Δευτέρα, 3 Οκτωβρίου 2016

An interview with Turkish-Cypriot poet Mehmet Yaşin

Mehmet Yaşin. Copyright: Stratos Prousalis.
Our blog στίγμαΛόγου has discussed Cypriot poets, has run a mini research on Cyprus publishers (through two interview, one with the great Vassos Ptochopoulos from Aegeon publications and one with Katerina Voskaridou from Technodromion publications). It has even presented a Turkish poetry anthology and now it's the time to take a look at the Turkish Cypriot side. This interview was spurred by the launch of the Greek book of Mehmet Yaşin "Άγγελοι εκδικητές" (published by vakxikon.gr publications) at the "House of Cyprus". We spoke about poetry, homeland and identity and, although I was ready to hear something that would reflect, even unconsciously, the invader's side, I only heard a strong personal truth that resists prevailing narratives. 

Christina Linardaki: Mr. Yaşin, in στίγμαΛόγου we know some Turkish poets and we have published some of their poems, but you are the first Turkish-Cypriot poet I’ve come to know.

Mehmet Yaşin: The definition is quite problematic, I mean to describe someone as a Turkish poet, Turkish-Cypriot poet or Cypriot poet or Greek poet. I don’t think that my work can pertain to this or that ethnic identity. And I don’t share any community’s or any nation’s point of view; surely everyone is affected by his family, his friends, the school in which he got educated… Of course everyone has some cultural, linguistic or emotional sharings. But I grew up in very cosmopolitan places in Cyprus and I had seen a lot of things already when I was 17 years old and I also have a sense of belonging to many cities, including Athens (I used to live in Athens as well, I participated in a Greek language summer school at the University of Athens). So I don’t feel that I represent an identity. 

Christina Linardaki: And you don’t want to, most probably.

Mehmet Yaşin: Even if I wanted… some Cypriot poets for instance try to describe themselves as Greek poets, but they are not so easily accepted by Greek literary critics as Greek poets. It is part of our visions, where we belong. In the end of the day, you see, literary critics define where we belong, but for myself I couldn’t define. This is a Greek anthology (he is holding Austerity Measures) and I am here as a Greek poet. So, I mean my work is published in anthologies, Turkish anthologies (mainland Turkey), English ones (because I am a British citizen, I used to live in England for many years), Cypriot anthologies, Turkish-Cypriot anthologies and now Greek anthologies. So, I don’t know which perspective is closer to me or if I have any identical perspective with them.

Christina Linardaki: I see what you mean. But there is of course a story that is being told about Cyprus and this story has two different sides. And certainly you’ve listened to the one side of the story when you were young and, when you grew up, you listened to the other side of the story as well.

Mehmet Yaşin: It’s my personal story. There are of course communal, social and other stories, but they become one with personal, individual things.

Christina Linardaki: There is no other way, in the end, to see the world but from within… Do you know this book? It’s a Greek anthology again [I show him the “Poetry of the Greek crisis”].

Mehmet Yaşin: Again Greek crisis.

Christina Linardaki: Yes.

Mehmet Yaşin: This is great. I would love to read it. Let me see, which of my friends are here – most probably [goes through Contents, mentions some names]. I know some of them! Yes, interesting… I have to go to your website and read about it. It is on your website, isn’t it?

Christina Linardaki: No, it isn’t. I read it during summertime and I am going to write about it now. But, you see, I have a paper in there and it points to a poem written by poet George Ttoouli who lives in England.

Mehmet Yaşin: Did he write it in English?

Christina Linardaki: I think he wrote it in Greek and then it was translated, as with all the other poems in this book. But, the opening verse of this poem reads “I watched a cockroach walk beneath the barricades”. The anthology is about the Greek crisis, but he writes about Cyprus. So the question is: could you have written such a verse?

Mehmet Yaşin: Well, I don’t know. How could I know?

Christina Linardaki: You don’t know because you don’t identify with this.

Mehmet Yaşin: It is possible or not possible. I don’t know at the moment. Why are you asking?

Christina Linardaki: Because it implies that an insect can cross the barricades, when…

Mehmet Yaşin: [he interrupts] Yes, it’s a very popular metaphor. Many people use pigeons, cats, dogs or donkeys. Donkeys pass without problem. The metaphor is the same, only the animal changes. But the cockroach here is more striking. Actually, I don’t know because I’m not very keen on barricades and I never pass the barricades to make intercommunal meetings. I went to Greek parts of Cyprus either from Athens or London, not through the barricades. After the barricades were opened, in 2003, and became checkpoints, I didn’t pass for many, many years.  And then I had to pass because my daughter is studying on the Greek side. Now I pass only by car, I mean driving. I don’t want to walk and to see. So I always drive. Even if I am at some place which is very close to the barricade, I don’t pass it on foot. But the Cypriots always like to dramatize themselves, to arouse pity. In Nicosia Greek and Turkish characters appear as cosmopolitan characters. Why victimize Nicosia? Give it back its glory! I wanted to present it, in my recent novel, as a cosmopolitan metropolis. It’s European, maybe small, but it still carries the old glorious times of Levant, because all neighbouring countries send their children to Cyprus to get an education. In Cyprus, life is European and in restaurants, in each table, you can hear more than three languages being spoken. There is no single language. So, I want to present that glorious side, enough of victimizing ourselves. All these things make me different. I gave a talk about it in Lyon University, in a Hellenic Studies Conference (you see people invite me in Hellenic bookfairs, Hellenic conferences… and it wasn’t the first time I accepted) where, to be safe, they chose the title “Love poems from Cypriot poets”, which is supposedly safe, not talking politics. But they read they are separated from their lovers like Pentadaktylos Mountain or my heart is hurt as if the wires of the barricades hurt it, all these metaphors about politics and pitying and also a strong male voice (what is this? as if we were in the late 19th century, anachronism, you know?). I mean, more than Seferis’ heroic voice, but Seferis is a great poet. Then, this kind of male heroic voice makes references to things like from Byron times. In mythology this thing doesn’t make you Έλληνα, it makes you Ελληνόφιλο. Because in normal everyday life, you are Greek and you don’t need to use metaphors from the Greek mythology in order to be Greek.

Christina Linardaki: I see your point. Now, your translator in Greek, Mr. Ainalis, has pointed out that there is a connection between you and the first post-war literary generation, like Anagnostakis, Leivaditis, Gatsos…

Mehmet Yaşin: I’ve never read them! Or perhaps I’ve read them and I don’t remember it. I mean, I didn’t read them like I did Cavafy, Ritsos… but I can claim I know Cavafy well. I even wrote some essays on Cavafy and Seferi in Σύγχρονα θέματα many years ago. I have my own point of view, my own understanding of Cavafy, Seferis, Elytis. And of course I know more classical ones like Solomos, Andreas Kalvos and I have a pretty good idea, but I don’t know the poets that my translator is mentioning! I would like to read some of them in translation.

Christina Linardaki: I don’t think that many of them are translated. Leivaditis is, perhaps Gatsos is as well, but Anagnostakis I strongly doubt it…

Mehmet Yaşin: I wanted to search for them, google them, but I didn’t have the time…

Christina Linardaki: You come from a family of writers. Your father is a writer and your brother is a writer too.

Mehmet Yaşin: No, my sister is, you mentioned her name earlier [before the recording started].

Christina Linardaki: Oh, Nese Yasin is your sister? But of course! You have the same surname. How much has this “tradition” in your family affected you? Did it play a role in you becoming a writer as well?

Mehmet Yaşin: There is more. You only mentioned my father’s side. From my mother’s side there is a famous English-writing Cypriot poet, my second cousin, Tayner Baybars, who also wrote in Turkish and French; he has died now. My great-uncle from my mother’s side was an Ottoman author. So, from both sides, my mother’s and my father’s, there was an interest in literature. Again, my great-uncle’s son was the founder of one of the greatest Turkish-Cypriot publishing houses. And my father also got such a house in Cyprus publishing a weekly journal. So… it was destiny! Now, my daughter has decided to become an author and she even got a young authors’ prize in England, when she was 9-10 years old.

Christina Linardaki: Congratulations!

Mehmet Yaşin: Congratulations? I don’t know… My only hope is that she is interested in fiction, I mean novels, more than poetry and she intends to write in English, so perhaps she will survive.

Christina Linardaki: I understand what you mean.

Mehmet Yaşin: I wrote about it, too! I had a Michigan talk and I spoke about my family’s “tradition”, because my cousin that I mentioned is also the first English translator of Nazim Hikmet. He is the one who introduced Hikmet to the English world. Because, as a Cypriot, he had nothing to do with the Turkish political authority. It could do nothing to him. He doesn’t publish in Turkish, he lives in Great Britain. And also he translated my works, before he died, into English. I spoke in Michigan about my family’s relations, including recent family, and about the lesson I’ve learned from them: not to represent any identity. Because each of them identified themselves with some flags, even though each of them was progressive in their time. But I don’t want to represent the Cypriot identity: it is represented by my sister. Surely I understand that, but I would like to be free from identities and I am trying, at least, to be flagless. Imagine: in Turkish literary things, there was some critic (actually Nazim Hikmet’s son), one of those who appreciated my poems and published my work; he made a statement that because, during the Cold War, Hikmet was forbidden in Turkey, so younger generations grew up not being able to read Hikmet or some other left-wing Turkish authors, and this affected very badly Turkish literature, poetic tradition and all that. Some of these authors escaped to Bulgaria then… But this didn’t apply to me. I used to read all the works of Nazim Hikmet when I was very young, in Cyprus. They were published in Bulgaria, because Bulgarian Turks are very strong, so they published all these left-wing authors in Bulgaria. And the Bulgarian Embassy brought them as a present to my father in Cyprus, because he was a journalist. So, I was able to read them. You see, I have this kind of differences with mainland Turkish authors, and also because I am familiar with Greek poets. I have…

Christina Linardaki: A different point of view.

Mehmet Yaşin: Yes, and also e.g. my cousin who wrote in English, he used more Ottoman language, because he didn’t experience the purification of the Turkish language, which was very strict in Turkey. But my father grew up in Turkey and came to Cyprus later, when he was 18. His language was pure Istanbul language, while my mother’s and my cousin’s language is Turkish Nicosian language. So I’m feeling multilingual in Turkish too, in some sense.

Christina Linardaki: Mr. Ainalis mentions that you belong to the literary generation of 1974.

Mehmet Yaşin: Yes, they say that in Cyprus, they try to make a generalization. And in Turkey they talk about the 1980s generation. Each country has its own generations and it’s helpful for the critics, but generations don’t last for decades.

Christina Linardaki: One last question: are you happy that your work has been translated into Greek?

Mehmet Yaşin: Of course I am, especially so when my country’s main language is Greek and I’ve been translated into 23 languages and just now they ‘ve discovered me and translated me into Greek.

Christina Linardaki: Better late than never.

Mehmet Yaşin: Correct. And I hope they will want to translate more of my work.

Christina Linardaki: So if I ask you what is your homeland, what will you reply? The whole world?

Mehmet Yaşin: No, that wouldn’t be true. “The whole world” is abstract. Home is everywhere there is a Turkish and Greek element. This morning I woke up and I swam in Paleo Faliro, you know… This is my world.

At the "House of Cyprus". Copyright: Stratos Prousalis.

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