The first time I read Seray Şahiner’s work was almost ten years ago when her initial collection of short stories Gelin Başı (Bridal Hair) came out. I was immediately struck by her powerful and unfeigned writing. Never two-dimensional, her characters popped out of the pages full flesh, blood, tears and laughs. Already then, I had thought that such writing must come from the “inside” – both in terms of context, experience and inner feeling.
I remember a few years ago when I met Şahiner in Istanbul, we walked down from Taksim Square towards the Tünel area, and on our way to sit at one of the many small tea houses with tiny wooden stools and tables in the back alleys of Beyoğlu, she was greeted by about a dozen people. Şahiner grew up in Istanbul. Gelin Başı was published while she was still studying at University (she wrote it when she was 18-19 years old).
She knows the city inside-out, living in the Samatya neighbourhood of Istanbul, she has also worked in Tarlabaşı, parts of Istanbul that have seen many urban regeneration projects throughout the past years. Gentrification and its effects on society and everyday life is among the many themes Şahiner cares and writes about, both in her fiction and her non-fiction.
Women’s rights and social justice are central to her work: her characters are women, most of the time from a working-class background – working in textile factories, another world Şahiner knows closely as her parents worked in textiles and she, herself, has been a textile machinist – students, or young professionals trying to make it in a city that is almost always both physically and mentally violent towards women. In a recent interview, Şahiner explains that she is tired that women are only given two possibilities to be inspired by: either the woman looking at shop windows with envious eyes, or the woman presented in that window. She rejects this duality, adding that she believes more in women who “switch off the TV to go outside”. The city and its streets are not only Şahiner’s inspiration, it is her life, and you can feel that experience in every single line of her writing. She has always written about women without the specific intention of writing about women. In the same interview, she mentions that writing about women should not be something newsworthy, “we never ask men why they write about men,” so why that treatment about women? she says.
While the themes she unfolds in her writing can be difficult and complex, Şahiner’s depiction never lacks humour: Many moments in her stories are very funny. She also has a cinematic language, and her work has been adapted to theatre. It is important to remember that she is also a screenwriter, having worked for years in television, and that she was also a reporter, a role in which she used to transcribe audio interviews. This makes her writing style sometimes very close to spoken language, which allows us to become more intimate with her characters. Both her life and work experience are shaping her writing, and she explores the many possibilities of writing stories she cares about through short stories, novels, essays, theatre and TV series.
Şahiner likes to weave Turkish popular culture into her stories, and especially the films from the Yesilçam era that gave birth to legendary film stars many people in Turkey still love today. Growing up in the 1990s, she would, like many others from her generation, see these melodramas on television – it was a time when the Turkish TV series boom as we know it today had not happened yet – and Şahiner says that watching these films her grandmother would watch when she was younger meant that young women’s understanding of love was the same as their grandmothers’, something Şahiner likes to play with in her fiction.
Her first novel Antabus – titled after the anti-depressant used for treating chronic alcoholism – is about Leyla, a young woman who is trying to get her violent husband to move away from the bottle by treating him with “antabus” pills, without his knowledge. By telling the story of a victim of domestic abuse, the novel is seeking to explore how society deals with domestic violence: how people close their eyes and their ears, how the judiciary system usually plays in favour of the man, and what it means for women having to deal with such issues on a daily basis.
It is not a surprise that the stories of Şahiner deal with themes around women’s rights and social justice. Her life experience also extends to activism. When she is not writing – sitting in front of the ironing board she uses as a desk on her balcony overlooking an Istanbul street – she runs away from teargas, hand in hand with her mother.
We cannot talk about freedom as long as our friends are inside, she says in this interview where she was asked about her own dealings with the judiciary. Şahiner was herself taken into custody back in December 2016, following a case where she was accused of insulting the president’s son. Thankfully, she was released quickly. Her activism can be followed daily through her social media, where you can see her standing in solidarity with imprisoned journalists and writers at the entrance of justice courts, together with fellow writers like Aslı Erdoğan; reporting on social media from court rooms; walking in Istanbul Pride with her mother… Each of these actions feed into her writing, and what she stands for is also what I am sure many English-speaking readers would also like to read about.
It is what I personally am interested in, as a reader and as a translator, especially in a world fueled by political polarization and hatred. I feel inspired and empowered by women like Şahiner, and by the many characters she creates through her very unique, and necessary, perspective on the world. I am not exaggerating when I say that Seray Şahiner’s literature is among the most important being published today in Turkey, and it would not only be regretful to see her work not translated into English, it will be a mistake.
–Essay by Canan Marasligil
Seray Şahiner was born in Bursa, Turkey and grew up in İstanbul. She studied journalism at Istanbul University. She received her M.A. from the Cinema Department of Marmara University. Her books Gelin Başı (2007), Hanımların Dikkatine (2011); her novel Antabus (2014); and her essay book Reklamı Atla (2016) were published by Can Publishing. Her latest book is Kul, published in 2017. She was awarded with Yunus Nadi Story Award for her book Hanımların Dikkatine in 2012. Stories from Gelinbaşı were performed in İstanbul City Theaters and Tiyatro Boyalı Kuş. Antabus is being performed at Tatbikat Stage under the same name. Follow her on Twitter at @SeraySahiner.
Canan Marasligil is a freelance writer, literary translator, editor and curator based in Amsterdam. She works internationally in English, French, Turkish, Dutch and Spanish. She specializes in contemporary Turkish literature as well as in comics. Her interest is in challenging official narratives and advocating freedom of expression through a wide range of creative projects and activities, either through her own or via organisations sharing this urge. Follow her on Twitter at @Ayserin.