Getting Turkish books published in English is tough. Publishers already have an idea of the types are marketable: those about the meeting of East and West, warfare and/or women’s rights. Stories that fall outside of these paradigms have a very difficult time finding a publisher.
One reason for this seems to be publishers’ belief that if Americans are unfamiliar with the particular culture, they are easily daunted by the task of learning about that culture through a work of literature. As translator and literary agent Amy Spangler points out in Publishing Perspectives, “…publishers seem to expect foreign fiction to provide easily digestible information about the cultures from which the works originate, and that this can often take precedence over literary quality.”
I have experienced this challenge firsthand. The work from which you will read an excerpt was recently rejected by one of the largest US publishers on the grounds that the history it relates is too unfamiliar to American readers. This is clearly a vicious cycle. If American readers won’t read about something they don’t know about, how are they to learn about it? What’s more, if a particular topic is unfamiliar, in my case the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, wouldn’t that make it something novel? Wouldn’t it make the book stand out? One can only hope that readers are more ready for more works in translation than publisher think they are.
Thankfully, support for translation from institutions like PEN America, which provides PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants every year to translators rather than publishers to finance the translation of a particular work. The open nature of this program allowed me to demonstrate my belief in Kemal Varol’s Wûf, from which you will shortly read an excerpt. It is my sincerest hope that the recognition the work has gained thanks to PEN America will help it soon find a home with an English language publisher.
Turning to the excerpt, our hero Mikasa is a street dog living in a town in southeastern Turkey. It’s the early 1990s, the height of the bloody conflict between Turks and Kurds. He and his pack “The Burning Hearts Gang” roam the streets, scaring up food here and there. When winter comes, they go hungry and decide to fight another pack for control of the garbage dump, where there is lots of food. We learn how Mikasa got his name and see his romantic, sentimental side when mating season rolls around.
By Dayla Rogers
An Excerpt from ‘Wuf’
Text © 2014, Kemal Varol
Translation © 2017, Dayla Rogers
The snow gradually melted, and the day arrived that our noses turned to the motley odors wafting from the dump. Who knew how long it had been since a morsel passed our lips. We lapped up the melted snow and our lungs, on the verge of pneumonia, filled the
graveyard with dry, bitter coughs. Our number had increased to twelve and we no longer
cared what sort of dog joined our ranks. Were they hungry, angry, ready to attack? Did
they take care of business? That was all that mattered.
We awoke one morning and knew it was time. We headed out, nothing to lose, to the trash mountain. Our reputation got to there ahead of us, and the battle was won before it
even began. We’d turned into an army of the hungry after being denied and denied for so long. The pack feeding off the trash, on the other hand, had grown fat, clumsy, and lost
their fighting skills. We drove them the mountains in a mess of blood. Gunsmoke lost his
ear. Old Lafo got a few cuts on his neck. Mikrob was fit as a fiddle, the only one to come
out of the fray without a scratch. Blood stained Bolero’s white shoulders. As for me, I
was in good shape and grinning victoriously, having chomped on a few tails. Licking our
wounds, we climbed to the top of the trash mountain and proudly declared our victory.
Until we were driven off by another pack, anyone who wanted at the dump would have to go through us.
Waste, expired cans of food and cafeteria scraps had formed a mountain—a paradise—
from which we could fill our bellies. We didn’t even bother with he garbage from the
town. There was never anything to eat in it, anyway. The poor don’t produce much waste. Our true benefactor was the barracks. After the dump truck left, we, jowls dripping, dashed to the mountain and scarfed down whatever we got our teeth on. Then, in the sparkling sunshine we drifted sweetly to sleep despite the sour stench.
We weren’t the only ones on the mountain. During certain hours of the day it was
occupied by poor folk. They’d rummage through, looking for anything edible, stuffing
whatever they found into bags to carry home. Conserved foods, stale bread, spoiled
chocolate, old margarine, empty cola bottles, half-eaten sesame rings, exploded flares,
grenades and mortar shells thought to have detonated, camouflage, cartridge belts, caps,
torn socks, unwashed underwear, torn boots—they stuffed them in ones and two into
their sacks to be used again, to extend the lives of the things if only for a little longer.
We were fine. We were beautiful. The days breezed in ones and twos through our coats.
But as mating season approached we started acting weird. We pounced on each other for
no reason. We sniffed at every female that crossed our path, itching to leave behind a wad o’ little pups. For my friends, it didn’t matter who it was; they ran to any female with her tail wagging. In fact, the troublemaker of the pack Mikrob drooled over any animal at all wagging its tail.
But I wasn’t like that. I had yet to mate with a female. Even as the blood running through my veins drove me slowly mad, I paid no mind to the others and resolved to fall in love first.
While the other guys enjoyed themselves—mating away, jowls dripping—I turned away
and roamed the roads where love walked, wondering what was keeping it and when it
would arrive. I didn’t know what sort of thing it was—this “love”—but it warned me to
wait despite my urge to dig, my crazy darting around and my random, unexpected hardons. Head down, taking in the smells that came my way, I headed out on the town.
I passed down a long road lined with houses till I reached the statue staring off into the
distance in the square. I watched the children, who readied stones in their hands as soon
as they spotted me; the soldiers marching convicts in chains from the courthouse to the
town jail as public examples; women peeking out nervously here and there, footfalls light as feathers; villagers hawking cheese, children getting out of school; groups of youths with black-rimmed glasses downing glass after glass of tea at the coffeehouses; men with round beards pacing the streets, their strings of prayer beads long and trousers narrowcuffed; the police clipping through the middle of the town in their panzers; the
shopkeepers waiting for evening in front of their businesses; tripe hanging in shop
windows; fish stacked on an old market counter being carted from street to street; old
men dangling village chickens upside down on their way home; dropouts selling smokes
out of the pack. I carried sadly on my way, not having found the female I sought.
I wandered around what was rumored to be the old liquor factory, now supplying the
nation with cement instead of drink and proclaiming its existence with a cloud of dust. I
roamed around the bus terminal where families waited to abandon the town as well as the station where trains carried soldiers from North to South and people driven from their villages to the North from the South. I walked past the high school guarded by two plainclothes police; the halls suspected of hosting rallies rather than weddings; the police
dormitories, where frightened children played in the garden; cracked walls scrawled with the crimson, three-letter acronym; open areas dotted with burnt truck tires; the barracks where soldiers played volleyball, patrolled and trained. I watched as the townspeople retreated into their homes with nightfall. The town and its residents had one thing on their minds, and I something else entirely. Worn out from seeking all day and not finding, I returned to the trash mountain, to my chums.
As the youngest of the pack, my absence generally went unnoticed. In the evenings, I
wandered off to town while the guys exchanged juicy, exaggerated mating stories.
Though I sensed that my fortune lay somewhere in the streets, I had no way of knowing
exactly where, or whether or not it was expecting me. I searched the same spots over and over like I’d lost something. I went down the same streets dozens of times, glancing left and right, pricking up my ears and waiting for love to summon.
There were times when gorgeous—stunning—lady dogs crossed my path. They were
lovely, fancy, comely, their voluptuous scents intoxicating to the sniff. Some even lifted
their tails and beckoned, but I, knowing better than anyone that the love I sought lay not
among them, hung my head and trudged sadly away.
“It doesn’t work like that,” proclaimed Old Lafo, coughing like a sage and raising his
forefinger. “You can’t get hung up on love, son. Man up a little. Wherever you see a
wagging tail, you gotta show ‘er what you’re made of.”
But I couldn’t show anyone anything. In fact, I went the entire season without mating,
earning myself an odd nickname.
“You guys wanna hear what I heard the soldiers calling this one?” sniggered Mikrob,
who liked watching the soldiers play volleyball in the garden of the barracks.
“What’s that?” asked Gunsmoke, his interest piqued.
“The other day I swear I heard one of the soldiers call ‘im ‘Mikasa1’!”
The whole Burning Hearts Gang burst into laughter. But for me this was neither here nor
there. Mikrob, Gunsmoke and Bolero were all called “dog” by the townspeople until the
soldiers gave them names, so I didn’t care who my name daddy was. Since I didn’t know
what it meant, of course, I went ahead and jotted this name deemed fit for me on the
identity card of my fate. “Mikasa” everyone called me from that day onward. Here
“Mikasa”, there “Mikasa”, all the while chuckling among themselves. All sorts of rumors
swirled behind my back, but I paid them no mind. I climbed atop the trash mountain and
dug my paws into the rubbish. I stretched out good and long, got to my feet and, trying to
ignore the sourish odor, listened to the distance, to the roads where the love awaiting me
1 In Turkish calling someone “ball” is a way of calling them a “faggot.” Mikasa, in turn, is a popular brand of basketball in Turkey.