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Writers' Room: Perihan Mağden

  • By Canan Marasligil
  • 9th April 2013
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Turkish author, poet and journalist Perihan Mağden talks to our Translator in Residence Canan Marasligil about the trials of journalism, giving a voice to the unheard, and having her book 'murdered' by a translator.



Why do you write?

“I write because I have no choice” is an appealing, convenient and well-liked answer. I might go for that; not for its ready-made comfort, but there have been times when I felt like that. Not frequent enough though – I wish that were the case.

It sure is a self-torture. It sure has to do with a victorious  – though damaged – ego. Well, I stumbled upon the right word: damaged. I seem to be damaged and that's how I am trying to put my pieces together. “Does it work?” is another question, worthy of a completely different answer. 

How do you write? And where?

I still write by hand in A4-sized notebooks, sitting at my desk. I rarely work at night or in the morning. I do not like to be clogged or sleepy or sleep-deprived. So the early afternoon is my preferred time to write. 

Next to writing fiction, you held a weekly column in various Turkish newspapers for years, the most recent in the paper Taraf . Why did you quit your column? And do you miss it? Are there certain things you believe you can more easily say in a novel than in a column?

Yes, I sure miss my column. Would a vampire miss being a vampire? It is that sort of a feeling.

First of all, it brings immense immediate gratification: a huge relief at getting things out of your chest, a feeling of self-importance, a delusion that you are making a difference. It also brings incredulous amounts of misery, trouble, nervous energy and an endless chances for self-pity. You may easily spend your life within the role of La Victime! As a lead, mind you. Let us also add that it brings notoriety, power and  boosts of self importance!

My column-writings (shall dare to call them essays?) were political, whereas my novels are psychological. I was endlessly sued, became sick and tired of the prosecutors, the judges, the lawyers, the court-houses. I also had enough of the negative attention; maybe the 'evil-eyes'. (That's a big Turkish superstition)

I had had enough of my own self as the columnist as well. I happen to believe in self-discipline, you see. Turkey has such a hard time embracing freedom of speech; as long as that does not change, I do not want to cast myself in this ridiculous role of Perihan D'arc, basically.

In your novels, you give a voice to the unheard, like the two orphans of your novel Ali and Ramazan: based on a true story from the news in the nineties. Was it because their story hadn't been heard enough that you wanted to write it in fiction? Do you think fiction is necessary to give a voice to the unheard?

If I would pop up with holier-than-thou statement “Yes, fiction is necessary to give a voice to the unheard”, it would not only be phony, but also unfair to where I struggle to stand with my novels. My novels are deeply psychological, and therefore deeply personal.

It seems that your readers truly care about your characters' stories because you also care deeply about them: that you are sincere, and the way you fictionalise them comes from your heart. How does writing about these characters affect you? Did it hurt to put Ali and Ramazan's or any other character's story on the page?

Ali and Ramazan's tragic story haunted me for years and years, because at some deep and genuine level I associated with those orphans. Maybe (perversely) identified with them. While writing it, I was Ramazan: not exactly Ali, but so much of me poured towards him, towards them. I had the photographs of the murder scene, their mug shots, Ramazan's corpse lying on the ground: they were there on my desk during the whole time I was writing the novel. They were there in a file: not always in the open (it would have been too much); but on my desk constantly, reminding me how sad their story was, how real, how inevitable.

After writing my last sentence, I went out for a walk. Suddenly I started crying. For them, for myself, for everyone and everything. I cried for half an hour – to this day, I cannot bring myself to read the book. It makes me so upset, leaves me so disturbed. I believe whenever we cry for others we are also crying for ourselves; this is inevitable. With most of my novels I live this deep association, identification. My book Escape is and was very autobiographical.

My novels are auto-biographical in a psychological, even spiritual way. Therefore they are always very disturbing to work on. Even when they are finished I am not done with them. I always find them unbearable to read, to confront: both because of my endless dissatisfaction as an artist and because I feel like not wanting to listen to my own voice – like hearing a recording of my voice talking to a psychiatrist. 

You'll soon be at Free Word for Your Voice; My Voice, in conversation with novelist Neel Mukherjee as part of our Translators in Residence programme. Your works have been translated across the globe: how do you feel about that? Do you like to be involved in the translation of your work? And how does it feel to hear or read your texts in another language?

Translation is a huge problem. I can only read in English – thank God! – and whenever I need to check the work, I find it pretty unbearable. I feel like I was robbed; my language was, if not better, completely different. With one translation I felt – and to this day I feel – that my novel was murdered. It was done so sloppily, so lazily, so shamelessly.

People always compliment my German translations – and with such cases I am inordinately thankful to my translator. Maybe they are salvaging my books ; even making them better than they actually are. That is like winning the lottery for a writer: to find the right translator.

Your latest novel, Star Wounded, was published in Turkish in November 2012 and tells the story of a young girl secretly living in a celebrity's mansion. What do you think the way we treat our celebrities says about people and our societies?

I am interested in stars somehow; they are rare (the real ones) and too problematic to ignore. Besides, we happen to live in star-struck times. Very many are voyeurs or exhibitionists; minor stars or well-behaved stalkers. So it's the yin and yang of postmodern times.

But my novel's setting (the mansion of a star) is a stage for growing up, coming of age: of being wounded and learning how to lick it. I am trying to explore the land of adoration, infatuation, fascination: getting completely lost and then finding yourself, your path as a new person: a grown-up, that unlikeable state.

A very loose bildungsroman maybe; how a star (or a mother, lover, dominatrix) may steal your childlike innocence, dreaminess and force you into the real world. A world where your star is not twinkling, but deeply suffering and hurting.

What are you reading? And how is it?

I just finished reading The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Janet Malcolm. An excellent book dealing with the problems of biographies and biography-writing. I shall proceed to read her Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice.

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