Ayşe Düzkan is a Turkish writer, activist, and translator who was released from prison, where she was incarcerated for her political activism. Her books include Çalar Saat (The Alarm Clock, 1994), Erkekliğin Kitabında Yazmaz Bu (You Can’t Find These In the Book of Masculinity, 2006), Behiç Aşçı Kitabı (The Book of Behiç Aşçı (a hunger striker against cell houses), 2006), and 05 17 (referring to the date of the first feminist demonstration in 1987 and the 1905 and 1917 revolutions, 2018). Her translations include SCUM Manifesto (by Valerie Solanas), Leila Khaled: Icon of Palestinian Liberation (by Sarah Irving), and Freedom is a Constant Struggle (by Angela Davis). She currently has columns in the Turkish newspapers Yeni Yaşam and the website Artı Gerçek.
I came to know Düzkan as a contributor of an autobiographical chapter on translation and activism in her life and work for the forthcoming Routledge Handbook of Translation and Activism, edited by myself and Kayvan Tahmasebian. Impressed by the story she had to tell, I decided to explore her perspective on translation and activism in greater depth in this interview.
Rebecca Ruth Gould: Can you discuss any influential books in your life? Why and how were they influential?
Ayşe Düzkan: Well, in terms of non-fiction, I would say Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto and Marx’s Capital during my teens, and Christine Delphy’s The Main Enemy during my twenties. The first two works introduced me to the basic rules of capitalism. With Delphy and other materialist feminists, I came to understand how patriarchy works. As for fiction, I identified with Rosamund, the protagonist of Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone as a young woman. The Turkish writer Sevgi Soysal’s work was very important to me. Marilyn French’s Women’s Room and The Bleeding Heart were very significant for me in identifying as a feminist. Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume, Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan, some of William Burroughs’s work (actually I translated Junkie into Turkish) have opened my eyes to profound thinking and showed me how to be creative. Anja Meulenbelt’s Shame is Over was inspiring, and last but not least, SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas.
Can you comment on the role of translation in Turkish political activism generally? Which works are most important these days?
I think translation is very important in revolutionary, feminist, and oppositional political activism; we live and fight in Turkey, but we have to know what is going on in other parts of the world. It is not like France, for example. There during the 1960s, there were leftist intellectuals who didn’t bother to find out what was happening, even in Algeria. Nonetheless, many people in the world read anything they wrote! WE don’t have such a privilege here. On the other hand, it is often an advantage to be from a country like Turkey—you have to read widely about the rest of the world, and it is good for you. I find it very difficult to answer the question about what is important, but I can say most of the post-Foucault work is very popular.
What made you decide to become a translator? Do you think translating has made you a better writer?
Actually, I didn’t decide to become a translator. I felt I had to translate the work that I wanted other people to read. I think translating made me a better writer because it made me get acquainted with different types of thinking and writing.
In your contribution to the Routledge Handbook of Translation and Activism, you expressed concern about the impact of global English. Are there specific qualities you find missing in activism that is not oriented to translation? Does the dominance of transnational activism by the English language limit its impact?
I think the dominance of English in transnational activism and politics and of course theory has a huge impact. Most importantly, this is a deficiency of internationalism. There is an impractical and awkward division of work; the global South and the global East has to offer narratives of resistance and struggle so that we can access theory written overwhelmingly in the languages of the global West and global North. It would be very surprising if this didn’t deprive our global thinking and activism of consistency, integrity and collective sensibility. You find activism, struggle, resistance and of course theory in all parts of the world. And even in this age of technologies like Google Translate, we still have to do a lot of translation. But we also need to choose what to translate, and this is a very political decision.
Can you say something about the circumstances of your recent imprisonment? What was it like being in prison? Did it change you in any way? What about the community service work?
I spent four months in a closed prison (the standard type of prison) and three weeks in an open one. An open prison is one where you spend the day out in a garden and can use the phone anytime you like, and if you stay there for a long term, you can sometimes go out for a week and come back! There was a hunger strike in the wards at the time when my prison sentence began. The inmates were protesting the government’s isolation policies towards Abdullah Ocalan. I thought it would be difficult to live with people on strike, so I decided to stay in a cell, in semi-solitary confinement. The difference between my condition and solitary confinement is that I was permitted to spend time in the yard twice a day.
We could communicate through windows and we had two ninety-minute breaks in open air with three other political prisoners. I read a lot, basically literature, read letters, wrote letters (mostly to and from other inmate in the same prison I was in as well as prisoners throughout Turkey), dreamed, day-dreamed, listened to music on radio. I sometimes danced during the evening, missed my daughter, my cats, anything on a screen (I didn’t have a TV). I also passed the time cooking.
But life in prison is not a break from life, so I thought I had to enjoy it in some way or the other. In the open prison, I stayed in a ward with women who have children, so there were eight women and five kids—no sleep during the night! I was the only political prisoner there. I was there because of political oppression and most of the other women were there for as a consequence of things that had happened to them through patriarchy and capitalism. Some had killed or injured men who had physically abused them. I think they are political prisoners as well!
This experience changed me a lot because I had to deal with problems I have never faced before and I made friends with women whom I wouldn’t have otherwise met. I had to do community service work in the execution office in the courthouse, the office where I had surrendered. This is the office where sentences are sorted out and it is determined to which prison people will go. By “surrender” I mean that I applied to do this kind of work during my prison sentence. I made tea, carried documents from one room to the other, stamped some documents, and met other “criminals.”
Did it ever happen to you that a work you translated had an impact on the Turkish readership that you could not have predicted?
Yes, this happened with my translation of SCUM Manifesto. I love the radical American feminist Valerie Solanas like a comrade, a daughter, and an aunt. I love the book, I think it is a brilliant work of satire, but not a political guide. But it is quite popular among young Turkish feminists, who draw inspiration from it and interpret it as a political guide. I sometimes feel like, “Well, why not!”
Do you have any plans for translating texts in the future? For original writing?
I started to translate the Palestinian-American spoken word poet Remi Kanazi’s Before the Next Bomb Drops: Rising Up From Brooklyn to Palestine in prison. I plan to finish it. I love what he does with the medium of the spoken word. I started The Big Push by Cynthia Enloe before my prison sentence began. I will finish it. I am working on a novel and a non-fiction book on questions of daily and current feminism.
Do you have any suggestions for activists wishing to show their solidarity with fellow activists, academics, and translators in Turkey?
Well, no, because I don’t know the conditions of other countries. The only thing I can say is, please don’t support only the well-knowns and those who speak your mother-tongue. I know it is easier to reach and communicate with them, but there are so many others who are not privileged enough to get to know you.
Rebecca Gould is the author of Writers and Rebels: The Literature of Insurgency in the Caucasus (Yale University Press, 2016), which was awarded the University of Southern California Book Prize in Literary and Cultural Studies and the best book award by the Association for Women in Slavic Studies, and the translator of After Tomorrow the Days Disappear: Ghazals and Other Poems Hasan Sijzi of Delhi (Northwestern University Press, 2016), and The Prose of the Mountains: Tales of the Caucasus (Central European University Press, 2015).
Rebecca is also one of our inaugural Full Stop Fellows. She will use her time as a Full Stop fellow to further explore the link between translation and activism. The project begins with a series of interviews and culminates in a set of curated book reviews by Palestinian students in Gaza focusing on the work of James Baldwin. The reviews will be published in a special Full Stop supplement. Help support innovative, long-term projects on contemporary literary culture like this by becoming a Patreon subscriber.