The President of PEN International, Burhan Sönmez, in a conversation with the General Secretary of PEN Greece, Tessy Baila
Burhan Sönmez is the President of Pen International, member of both English PEN and Turkish PEN and one of the greatest authors in Turkish and Kurdish literature, an innovative mind. He is a Kurdish prize-winning novelist from Turkey. He was born in a small Kurdish village and he moved to Istanbul later. He studied law and then he worked as a lawyer for a few years. He had to move to Britain for political reasons. He received “Disturbing the Peace” award given by Vaclav Havel Library Foundation in New York (2017). He was awarded the EBRD Literature Prize in London (2018) for his novel Istanbul Istanbul which has been published in the Greek language by Kastaniotis Publications with immediate success. Sins and Innocents has received the Sedat Simavi Literature Prize, and Stone and Shadow received the Orhan Kemal Novel Award. His novels are being published in more than forty countries and they are loved by many readers.
We had the honour to speak with him about Pen International, freedom of expression, linguistic crisis and his writing and we would like to thank him for the kindly and promptly granting of this interview.
How did writing come into your life and how did it lead you to the Pen International Presidency? What is the history of your relationship with PEN?
Like everyone in Turkey I started with poetry at a very young age. I began to write novels when I went to exile in Britain. I had serious health issues at the time. Literature acted as a saviour in my life. I first became a member of English PEN Centre, then, when I managed to return to Turkey I became member of Turkey PEN Centre and Kurdish PEN Centre. When another big assault campaign started against the defenders of freedom of expression and human rights in Turkey, I was invited to support PEN International as a co-opted board member. After serving two years as a co-opted member, I ran for regular board membership at the PEN International Congress in Pune, India. I worked on the board another three years before running for president at the Centennial Congress in 2021.
What is your experience from this critical position so far?
Even though I was on the board of PEN International for five years and worked very closely with two previous presidents, Jennifer Clement and John Ralston Saul, I didn’t expect this role to become very demanding and intense. We have a great secretariat of about twenty staff in London office, many board members, standing committee chairs and teams and many strong PEN centres around world, but still we need to work more. Because the demand is higher than what we can provide. That is dark mirror image of the world, since populist and authoritarian governments are spreading and gaining power on every continent, freedom of expression is being targeted and writers, journalists and intellectuals are oppressed. That means we have to reach out to more and more people day by day. This is also a picture of view on the bright side of the mirror, because there are thousands of people across the world who are fighting for the freedom of people who they don’t know. Our solidarity and our principals for the good of society are our inspiration.
What’s the relationship between the Presidential activism of PEN and being a writer. Is it easy to combine these two aspects along with your personal life?
Because PEN is an organisation of writers, and I am a writer, these two can not be separated in my life. This is what I understood since I have become president. I travel a lot to different countries for conferences and festivals, and giving statements very often. I am now used to answer questions coming about two different things, one is about my novels and the other PEN’s activities, and I need to combine them.
PEN was founded in 1921. After 102 years what has changed for the writers all over the world thanks to PEN and to what extent can PEN influence the way a society views the role of the writer nowadays?
As I follow the cases of writers in many countries, I clearly see that the power of books and writers is effective. We should never underestimate the voice that we raise. I can assure you that that voice is more influential than people can imagine. The world may not be a better place than it was 102 years ago, at the same time, writers are still active and influential in every aspect of social life. We are in the streets, at homes, at the institutions including United Nations etc. When politicians use a quote from a well-known writer that shows how strong the simple words we write in our small rooms. The power of the word is the source of hope and belief in a good future for all humanity.
Promoting literature and defending freedom of expression worldwide are the founding principles of PEN International. But nowadays, freedom of expression is being violated in many parts of the world and there are many writers and journalists who are being imprisoned, harassed or even losing their lives for speaking freely. What actions is PEN taking to raise awareness and defend freedom of expression?
We have countless ways of defending freedom of expression. Writing an article for a newspaper, signing a statement, communicating with politicians and the officers of international institutions, protesting in front of a government’s office, sending letters to a prisoner of conscious, and so on. With every case we follow effective plans to raise awareness.
PEN is also committed to the respect of all languages, and to the protection and promotion of indigenous or minoritised languages. However, today many languages are being lost every year, which marks the cultural death of these languages. How can PEN help in the effort to protect them?
That is very important. The cultural life is not only a display at a museum or in an academic paper, it is a living thing. Promoting languages has become an essential work at PEN. That is why our previous generations established a special committee in PEN International, that is named Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee. Through the work of this committee we are able to support many languages that being ignored or oppressed.
Speaking about you as a writer now do you think that every writer has a certain obsession and if so which one is yours? Does it act as an inspiration for you?
I think my obsession is reading. It is beyond a habit, as you name it, it is an obsession for me. For example, at nights, I am not able to fall to sleep without reading. There was an Andalusian muslim philosopher named Averroes, who was the biggest Aristotle commentator, even European Christian countries learned Aristotle from him, until his writing was banned in Paris and other places in thirteen century. Averroes wrote about hundred books. He is said to have written every night in his life, except only two nights. The one was on the day of his father’s death and the other on the day of his marriage. I am not a writer like him but I am a reader at the same continuity. I don’t remember any day in last twenty or thirty years that I have not read at night.
England or Turkey? Which country you feel home and has been a great influence to your writing?
I don’t think any more that a country can become your home, only cities or villages can become your home. When I was in Turkey I used ask that question to myself, where my home was? Was it Istanbul where I studied and worked, or the small Kurdish village where I was born and grew up in the countryside? I think a sense of home is related to what we have gathered throughout our lives. And, answer to this question may change at every age. Now, at this moment, I can say that my home is three places that I miss always: Istanbul, Cambridge and my small village in Haymana Plain in Turkey. When I came to Britain as a refugee more than twenty years ago, that was a disturbing question to myself. That is why I put some part about this in my second novel Sins and Innocents.
Is Sins & Innocents an autobiographical book?
I wanted it to be an autobiographical book, but as I wrote, it became something else. I can say it is about a man who looks like me and lived similar things to I lived, but he is not me.
Istanbul Istanbul, is an absolutely amazing book for incarceration. Do you believe that Istanbul is a place where East meets West and that your book is a way to see Istanbul from different points of views?
In our literature Istanbul has a central place. Historically, people always pictured it as a place where East and West met. When I wrote this novel, I thought we needed a different view, that Istanbul is also a meeting point of different lives. A life underground and another over ground, one is painful and poor and the other is full of energy and hope. That is why I put my characters in the novel in a cell that is three floors underground and they tell stories about Istanbul that is above ground three floors up. This paradox of darkness and light, pain and pleasure, loneliness and crowd all are the questions I wanted to address.