Shape Shifter: An Interview with Metis Publisher & Muge Sokman, Istanbul

Riverrun (April 17, 2011).

“Aren’t you afraid?” was the question posed to Muge Sukman, co-founder of Metis, one of the leading independent publishers of fiction and non-fiction in Turkey in 2005. Orhan Pamuk had just been threatened with imprisonment for “insulting Turkishness” in remarks he made about the killing of Armenians in a CNN interview, charges, later dropped. Muge asserted, “no,” explaining how she and many other independent publishers spawned by the coup d’etat and military takeover in Turkey in 1982 were now “a resisting force” in Turkish culture.


Many intellectuals, students and professors—like Muge who was then studying to become a mechanical engineer-- resigned from the universities and went underground to develop a large publishing network. Muge, at twenty-two, with no money, founded Metis driven, as she said, by her belief in free expression and love of literature. Like the publisher, Iletisim, also founded in 1982, Metis is known for defending “its independent spirit and radical commitment” to good literature and its authors despite “conservative” pressures from the present government.


But it is now a volatile time in Turkey when journalists, publishers and authors are being harassed, arrested or fined for being critical of the state. And political parties violently clash as in the recent attack on the Prime Minister’s convoy in Kastamonu.


We have been taken to court, Muge said, about every seven years--and now more--and harassed by a government lawyer who may mount charges against an author for being “unpatriotic” or “insulting” to the constitution or the military or “Turkishness.” But we have lawyers too, said Muge, “who defend us and work for us for free, some advisors to Turkish PEN.” Muge is, by the way, was once Director of the Pen International Prison Committee.


“Then, publishing houses, and, consequently, free expression are controlled by the government?” I queried. “Not by self-censorship of any kind but by harassment,” she said.  But, recently, harassment has led to fear. Muge conceded that she was “shocked,” at the recent March arrests, fines and threatened imprisonment of the writers Ahmet Sik and Nedim Senir following police raids on their offices and homes. What’s happening now, Muge said, “is scarier than in the past because the party in power has lost self-criticism and prudence…. it’s as if they’re re-writing Farenheit 451 or 1984.” In the Sik-Senir case, said Muge, the writer/publisher are accused of being supporters of the neo-nationalist organization known as Ergenekon when they are actually critical and doing research and writing to expose it. Pen International members were urged, by the way, in March to write to Mr. Sadullah Ergin, the Minister of Justice in Turkey to defend Sik and Senir’s right to free expression of their views.


Muge Sokmen spoke of a strategy of collective action. As in other countries, technology has ushered in a new age that narrows the gap between the government and the people. When Turkish writers, journalists and publishers, for example, heard of the case against Ahmet Sik whose research on Ergenekon was still in draft from, 2,000 of them organized a demonstration in Taksim Square in Istanbul on March 5th.  When the government revived an obscenity law in order to prevent the publication of books by Henry Miller, thirty-nine publishers orchestrated a collective publication of one of his novels, listing the names of all of the publishers on the title page. The government backed down, daunted by having to taking thirty-nine publishers each to court for their action. “By doing it,” said Muge, “we make it lawful.” We publish the literature we believe in and love, she asserted.


When taken to court for the publication of Elif Shafak’s very popular The Bastard of Istanbul (written in English), Muge wrote an open letter on her website and on Facebook about the charges and invited authors, translators, publishers and readers to attend the trial. Shafak, Metis and Asli Bacan, the translator of the book, were all charged with “insulting Turkishness” under Article 301 in the Turkish Criminal Code because of Shafak’s references to Armenians.   Hundreds filled the courtyard on the day of the trial as the defense mounted the case that the novel was fiction. It led to the dropping of the charges: the opposition backed down in the face of forceful argument and visible opposition.  


She spoke of the complexity and many fronts to the Kurdish struggle in Turkey that I witnessed after my interview with Muge when coming upon a huge BDP (Peace and Democracy Party, pro-Kurdish but non-violent) demonstration on Taksim Square with ominous helmeted police squadrons surrounding the demonstrators. The protest there and around the city of Istanbul was organized that day because the government had disqualified seven Kurds from running for the Turkish Parliament because they had been imprisoned or were waiting for trials.  High tensions exist now between BDP-- a party that wants participation in the government and symbolic and practical redress for past wrongs to Kurds--and the older Kurdish secessionist movement, PKK (outlawed Kurdish Worker’s Party), which continues with armed struggle, and claims responsibility for the attack on the Prime Minister’s convoy on May 6th.


Turning aside from politics, Muge spoke of the books published in English about Turkey, suggesting that foreign publishers are sometimes drawn to publish books about Turkish stereotypes such as The Return of Turkey or aligning Turkey with Arab countries when it is a Muslim nation. Publishers, she believes, often know better than marketing agents what the people want. We must, she said, “persist and transform the reading public,” through our publications. Metis publishes prominent international and Turkish authors like Murathan Mungan. He recently wrote Chador, a tale of unsettling homecoming, according to the Metis catalog, where a man returns to his home to discover that many women have disappeared from sight behind their burkas and he protests, “Half of life is missing.” Bilge Karasu’s The Garden of Departed Cats, also published in English, a surreal novel with a game of human chess; Engin Gectan’s, The Smell of Fried Bonito, a novel about Istanbul and a man’s desire to live more than one life; Murat Uyurkulak, Tol: A Revenge Novel about a Poet, a ‘68 political activist, and Yusuf, a red diaper child of the Turkish coup d’etat.


Muge also urged more translations of Turkish writers citing Penguin, New Directions, LSU, and Marion Boyers as some of the few. Noting the well-observed fact that only 3% of books in America are translations compared to 40-50% in Turkey, she said that as a young person she felt “contemporary” with the world in Turkey knowing what was going on in literature and criticism in France, the US, Japan. Metis also specializes in publishing critical theory and has recently published a collection of essays on Edward Said, Waiting for the Barbarians, subsequent to a conference on Said in Istanbul.


Muge hopes that the government and the people would pay more attention to contemporary injustices not only redress for the wrongs of the past. She is concerned as a publisher-- as many in America-- about the young people who are attracted to Twitter and Facebook, bored with literature and losing a sense of language. Yet she says “they still have to find themselves and make meaning in their lives” in their country. It’s time now for us to pay attention to that, she concludes.

Freedom to Write Committee: PEN

March 23, 2012

Pen Moments in Turkey: Learning New Words

Far away, I felt at home when interviewing Muge Sokman* of Metis, a brave and independent publisher, in Istanbul. She welcomed me warmly, spoke of the importance of Pen International in Istanbul, and asked me to send her regards to Sarah and Larry, “friends.” Muge was once Director of the Pen International Prison Committee.


Metis is a publisher (along with Iletis) known for defending its independent spirit and radical commitment to good literature and its authors despite “conservative” pressures from the present government. We have been taken to court, Muge said, about every seven years--and now, more--harassed by government lawyers who may mount charges against an author for being “unpatriotic” or “insulting” to the constitution or the military or “Turkishness.” But we have lawyers too, said Muge, “who defend us and work for us for free, some advisors to Turkish PEN.”


My connection with Turkey continued when I sent holiday greetings to writers in Turkish prisons in December, a tradition of the Freedom to Write Committee.  Among them were Ragip Zarakolu, writer, and Muharrem Erby,  publisher, both active in defending minority rights in Turkey. Mr. Erby responded, “The Kurdish celebrate Neuroz 2624 years. Help. 800 Days. I’m not free!” Mr. Zarkolu wrote from Diyarbakir Prison, “Thank you for your card. I send you my best wishes from my cell. I am here with a Kurdish intellectual, and I am learning a new language, Kurdish. It’s grammar looks like French. I am 64 years old and it is good for me to learn new words. Salute for America Pen Center Members.”


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