#100PENMembers No. 34: Orhan Pamuk

Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk is another of our PEN members who has both been defended by International PEN, and who has also become an active PEN member. 

Pamuk first came into contact with International PEN when Arthur Miller and Harold Pinter visited Turkey on behalf of PEN in 1985 to protest the ruthless suppression of free speech. A young Pamuk was despatched to meet them at the airport, and then became their guide to Istanbul. He introduced them to Istanbul’s persecuted publishers, writers and journalists. 

So began a long relationship to PEN. In 2005, he faced three years in prison for commenting during an interview with a Swiss newspaper that ‘thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in’ Turkey and ‘nobody but me dares to talk about it.’ When news of his Swiss interview reached Turkey, Pamuk received death threats and copies of his books were burned. 

International PEN, PEN America and English PEN all protested this attack on Pamuk’s free speech. PEN America pointedly identified Turkey’s contradictory stance on free speech: ‘PEN finds it extraordinary that a state has ratified both the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention of Human Rights, both of which see freedom of expression as central, should have a Penal Code that includes a clause that is so clearly contrary to these very principles.’ Eventually charges were dropped in 2006, and it is widely believed that this was because the high profile case drew international attention to Turkey’s draconian record on free expression and its past human rights record, at a time when the country sought the approval of the international community, not least for its bid to join the European Union.

In 2006, Pamuk delivered the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York, and his experience at the hands of the Turkish authorities was central to his talk. 

He also, however, spoke of Miller’s and Pinter’s visit to Turkey twenty-one years earlier. He described how their visit had changed his life, particularly in the way they had used their fame to bring the plight of Turkish writers to the ‘attention of the world’, and their desire to create a ‘consoling solidarity among writers’. But Pamuk also described his own conflicted relationship to this idea of solidarity. At that time he was on the margins of the political world, but while showing Miller and Pinter Istanbul and listening to the stories of oppressed and censored writers, he felt drawn into the political world through guilt and solidarity. At the same time, however, he felt a strong desire to stay aloof and simply write ‘beautiful novels’. 

In the subsequent conversation with Margaret Atwood at the 2006 Festival, she interestingly asked him about the dominant theme of shame and guilt – and their opposite – pride, in his writing. While shame-pride, as he suggested has been both a driving theme in his writing, it might also be seen as being important for his activism. Activism requires solidarity to, as he put it, the basic acknowledgement that freedom of thought and expression are, as he insists ‘universal human rights’, but also the ongoing defence of these rights that should not be softened by nationalism or sensitivities. 

Pamuk continues to use his own global status, as a Nobel prize winning novelist to protest free speech violations. In 2014 he joined other writers including Zadie Smith and Salman Rushdie, in writing a joint International and English PEN letter protesting Turkey’s blocking of access to Twitter as an ‘unacceptable violation of the right to freedom of speech.’ 

Turkey currently ranks number one in the world for free speech violations. PEN has compiled a list of 80 writers who have faced proceedings around free expression issues in Turkey. Read more about Turkey’s clampdown on free expression on English PEN’s website.