"I write only when I desperately need to tell the story in my mind", says Esmahan Aykol in an email interview about Hotel Bosphorus, her debut novel now out from Bitter Lemon Press in the UK. Originally published in Turkey in 2001, then in Germany, the book grew out of Aykol’s own experiences as a Turk studying for her PhD in Law at Humboldt University in Berlin. "I was very unhappy, being a Turk in Germany. I was sick of the prejudiced questions I was asked, about alcohol, headscarves and so on… Not all Turks are Muslim. There is everything in Turkey – agnostics, atheists, Buddhists, like many other places in the world. Even if all Turks were Muslim, not all Muslims are the same. I was even asked if I was aware of Mozart! How can you underestimate a person, a culture in such a way? So I was determined to show that there are ‘different’ Turks, far from the stereotyped images".
In addition to German, the Kati Herschel novels (three to date) have been translated into another eight languages, including French, Spanish, Greek and Serbian. In Italy, the second book is currently in the best-seller list published in La Repubblica, one of Italy’s best-known newspapers, more proof perhaps that Aykol’s refreshing, thoroughly modern and intriguing heroine, has an appeal that goes beyond national barriers.
Kati has German parents, but was brought up in Istanbul speaking fluent Turkish – essential, says Aykol "to understand the "cultural differences, interpret gestures and avoid misunderstandings."
"Her father is a Jewish law professor," she adds, "an intellectual like many who fled to Turkey from German fascism. For instance, Ernst Reuter, who later became the mayor of Berlin was one of them." Another such emigrant was Ernst Hirsch, also a professor of law, and a key inspiration for Aykol. On returning to Germany after the war, grateful for his Turkish experiences, Hirsch became the first Chancellor of Berlin’s prestigious Free University. It is a source of great pride to Aykol that his son Enver, born in Istanbul, would later read Hotel Bosphorus and recognise the similarities between his own background and that of the fictional Kati. Enver went on to contact Aykol at a reading in Munich. They have remained in touch ever since.
Aykol’s own heritage is, of course, Turkish, though with Balkan roots. Born in 1970 in Edirne, close to both Greece (Macedonia) and Bulgaria, the family moved to Istanbul soon after. "Migrating must be in the genes" she remarks, even her grandparents (on both sides) did the same. "Both my parents studied law, my mother did not practice, and worked as a Turkish teacher, and is now retired. My father is still practising as a lawyer."
Was it a reading family? "My father was interested in history and Marxist theory and my mother read lots and lots of crime fiction. It was quite a rich library and most importantly they never told me I am too young to read this or that book. I had to decide by myself which book to read. I think this was lucky."
Later Aykol graduated from a boarding school in Bornova, near Izmir, returning to Istanbul to study law at Istanbul University, supporting herself by " working for various Turkish newspapers and in radio as a journalist".
But always she knew "that one day I am going to be a writer. Now I think it was a good decision to study law: you learn to think analytically which is elementary in writing novels." And journalism? "Through journalism I have learned to listen to people. Readers and critics find the dialogue in my novels strong. A cleaning lady talks like a cleaning lady." But why crime? "A crime novel came out" says Aykol, "because I always loved the genre."
Crime fiction, though Turks prefer the term detective fiction, has had a chequered history in Turkey. Early inspiration came from French writers such as Ponson du Terrail whose Rocambole stories were first translated into Turkish in 1881. In 1884 Ahmet Mithat Efendi published Mysterious Murder, the first of several Turkish writers to adopt the genre. In 1907 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, visiting Istanbul (then Constantinople) with Jean Leckie, his new wife, was surprised to find a fan of his Sherlock Holmes stories in the last Ottoman emperor, Sultan Abdulhamid II, who had had them privately translated.
From the 1920s onwards, mainly under the enlightened Kemal Ataturk, the president of the first Turkish Republic, and until the 1960s, the genre would grow in popularity. But then political unrest culminating in the putsch of 1980, gave rise to the persecution of many Turkish writers, events that affected the reading habits of the young Aykol.
Later a new generation of Turkish crime writers came to the fore, Ahmet Ümit for example. In the early 1990s, Akif Pirinçci achieved international success with his Felidae novels, Celil Oker in Germany too. Later both Aykol and Mehmet Murat Somer with his Hop-Çiki-YaYa series, would emerge on the Turkish scene at about the same time, though Somer was the first to achieve translation into English. Many more remain remain untranslated.
Aykol herself reads widely. Pippi Longstocking was a childhood favourite, Agatha Christie was a staple of her mother’s library. Her own ‘criminal’ taste tends towards the noir, the Nestor Burma novels of Léo Malet (translated into Turkish), for instance – that French influence again – and (in English) James Ellroy. Patricia Highsmith is another personal favourite. Asked for Turkish writers we should look out for, she cites (for crime readers) Nobel prizewinner Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red, "a post-modern crime novel set in 16th century Istanbul." For non-crime readers she mentions Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar, whose A Mind at Peace was published in English in September 2010.
Not surprisingly then, Aykol is reluctant to be tied down to any particular genre. "I don’t think in literary categories when a story
comes to my mind. I just think if the story is worth telling, then I think of how best to tell it. I think it is restrictive for a writer to first think about the genre."
Indeed Aykol’s third novel, after two featuring Kati Herschel, is Savrulanlar (aka Goodbye Istanbul), a non-crime novel featuring Ece, a Turkish girl working at subsistence level in London. "It’s a novel about memories, migration, and love" says Aykol.
Returning to Kati however, why is she a non-professional rather than say, some form of detective – or even a lawyer. " We didn’t have any detective agencies back then" says Aykol. "And a lawyer… I don’t know. It is hard to say this, my father is one of them… but I find most lawyers boring. I am sure there are nice and loveable people who are lawyers but lawyers seem too serious to me. I wanted my heroine to be a fun person. I wanted her to be someone unconventional who has a sense of justice."
Does she pre-plan the writing or work more instinctively? "I usually don’t take notes or have lists of characters, " says Aykol. "But I do have a plot in mind. I know where the story is heading, when I start writing. By that I mean, I know how the story is going to end. If it is a crime novel I know who the murderer is. If it is a non-crime novel, I see the last scene before my eyes."
Hotel Bosphorus (and its successors) became best-sellers in Turkey and Germany. How did that come about? " In Turkey there was not much promotion by the publisher," says Aykol. "But it was a respected publishing house which was good for the book and it had indeed received good reviews in newspapers and in their book supplements. But I think word of mouth did it. I am also that type of a person – reading books my friends recommend." And in Germany? "In Germany the reviews the book receives are more important than it is in Turkey. I should add that people read a lot more in Germany than in Turkey, and the media and reviewers are more trusted."
Aykol speaks fluent German and has good English. Does she have any kind of relationship with her many translators? "I work very closely with my German translator", she says. "She is an old friend and I recommended her to my Swiss publisher. I exchange e-mails with my Greek translator, who was born and grew up in Istanbul, from time to time. I didn’t have the chance to contact to my other translators." And does she like the English translation of Hotel Bosphorus? "I read the English translation and liked it very much. It is flowing. I love the English language and it made me so happy to see my book appearing in English with such a good translation."
What reactions has she had to the book? "The most common reaction is that readers are curious to see Istanbul", responds Aykol. "Many readers tell me that they will definitely come to Istanbul or that they did already after reading the novels. Also what many people like is that the books can be read as a city guide. I mention cafés, restaurants, places in the book that are worth a visit. The most ridiculous reaction came from a Turkish journalist working for an Islamist- conservative newspaper. During the interview he asked me how I, as a married woman, could dare to write the love scenes in the book!"
Does Kati’s crime bookshop in Istanbul have any basis in fact? Sadly it turns out to exist only in Esmahan Aykol’s imagination. Crime or detective fiction is not a major genre in Turkey, and could not support a specialist bookshop. There are however many fine bookshops in Istanbul. Describing herself "one of those old-fashioned people who go to bookshops to buy books", Aykol’s own favourite Istanbul bookshop is Mephisto: "It’s on Istiklâl Caddesi, the pedestrian zone in Istanbul. They have a good selection of books, magazines, CD’s, DVD’s and a nice cafe where you can start reading books you just bought. The personnel is extremely friendly and helpful too."
And in Berlin, where Aykol spends several months each year? " Krimibuchhandlung Miss Marple in Charlottenburg. It is a crime fiction bookshop; the owner is herself a great reader. I also like the Totsicher in Prenzlauerberg. It is very close to my apartment in Berlin and they organise readings in a very cosy atmosphere."
What does she most enjoy about her life in two such contrasting cities. "In Istanbul I like the fact that I have close friends and I know a lot of people. I have even childhood friends here. I feel myself comfortable. In Berlin I don’t have a great number of friends. All my time belongs to me. Great for writing."
So what’s next for Esmahan Aykol? "I have recently been to Malawi", she says. "Médecins Sans Frontières asked me to write a story set there for an anthology which is going to be published in November by the Italian publishing house Feltrinelli. Amongst others, there will also be stories by Mario Vargas Llosa, Alicia Giménez Bartlett and Paolo Giordano. I am currently working on this story. I have almost finished a crime novel, the fourth Kati Hirschel. And I have an half-written novel set in Berlin among the immigrants."
Esmahan Aykol, thank you very much.
I would like to thank Jenny White, author of the Kamil Pasha novels, for her assistance in putting me in touch with two Turkish writers Ismail Güselsoy and Baris Müstecaplioglu, both contributors to Istanbul Noir (Akashic Books, 2008). These two went on to contribute immeasurably to my still second-hand knowledge of the Turkish crime fiction scene. Ismail also drew my attention to Don’t Worry Mr. Sherlock Holmes: 125 Years of Detective Novels in Turkey 1881-2006 (Nomad Press, 2008) by Erol Üyepazarci, from which the all-too brief outline ‘history’ in this article is mainly extracted.