Early Literary Developments
The early ancestors of the Turks were a nomadic people who moved from Mongolia through Central Asia to Anatolia and beyond. As with
many early and nomadic cultures, their first literary works were passed down orally from generation to generation through memorized stories, epics and songs. The Orkhon Inscriptions were the first evidence of an attempt at written Turkish literature. Discovered in a river valley in Mongolia, these inscriptions bear witness to written literary attempts by these unnamed poets and writers dating back to the eighth century. It is generally thought that, thereafter, the two traditions of written and oral literature and poetry existed and expanded side by side.
Oral Literature, Epics and Poems
Oral literature in Turkey was dominated by the local languages and dialects of the different people, tribes and groups that wandered the region. There was no standarized form of writing; indeed, there was no standardized common language. For a long time, memory and stories were the only records of Turkish folklore and tales. Folk tales in the form of epics recounted the adventures, dramas and problems of their heroes, often teaching and revealing much about the values and morals of the culture to which they belonged.
One example is the story of Keloglan, a young boy whose troubles involve finding a wife, trying to help his mother and settling disputes among neighbors. Oral epics were always recited or sung in verse; often, the poetry of folk literature was first sung as lyrics to music before its evolution into recited poems. In Ottoman times, the tradition of epics continued with a widespread oevre, one titled Epic of Köroglu. The tales describe the adventures of Rüsen Ali, the son of a blind man, in his quest to avenge the blinding of his father.
In contrast to the varied dialects of oral literature, written literature used a standardized language — Arabic or Persian — as well as composition, forms and themes from the influence of Persia and Arabia. That influence mingled with the original Turkish words to the extent that the unique language of the Ottoman Empire emerged. Poetry written during that period is known as Divan Literature, meaning the collected works of a particular poet.
Poetry was the mainstream of written literature, with nonfiction prose taking a definite backseat and prose fiction far out of sight. Not until the 19th century, did Turkish prose include fiction; until then, prose was reserved for instructions, science, math and recording of events and history. A notable prose work, an extensive travelogue describing areas of the Middle East and Europe, was written in the 17th century by Evliya Celebi.
The introduction of Islam into Turkish culture in the ninth and tenth centuries was well suited to this mixed oral and written tradition. Mohammed, the Prophet of Islam, was told by the Angel Gabriel to “recite” his messages to the people. Thus, the angel’s command to “recite” has traditionally been taken as an order to memorize and be able to recite long passages of the holy book. For a culture that already had a long tradition of oral literature, this fit in perfectly with what they already knew and practiced.
The conversion of the Turks to Islam also resulted in a strong influence of religious themes on poetry, particularly in relation to the mysticism of the Sufi. Poetry can be divided into secular poems (asik), which were recited at festivities and often contained erotic elements, and religious poems (tekkes).
With the decline and eventual demise of the Ottoman Empire came a change in literature. For one, French styles emerged, exerting their influence on Turkish writers, particularly poets, as new poetic forms were introduced. The founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal, initiated the creation of a modified Latin alphabet to replace the Arabic-based script of the Ottomans. Poets and other writers also adopted the French language to for writing, as was necessary in order to gain recognition and readers from Europe and an increasingly Westernized world.
At the beginning of the 20th century, however, a nationalist literary movement arose, which emphasized Turkish roots, writers and literary heritage. A magazine called Servet-i-Fünun, featuring Turkish writers and poets, was one the first of its kind to be founded in Turkey. Further movements followed, including the National Literature Movement. Fiction in the form of novels, often referred to as “village novels” because of the themes depicted, as well as short stories entered the world of Turkish literature.
Two famous modern Turkish writers are Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak. Pamuk is the Nobel Prize laureate of 2006, who became known for the political controversy surrounding his person and opinions. He was charged with “insulting Turkishness” when he criticized Turkey’s treatment of minorities and its record on human rights. The charges were ultimately dropped. The other writer, Elif Shafak, is an acclaimed French-born female Turkish writer and novelist. She also wrote the foreword to “Tales from the Expat Harem — Foreign Women in Modern Turkey,” an anthology by 32 expatriate women from 7 nations and 5 continents about their lives in modern Turkey. The book has been published in Turkey as well as in the US.
Reading in modern-day Turkey is not yet popular, perhaps because average wages are low and book prices high. Turkey does, however, have two prestigious national literary awards coveted by Turkish poets and writers - the Mevlana Prize and the Union of Turkish Writers Prize.