Perihan Magden: "If people offend my country I do feel Turkish"

December 2008 -

Perihan Magden (Istanbul, 1960) latest novel Who were we running from, mother is about the fears she felt when she was prosecuted and taunted because of her support of a conscientious objector. "I feared for my life," says Magden in an interview about her books, her life and the power of a columnist.


"That was very frightening," she recalls the time of the trial in 2006 when a mob in the court called her a whore. "It happens all the time in my country," she tells. "Every half a year there is something. And now it became part of my life. At the time of the trial I was very depressed and the book has also become very depressed. It is about a mother and a daughter who are fleeing from something. The reader doesn't know what they are running from. The mother is 'overmothering'. She tries to protect her daughter against the cruel world. At the end the mother is shot by the military and when she is lying dead on the floor she gets kicked by one of the soldiers. And the daughter is sitting there and is watching. That is how it ends. It still sends shivers down my spine when I think about it. I feared for my life at that time. By mobbing your trial they put marks on you. You become national news and you become a national bitch. I wrote the last scene of my book to shorten my fear. But then I thought it would cause me trouble. But now I don't feel that fear anymore. Our relationship with Turkey is cyclonic. In Turkey things become tense and then it relaxes, it looks as if it relaxes, but then a horrible thing happens again. So we have this fake appearance of rest, a peaceful period. Now it is peaceful."

Can you now go outside without fear?
"Yes, also because they don't know my face. I am not popular in that way, as a person. I rarely give interviews and in my pictures I look different. I choose to not be famous that way. I am famous enough. I protect myself by not appearing on television. That enables me to write what I want to write. After Hrant Dinks murder, people were really frightened and they started auto censoring what they write. I did the opposite. I became like a rabid dog. Because it infuriates me. It is unjust. He was probably murdered because he was an Armenian. They always shoot the Armenians. That is our history and it is very sad. They don't want to admit that there was a genocide and if you don't admit it you can't confront it. These sort of things are always in the way of Turkey becoming a real democratic country. The democracy we have now is a very strange type of democracy. I call it a military democracy. Not like
Pakistan. It's not so obvious. But the military is omnipotent. They have an incredible budget and they are not accountable. We hardly know how much they spend. They need the Turkish war in the southeast, because this justifies their omnipotent status. The bureaucracy, justice system and military in a way don't want us to be part of the European Union. But we are going in that direction, although they are opposed to it."

Do you think you play a role in this change?
"Maybe, I don't know. I wrote jokes about the army, about fanatics and received a lot of hate mail on internet but I don't care. It is like I am scratching away at a large block of ice. One day it will crack."

Is that the power of a columnist?
"I think columnists in Turkey have an incredible power. Everybody is very keen on reading columns. They want opinions. Maybe it is because there are not many good journalists. Readers find things in the columns which they don't find in the articles and they are addicted. For me it was incredible to become an opinion maker, it's a big responsibility. After Radikal asked me to write a column for them, I became politically involved."

What makes you do all this as a single mother? Don't you ask yourself 'should I do this or should I do that'?
"Sometimes. This winter my picture appeared in one headline with the words 'give this ugly woman what she's worth' or something like that. In such a period when I really get cornered I feel very bad. And then I worry about my safety. I decide to move abroad. I check the internet to look at houses. After the murder on Hrant Dink I wanted to leave for America, but then again I decided to stay. My problem is that anything I write I find very normal. In European eyes all I write is very normal. I write very pro-democratic, very pro-European and anti-militaristic."

How did you become so 'non-turkish' so to speak?
"I don't know. First of all I was raised by a single mother and she was very bohemian, very different, very strange, but very interesting. Then I went to an English and an American school in Turkey. My mother divorced when I was ten years old and we became like outcasts. We were part of the upper-middle class and were not wanted. A divorce was something shocking. It was too much. I think being outcast from Turkish society maybe sets me free of their standards."

That makes me think about the narrator of Murder of the messenger boys, who is also an outcast and the only person who has another vision while the rest is lying constantly.
Everybody says that a first book is always biographical and this is my first book. And as well as the narrator I came back after a long journey and being back in Istanbul I had this terrible feeling of strangeness, completely not belonging to turkishness. I wanted to establish where I belonged in the city. When I was travelling in Asia I thought that I had to start with a serious real live, with a job, with a family, married. But I didn't really want it. So I was delaying that. I started drinking and writing. The book is very much a reflection of my feelings at that time. I didn't want this book to be a Turkish book. I even didn't want this book to be a Turkish woman's book. I wrote this out of place, out of concept, out of time book as a reflection of my live. It is about a murder mystery. It is about dangers in a society."

Some themes of the book are obsessive love, the longing for death and alienation. What is the most important theme for you?
"For me it is also about how superior people like these messenger boys are alienated from their societies. How they don't fit in and they long to die because life is tedious for them. Maybe it is also a reflection of my past, because I was a project child of my mother. You know, I went to the best schools, in a way I was superior to the society, I was like a messenger boy. But I was feeling so cut off and so depressed in a way."

Did you also think about Turks in Germany and Holland, who are partly cut off from society?
"No, not at all. I don't know anybody like that. In fact, the inspiration for messenger boys was a nazi-project. They took beautiful blonde women and paired them with German soldiers to make the best Arian race. The children were brought up by the nazi's and not by their mothers. They were project children. I read an article in a magazine about this Lebensbornprogramma. As a child I had already heard about it from a friend of my mother who told that she met such a project child in Germany. It always fascinated me."

Do you feel more Turkish now then when you came back from Asia?
"I don't feel more Turkish. I am too much from Istanbul to feel Turkish. I think that Istanbul should be a city-state. In a way I am very cut off from society. I can't see myself as part of it. But if people offend my country I do feel Turkish. I don't like that anybody non-Turkish hates my country. As a Turk I have a love hate relation with my country."

During Winternachten 2009 Perihan Magden participates in How to bluff your way in Turkish Literature. Besides there is a screening of the movie Two girls based on her bestseller from 2002.