#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.

#100PENMembers No.20: Elif Shafak

Today we look at Turkey’s bestselling female author, Elif Shafak, who has been both the recipient of PEN support in her own fight for free expression and is a high profile and vocal PEN member in her own right. 

Photo: Zeynel Abidin (Dogan Kitap/Turkey)

In 2006, Shafak was prosecuted for violating Article 301 of Turkey’s criminal code in her novel The Bastard of Istanbul. A speech made by a character in the novel referring to the deaths of thousands of Armenians in 1915 as a genocide was accused of contravening Article 301 by ‘insulting Turkishness’. Shafak was taken to court and faced a potential three year jail sentence. 

Shafak argued that this assault on literature was both illogical – ‘if there is a thief in a novel’, she said, ‘it doesn’t make the novelist a thief’ – and represented a gear-change in Turkey’s suppression of writers. ‘Article 301 has been used by ultranationalists as a weapon to silence political voices in Turkey’, she pointed out. ‘But for the first time, they are trying to bring a novel into court. The way they are trying to penetrate the domain of art and literature is quite new, and quite disturbing.’

PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee campaigned for the charges against Shafak to be dropped. It was the beginning of her close links to the PEN organisation and active role as a global defender of freedom of expression. 

In 2014 she was a signatory to the open letter of protest against Vladimir Putin’s anti-gay and blasphemy laws before the Sochi Olympics.

In 2017 she formed part of a high-profile PEN International message of solidarity with imprisoned writers in Turkey. 

In 2019, however, she was herself again the target of the Turkish authorities, when she, along with other Turkish writers including AbdullahŞevki,was attacked for tackling difficult issues such as child abuse and sexual violence in her novels The Gaze (1999) and Three Daughters of Eve (2016). 

Shafak highlighted the terrible irony of these attacks. In a ‘country in which we have an escalating number of cases of sexual violence against both women and children’, she sated, and where the authorities ‘need to take urgent action to deal with sexual violence, instead they’re prosecuting writers. It’s the biggest tragedy. It has become like a witch-hunt.’

As a writer who has spent her life fighting, as she put it, for ‘ women’s rights, children’s rights, minority rights’, Shafak was insightful about how the authorities wanted to use these issues as an excuse to clamp down on literary freedoms: these attacks on Turkish writers will create a terrible chilling effect, with writers feeling that they ‘cannot write about these subjects any more.’

Resident in the UK for the past twelve years, Shafak continues to defend literary freedoms, and to be involved in events with English PEN, selecting her own panel for the ‘Extraordinary Times Call for Extraordinary Women’ series in 2019, featuring Patience Agbabu, Charlotte Higgins and Evie Wyld and appearing regularly at events.

In the PEN America World Voices podcast from last year ‘These Truths: Fighting Words’, Shafak and John Freeman discussed the importance of language in influencing how societies understand themselves socially and politically. 

More recently, Shafak has confronted a different set of free speech issues, by engaging with the problems created by the online dissemination of fake news and hate speech. In the PEN America World Voices podcast from last year ‘These Truths: Fighting Words’, Shafak and John Freeman addressed the importance of truthful language for politics and literature.

‘What we have seen in Turkey’, Shafak argued, ‘is the demise of language. That’s the first thing that changes—how words are being distorted.’ 

While writers believe in freedom of speech’, she stated, they also understand clearly the ‘power of words’, a power with the potential to have both positive and negative effects:  It is ‘very painful to see how words can be misused’, Shafak stated. 

Shafak continues to use her position in PEN and her growing public platform in national newspapers and media to raise issues around free speech and free expression. This public-facing work seeks to ignite a public dialogue around the need for writers to engage in order to reclaim or repurpose an increasingly violent and polarised public discourse, and to promote human rights, empathy and equality.

We interviewed Elif in 2017 about free expression and her work with PEN.