat, 1975), Binboǵalar Efsanesi (1971; The Legend of the 1000 Bulls, 1976), and çakicali Efe (The Swashbuckler from Chakija, 1972). His language also derives much from the ordinary Turkish people, its texture at once epic and lyrical.

Yashar Kemal's general style had a great influence on modern Turkish writing. From the beginning he was noted as a first-rate storyteller and as a social realist. Yet he blended stark realism with scenes of epic grandeur and tempered it by the unreality of myth. He alternated description of the environment (sometimes painted with panoramic strokes, sometimes etched with minute attention to detail) with stream of consciousness writing. He won many awards in Turkey and abroad. The universal appeal of his work is attested by the many translations available in more than 20 languages.

Kemal was accused by the Turkish government of promoting separatism through an article he had written for the German publication, Der Spiegel, and was arrested in 1995. Kemal was given a suspended 20-month sentence in 1996 for speaking out against the government's actions regarding the Kurds.


Further Reading on Yashar Kemal

Edebiyat 5 (Nos. 1 and 2, 1980), available through the MiddleEast Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, is a special issue devoted to Yashar Kemal. Also see "Yashar Kemal's epic struggle" by Nicole Pope in World Press Review, July 1996, vol. 43, no. 7, p. 40; and a Web site maintained by the Armenian National Committee of Canada, http://armen-info.com/lacuse/publes/95loel.htm.