SOKMEN: Shape-Shifter:In Istanbul with Metis Publisher Muge Sokmen
Muge Sokmen, Co-Founder of Metis Publishing, Istanbul
Just before my interview last spring with Muge Gursoy Sokmen, co-founder of Metis Publishing, a leading independent publishing house in Turkey, I encountered a crowd of demonstrators in Taksim Square located on the European side of the Bosphorus and one of the city’s major hubs.
The BDP (Peace and Democracy Party)[i] had organized the demonstration to protest the government’s decision to disqualify seven independent candidates backed by the BDP from running for the Turkish Parliament. The reason for the protest was that these candidates had been imprisoned or were waiting for trials. Hundreds of helmeted police squadrons stood on the margins of the crowd, and one could feel the energy of the speakers and the growing crowd as marchers with determined faces assembled from all parts of the city.
This scene set the tone for my interview with Muge Sokmen a few blocks away at the offices of Metis, a leading independent publisher of fiction and non-fiction in Turkey. The interview was arranged through the PEN – the world’s oldest international literary and human rights organization – and its Freedom to Write Committee that defends writers around the world and campaigns for freedom of expression.
“Aren’t you afraid?” I asked.
The same question had been posed to Sökmen in 2005 just after Orhan Pamuk had just been threatened with imprisonment for “insulting Turkishness.” Pamuk had made remarks about the killing of Armenians and Kurds at the end of the Ottoman Empire in a CNN interview, charges that were later dropped.
Sokmen, who has at times published writers that have challenged the status quo, asserted, “no,” explaining how she and many other independent publishers spawned by the 1982 coup d’etat and military takeover in Turkey are now “a resisting force” in Turkish culture.
In 1982, many leftist intellectuals, artists, students and professors—like Sokmen who was then studying for her MS in mechanical engineering—were arrested or resigned from universities and began forming a media network. At twenty-two, with no money, Sokmen founded Metis, driven, as she says, by her love of literature and belief in free expression.
Like the publisher İletişim, also founded in 1982, Metis defends Metis’s “independent spirit and radical commitment” to good literature and its authors despite “conservative” pressures from the present government.
The publishing company’s name, Metis, refers to the “goddess of wisdom,” but also, according to Sokmen, signifies “knowledge that Power detests.”
It is now a volatile time in Turkey when journalists, publishers and authors are being harassed, arrested or fined for criticizing the state. In early August the country witnessed large scale resignations in the military, known to be a moderating secular force in the culture.
“We have been taken to court,” Sokmen said, “about every seven years – and even more recently – there is a small group led by some lawyers who keep mounting amorphous charges against authors for being ‘unpatriotic’ or ‘insulting’ to the constitution or the military or ‘Turkishness.’ There is also another group who keep putting authors like Zülfü Livaneli (author of the best-selling Bliss about a “disgraced” village girl) to court for “insulting the religion.”
In addition, the Turkish courts blocked internet users from viewing Richard Dawkins’s website after a Muslim creationist claimed that its pro-Darwinian contents were “blasphemous.”
While these cases end with acquittals, publishers and authors have to spend time and money on trials and away from their businesses.
“Luckily we have lawyers who help us generously with their expert advice, some advisors to PEN Turkey,” added Sokmen, who is a former Chair of the WIPC (Writers in Prison Committee) for PEN Turkey.
“Are publishing houses, and, consequently, free expression controlled by the government?” I asked.
“Not directly,” she said. “Or by self-censorship of any kind but by the prevailing atmosphere Harassment leads to fear.”
Sokman conceded that she was “shocked,” at the March arrests, fines and threatened imprisonment of the journalists Ahmet Şık and Nedim Şener following police raids on their offices and homes. Sik and Sener have written investigative books about clandestine activities in the state and were accused of a plot to overthrow the government.
“What’s happening now,” Sokman 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-writingFarenheit 451 or 1984.”
In the Şık-Şener case, Sokman added, “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 members were urged in March, by the way, to defend Şık and Şener’s right to free expression of their views by bringing international attention to the issue and writing to Mr. Sadullah Ergin, the Minister of Justice in Turkey.
Sokmen spoke of a strategy of collective action. As in other countries, technology has ushered in an 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 Şık whose research on Ergenekon was still in draft form, 2,000 of them organized a demonstration in Taksim Square on March 5th.
When, in the 1980’s, Tropic of Capricorn by Henry Miller was banned by the then revived obscenity law, thirty-nine publishers including Metis orchestrated a collective publication of one of his novels, listing the names of all of the publishers on the title page.
Daunted by having thirty-nine prominent publishers marching into court, the court board decided for acquittal. “By doing it,” said Sokman, “we set an example to stress that erotic literature is not the same as pornographic material that minors need to be protected from. We publish the literature we believe in and love.”
In May, people took to the streets again. In 30 cities, people turned out to protest the government’s new attempt to censor certain websites and put content filters in place.
When, in 2006, Sokman was taken to court for the publication of Elif Shafak’s very popular The Bastard of Istanbul (written in English), she wrote an open letter on her website about the charges and invited authors, translators, publishers and readers to attend the trial.
Shafak, Metis and Asli Biçen, the translator of the book, were all charged with “insulting Turkishness” under Article 301 in the Turkish Criminal Code because of references to Armenians in the book. Shafak is perhaps a target because she was raised internationally and sees Turkey from many perspectives. Hundreds filled the courtyard on the day of the trial as the defense mounted the case that Shafak’s novel was fiction. Charges were dropped: the opposition backed down in the face of forceful argument and visible protest.
Turning aside from politics, Sokman spoke of books published in English about Turkey, suggesting that foreign publishers are sometimes drawn to publish books about stereotypes or to align Turkey with Arab countries when it is a secular democratic republic. 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, a situation he bewails, “Half of life is missing.” Bilge Karasu’s The Garden of Departed Cats, also published in English, is a surreal novel with a game of human chess; Engin Gectan’s, The Smell of Fried Bonito,is a novel about Istanbul and a man’s desire to live more than one life; Murat Uyurkulak, Tol: A Revenge Nove, is about a Poet, a ‘68 political activist, and Yusuf, a red diaper child of the Turkish coup d’etat.
Sokman also urged more translations of Turkish writers citing Penguin, New Directions, Louisiana State University, and Marion Boyers as some of the few who do. 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 wider world because she could discover what was going on in literature and criticism in France, the US, and Japan. Metis also specializes in publishing critical theory and recently published a collection of essays on Edward Said, Waiting for the Barbarians, following a conference on Said in Istanbul.
She also wishes that the government and the people of Turkey would pay more attention to contemporary injustices and not only redress the wrongs of the past. She is concerned as a publisher – as many publishers are in America – about young people attracted to the internet Twitter and Facebook becoming 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.”
Patricia Laurence is a writer, critic, biographer, professor in the City University of New York–and traveller. She has an interest in transnational modern literature and the East, and her most recent book is Lily Briscoe’s Chinese Eyes: Bloomsbury, Modernism and China (U of So Carolina Press, 2003). It was translated into Chinese in 2009. She is currently working on a biography of Elizabeth Bowen, an Anglo-Irish modernist writer. She is a member of PEN’s Freedom to Write Committee.