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The Epic Narrator of Modern Turkey as Folklorist: A Portrait of Yaşar Kemal

Metin Turan

Independent researcher (Ankara, Türkiye)

Translation with a foreword by Hande Birkalan-Gedik

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Turan, Metin, 2024. “The Epic Narrator of Modern Turkey as Folklorist: A Portrait of Yaşar Kemal”, in Bérose - Encyclopédie internationale des histoires de l'anthropologie, Paris.

URL Bérose : article3368.html

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Publié dans le cadre du thème de recherche « Horizons anthropologiques, histoires de l’ethnologie et du folklore en Turquie », dirigé par Hande Birkalan-Gedik (Johann Wolfgang Goethe Universität, Institut für Kulturanthropologie und Europäische Ethnologie, Frankfurt am Main) et Abdurrahim Ozmen (Dicle Üniversitesi, Diyarbakir).

Résumé : Les études folkloriques en Turquie remontent à la fin du XIXe et au début du XXe siècle. Au départ, le sociologue Ziya Gökalp, le philosophe Rıza Tevfik et l’historien de la littérature Mehmet Fuat Köprülü ont popularisé la recherche sur le folklore et suscité l’intérêt de plusieurs personnes d’horizons divers. Des recherches menées à titre individuel, qui ont débuté au tournant du XXe siècle, ont été reprises par les institutions de la nouvelle République turque, notamment par les principaux organes culturels/politiques du nouveau régime, les Maisons du peuple (Halk Evleri). Fondées en 1932, les Maisons du peuple sont devenues le point central de la collecte et de la compilation de la littérature orale et de la culture populaire. Yaşar Kemal, figure de proue de la littérature turque tout au long du XXe siècle, a marqué les études folkloriques par son recueil Ağıtlar (Lamentations), publié en 1943 par la Maison du peuple d’Adana. Kemal est devenu célèbre pour ses romans, dans lesquels il a utilisé la perspective d’un narrateur épique de la littérature mondiale, mais son style de narration était basé sur sa propre connaissance profonde et son expertise du folklore anatolien. En fin de compte, Yaşar Kemal, qui a lui-même raconté des épopées et chanté des ballades sous le surnom de kör âşık (troubadour aveugle) – un palimpseste qu’il a emprunté à la poésie épique traditionnelle et utilisé dans un contexte moderne – a laissé une influence indélébile sur les études folkloriques dans sa patrie. À ce titre, il occupe une place insolite mais incontestable dans l’histoire de cette tradition savante.

Foreword by Hande Birkalan-Gedik (Institut für Kulturanthropologie und Europäische Ethnologie. Johann Wolfgang Goethe Universität - Frankfurt am Main)

Yaşar Kemal, the world-famous novelist from Turkey, gained prominence with his debut novel Memed, My Hawk (in Turkish, 1955), which is based on the epic Köroğlu (literally, the son of the blind), a Turkish “Robin Hood” saga from the sixteenth century Anatolia. A Kurd originally from Van, eastern Turkey, peace activist and a vehement defender of human rights, freedom of expression, and social justice, Kemal is also a folklorist, who is mostly known for his folklore collections, but more importantly, his deployment of several folklore elements in a sense of “magical realism” in his award-winning oeuvres.

Among others, one can mention the following international awards : In 1977, the French Critics’ Syndicate awarded the Best Foreign Novel Prize to Yer Demir Gök Bakır [Iron Earth, Copper Sky]. In 1978, the Best Foreign Book Award in France was given to Ölmez Otu [Undying Grass]. In 1979, the French Grand Jury Best Book Award was conferred on Binboğalar Efsanesi [The Legend of the Thousand Bulls]. In 1982, he received the International Cino Del Duca Award and in 1984, the prestigious French Legion of Honour in the rank of Commander. In 1988, Kemal was awarded the Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres, a prestigious honour bestowed by the French Ministry of Culture, recognising his significant contributions to the arts and literature. In 1995, the Morgenavissen Jylaand-Posten Award from Denmark was conferred on him. In 1996, the Mediterranean Foreign Book Award from Perpignan, France, was given for Kanın Sesi [The Voice of Blood] and also in 1996, he was honoured with the VIII Catalonia International Prize in Barcelona, Spain. In 1997, the Premio Internazionale Nonino Award in Italy was awarded for the entirety of his Works and that same year, Kemal shared the Norwegian Writers’ Union Award with Wole Soyinka and received the German Publishers’ Association Award at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

It would be right to say that two great mishaps shaped Yaşar Kemal’s life and works. Kemal saw his father killed in the mosque by his father’s adoptive son. He lost an eye in an accident during the Sacrifice Fest. Pertev Naili Boratav, the doyen of Turkish folklore noted,

[…] except for Sea-Crossed Fisherman, all [his novels] depict the lives of nomadic, semi-nomadic or settled peasant people of Anatolia. The events take place in Çukurova and the Taurus Mountains ; the scene in Southeastern Anatolia is rarely changed : Eastern Anatolia in [in his novel] The Legend of Mount Ararat. (Boratav 1982)

Regarded as the “son of Homer”, Yaşar Kemal always wanted to become an âşık, a minstrel ; however, he could not achieve what he wished for. Nonetheless, his expertise in folklore dates back to his childhood and early adulthood years when he started collecting folklore materials in the Taurus Region in southern Turkey. Having faced economic grave social and economic problems himself, here he was able to observe the hardship of people in the region, whose problems derived from the systematic oppressions of landlords and their embedded, unbreakable ties to the Turkish politics. For Kemal, this was the epitome of a wretched system, which he never stopped criticizing in his novels but also in his speeches and public statements. Sevral other awards were presented to him for his public engagement and courage on defending minority and human rights in Turkey.

By telling the story of Yaşar Kemal, Metin Turan presents a different understanding of folk and folklore, underlining the fact that Kemal’s unique perspective is informed by his class awareness as opposed to a romantic-nationalist ideals of his predecessors. Metin Turan therefore presents the great narrator of folklore from Turkey – who is rightly claimed to be the “sycamore” of Turkish literature – as someone whose writings have themselves grown as new folklore materials, as cultural roots whose branches have inspired a generation of writers in Turkey.

Fig. 1.
Yaşar Kemal, 2011, İstanbul.
Copyright : Mahmut Turgut

An “Engaged” Authorship : Yaşar Kemal and Folklore by Metin Turan (Independent researcher, Ankara, Türkiye)

Like most children of his generation, Yaşar Kemal’s exact date of birth is unknown. In many sources, Yaşar Kemal’s birth year is given as 1922, while in others, it is 1923. At the press conference for the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 1997, Yaşar Kemal spoke of himself as a 73-year-old author, born in 1924. However, what is certain is that he was born in the southern Turkish province of Adana, in the village of Göğceli, into a Kurdish family. Therefore, his name is Kemal Sadık Göğceli. His father came to Göğceli from the Russian-occupied East Anatolian town of Van during World War I and was the only Kurdish person to live in a Turkish village. By the age of five, Kemal had lost not only his beloved father to an assassination by Yusuf, who Kemal’s father adapted, but also an eye because of an accident with a misplaced knife at a Kurban Bayramı (festival of sacrifice), whereby a sheep is sacrificed to Allah.

Yaşar Kemal produced works almost in all literary genres, starting his writing career with folk literature. Although he used his real name in his earlier writings and published his first book (Ağıtlar-I, 1943) under this name, due to increasing political pressure and the growing number of prosecutions and arrests in those years, he thought that it would be inconvenient to write under his “original” name. Therefore, from 1951 onwards he used “Yaşar Kemal” as a pseudonym, under which he became known in Turkey and in the world.

Yaşar Kemal attended primary school only for a couple of years, leaving school at eight. But he was in contact with his homeland’s oral storytelling tradition even before his short-lived school days. Later on, as an expert novelist in modern Turkish, he narrated epics, composed folk songs and elegies, and wrote a great collection of heroic stories. This article traces his creativity as a head of artistic narration, one that found meaning in intellectual contexts. Here, it is necessary to mention a particular historical phenomenon, that is, the creation of cultural-political institutions, such as Halkevleri (People’s Houses). [1] These played pivotal roles in disseminating nationalism and exalting the position of the halk, folk in Turkey, and also enabled Yaşar Kemal to cultivate his literary work within a larger context.

Yaşar Kemal’s understanding of folklore, and thus, the way he deployed folklore materials in his novels and stories stood in stark contrast with the romantic view that emphasized “das Volk” only as a source Nationalgeist (national spirit). [2] Going beyond a romantic attitude, Yasar Kemal used folklore materials not as the embodiment of bygone ages or nostalgic sources, but as important vehicles to tell the realities of the period he lived in and experienced first-hand. These realities included the hardships of rural life, tribal relations, modernization clashing with the impoverished villagers – mostly in eastern or south-eastern Turkey. The struggles of halk with the feudal system and their class struggles were the everyday realities in Yaşar Kemal’s novels and stories.

In the Turkish context, when one talks about the people, the term “populism” comes to mind, in which halk becomes sanctified because it frames the halk within a romantic-political discourse, which has been by far the dominating disourse in the late Ottoman–early Turkish republican history. This is when halk was thought to be representing only the beautiful and good. However, the concept of halk does not always represent what is beautiful. Halk also experienced several societal problems in history. Moreover, Yaşar Kemal lived in a society that revealed feudal characteristics until the present day, not in a bourgeois culture like most of the earlier thinkers of folklore. Therefore, Yaşar Kemal did not sanctify halk, but created his works in order to understand their problems and to make these problems known to a larger audience. He neither “worshipped” people, nor did he fetishize them under the influence of populist discourses. He tried to understand people with their contradictions but also with behaviours that should be glorified such as friendship, solidarity and hospitality.

Folklore in the Late Ottoman and Early Turkish Republic Contexts

Folklore entered the agenda of Ottoman intellectuals simultaneously with the notions of “language”, “nation”, “land”, and “civilization” (Birkalan 1995, 8 ; 2001, 9 ; Öztürkmen 1998, 19). Like elsewhere, it became a particularly important intellectual resource for nation-building, allowing the development of a new discourse on Türkiye’s cultural place on the world map. Herder’s idea of using language-based “folklore” materials to develop a German national identity influenced sociologist, writer, and politician Ziya Gökalp’s (1876–1924) views on folklore, as he wrote the Türkçülüğün Esasları (1923) (Principles of Turkish Nationalism). Inspiring several other folklorists, as well, Gökalp also conducted substantial work on Turkish folklore (Birkalan 1995, 8–10 ; 2001). Gökalp and his fellow Ottoman intellectuals were the true witnesses of nation-building in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, which was manifested throughout the late nineteenth century when Serbians (1878), Bulgarians (1878), and Albanians (1912) in the Balkans – all of whom fell within the borders of the Ottoman Empire – secured their independence one by one, following the example of the Greeks (1828), which marked the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The reality of this process also struck Mustafa Kemal (1881–1938) – later famously know as Kemal Atatürk – who experienced all the concerns of creating a Turkish nation while realizing that these events were related to folklore studies. Mustafa Kemal said the following in his speech at the Turkish Hearths in Konya on March 20, 1923 :

Various tribes in the Ottoman Empire saved themselves with the power of nationality ideals [and by] sticking to national memorials. We understood who we are and that we are a foreign and separate nation from them when we were kicked out by them with sticks. They humiliated and insulted us as we lost our power. We understood that forgetting ourselves was our mistake. (Atatürk’ün Söylev ve Demeçleri II 1952, 142)

The Tanzimat reforms that began in 1839 led to functional changes in literature. Inspired by the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, the Tanzimat reforms were introduced in the fields of law, economics, the military and education. All citizens were recognized as the “Ottoman citizens”. Privileges arising from religious differences were abolished. In 1840, the Penal Code, inspired by the French Penal Code, was implemented and it was followed by the Commercial Code in 1850, again taking the French Commercial Code into account. In 1841–1842, a national budget was prepared for the first time. Taxes collected by civil servants from the public other than the official taxes were banned. In 1847, it was decided that non-Muslim citizens could also join the army and be promoted up to the rank of colonel. In 1859, Mekteb-i Mülkiye-i Fünun-u Şahâne, (short, Mekteb-i Mülkiye, or School of Political Science) was opened to train civil servants in accordance with the theoretical perspectives of the era.

In 1868, Galatasaray Sultanî (Lycée de Galatasaray, Galatasaray Lisesi, Galatasaray High School) was opened and provided a westernized education in French. Concepts such as human rights, justice and equality entered into the world of thought and in the field of literature. The first theatre work as well as the first translated novels and poems were published. The first punctuation marks in Turkish literature were used in this period. Again, although weak in terms of structure and content, the first examples of novels began to be seen in this period. Discussions on language came to the agenda and the idea of using a simple and comprehensible folk language was born.

The creation of literary works that used a language understandable by the general Turkish population and the desire to inform a larger readership ensured that the authors of the Tanzimat period, such as Rıza Tevfik [Bölükbaşı] (1869–1949), Mehmed Fuad [Köprülü] (1890–1966), Ziya [Gökalp] (1876–1924], Selim Sırrı [Tarcan] (1874–1957), and Yusuf Akçura (1876–1935), remained interested in oral traditions (Birkalan-Gedik 2024). These perspectives contributed to highlighting certain aspects of folklore, introducing them to the national agenda and analysing them for the prospective of building a “nation” and creating a national literature – which would be ultimately materialized in the twentieth century. Except for Rıza Tevfik, thinkers such as Ziya Gökalp, Fuad Köprülü and Yusuf Akçura played roles as political actors within the Ottoman parliament. Besides, the institutions they directed – including Türk Dil Kurumu (the Turkish Language Society) and Türk Tarih Kurumu (the Turkish Historical Society) – determined and shaped political life in Turkey. Also considering their attention to and their involvement in the People’s Houses, these intellectuals and politicians played a key role in making folklore one of the most studied aspects of politics and culture. It is also necessary to name Türk Ocakları (Turkish Hearths), which were established in 1912 and closed in 1931 (Birkalan 1995, 27 ; also, Birkalan-Gedik 2024), and the Turkish Folklore Foundation, which was established in 1927 and included the People’s Houses in 1932. A “romantic” understanding of Turkish folklore was clearly reflected in the ideas and actions of those individuals who helped to establish these institutions.

In addition to the Halk Bilgisi Mecmuası (Folklore Journal), the Türk Halk Bilgisi Derneği (Turkish Folklore Foundation) presented two fundamental publications : Seçme Halk Şiirleri [Selected Folk Poems] (1928), which included oral literature genres works such as ballad, epic, dirge [3] and nefes (Alevi hymns) ; [4] and Seçme Memleket Şiirleri [Selected Homeland Poems] (1929) which included works by Faruk Nafiz [Çamlıbel], (1898–1973) Ömer Bedrettin [Uşaklı] (1904–1946), and Kemalettin Kami [Kamu] (1901–1948) among others.

The beginnings of Yaşar Kemal’s relationship with folklore can be traced to his encounter with or the influence of Ömer Seyfettin (1884–1920), Mehmet Emin [Yurdakul] (1869–1944) and Halide Edip [Adıvar] (1884–1964), all of whom played key roles in the creation of an Ottoman-Turkish literary tradition within the aforementioned institutions. Through a late romanticism, they offered cultural examples nourishing a “national” feeling in Turkey based on folklore.

This parallel development of folklore and literature forms an important basis upon which to understand the trajectory of Yaşar Kemal. His work is a prime illustration of the functional and intellectual structure of literature as shaped by the emerging Turkish national state and existing folkloric roots.

An “Engaged” Authorship : Yaşar Kemal and Folklore

Yaşar Kemal took the sources of folk culture seriously, while contributing to world literature through his writings, which carried universal dimensions. Yaşar Kemal’s literary foundation derives from the epics, stories and fairy tales he listened to in his childhood. His mother’s Turkish was poor, but she spoke her native Kurdish even better than an epic singer. Kemal even goes so far as to say that his ability to understand and speak Kurdish, his mother tongue, comes from what he heard his mother speak, even though he himself never spoke it (Kemal 1993, 14).

We see that the traumatic elements in his works are diversified and given meaning by the events that happened to his family and especially to him. In 1915, the family’s migration from Van to Çukurova, due to the Ottoman-Russian War, constitutes the beginning of these traumas. As the the only family of Kurdish origin in the Turkmen village (Göğceli Village) where they re-settled, they could not use their mother tongue, Kurdish. There was no other Kurdish family besides them : their family in the new locale included Kemal’s uncle and his wife, and another girl from their family (Keskiner 2013, 67). Although Turkmen villagers embraced them with great love and respect and the family did not experience any problems with the villagers because of their ethnic origin, the migration was another trauma. [5]

Another trauma is the loss of of his right eye due to the carelessness of the person who was sacrificing the sheep for him during the Bayram. When Kemal was four and a half years old, during the prayer in the mosque, his father was stabbed to death by his adopted son Yusuf, whom he had rescued from death on his way from Van and raised (Kemal 1993, 34). Yaşar Kemal was with his father in the mosque when he was killed. He describes this tragedy : “I was with my father in the mosque while he was praying, and after the night he was stabbed, I cried until the morning, saying that my heart was burning. Then I started stutterering and could hardly speak until I was twelve’ (Kemal 1993, 34).

The richness of his literary sensibility and his national and international renown is largely due to his experiences in his childhood, a period in which serious, traumatic events took place, which shaped his personality and his writings. As the the only and beloved child of “his mother” and his father, his father Sadık wanted to have an annual sacrifice of sheep for his son. The year when he turned three, during one such sacrifice, his aunt’s husband, who was skinning the sheep, lost control of the knife in his hand and hit Yaşar Kemal’s right eye, which he lost as a result. Saklıyan illustrates another event, the tragic death of Kemal’s father who was murdered during a prayer at a mosque in the following words :

This traumatic event was not the only one in the author’s life : When Yaşar Kemal was four and a half years old, he went to the mosque with his father Sadık Efendi. While his father prayed, he watched. His father Sadık, a broad-shouldered man, 1.90 cm tall, was murdered by Yusuf, whom he had found in the bushes near İslahiye during his migration from Van to Çukurova, whom he had raised and cared for like a son, and whom he had not separated from his own son for years, for reasons unknown, by stabbing him in the heart while he was praying. Yaşar Kemal witnessed this murder and cried “my heart is burning” on his mother’s back until the morning. When he woke up the next morning, he began to stutter, which would last until the age of 12. (Saklıyan 2019, 11)

The Çukurova region, where Yaşar Kemal spent his early childhood, is a region rich in oral folk literature. Here the folk minstrels, the creators and disseminators of this literature, sang poetry in those times. Since Kemal was not schooled until the age of ten, he could not read or write. However, he was influenced by the wandering minstrels who came to Hemite, a plateau connecting the Mediterranean to the Taurus Mountains, which later became the vital setting for many of his novels. It was the region where he was born and where sang poetry and narrated folk tales. He tried to sing like the minstrels. Even in the years when he could not yet read and write, he memorized many poems, epics and elegies. In those years, there was no school in the village where he was born. In order to study, at the age of ten, during the school year 1933–1934, he followed his friend Mehmet to the school in Burhanlı village. Since he was not registered in the civil registry until then, he did not yet have an identity card.

He insisted on enrolling in school. He succeeded and within three months Yaşar Kemal was able to read newspapers. Among his schoolmates there were also those who were engaged in folk minstrelsy. Âşık Macit was one of them. When he was in the fifth grade Âşık Macit died. Yaşar Kemal suffered from this loss greatly, as he identified Macit as the person from whose death he suffered the most, after the murder of his own father (Poyraz 2015, 27). In addition, Âşık Rahmi from Elbistan was one of the famous minstrels of the period with whom Yaşar Kemal sang poems. He was influenced by them and listened to the folk stories they told and tried to sing like them. In 1938, he finished primary school and enrolled at the Adana First Secondary School. He had nowhere to stay. He was penniless. He worked at a factory at night, where he also slept. However, he could not endure these harsh conditions for long and dropped out of his beloved school in 1941 because of purely economic reasons.

Another master of folk literature who had a profound influence on him is Evdale Zeynike. The great epic narrator of Kurdish, Yasar Kemal’s native language, the great dengbej [6] (minstrel) Evdale Zeynike (1800 ?–1913 ?), became a legendary figure among the Kurds. Between 1942 and 1944, Yasar Kemal worked at the Ramazanoğlu Library in Adana, where he had the opportunity to read a variety of literary works, which significantly impacted his understanding of literature. He became friends with poet and painter Arif Dino (1893–1957), who came from an aristocratic family that had been sent into exile in Adana for political reasons, linguist and translator Güzin Dino (1910–2013) and her husband Abidin Dino (1913–1993), one of the most influential figures of Turkish intellectual life. Here Yaşar Kemal read widely, especially the French classics.

With regard to collecting folklore, he had reached out to the folklore scholars in Turkey, including Ali Rıza Yalgın (1888–1960), Ahmet Kutsi Tecer (1901–1967) and Pertev Naili Boratav (1907–1998). He met Pertev Naili Boratav, the pioneer of folklore studies as a scientific discipline in Turkey, in Adana in 1940 (Boratav 1991, 411). Their acquaintance turned into friendship and continued until the end of their lives. In 1942, Kemal’s first folklore compilation was published in the journal Görüşler, with the title Çifteçapa Manileri, [7] a collection of work poems that brought together short poems related to agriculture.

In 1951, Kemal came to Istanbul and started working for the Cumhuriyet newspaper, where he wrote striking interviews that attracted attention. [8] His first article was an interview titled “Diyarbakırdaki göçmen köylerini gezerken neler gördüm ?” (What did I see while visiting immigrant villages in Diyarbakır ?) published on July 3, 1951. In 1955, Yanan Ormanlarda Elli Gün (Fifty days in burning forests) was published, and he won the Istanbul Journalists’ Association Award for his series of interviews titled Seven Days at the World’s Biggest Farm. In addition to his work as a journalist, he continued to author stories and the first volume of İnce Memed, one of the cult novels that made his name known all over the world, was published. For this novel he won the Varlık Novel Prize. In the same year, his screenplay Beyaz Mendil (White Handkerchief) was made into a movie by the famous director Lütfi Ö. Akad (1916–2011). In 1956, the French translation of his novel İnce Memed was published by UNESCO. Yaşar Kemal became known worldwide as an author, and his writing adventures became glorious with the further publication of his books. [9]

The cold war climate of the 1940s led to a political polarization in Turkey whereby Turkey had to choose between two poles. Turkey ended up with joining NATO and thus becoming a part of the pole led by the United States. This decision gave way to severe repression, especially against the leftist intellectuals in Turkey, where a democratic Society was yet to take root. In such a climate, nationalism turned into a rhetoric aimed at denigrating and judging opposing opinions rather than trying to do something useful for the country.

Until 1938, folklore studies in Turkey outside universities were mostly done through amateur compilations and mainly on the basis of folk literature at universities. The first folklore courses, which were initiated independently, were run by Pertev Naili Boratav at the Ankara University’s Dil-Tarih ve Coğrafya Fakültesi (Faculty of Language-History and Geography). Boratav offered an independent course on “Folklore and Folk Literature” in 1938 and established a folk literature and folklore archive at the Faculty of Language and History-Geography (Boratav 1991, 236). He later initiated studies for the establishment of an independent folklore department, but before he could fully realize this, his chair was closed down by a political decision in 1948 (Birkalan-Gedik 1995). It was in this climate that Yaşar Kemal realized his literary work.

Although the publication of this book Ağıtlar-I did not create a tremendous impression, it nevertheless ensured that individuals without a formal education would be cultivated by the Köy Enstitüleri (Village Institutes), which aimed to bring practical education to the villagers who were set next to the educated elite. Until the end of the academic year 1951–1952, a total of 17,341 teachers, 1,398 women and 15,943 men, were trained at the Village Institutes (Gedikoğlu 1971, 231). [10]

A Conflict of Education

Abidin Dino, a modern painter from Turkey whose grandfather was among the last Ottoman rulers as the minister of Foreign Affairs and governor of Adana, had a significant influence on Yaşar Kemal. Yaşar Kemal met the Dino family, who were in exile in Adana at the time for their political ideas, when he was only 14 years old. Yaşar Kemal states that he shared his first stories with Arif Dino and Abidin Dino and that he perfected them under their recommendations (Üster 2015). Abidin Dino maintained his friendship with Yaşar Kemal not only during his years in Adana but also afterwards ; he continued his friendship with him both in Istanbul and Paris. Dino illustrated many of his interviews and books that were first published in newspapers – such as Yılanı Öldürseler, 1976 (To Crush the Serpent, 1991), Höyükteki Nar Ağacı, 1982 (Pomegranate Tree in the Mound), and Ağrı Dağı Efsanesi (The Legend of Ararat, 1975).

Yaşar Kemal’s years in Adana between 1940 and 1951, when he began to write and publish his writings in journals, can be identified as a period of systematic oppression and intimidation towards him by the political power. During his stay in Kadirli, several times a year the gendarmes raided his house, ransacked it, and searched it down to the flour sacks. They took away every piece of paper, printed or unprinted, in the house. This is how most of the folklore collections were lost (Kemal 1993, 53). Abidin Dino was among those who witnessed this period closely. The Sarı Defterdekiler : Folklore Derlemeleri [In the Scrapbook : Folklore Collections] is a rare piece that was not lost and published until years later.

Abidin Dino, an important painter, author, and film director, explains the oppression experienced from the police and the gendarmes, police stations, and lynching campaigns at the time :

You may ask “What’s the matter ? Why did you get in trouble ?” Details do not matter ; it could not have been any other way. Yes, class oppression was the real truth actually. “A ragtag peasant” was trying to talk and write on behalf of the peasantry, such a rising is more than enough for “falanga [11] and double crescent [12] documents... (Dino 1979)

Russian Turkologist Svetlena Utuguari draws attention to the combination of the narrative forms of modern literary figures who make use of the possibilities of the Turkish oral cultural tradition. She emphasizes that Kemal Tahir’s Devlet Ana (1967) (mother state) and Kemal Bilbaşar’s Cemo (1966) and Memo (1969) owe their creation to folklore. In the former, Tahir’s emphasis is that the economic, social and religious institutions of the West are different from those of the Turkish culture and therefore incompatible. She underlines that there is a different position for writers, who approach events from a class perspective and who, like Yaşar Kemal, demand greater freedom and democratic rights and are therefore get into a conflict with the political power.

In these novels, in addition to “mani” – short couplets, nursery rhymes and elegies, we encounter examples of fortune telling, genres which are a part of folk culture repertoire in Turkey. The latter is a folk romance, namely the unrequited love between the female character Cemo and the male character Memo, a motif which is very often used in folk romances. In a similar vein,

Uturgauri underscores that the political perspective and the class position of progressive authors such as Yaşar Kemal are inseparable from their unique blend of modern Turkish literature and folklore. She points out that the richness of folklore that Anatolian people have accumulated over the centuries has played a major role in the development of the literatures of Kemal Tahir, Kemal Bilbaşar and Yaşar Kemal. She underscores that “they have embedded in their literature the art of rhetoric that helps the people to understand political thought, talent and historical features” (Uturgauri 1989, 120). [Kemal’s novels] Kemal Tahir and Kemal Bilbaşar placed a figure of speech that helps people to understand political thoughts, skills and historical characteristics’ (Uturgauri 1989, 120).

Halkçılık, which can be translated as “populism” or “peopleism”, which was added as a principle to the 1924 Constitution of the Republic of Turkey, is one of the important signs of the effort to see large segments of society as a whole, even though its content and requirements were not sufficiently fulfilled in practice during the single-party period that lasted until the 1950s.

In this sense, especially with the establishment of People’s Houses in 1932, the republican intelligentsia believed that Western-oriented activities in the field of culture and arts would fill the cultural gap. They tried to dominate the field of culture with Halk Evleri’s journals and activities of theatre, folklore, language and literature that were presented as different Halk Evleri branches. In a sense, this was an effort to adopt the understanding of art and literature desired by the political power. Writers and poets such as Faruk Nafız Çamlıbel (1898–1973), Halide Nusret Zorlutuna (1901–1984), Yakup Kadri Karaosmanoğlu (1889–1974), Ahmet Kutsi Tecer (1901–1967), and Behçet Kemal Çağlar (1908–1969) pioneered a “patriotic” understanding of literature and became prominent figures in this popularist literary prototype that government promoted.

Yaşar Kemal, whose first works were published in the People’s House journals, an important institution of the regime, addressed everyday realities from a distinct perspective than the literary figures mentioned above. Instead of their “national” and, in a sense, “populist” understanding of literature, which was expected by the political power, he began to deal with events from the perspective of class awareness and drew attention to folk. In his writings, he also expressed his literary identity and political views all at once. In other words, while Karaosmanoğlu, Çağlar and Tecer, for example, were politicians from the founding party CHP (Republican People’s Party) and Çamlıbel from the centre-right DP (Democratic Party), Yaşar Kemal was an active political activist from the TİP (Türkiye İşçi Partisi/Workers’ Party of Turkey).

Yaşar Kemal loved his country. It was a very different kind of nationalism that was espoused by the romantic nationalists. Kemal was not one of them. He was not engaged in “false nationalism”. In fact, a significant part of the country’s population in those years was rural, so Kemal emerged from this segment of the population. And he lived his life very in the same way as that of many other everyday man did in the country. In other words, he was not just an observer of society but he lived in this society, knowing its problems closely. He worked as an agricultural worker in Çukurova in the 1950s, a period of intensive mechanization in agriculture in Turkey. That makes him one of the most important observers of this change and also an important transmitter who worte on this change. He worked as a laborer in cotton fields. He used crop harvesters and worked as a tractor driver. In other words, he was right there in the thick of things, working alongside the producers. He knew all about the struggles and challenges they faced. He was on the side of the “little guys”—the peasants, the workers, and the laborers, working to solve their problems through socialism.

The People’s Houses are where Kemal was cultivated – where he published his first book, Ağıtlar (published by the Adana Halkevi, People’s Houses Adana Branch, 1943), which was the first in its field. When recalling dirges in Gül Yaprağın’ Döktü Bugün (The Rose has shed its petals today, 1997) and Sarı Defterdekiler : Folklor Derlemeleri [In the scrapbook : folklore collections] (1997), some of these poems were published in a book by Alpay Kabacalı and given to the Turkish Language Society. [13]

Though it cannot be claimed that all these fuelled Yaşar Kemal’s creativity, it can nevertheless be said that Yaşar Kemal’s positions and actions were substantial contributions to a “folk-centred” folklore in the presence of a “romantic” understanding of history, one shaped by these relevant and influential institutions.

Dynamic Folklore : Understanding Yaşar Kemal

Yaşar Kemal emphasized that folklore materials were the pillars of human culture, and that they should be supported as a philosophy in other artistic fields. These ideas were exemplified in the speech “Folklor Üzerine”[On Folklore], in his book Baldaki Tuz (Salt in Honey) that he delivered at the opening ceremony of the Ninth International Culture Festival, organized by Turkey’s National Student’s Federation in 1966. Kemal also mentions this view in several of his other writings, including “Kültür, Halk ve Sanat” (culture, people and art) and “Kültür Sömürücülüğü” (cultural exploitation), which he wrote in 1960 as part of a collection of essays Baldaki Tuz [Salt in Honey]. One of the most striking aspects of Kemal’s perspective and trajectory is that he was originally a creative artist, not a folklorist or folklore scholar. Yaşar Kemal’s conscious attitude and belief was that folklore had a profoundly dynamic structure, and he refused to rely on tradition as a static term. Kemal stated : “Folklore works have been created by humans in cooperation for thousands of years ; they have been processed and developed and transferred from societies to societies, people to people. They are living, and they will continue to live” (Kemal 2002, 149).

It can be deduced that this judgment was consolidated in an interview with Erdal Öz : “...Look, I consider folklore as a living thing. I do not see folklore as pile of dead instruments” (Kemal, op cit. in Öz 1977, 12–16).

Yaşar Kemal was one those who utterly understood the dialectics between folklore and literature, as encapsulated in Cemal Süreya’s classic essay Folklor Şiire Düşman (Folklore is the enemy of poetry), published in 1956. This is a half-century-long debate has lasted until our day and is repeated almost every decade. Indeed, it can be linked to Yaşar Kemal’s answer :

...The truth is that some people have made poems the enemy of folklore. They imitated folk culture, folk narration, namely the narration of stories and epics, folk poems, and other folk productions, instead of internalizing them. This became a fashion and swept the nation. These imitations then evolved into national literature and culture. However, these imitations had no value at all. There was nothing similar to those rich narrations in these imitations. The government supported them. For many years, some poets elaborated on the writings of Karacaoğlan and Yunus, and Dadaloğlu, and imitations extinguished whatever skills they may have possessed. The other poets who saw these issues and the writers who did not regard these imitations as poems, stories or tales, blamed folklore and said that folklore was an enemy of poem. Namely, they meant that folk culture was the enemy of literature. Whether they were right or wrong is a subject of research. It remains a problem of that time. (Kemal 1991, 149)

From a Romantic Point of View to Class Awareness

Yaşar Kemal was born into a political culture shaped by a long-lasting romantic historiography to which he reacted strongly. He struggled with his loyalty to socialism, to a worldview of sharing resources fairly among all individuals, and he defended this position virtuously despite living in a system that ground individuals down, that pushed aside ideas of multivocality under a policy of standardization according to an official ideology.

Much like his life, Kemal’s literary work was grounded in authentic socialism, an action-centred struggle for the people ; consequently, prior, and contemporaneous inspirators of this political standpoint differed from him regarding their lesser connections to folklore. He succeeded leaving his creative mark when telling Köroğlu’s folktale and also writing Deniz Küstü,1978 [The Sea-Crossed Fisherman, 1985], producing texts that can only be translated accurately by a narrator who assumes and takes on the novel’s literary atmosphere. This was achieved by combining narration and writing stories with the conflicting personalities of the characters and their surrendering nature in works such as Üç Anadolu Efsanesi, 1967 [Anatolian legend trilogy : Köroğlu, Karacaoğlan, Alageyik], Ağrı Dağı Efsanesi, 1970, (The Legend of Ararat, 1975 ; Binboğalar Efsanesi,1971 (Legend of the Thousand Bulls, 1976), Yılanı Öldürseler, 1976 (To Crush the Serpent, 1991), and Filler Sultanı ile Kırmızı Sakallı Topal Karınca, 1977 [The Sultan of Elephants and the Red-Bearded Lame Ant].

In understanding Uturgauri’s views on Kemal, the following statement is particularly significant :

Yaşar Kemal was different from Kemal Tahir and Kemal Bilbaşar. What established a relationship with folklore was the artist’s own inner world. It is his perception of the truth through his own consciousness raising, and his direction of his talent for creativity through a combination of a sense of poetics peculiar to himself. (Uturgauri 1989, 122)

The notable Soviet Turkologist Galina Gorbatkina also stated :

...We see that Yaşar Kemal used traditional folklore characters (Leyla) and rooted adjectives (sırma). However, Sofi’s speech did not leave an impression of stereotyped and traditionalized speech on us. What is the reason for this ? The reason why Sofi talked like that is due to the fact that the author combined individuals and methods in folklore using methods peculiar to him. Therefore, in the second part of this story, Sofi did not mention the beauty of the girl but rather her love and unhappiness. However, this could only be done naturally, and without changing the tone, by Yaşar Kemal, an expert psychologist. (Gorbatkina 1980, 251–252)

Yaşar Kemal’s literary actions and methods as novelist-folklorist are related to his being the progenitor of this culture, a point that is often emphasized. His works do not include an arbitrary, ambiguous, or constraining search for a folk reality, as this reality is entangled in the author’s creative use of language and tone, but also in his combination of diverse influences. Kemal may convey his stories by using narrative elements taken from epics and tales as freely as he often mentions the names of Dostoyevsky and Gogol in his narrations. He clearly answered Alain Bosquet’s question, stating :

Under which circumstances does a person or society create a myth ? I met those people ; I have been in those societies. I applied what you said the most in my novel named Yer Demir Gök Bakır, the second book of the Dağın Öte Yüzü trilogy. I benefited from ancient myths and old poets when the creation of a myth is told in that book. [Sometimes] I included a poet or a blind poet or a wise poet. Although it cuts the flow of a novel, I did not care. These storytellers, authors or the tales I told are strengthened by what I wanted to narrate. (Kemal 1993, 161)

In each of his novels, Yaşar Kemal endeavours to create a new language and a new form of expression. He combines this with his experience in folk storytelling, which he knows very well from the oral tradition on the one hand, and his endeavour to closely follow contemporary world literature on the other. Therefore, each new work is an addition to his own writing journey. He manages to draw his readers into his narrative with a framework that also encompasses his previous works.

Perhaps also a view from the outside will help :

Narrating is never an innocent act, and it provides the opportunity to present a narration that surrounds another narration and the results of that narration. Beyond any doubt, this situation gives a signal to the reader that the story being told can and should affect his life : literature is not an unnecessary activity that has no result. (Brooks 2014, 89)

The context of Kemal’s “tale” could be more easily understood if we consider the fact that Yaşar Kemal systematically appropriated and incorporated tales from the Turkish oral tradition as part of his narrative role. Indeed, he “protects an accumulation through another accumulation” (Andaç 2003, 289). When indicating the difference between the mythic tradition and the epic tradition, folklorist Altan Gökalp stated, regarding Kemal’s method, that both “the epic genre and the mythic genre are integrated into his novels” (Andaç 2003, 293). Yaşar Kemal often emphasized that he was an “engaged author” and he expressed his engaged authorship as a preference towards peace, an opposition to war, exploitation and injustice, and sharing fairly with righteousness and righteous individuals. His obligation as a narrator rests here.

An Author at the Centre of Cultural Fractions and Intersections

Traces of Yaşar Kemal’s approach and creativity can be found in his scholarly writings and conversations. What makes him different from his contemporaries is that he came from Van, an economically poor region in eastern Turkey, mostly populated by the Kurds. He experienced troubling feudal relations in Turkey’s southern, agrarian regions where he grew up. Kemal was born into a crowded family with deep roots and strong feudal bonds. His family migrated to Adana and Kemal was raised in a village in the Çukurova region which was inhabited by Turcoman tribes. The term “fraction” is also used to refer to the fact that, starting in the 1900s, Kemal distanced himself from the Mustafa Kemal [Atatürk] new epoch due to its politicians living in their idealized and ideological atmosphere while striving to create a nation state, which eventually made them were unaware of and estranged from the realities of Yaşar Kemal’s own fractious geography and its people.

Kemal is the witness to these sharp ruptures and transformations, especially to the transformations in nature, which he considers both as a painful and privileged experience to show the political strength of creation through his own folklore-inspired literary work. He experienced the fact that nature changed faster than traditions (Andaç 2016, 78) and was the only novelist (with the exception of two social scientists), who came to this realization. As an exchange of experiences, narration is a biotic hold against death and blood, and is the main theme in the majority of his works. The trilogy Kimsecik (Little Nobody) consists of three different volumes, Yağmurcuk Kuşu (1980) (Salman the solitary, 1997), Kale Kapısı (1985) and Kanın Sesi (the voice of blood) (1991). This trilogy is like Yaşar Kemal’s own biography. When we connect the events and characters with his life story, there are several points at which it is hinted that Mustafa is Yaşar Kemal. The most prominent of these is the murder of his father by his stepson Salman in the mosque, because this happened in front of Yaşar Kemal’s eyes. Because of this event, Yaşar Kemal stuttered for a long time and had difficulty speaking.

Much like in the case of the Kimsecik trilogy, [14] Such an experience in literary works is presented as the primary fear of Mustafa that he faces, and this is especially true regarding Kanın Sesi, 1991, [voice of blood] and of Zeynel Çelik in Deniz Küstü, 1978 (The Sea-Crossed Fisherman). Each experience shaped him and functioned as a defence against life.

Köroğlu, besides being an epic hero with different narratives in Turkish literature, is also a folk poet known to have lived in the sixteenth century. He is especially known for his heroic poems. He has sympathizers known as his “brave men”. Köroğlu is, on the one hand, a personality of minstrelsy in Anatolia, and on the other hand, he is the hero of epic stories starring that personality (Turan 2018, 14). The approach of the official dominant ideology, i.e., official history, to Köroğlu is different from that of the ordinary people.

If viewed through the eyes of a chronicler, Köroğlu is a rebel, a bandit, a bandit who rebels against the state ; in Ottoman history, he is a Celalî. [15] However, if we take into account the folk tales and epics that are woven around him, he is a hero about whom many rumours have been created and epic stories have been told among Turkish communities that spread over a wide geography from the Tobol River in Siberia to Rumelia, as well as among nations that have been in contact with Turks such as Armenians, Kurds, Tajiks, Arabs, Georgians. (Turan 2018, 28)

This distinction can also be seen in Köroğlu, who is traditionally mythologized as a fearless character – the son of Yusuf, Ruşen is the hero of fear. In Yaşar Kemal’s works, fear is used as a defence and Kemal himself is considered as an expert in the psychology of fear. He provides clues concerning his life and experience to his readers by the details and specifics of his stories.

The first volume of İnce Memed (Memed My Hawk), one of Yaşar Kemal’s best-known novels in Turkey and worldwide, was published in 1955, the second volume in 1969, the third in 1984 and the fourth and last in 1987, thirty-one years later. The events of the novel take place in the 1930s. In the third volume, the tenth year of the republic, which was proclaimed in 1923, is referred to as “in the tenth-year amnesty...” Also, holiday ceremonies are described in detail :

Every shop, every house in the town had a flag. Three triumphal arches were set up at the marketplace. They had wrapped the poles of the triumphal arches with blueberry branches and inserted red, yellow and white chrysanthemums between these dark green branches. On top of each triumphal arch were large flags hanging down to the ground. A dais wrapped in a flag was set up in the marketplace. First the district governor, then the mayor, and then the teacher Sami Turgut would speak. On every Republic Day, he would take the podium and speak so heroically that the people would be in tears. Without him, there would be no Republic Day. (Kemal 2016, 1035)

Yaşar Kemal gives an economic, social and political cross-section of the Çukurova in the 1930s ; he reveals the poverty and oppression of the Turkish peasantry ; the overwhelming oppression and humiliation of the people by the alliance of aghas, beys and bureaucracy. (Naci 2000, 408)

His four-volume novel İnce Memed tells the story of the war-fugitive aghas – the landlords, all in detail, who illegally seize large territories and hold the economic power in their hands. The same aghas then align themselves with bureaucracy and have access to political power. He portrays peasants, teachers, landlords, gendarmes and civil servants with their social identities. He describes the helplessness of the peasants oppressed under the tyranny of aghas, the bureaucracy and the gendarmerie by conveying the prolific image of the geography they live in. In order to get out of the binding oppression and injustice, a peasant, İnce Memed, who also gives the novel its name, resorts to “ihkak-ı hak” that is, he has to fulfil his right with his own weapon. Yaşar Kemal attributes this to necessity and in this respect, he characterizes İnce Memed as the “man who must”.

In its simplest terms, the novel is about an epic character, İnce Memed, a Hobsbawmian hero, a “social bandit”. The story takes place in the earlier years of the Turkish Republic, reminiscent of the Middle Ages in its epic structure and narration. İnce Memed helps the poor in the Çukurova region and protects them against the landlords who abuse them economically and socially. İnce Memed fights for the poor. The four-volume series was completed in thirty-two years. Among his masterworks, an aspect of his heroes such as İnce Memed [Memed My Hawk], [16] Yasar Kemal comments on his own style that “he had to tell these events” and as such he is a narrator who is obliged to tell and tell this story very critically – on the one hand, criticizing power-hungry landlords who have, for centuries, taken advantage of poor people in the region. On the other hand, Yasar Kemal is also critical of the new Turkish state, who could stop the abusive tribal characters and leaders in a democratic republic. This narrator also imbues a “knowing actor”, which requires him to endure the consequences and difficulties of his narration – mostly political ones. A particularly significant determination of Kemal’s emphasizes structural change in his society :

There is a class called the “bourgeois” in the West, which is well identified. But it does not fit Istanbul. You cannot hold the man, he is like a jellyfish, from where would you hold him ? He does not have a specific form of behaviour [in terms of being bourgeois] ; he is totally degenerate. He is not a peasant, not a townsperson, not rich, not poor. You can find this type nowhere in the world. He buys himself a Mercedes, [I mean], a Mercedes-190, he packs his rakı, appetizers, and çiğ köfte in its trunk, and he drinks, as dust hits the seaside. (Andaç 2016, 80)

Not an Author for “Lore” But for “Folk”

The performer’s approach is based on an analysis of context, including an understanding of the environment in which the text is narrated, the place of performance, the date of the performance, the reason for the performance, the way of performing, and the performance identity. All these aspects are required to properly understand the text within a folkloric environment. A meaning specific to Yaşar Kemal can be worded as follows :

I realized the effects of rhetoric on people during the days I told epics to an audience. In the villages and regions in which I find good listeners, my words take wings and fly, and I was telling [my stories] happily. My narration was lifeless in villages and regions where the number of listeners was low. A professional epic teller’s narration is not a memorization. The epic teller recreates each narration according to the participation of the folk. Therefore, epics are transferred from one epic teller to another, get cleaned, purified, become smooth and shine like pebble stones under the sea for forty-thousand years. (Kemal 2009, 90)

In many works by Yaşar Kemal, such as İnce Memed [Memed, My Hawk] (1955–1987) Yer Demir Gök Bakır (1963) (Iron Earth, Copper Sky, 1989), the second volume in the acclaimed The Wind from the Plain trilogy – Kanın Sesi (1991) and Ağrı Dağı Efsanesi (1970), there are numerous practices exist related to nature itself. These practices exist according to a witnessing and a conflict and so do not appear like a patchwork that was added on later. The event that takes place in the novel Ortadirek (1953) (Middlepost) is one such example. Here, the main character of the novel Ortadirek, Meryemce, does not talk to her son after her horse dies ; she does not even utter a word. No matter what her son Ali does, he is unable to appease Meryemce. Meryemce talks to a pine tree near where they live :

Great tree, I am not telling [it] to anybody but [to] you, oh great tree. Koca Halil killed my horse…You have seen many days. You know the ancient eras, great tree. Whatever exists in this world, is written on your hand. Koca Halil was not a friend of my man, not a companion of him. Koca Halil was even worse to my man than his enemies. Only you know this, and I, and Great Halil... Now do you hear what I said, tree ?... You are a great tree, you know everything. (Kemal 1980, 109)

In the same work, Uzunca Ali sees his son urinating under the great walnut tree, gets angry and says : [17]

At some point, his son Hasan passed before his eyes vaguely. Up ahead, with his back turned this way, he was urinating at the base of a bush. Wow, dog’s piss ! Would a man piss under the bush next to the walnut tree, a place of the holy visit ? He would be possessed. You’ll be paralyzed. I swear it to God. You sludge ball ! Don’t you know why villagers never go [peeing] under trees [which can be or have] holy visits ? This is why. They pee in their pants. Some cut the branches and stick nails in its trunk. Trees have lives too. They can possess you, too, they can make you crippled. When you do not disturb the holy visiting places, they bring good luck. Who knows, this great tree, this embroidered tree might bring us good luck. There is nothing they cannot do. Oh man, if I am to get better, and if I feel better, I will do the prayer five times. They like prayers. Maybe this tree will have a kind heart to help us. (Kemal 1980, 134)

Yaşar Kemal’s narration has an external “architecture”, one that he builds and develops with the main theme of his own stories. It has an internal architecture too, used to shape the narrative language that determines his tone and that of his stories. This is exemplified in his assertion that in each of his novels he is seeking to master a new style of language, as he put in one of his public lectures. Folklore comprises examples that are separated from the tone of the verbal creator. Yaşar Kemal did not benefit from a folk culture ; rather, he is one of those responsible for its creation. Therefore, in his masterpieces, a legend or a part of a legend is not an element that is removed from an elegy, proverb, or a tale, but rather is directly the work itself. For example, when considering one of Kemal’s masterpieces, İnce Memed, numerous verbal folk literature components can be found. The question as to whether it is true to say whether Yaşar Kemal benefited from folklore, or folklore benefited from him, and his many contributions remains uncertain. If the content of his work is mentioned, we are reminded that, in İnce Memed IV, three thousand liras were put on the black horse’s head because in the tale it is believed that this horse bears İnce Memed’s soul. Many horses subsequently appear in the tale. Ironically, Yaşar Kemal used mangy, idle horses in the context of his epics and legends, as created by peasants :

These days the town was in a festive mood. Everyone was smiling, no one was quarreling or fighting with anyone, no one was even gossiping about anyone. The town had changed, it had never experienced such joyful, pleasant days in its history. All this was thanks to İnce Memed. Everyone was joining İnce Memed’s life in the mountains, full of adventures, and even more so, the poor, the villagers, the young men were becoming one with him. Especially when a price was placed on the head of İnce Memed’s horse, the town was overjoyed. The town was divided into two, some said that the villagers would catch İnce Memed’s horse and deliver it, others said that such a thing could not happen. Then, when men started to bring the horses in the lottery, a real feast took place in the town. Many people who could not prove that their horse was that of Ince Memed’s, went into the town centre, made up a tale about a horse that would collapse if you blew on it, and cursed people who did not believe them. The town was full of horse legends and tales, horse epics, plays, folk songs, and some people would make up stories about the horse they caught from who knows where. The town children who had never heard a fairy tale, like village children, were falling asleep with these – all kinds of – unheard tales. (Kemal, 2004, 207)

By associating these connections with historical events and protagonists, he manages to spread the reader’s attention to a wider platform. In doing so, he uses an epic narrative to enrich the spirit of the novel. Here, he makes use of historical events and people who have left their mark on minds with their heroism. One of them is Selahaddin Ayyubi (1137–1193), the founder and first ruler of the Ayyubid State, about whom various legends are told. Another part from the same work states :

This shirt belongs to Selahaddin Eyyubî Han, his highness. He went to wars against heretics and survived. Sultan Selahaddin Eyyubî gave this shirt as a gift to the guild. No one wore it after that day. Almost a month ago, Sultan Selahaddin Eyyubî, his highness, visited me one night. He was dressed all in green and was holding a big, red-hot plane leaf. Roots were coming out of this leaf and surrounding the world. He gazed at me. The sultan said “I want you to deliver something to someone. This shirt belongs to İnce Memed. Make him wear it”. As soon as he told me this he vanished suddenly. He became a green light and faded away ; I knew you were not here İnce Memed, but I knew one day you would come ; have your share and go back to mountains. Godspeed and may god bless you, and may your sword stay sharp. (Kemal 2004, 368)

He also refers to personages and mythic figures, who are considered sacred in Anatolian Turkmen beliefs and whose historical existence is unknown. Their main characteristic is that they are assumed to have performed miracles. A further expression, told at the funeral of Anacık Sultan’s mother from the Kırkgöz guild, is as follows :

Water was flowing and grumbling, and it was hurling snow. Thousands of people were ruined by the snow and became snowmen while trying to attend their mother’s funeral. The dead mother was spreading love to everyone. A huge blue flower with a long pedicle was present there ; whence it came was uncertain, but it wilted and stood by the bedside. The mother smelled like a flower. Women were singing elegies and putting white flowers on the grave. The blue flower walked from the bedside, put its roots on the grave and stayed there, its blue colour burbled and flowed, and everyone saw it. That blue flower continued to live without fading or drying. It flowed like daylight. One day, the flower woke up as dawn was breaking and it stopped spreading its blue when sixteen patriarchs did not return from the War of Liberation. But the sultan saw it himself. He lost himself in the blue, / after the flower, until the daylight came. Then he lost the flower in a big fount with white pebbles. From that day onward, the water of the fount was the purest blue because of the flower. White pebble stones and rocks could be found there, and even the fish that swam in the water became blue. (Kemal 2004, 525)

Yaşar Kemal established a connection between his novels and his own life, especially enriching his work with features of the folk culture of the region where he grew up. He based this on the traditions and cultural richness of the Turkmen village where they migrated from Van and settled in Çukurova. He explains how the richness of the oral folk culture in this village and the contacts with the folk bards in the region influenced him as follows :

The village I was born was a Turkmen village. Perhaps my region was the place where Turkish was most richly used. Every woman was a poet. And those women who could not sing or create lament songs were considered crazy or stupid. The alternative was impossible. Karacaoğlan, who is believed to have lived in the sixteenth century, was one of the greatest poets of my region and of our country. it was impossible that a woman or a man did not know any Karacaoğlan poems. Those who did not know Karacaoğlan poetry were considered stupid and wimps. It was not so only in my village. It was like that in the entire Çukurova. Then, great epic storytellers used to come to the village and told ancient Turkmen epics. The most famous ones of these storytellers were Âşık Murtaza and Küçük Memet, who came to our village from 30 kilometres away. Küçük Memet would re-live the epics as he told them, performing and narrating like a theatre artist. Then I met another great epic teller called Güdümen Ahmet. He was named after the epic of Köroğlu ; his real name had been forgotten. Çolak Ökkeş and Gavudağlı Âşık Hacı were other great poets and epic tellers. Gavurdağlı Âşık Hacı was the most famous poet of that region, after Karacaoğlan and Dadaloğlu. After the age of eight, I grew up aspiring to those things and I started telling epics and surrounding myself with children. My audience expanded, and grown-ups also started listening to me. (Kemal 1993, 45)

Similar citations are abundant in Kemal’s writings. There are so many folklore-related vocabulary, folklore-related activities that belong to Anatolian geography. birth, death, and wedding practices as well as folklore genres , mani (short poem, usually with one stanza), folk songs, elegies, lullabies, rhymes, tales, fıkra, (jokes) folk stories are given in Kemal’s writings. He also gives the nicknames people use, talks about celebrations such as Hıdırellez and Newroz [18] that mark the coming of the spring. Considering Yaşar Kemal as a folklorist is an important claim, which should be further developed. Kemal created profoundly important collections. For instance, Ağıtlar (Laments) is not only the first study on Anatolian lamen tradition but also is Kemal’s first study on the topic. It was published as a book and entered the literary world as a collection of folk stories. [19] He produced works directly related to folklore and even used the names of folklore genres in the titles of his works, including : Üç Anadolu Efsanesi, Binboğalar Efsanesi and Ağrı Dağı Efsanesi, giving importance to a genre, efsane, meaning legend in Turkish. Kemal knew and was familiar with an abundance of folklore elements, motifs, and archetypes which can be seen throughout almost all of his work. The ways in which he uses motifs from the Anatolian oral traditions – including the Kurdish and Turkish ones – shows not only that he knows the the folklore traditions of Anatolia very well but also, he has already internalized them in his life and his writings.

Besides his “natural” engagement with folklore materials, which makes him a strong literary persona, his friendship with prominent artists, literary figures, and the intelligentsia also played an important role for him as an author. The most important relation is his friendship with the Dino family. His acquaintance with Güzin, Arif and Abidin Dino contributed to broadening his horizons. As mentioned earlier, members of the Dino family came from an aristocratic origin. They were sent into exile in Adana for political reasons. Abidin Dino, a prominent painter, was especially instrumental for Kemal as he started reading the canonical works of Western literature. Kemal also became friends with folklorists Pertev Naili Boratav, Ahmet Kutsi Tecer and Ali Rıza Yalgın, who knew the folk culture of Anatolia very well. Last, he became friends with Mehmet Ali Aybar (1908–1995), a key figure in his political struggles in TİP (Turkish Labor Party), the most effective opposition party of the 1960s. Kemal prepared the party’s election speeches, read them on the radio and organized rallies. He was among the people who founded of the magazine Ant, which followed a socialist editorial policy and was published between 1967 and 1971. All these activities show that Yaşar Kemal was not only writing as an author but as an author who was engaged in political struggle.

To what extent then can it be argued that Yaşar Kemal possesses a strong sensibility towards folklore materials ? Is the richness of his writing and work based on a “folklore” consciousness or Kemal’s social-realist approach ? When we analyse his works and life, we can see that the second outweighed the first. Indeed, Kemal nourished his social realist approach with his experiences in “narrative culture” and his spectacular knowledge of life that distanced him from his nationality, the historical basis of folklore, which increased during the period in which he began his writing, [20] He is a certainly a creative author more than an academic folklorist. Nonetheless, his understanding of folklore stemmed from a counterreaction to a “threat” – the increasing capitalization in Turkey (Tekeli 1978, 46). It is necessary to consider his privilege as one of the few artists who truly understood the value and importance of folklore as a source for creating and perpetuating culture. Kemal broke off the conservative and preservative traditional chain ; he managed to meet his artistic and class preferences as a witness of the aforementioned historical process. Pertev Naili Boratav (1907–1998), İlhan Başgöz (1921–2021), Seyfi Karabaş (1945–1998), and Tahir Alangu (1915–1973) indisputably pioneered the movement of those individuals who prevented folklore creations from being misused as moralizing and arrogant narrations which are quite common, and Yaşar Kemal himself undoubtedly aided this movement through his original literary creation, one that was rooted in folklore. If these abovementioned key figures had not made considerable efforts in Turkey, folklore studies would have continued as a descriptive and limited analytical research field. Folklore itself would have been restricted to no more than empty repetitions bound with the nationalistic admiration and glorification of the past.

Kemal attended the lives of “people” and their culture beyond his socialist identity. This was evidenced with his socialist-realist stand in his later years. In other words, his literary creativity included the “folk” more than it included the “lore”. What makes Kemal’s works superior to others is the efficacy and mastery of words, specifically, his ability to write and narrate in different styles for different stories and tales, his ability to transfer a psychological understanding based on a sensation that prioritized nature in presenting individual characters, and his ability to transfer rooted social structural changes into a narrative fiction. This can be more clearly seen when considering the “lore” part of folklore. Yaşar Kemal can be treated as different in this regard in that he abandoned the “true path” highlighted by Turkish folklorist Tahir Alangu (1983, 101), a term that refers to the positivist understanding of “science” as opposed to the path of folklore, which has subjective realities and ways of doing and which Kemal followed.

Kemal’s personality resisted intimidation, as well as making, contriving or saying things merely to set an example. He retreated from a limited world and instead turned himself into a unique creative author. There are many folklorists, but only one Yaşar Kemal. Folklore is a scientific endeavour and hence is obligated to assume all the narrowness of a formal discipline. This framework compresses the folklorist within certain limits apart from occasionally permitting him/her to engage in interdisciplinary contexts and issues. Yaşar Kemal would not be Yaşar Kemal if he had merely focused on his folklorist side. Other personalities and individuals who contributed to this field with their own collections and research of literature nevertheless grounded themselves in Kemal’s folklore. There are, however, considerable differences between relying on a tradition and being a creative, literary person. Yaşar Kemal was not a stable individual, yet he attained stability as one who made sense. As a result, understanding Yaşar Kemal’s folklore identity benefits from a social realist perspective. Kemal realized his own cultural accumulation according to the historic truth on which he had been grounded. His relationship with socialism that helped to shape his artistic perspective contributed to the richness of both his experiences and his literary works. Yaşar Kemal saw his own reality very clearly ; his “obligation” to narrate in Çukurova demonstrated Kemal’s awareness of his own reality :

…I did not fall from the sky ; I was born in a village in Çukurova. I lived in a town, a city, a piece of land. I lived on the Mediterranean, the Taurus Mountains. If Kafka had not lived with bureaucrats, would he have been able to write The Trial, or The Castle ? If he had not been Jewish, would that bulletproof darkness be his country ? If Dostoyevsky had not experienced Petrograd, Siberia, and the people there, would he have been able to reflect on psychology as truly and as deeply as he did ? (Kemal 1993, 137)

His use of epic narrative style and poetic language forms is a result of epic narration, which is a principal element in traditional minstrelsy. Because, as alluded to in the section on his life story, he spent considerable time socializing with the famous minstrels of Çukurova, participated in storytelling performances with them and he was able to continue this tradition at an early age. Therefore, his proficiency largely arose from his being a poetical singer under the pseudonym “Kör Kemal” – Kemal the blind, evoking the traditional blind troubadour. His intellectual background became enriched when his strong personality was introduced to world literary classics at the Ramazanoğlu library.

He worked as a farmhand in the cotton fields in Çukurova, as a tractor driver, roller driver, and lookout guard on the water canals. Especially with mechanization in Turkey, he had the opportunity to closely observe the rapid transformation in nature, which led to the formation of a strong awareness of nature and its reflection in his works. Kemal’s ability to question life comes from nature, his travels around the country to conduct interviews, his work as a gas-meter reader and tractor driver. Therefore, an understanding of folklore based on “nationalism” cannot hold valid for him. Based on a nationalist understanding, the earlier thinkers on folklore took folklore materials to represent “Turkishness” flattening the ethnic differences in Anatolia for a “Turkish” identity. Yaşar Kemal, on the other hand, has seen Anatolian culture as the common heritage of all the peoples who have lived in this geography and presented them as such in all his novels. Without falling into the trap of ethnocentric throught, Yaşar Kemal approached folklore as a novelist, who is ware of multiculturalism and saw it as the common heritage of humanity.

The platform where his studies on folklore were shaped in both university and public environments remained contradictory when further scientific folklore studies, produced by Yaşar Kemal and further qualified by Pertev Naili Boratav, were interrupted by a shallow and racist attitude toward the subject. In this regard, his understanding of “halk” – the folk comes closer to that of Pertev Naili Boratav.

In 1948, when the Department of Folklore and Folk Literature at Ankara University, led by Pertev Naili Boratav, was closed down, folklore studies started to be conducted outside the university through individual efforts and different associations, until the National Folklore Institute was established under the Turkish state. There are university folklore clubs that have been successful in this regard and their work continues to date. Founded in 1958 at Robert College, for example, the folklore club continues its activities under this roof, Robert College being transformed into Boğaziçi University in 1971. The club, which initially focused mainly on folk dances and music, later embarked on folklore compilations and transformed these materials into publications in the journal Folklora Doğru. Another university club which conducted similar activities is the Halkbilim Topluluğu (Folklore Community) founded in 1961 under the roof of the Middle Eastern Technical University (METU). It is noteworthy that, at least in Ankara, the university has predominantly technical departments rather than social sciences and that a sizable portion of the active students of this club are students in technical branches. Yaşar Kemal’s folklore works and his popularity in literature have played a role, albeit from a distance, in making these clubs the centre of attention.

In fact, Kemal has played a great role regarding the embodiment of folklore attitudes in those who passed through People’s Houses and met amid new foundations, and those who had been educated in universities (such as Boğaziçi University and Middle East Technical University) by means of university clubs, both of which contributed to folkloric scholarship with an amateur spirit. Each work by Kemal is a masterpiece that distils the polyphonic cultural richness of its geographical region and people. Those who read and experience his works assume a break in function with a paradigm that resists the shaping of a governmentally determined curriculum, and an academia which remains unofficial and independent despite all attempts and impositions to the contrary. Arguably, this remains the most concrete indicator of his folklorist hat. I his own words : Yaşar Kemal was not a trained apprentice folklorist ; rather, he rose to storytelling as a “mecbur anlatıcı” – a narrator who is obliged to tell. He is a person who simply “had to tell”. Yaşar Kemal uses this phrase for İnce Memed ; he describes him as “a man of necessity”, attributing his banditry and going up the mountain to his desperation and lack of any other way out. Just like the statement by Sait Faik Abasıyanık, one of the great short story writers in Turkey, who wrote “I would have gone mad if I had not written”, Yaşar Kemal is a person who is compelled to tell. He is a man who has to tell stories in order to rid himself of oppression, in order to rid himself of the pressure of death, in order to rid himself of the poverty that clings to him, in order to rid the people of the deprivation which they are pushed into.

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[1With the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, Halkevleri (People’s Houses) started their activities on February 19, 1932, as part of efforts to create a modern society. In the early days of their establishment, People’s Houses conducted activities directly under the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which was the only party at the time. Later, People’s Houses became an autonomous legal entity and operated as a public benefit association. The aim of the People’s Houses was to explain the change to the population who were reluctant to innovate and to lead the intellectual circles to intensify their work on this issue. For this purpose, in addition to literary activities, extensive work was undertaken in the fields of theatre, painting, music and handcrafts. To this end, there were publications, conferences and exhibitions, and courses in various professions were organized. People’s Houses also published scholarly journals, in which Yaşar Kemal’s writings were published. In 1951, when the Democratic Party came to power, the number of these journals published by People’s Houses was 77. Halkevleri, which also published books on various subjects, played a key role in Yaşar Kemal’s life as a writer, as his first poem “Seyhan” was published in the Adana Halkevi journal Görüşler (1939), and his first book Ağıtlar-I (1943) was published by the same organization.

[2As most of the readers would know, the interest in folklore materials owes its origins to the romantic nationalist views that were epitomized in Germany during the period of “romantic nationalism”. Hande Birkalan (1995, 8–16) notes that Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803), spearheaded this movement and made substantial contributions the development of a national German identity. In parallel, the Brothers Grimm attempted to collect folklore materials and compile folk tales aimed at creating and cultivating a united German nation – people, who were came from different regions and supposedly formed a single Nationalgeist (national spirit). Similar European traditions such as the Scandinavian and Slavic traditions can be offered next to the leading example of Germany. The “nationalist” wind of folklore began blowing in the Ottoman Empire only in the late nineteenth century, though the Ottoman political elite wanted to resist this kind of “enlightenment” as they thought that it would lead to the dissolution of its ethnic groups.

[3Mersiye (Dirge) : Sung by men to express the sorrow and pain felt after the death of a person, these poems underline the achievements of the deceased man, his works, and his positive qualities.

[4Alevis form a community within the Islamic belief system that is loyal to Ali (599–661) among the caliphs and fulfil religious rituals with the understanding of Islam of Hacı Bektaş Veli (1209–1271) in Anatolia. The main characteristics that distinguish Alevis from the majority Sunnis are the participation of women in worship next to men, and therefore, to religious leaders. Alevis use music, religious singing, and semah (ritual dance) in their worship. Usually before singing hymns, the devotional religious songs, they can also drink wine, a practice which is known as dem almak.

[5Translator’s note : In a conversation with Hande Birkalan-Gedik in 2008, Kemal noted that “there was the language, but no community [to speak it with].

[6Dengbej is the name given to folk poets, who recite poetry and songs in Kurdish oral literature. The word means one who gives form, colour and meaning to sound. Although there are dengbejs who use tambourine and windpipe as musical instruments to accompany their singing, most of them do not use musical instruments other than their own voice and recite poetry because the most distinctive feature of the dengbejs is their ability to use their voices.

[7Çiftçapa manileri are “work poems” sung between men and women,when they work in the fields. They carry a message of love between the singers.

[8Translator’s note : These interviews were “striking” in the sense that Kemal touched upon important subjects, such as one with the street children as an overarching theme of social problems at the time.

[9Translator’s note : Another important film based on Kemal’s novels should be mentioned. It is Memed My Hawk, featuring Peter Ustinov as the main character Abdi Agha. The screenplay was written by Yaşar Kemal and Peter Ustunov, based on Kemal’s novel.

[10Village Institutes represented a model of education which answered the needs of a population, more than 80% of whom lived in villages and had a literacy rate of 5% in the 1930s in Turkey. Founded on April 17, 1940, the students of these institutions were selected from children who had graduated from primary schools in the villages. İsmail Hakkı Tonguç (1893–1960) was the father of the idea and pioneer of the institutions. Until 1946, a total of 21 institutes were opened. The duration of education at these institutions, which were co-educational for boys and girls, was five years. The curricula of these schools, which were opened by taking Turkey’s needs into consideration, were geared towards practical learning. Therefore, the programmes were designed to take into account the needs of Turkey, which was an agricultural country in those years. In addition to teaching, the graduates of these schools were trained in additional professions such as carpentry, beekeeping, blacksmithing, and poultry breeding, which they would have the opportunity to practise in the villages where they would work (Altunya 2005, 21). Under the harsh conditions of the Second World War, they built almost all the school buildings themselves and provided their own food from their own produce. In this way, between 1940 and 1946, 15,000 acres of land were made suitable for agriculture, 750,000 new saplings were planted, and 1200 acres of vineyards were created. In addition, 150 major constructions, 60 workshops, 210 teachers’ houses, 20 practice schools, 36 warehouses and storages, 48 barns and haystacks, 12 power plants, 16 water plants, 12 agricultural facilities, 3 fisheries and 100 km of roads were built.

[11Translator’s note : Foot whipping, also commonly known as phalanga, is a form of corporal punishment whereby the soles of the feet are beaten with an object such as a cane or rod, a club, a piece of wood, a stout leather bullwhip, or a flexible bat of heavy rubber.

[12Translator’s note : Dossiers about the “dangerous” persons, according to the Turkish National Intelligence Agency. The “çifte ay” encodes that the letter was sent from the Turkish secret service that carries the logo of double crescent.

[13Gökyüzü Mavi Kaldı [The heaven remained blue] (Toros Publishing, Istanbul, 1990) prepared by Sabahattin Eyüboğlu should be added to this list of essays. Considering all these collective and arrests, migrations thus losses, we see that Yaşar Kemal’s collations provides a complete source of folkloric works. For a detailed writing on this subject also see Çiftlikçi 1995.

[14It was published as in 1991 as the last novel of the trilogy. The first one is Yağmurcuk Kuşu (1980), followed by Kale Kapısı (1985) and Kimsecik. The trilogy is considered as an autobiographical account of Yaşar Kemal.

[15Translator’s note : Celali revolts are the revolts against the authority of the Ottoman Empire in the late sixteenth and early to mid-seventeenth centuries.

[16Translator’s note : One of the first Turkish novels that was translated into several Western languages after the Second World War. It was translated by Edouard Roditi and Kemal’s wife, Thilda Kemal in 1961. Güzin Dino translated it into French in 1976, with the title Mèmed le Faucon.

[17Translator’s note : In fact, embellished with local folk sayings, Yaşar Kemal’s novels present a world that is based on the modern understanding of anthropocene – a more-than-human-world that recognizes a vast environment and nature which not only surrounds but also evolves and thrives around all living, seen through the lens of trees, with souls and intelligence, rather than solely from a human viewpoint.

[18Translator’s note : Hıdırellez is one of the most important seasonal festivals in Turkey and parts of the Middle East. Celebrated on May 5-6, it is the day when prophets Al-Khidr and Elijah come together on Earth. Newroz literally means “new year” in Kurdish and celebrated on March 21. The festival has a particular importance, as it symbolizes the resistance of the Kurdish people.

[19Yaşar Kemal, who published his first poems in the journals Türksözü, Yeni Adana, Vakit, Varlık, Ülkü, Kovan, Beşpınar, Millet and Çığ under the pseudonym Kemal Sadık Göğceli, also published his first collation Çifteçapa Manileri in Görüşler, a journal of the Adana Halkevi and Karacaoğlan’dan Yeni Koşmalar in the journal Varlık in 1941. He told of his adventures and the difficulties he faced in a collation of his studies : “I started folklore studies when I was sixteen. My poem writing adventure started at a very early age. I passed from poems to folklore. I was corresponding with Ahmet Kutsi Tecer and Pertev Naili Boratav during those years. I had information on the collation of folk products. First, I made a collation of unpublished Karacaoğlan folk songs. I encountered remarkably interesting situations in this collation. For example, I was making a collation of a poem by Karacaoğlan in Çukurova, and a couple of days later I was confronted by the fact that the poem belonged to Karacaoğlan or to another poet... In those years, many poems that I thought belonged to Karacaoğlan actually belonged to Pir Sultan, Ruhsati, Kul Halil. I published one such poem thinking it belonged to Karacaoğlan. Then I found out it belonged to Ruhsati. I made a collation of another poem from the village of Bahçe in Osmaniye. A couple of days later, I realized this poem belonged to Gavurdağlı Aşık Hacı. Then I thought, not a single collation of elegy or rhyme had been made. Rhyme tekerleme is called sayıştırma in Çukurova. Then I started making a collation of elegies and rhymes” (Kemal 2000). “Ağıtlar Üstüne Söyleşi” and Ustadır Arı. Istanbul : Adam.

[20The uses of folklore in the Second World War are infamous. Alangu notes : “Towards the Second World War, first in Germany, and then in the fascist regimes in some of the Central European countries that followed in its orbit, we see that folklore was taken to extremes, and a new folklore movement began with the aim of tying it to racist principles. We see that special books and pamphlets on this subject were prepared for the National Socialist educational and training institutions opened for the training of NSDAP (National Sozialistische Deutsche Arbeitspartei) members. (Alangu 1983, 48). A similar dynamic caused the closure of “both People Houses and folklore platforms” whose establishment was undertaken through the guidance of Pertev Naili Boratav. These developments are products belonging to a period in which the multi-party system failed during the Second World War. This period was named the ‘hot spot of the1940s’, as the struggle between the CHP and the newly established DP, and outpourings of war ideologies in Turkey, became determining factors. The Boratav case was a negative milestone during the development of folklore studies in Turkey due to its chronological position. This folklore platform, which was expected to develop under the leadership of Boratav, hindered the development of folklore studies in Turkey. One result was that folklore research became chiefly a governmental concern, another resulted in the display of folklore through and using folk dances. The folklore platform which Pertev Naili Boratav tried to establish played a key role in understanding previous People Houses experiences and future government-centred folklore research, as well as the development of folk dances (Öztürkmen 1998, 140–141).