Burhan Sönmez, Istanbul

This time at Slow Words we break the mould because we must.

Poetry and words can change the world and sometimes trying to do so is a one-way trip.

Once I’ve met a fantastic writer who was loving Pasolini and chewing the canovaccio of Boccaccio in Decameron and I was crying when listening to him describing why he returned back home, even if home can mean danger until death.

What he is stubborn to call his home is a state which is extremely familiar to military golpes. If we do fully believe to the one of 2016, others were preceding it: 1960, 1971, 1980.

All these coups were switching off the most ordinary rights and bringing hundreds of thousands citizens – of course, the opponents – in the subterranean jails being tortured and often being murdered and, when it was easy, just under illegal detentions.

Imagine, so, a nation under a continuous or recurring torture state as happened in Italy in some moments of the history (the recent one at G8, Genoa, 2001).

After every golpe, a long last of prosperity inundated the country.

The country is, as the old Europe, a place tired for so much civilization and history, given it is drenching in the Ottoman Empire and beyond.

We speak of the Turkey of nowadays, at which the Old Europe denied to enter the EU.

Have you ever heard of Burhan Sönmez?


Born in Turkey (as Kurd) in 1965, precisely close to Ankara (the actual capital), Sönmez worked as an human rights lawyer in Istanbul and was a founder of the social-activist culture organization TAKSAV (Foundation for Social Research, Culture and Art).

He loved literature and wrote poems but turned to literature and become a successful novelist.

He is also member of PEN in Turkey and England.

After a 1996 incident with the Turkish police in which he was assaulted and badly hurt, Sönmez left for rehabilitation in Britain with help from the Freedom from Torture Foundation, and he continued to live in political exile in Britain but now he settled back in Istanbul after an interval spent in Ankara.*

He is the youngest recipient of the Sedat Simavi Literature Prize for his second novel, Sins and Innocents.

Sönmez’s novel, Istanbul, Istanbul, debuted this spring from OR Books in English and is translated in 40 languages, Italian included (for Nottetempo: the author is road-showing Italy in these days to present his latest one Labyrinth).

I read the novel in less than one night and could not stop.

He threw a total body of poetry throughout all the novel, in various stabbing forms – shaping here the beauty, here the sorrow, here the rage, there the lack of hope and its opposite and brushing everywhere the unusual interpretation of time for Turkish and, above all, the dreams potential.

Given he is still there where – of course within other millions of inhabitants, not only the Kurdish people – he can be again tortured and even killed, we do not want to speak of politics or just of the book. We wish to break the mould, as told.


Are you teaching to more male or female students in your classes in Ankara, can you tell us the figures? Which kind of classes do you like? Do you parallel Turkish and not Turkish writers in your teaching?

Students are mostly female. They show interest in literature more. I teach post-graduate students and it is in English. We talk about authors and critics from Virginia Woolf to Umberto Eco. I prefer small classes, it shall not have more then twelve students, or fifteen at the most. Now I live in Istanbul.*


Your love for movies is like an overflowing river: which is the movie director you would wish for one of your novels (and which one you would love to turn in moving images)?

Kurosawa, Tarkovsky and Kieslowski are dead. Costa Gavras might like my last novel “Istanbul Istanbul”.


You told me in Venice that you’re going to publish a poetry collection: can you anticipate something for us? Is it in Kurdish or in Turkish? Is it just word or there will be pictures?

Poetry has its own time for me. I write in Turkish and it shall wait a bit longer to come up to surface to meet people.


Is it true that tears and blood have the same flavour, the same scent and the same temperature?

And they have the same taste, salty. We might have different colours in our skins or eyes, but we all are the same in the colour of our blood or tears. Then why all this fight on the earth? Everyone of us will eventually feed the soil with flesh, bones, blood and tears. Let’s hope the soil grow a better plant out of us.


Did you ever noted that Istanbul Istanbul, – if we exclude the terrific but horrible drawing of the map of the cells of the prison and its strata of atrocity sweetly melted in the aforementioned poetry and in irony – is the best touristic manifesto for this government and this city in this precise moment?

You made beauty prevailing over everything, including the worst kind of death.

When I began to write this novel, years ago, I didn’t expect it would be a current picture of today’s Turkey. Had I known it, would I change my mind or the plot? I don’t think so. Because, through the pain, I wanted to draw attention to the beauty – the beauty of the city, of the men, of the stories. I know the authorities try to get rid of beauty and glorify the pain while we try the opposite.


Your secret place in Istanbul (the upper one!) and your secret one in Ankara – the places you like to be to go slower and, if you still do so in public spaces, to read.

I have a few places some are little hiding corners while others in the midst of the crowd.


Can you throw a question – and a tip for a poem to read, even if not yours – to Mr Erdogan?

Have you ever read any part of Divine Comedy by Dante – not the whole book because it is very thick book?


This is the question with which we always end our questionnaire: what did you learn so far from the life?

Believe in life and never forget about death.




To learn more about the writer: www.burhansonmez.com


To learn more, or to buy Istanbul Istanbul:


To read the first chapters of either Istanbul Istanbul and Labyrinth, click here on his tag.

*This interview has been first written on 2017 and then updated on 2019


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