‘Exile,’ is a book of 45 short stories written by the contemporary Turkish writer, Çilar Ilhan, and translated by Ayşegül Toroser Ateş. Many of the stories are told on a single page, or just a few pages total. Because of this, the book may be a perfect commuting read or book club pick for the group that ‘never seems to find time to read.’
Her book is dedicated to ”those exiled from their homes, their homelands, their bodies, and their souls…in the hope that they may return to their homelands within.”
I knew Çilar Ilhan long before I knew she had written this book, and when I discovered she was an author and sat down to read it, I had to pause and put the book down to enlarge my mental picture of the woman I knew. The Çilar Ilhan I already knew was a sparkling, captivating woman comfortable hosting emirs, Oprah, and titans of industry as a hotel executive in a five-star setting. The Çiler İlhan in this book is not here to make you feel comfortable.
I hadn’t read anything like this book before. I was astonished. I have tried to think of what could come closest to describing it. I suggest the American poetess, Claudine Rankin’s 2014 book, ‘Citizen: An American Lyric.’ Rankin’s book also often reads like horror poetry. ‘Exile’ shows Çiler’s astonishing range and her sensitivity to her environment.
-Introduction to the excerpt
by Karen Van Drie
‘Exile is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and its native place, between the self and its true home:its essential sadness can never be surmounted.’ – Edward Said
Zobar and Başa
It’s been so long since the drums and pipes fell silent in Hatice Sultan. Yesterday my Zobar and me, we went to take a look at our old neighborhood. There’s no one left. Even Uncle Aziz has moved to Taşoluk… Zeynep, Gülfidan, Ertan Abi, every last one…
Aunt Emine had been the first one to leave. She moved to Izmir, to live with her daughter. Hers was the first house to be demolished. Then it was the turn of Gülbahar. Turned out onto the street in the middle of winter with two children, her house pulled down in the early hours, regardless of her tears.
Mustafa Abi turned out to be stubborn. He’s still in Neslişah with his wife and daughter, but the old coffee house’s closed down. Had he not owned his house he’d have been cooped up in Taşoluk a long time ago, like so many tenants. No one knows how long he’ll hold out. Some bloke or other comes over every day, asking him to sell his house.
Mother Milay and Coro moved to Edirne. When Mother Milay insisted she’s never live in Taşoluk, they took Yilo, Lola, and the grave of Dobru and moved early one mornin’. I cried buckets over them. After all, we’d come to know them as our mother and father ever since I was five and Zobar seven. They’d taken care of us ever since they snatched us out of the clutch of the Grim Reaper back in Romania, so how could I not cry? My sweet Tinke kept licking my tears as I cried… ‘Come with us, we won’t move if you don’t come with us,’ they said; especially Mother Milay who insisted we go, pleading for days – ‘don’t make me leave my heart back here’ – but we don’t want to. We liked Istanbul; ‘besides, we’ve grown up, we can look after ourselves,’ we said.
Soon, my Zobar, Cingo, Tinke and me, the whole gang, we’re gonna collect paper. In Taksim. We’ve been going up to Taksim ever since we moved to Dolapdere. But because I had a miscarriage, I can’t walk far. That’s how things are for now: It occurred to me afterwards that Mother Milay knew I was pregnant when we got married. ‘Are you pregnant or what, girl?’ she’d asked, but I’d paid no attention: She doesn’t miss a trick, does she?
My Zobar’s been so absent-minded ever since we moved here. He doesn’t talk much, but he’s been eating his heart out, I know. He dug his heels in so we wouldn’t leave the neighbourhood, everything he could lately just so he could keep his word. You crazy boy, did you really think I’d keep my hopes up just because you said so? How were we to stay when the landlord had already sold our house? All the neighbourhood had taken off; how could we have stayed? Don’ I miss my house in Hatice Sultan too? Don’t I just? In fact, from time to time, I can’t help but cry. That’s when my Zobar takes me into his huge arms and says, ‘Don’t cry my beautiful Başa, we’ll go back to our Sulukule some day, we will for sure, you’ll see.’ But I know: Sulukule now belongs to others.
This morning, I realized that crying’s not help either. I whispered in my Zobar’s ear ‘Come, almond eyes, let ourselves be our homeland.’
You killed my mother. You killed my father. My uncles and my aunts. You killed my grandmother and my grandfather: My cousins, their wives: My father’s sisters, their husbands. You killed me within.
You killed my beloved, my husband, my love. You killed love.
You killed the flower within me.
You dried up the rain. You drained the water. I’m dried up.
You rooted out the tree of life our orphaned arms had nourished within us.
You cut the climbers we’d raised under each other’s light, each other’s shadow.
You destroyed the road along which we could never have walked without being united.
My days, my nights.
You imprisoned my breath.
You sewed my lips together.
My nails no longer grow.
You froze the lakes. You froze my blood.
My joy, my hope.
You froze me within.
You sucked out my soul.
You stole my old age.
My cheeks hurt.
What has my Hrant’ done to you?
You killed. You killed me too.
‘Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian journalist assassinated on 19 January 2007.
‘Why do so many women commit suicide in Batman?’ they ask. There is nothing we can add to life, other than death.
We are invisible at home and in the street. Like an old piece of rag that cleans the floors, the windows, the doors. We are put to all sorts of work. Life becomes even more unbearable once we start to blossom, once we are fragrant. Bored with our mothers, whose breasts have sagged, whose flesh has lost their firmness from giving birth a dozen times, the gazes of our fathers alight on our newly budding breasts. Suddenly our mothers go blind, our brothers deaf.
‘Why do so many women commit suicide in Batman?’ they ask. There is nothing you can add to our life, other than death.
When we grow a little older we are married into other families. But we are found not to be virgins, for we are not. And in the morning of that very same night, we are dumped back in front of our father’s doors like milk that has gone sour. What a calamity! The dirty linen could not be kept secret, the true colours are revealed; the world is set ablaze. A scapegoat from among the destitute, the poorest wretch in the village is used to restore the family honour; this dog deflowered my lovely daughter on this and this date, before she could give herself to her husband, he is to be blamed! Yet words don’t suffice to clear the honour of a family. Someone must be hurt, blood must be shed. So that all should believe that the house the girl came from is immaculate.
The family elders speak: The boy who deflowered our girl on this and this date has a sister – doesn’t matter that she’s eleven or twelve, she’s a woman – we will deflower her.
One morning, as she’s out fetching water from the well, the wretch’s sister is held down and raped, with the help of the female relatives if necessary (what is there to be surprised at, after a point there’s not telling right from wrong) – so that everything fits into place. So that the father of the deflowered girl can brag: Mehmet, we know your son deflowered my daughter on this and this date, my honour has been avenged, we have deflowered your girl in return. We’re even.
”Why do so many women commit suicide in Batman?’ they ask. Instead, you should ask: Is a man’s blood sweeter than that of a woman?
Then an agreement is made to avoid a vendetta, so that guns are not fired in our peaceful, exemplary villages, so that the dear blood of the men would not spill from their precious veins on to the earth, so that no disgrace is brought upon the clan, with court appearances and newspaper coverage and all, so that they wouldn’t have to deal with the gendarmes or the journalists: the sister of such and such a youth married her rapist who raped her near the fountain, and the maid-no-more is given to the poor wretch who allegedly raped her on this and this date.
‘Why do so many women commit suicide in Batman?’ they ask.
Publisher: Istros Books
Publication Date: 2010
Çiler İlhan was the recipient of the ‘Notable Short Story Award’ at the Yaşar Nabi Youth Awards, and her stories have been published in numerous literary magazines. ‘Exile’ won the 2011 European Union Prize for Literature. The author most recently served as Editor-in-Chief of Conde Nast Traveller Turkey.
Ayşegül Deniz Toroser Ateş is a lecturer in the Department of English Language and Literature at Itanbul University, Turkey. She is currently working on her PhD dissertation on the contemporary English novel. Together with Nuri Ateş, she also translated Çiler İlhan’s first short story book, ‘The Dream Merchant’s Chamber,’ as yet unpublished in English.
Karen Van Drie is an American expat librarian working in Istanbul, Turkey. She is on Twitter at @worldlibraries. She also hosts a bilingual celebration of reading culture at @EnSonNeOkudun. In her free time, Karen writes her own blog called ‘Empty Nest Expat.’