A Tale of Five Cities

The sun rises behind the Blue Mosque in the Sultanahmet area of Istanbul on February 22, 2012 in Istanbul, Turkey. ( Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The sun rises behind the Blue Mosque in the Sultanahmet area of Istanbul on February 22, 2012 in Istanbul, Turkey. ( Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Wednesday saw the start of the fifth annual Istanbul Tanpınar Literature Festival. The festival is organized by the Kalem literary agency, a dominant representative of Turkish literature in the international market, and was named in honor of the great Turkish author Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar. This is not only because he is the most important writer in Kalem’s pantheon, but also because he has written most evocatively about Istanbul.

Speaking to The Majalla, Fatma Cihan Akkartal, who is coordinating this year’s festival, says that Tanpınar is not only an iconic figure in Turkish literature, he is also a figure of reconciliation. For most of his life, Tanpınar’s works were ignored by the secular, modernizing Kemalist regime because he did not identify squarely with their agenda. The deep nostalgia about the loss of cultural capital that accompanied Turkish modernization, a topic that Tanpınar presciently wrote about in the early years of the Republic, has made him a particularly topical writer in Turkey today. He has had an ascendant reputation in the past decade or so, as an author who anticipated the troubles of modernization and foresaw that neither top-down modernization nor religion were an answer to Turkey’s problems.

The festival is perhaps the foremost literary event in the cultural calendar of the city, the seeds of which were sown in 2008 when Turkey was selected as the Market Focus country at the Frankfurt book fair. The international interest that Turkish literature received after the event only reiterated the need for a platform in Turkey itself for international and Turkish publishers and authors to meet. The first Tanpınar Literature Festival was organized in 2009 in recognition of this need, with eighty participating authors.

Despite having “Istanbul” in its name, the festival has sought to spread its remit beyond Turkey’s largest metropolitan city ever since its inception. Since 2010, the festival program has also included events in Anatolian cities such as Van, Mersin and Antakya. “The festival program this year will include events in Ankara, Erzurum, Konya and Bursa in addition to Istanbul,” says Akkartal. This focus on Anatolian cities is a recognition of the need to bring literary events to cities outside Istanbul, as well as to spread awareness among international audiences of other Turkish cities. It also aims to give literary circles and writers outside of Istanbul (where most of the publishing industry in Turkey is based) contact with international writers and publishers.

The five cities that will host the festival are the cities that Tanpınar wrote about in his seminal work, Beş Şehir (“Five Cities”). Perhaps the most exciting and unique output of the festival will be the fact that the guest of honor at this year’s festival, the Argentine author Alberto Manguel, will be traveling to all of Tanpınar’s five cities and will write about his own experiences with and encounters in each. This work, which will be written in English but first translated and published in Turkish, will be a unique interaction between Manguel and Tanpınar’s different images of the cities and an attempt to grapple with the question of what makes a city either “Eastern” or “Western.” Akkartal acknowledges that the project could be charged with being “self-orientalizing”—except Manguel will be an engaged, informed and critical voice who will undoubtedly add to the reader’s understanding of the cities, as well as Tanpınar’s work.

In addition to Manguel’s take on Tanpınar’s cities, the festival will produce an anthology of thirty texts based upon this year’s theme, “City and game,” written by its visiting authors. In recognition of its roots as an urban festival, every year the festival has a theme encompassing the city itself. Last year, it was “City and fear.” The theme this year was inspired by a paragraph in Five Cities that notes all creation is a sort of game played by a bored god. The theme hopes to explore the link between creativity, boredom and writing. In addition to being a platform for participating authors to showcase their work, the festival will also offer fellowships to a number of professionals, including publishers, editors and translators.

This year’s Tanpınar Literature Festival promises to be bigger and more ambitious than any of its previous incarnations and, if anything, this trend is set to continue. Next year’s festival will be held in the spring, rather than the autumn, in order to attract an even wider international and local audience under the theme of “City and journey.” Those who cannot attend this year’s events would do well to mark the dates for next year in their calendars.

The Istanbul Tanpınar Literature Festival runs from October 30 to November 3, 2013.


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