Yasar Kemal, the master storyteller who repeatedly clashed with the Turkish state while emerging as his country’s first novelist of global stature, died on Saturday in Istanbul, according to Turkey’s state-run news agency, Anadolu.
His age was uncertain, because no one kept records in the isolated village where he grew up, but he was born in 1922 or 1923. Anadolu reported his age as 92, but other news agencies said he was 91.
Mr. Kemal’s home region — Cukurova in southern Anatolia, known in antiquity as Cilicia — is the backdrop for his sweeping tales of rapacious landlords, callous bureaucrats and peasant heroes who fight injustice. He wrote more than two dozen books, using a colorful narrative style that appealed to a broad audience, fiercely criticizing injustice and creating noble outlaws who became permanent parts of Turkey’s cultural landscape.
His best-known hero was Slim Memed, who appeared in his most famous book, “Memed, My Hawk,” and in a sequel, “They Burn the Thistles.” Slim Memed takes up the cause of his oppressed neighbors, flees to the hills and leads soldiers on wild-goose chases as local people feed, shelter and encourage him.
As an outspoken advocate of Kurdish rights and a sharp critic of his country’s leaders, Mr. Kemal was often in trouble with the law. During the 1980s and ’90s, when he was considered a leading candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature, newspapers and government leaders denounced the Swedish Academy for failing to choose him, asserting that it was motivated by anti-Turkish prejudice. That same establishment, however, hauled him into court several times for his outspoken views. Some nationalists called him a traitor.
None of this intimidated him, any more than his peasant heroes were intimidated by the aghas, the feudal lords who brutalized and exploited them.
“For a writer,” he once explained, “looking over your shoulder is suicide.”
Kemal Sadik Gokceli was born into a Turkish-Kurdish family in the village of Hemite (now Gokcedam) in southern Turkey. By his own account, few of his male ancestors died in bed; his Uncle Mahiro, he said, was “the most famous outlaw in eastern Anatolia, Iran and the Caucasus.” When he was 5 years old, he saw his father murdered, which left him with a severe stutter for years.
He began composing and reciting his own poems at the age of 8. After working as a cotton picker, tractor driver and threshing machine operator, he took a job at the library in Adana. There were few patrons, and he spent his time devouring world literature, especially the works of Stendhal, Cervantes and Chekhov, whom he called “my master.”
“If I had not discovered literature,” he later mused, “I would have become a bard, a singer of epic poems.”
In 1951, he went to Istanbul and began more than a decade of work at the prestigious newspaper Cumhuriyet. Wishing to escape the notoriety of his youth — he had discovered Marxism in Adana and been imprisoned for several months on charges of spreading Communist ideas — he adopted a pen name, Yasar Kemal. In 1962, he joined the leftish Turkish Workers Party, and he served as one of its leaders until quitting after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.
Although his books focus on the hard lives of peasants and the valor of rebels who spring up among them, his work is also notable for its focus on environmental destruction. The burning of forests, the draining of swamps and the slaughter of dolphins are among the evils he portrays as ruinous results of greed.
As a young journalist, Mr. Kemal played a key role in stopping the planned destruction of a historic Armenian shrine, the Holy Cross Church on Akhtamar Island in eastern Turkey. Armenians are sympathetic characters in several of his novels. In 2013, the Armenian Ministry of Culture gave him its “Krikor Naregatsi” decoration to recognize “his tribute to Armenian cultural heritage and his courage, as well as his commitment to universal values related to justice, freedom and human dignity.”
If Mr. Kemal had a stylistic comrade, it was Turkey’s greatest poet, Nazim Hikmet, who was also a Communist and died in Moscow in 1963 after being chased from his homeland. Both men rejected the heavy, formalized language of Ottoman literature and instead wrote vivid narratives infused with traditional stories, myths, proverbs and colloquialisms.
In 1996, after asserting in the German magazine Der Spiegel that Kurds had a right to break away from Turkey, and following that with an article in the London journal Index on Censorship denouncing the “racist, oppressive regime” that “crushed all the people of Anatolia like a steamroller,” he was tried and given a suspended sentence of 20 months in prison for “inciting hatred.”
Mr. Kemal lived long enough to see his government move toward democracy and change its approach to its Kurdish population. In his later years, he was showered with honors, including the Presidential Cultural and Artistic Grand Prize, Turkey’s highest cultural award, in 2008.
By that time, his global reputation was assured, but a younger generation of Turkish writers, many of them modernists who emerged from the urban elite rather than the peasantry, was eclipsing him. When Orhan Pamuk, the most prominent of them, won the Nobel Prize in 2006, Mr. Kemal’s chances evaporated. Yet these novelists acknowledged their debt to him.
“He is one of the few writers who can deftly blend the compassion and love he feels for his characters with astute irony, morbid criticism and sharp social observations,” said one of them, Elif Shafak. “In each and every book, he touches and lifts up the beauty of becoming a free, soul-searching human individual, even in the most feudal social settings. He is the architect of unforgettable literary heroes and a beacon for writers of the generations that followed him.”
Mr. Kemal married Thilda Serrero, who came from one of Istanbul’s leading Jewish families, in 1952, and before her death in 2001, she translated many of his books into English, including “Wind From the Plain” trilogy, published as a boxed set in June 2011 by Yale University Press. In 2002, he married Ayse Semiha Baban. She survives him, as does an adopted son, Rait Gokceli.
In “They Burn the Thistles,” a villager who shelters the outlaw hero, Slim Memed, gazes at him as he sleeps and describes him in terms that might apply to the novelist himself.
“In that man there’s a brave heart, a good brain, and great humanity,” he tells his wife. “He’s so big-hearted that both the aghas and the government are afraid of him. Terrified of him. There were 500 bandits in the mountains, but that didn’t bother the government. Why not? Because they were not generous, big-hearted men.”
Yaşar Kemal (born Kemal Sadık Gökçeli; 6 October 1923 – 28 February 2015) was a Turkish writer of Kurdish ethnicity. He was one of Turkey's leading writers.Kemal was long a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature, on the strength of Memed, My Hawk.
An outspoken intellectual, he often did not hesitate to speak on sensitive issues. His activism resulted in a twenty-month suspended jail sentence, on charges of advocating separatism.
Kemal was born to Sadık and his wife Halime on 6 October 1923 in Hemite (now Gökçedam), a hamlet in the province of Osmaniye in southern Turkey. His parents were from Van and came into Çukurova during the First World War. Kemal had a difficult childhood because he lost his right eye due to a knife accident, when his father was slaughtering a sheep on Eid al-Adha, and had to witness as his father was stabbed to death by his adoptive son Yusuf while praying in a mosque when he was five years old. This traumatic experience left Kemal with a speech impediment, which lasted until he was twelve years old. At nine he started school in a neighboring village and continued his formal education in Kadirli, Osmaniye Province.
Kemal was a locally noted bard before he started school, but was unappreciated by his widowed mother until he composed an elegy on the death of one of her eight brothers, all of whom were bandits. However, he forgot it and became interested in writing as a means to record his work when he questioned an itinerant peddler, who was doing his accounts. Ultimately, his village paid his way to university in Istanbul.
He worked for a while for rich farmers, guarding their river water against other farmers' unauthorized irrigation. However, instead he taught the poor farmers how to steal the water undetected, by taking it at night.
Later he worked as a letter-writer, then as a journalist, and finally as a novelist. He said that the Turkish police took his first two novels.
When Kemal was visiting Akdamar Island in 1951, he saw the island's Holy Cross Church being destroyed. Using his contacts to the public, he helped stop destruction of the site. However, the church remained in a neglected state until 2005, when restoration by the Turkish government began.
In 1952, Yaşar Kemal married Thilda Serrero, a member of a prominent Sephardi Jewish family in Istanbul. Her grandfather, Jak Mandil Pasha, was the chief physician of the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II. She translated 17 of her husband’s works into the English language. Thilda predeceased Yaşar on January 17, 2001 (aged 78) from pulmonarycomplications at a hospital in Istanbul, and was laid to rest at Zincirlikuyu Cemetery. Thilda was also survived by her son Raşit Göğçel and a grandchild.
Yaşar Kemal remarried on August 1, 2002 to Ayşe Semiha Baban, a lecturer for public relations at Bilgi University in Istanbul. She was educated at the American University of Beirut,Bosphorus University and Harvard University.
Later years and death
Kemal was hospitalized on January 14, 2015 into the hospital of Istanbul University's Çapa Medical Faculty due to respiratory insufficiency. He died at age 91 in the afternoon of February 28, 2015 in the intensive care unit, where he was taken due to multiple organ dysfunction syndrome. Following the religious funeral service held at Teşvikiye Mosque, attended by former president of Turkey, political party leaders, high-ranked officials and a huge crowd, he was laid to rest next to his first wife Thilda's grave in Zincirlikuyu Cemetery on March 2, 2015. He was survived by his wife Ayşe Semiha Baban and his adoptive son, visual artist Ahmet Güneştekin.
|“||I don't write about issues, I don't write for an audience, I don't even write for myself. I just write.||”|
—Interview with The Guardian.
Kemal published his first book Ağıtlar ("Ballads") in 1943, which was a compilation of folkloric themes. This book brought to light many long forgotten rhymes and ballads. He had begun to collect these ballads at the age of 16. His first stories Bebek ("The Baby"), Dükkancı ("The Shopkeeper") and Memet ile Memet ("Memet and Memet") were published in 1950. He penned his first tale Pis Hikaye ("The Dirty Story") in 1944, while he was serving in the military, in Kayseri. Then he published his book of short stories Sarı Sıcak ("Yellow Heat") in 1952. The initial point of his works was the toil of the people of the Çukurova plains and he based the themes of his writings on the lives and sufferings of these people. Kemal used the legends and stories of Anatolia extensively as the basis for his works.
He received international acclaim with the publication of Memed, My Hawk (Turkish: İnce Memed) in 1955. In İnce Memed, Kemal criticizes the fabric of the society through a legendary hero, a protagonist, who flees to the mountains as a result of the oppression of the Aghas. One of the most famous writers in Turkey, Kemal was noted for his command of the language and lyrical description of bucolic Turkish life. He was awarded 19 literary prizes during his lifetime and nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1973.
His 1955 novel Teneke was adapted into a theatrical play, which was staged for almost one year in Gothenburg, Sweden, in the country where he lived for about two years in the late 1970s. Italian composerFabio Vacchi adapted the same novel with the original title into an opera of three acts, which premiered at the Teatro alla Scala in Milano, Italy in 2007.
Kemal was a major contributor to Turkish literature in the early years after the language's recreation as a literary language following Atatürk's Reforms of the 1930s.
- Sarı Sıcak, ("Yellow Heat") (1952).
- İnce Memed (Memed, My Hawk) (1955)
- Teneke (The Drumming-Out) (1955)
- Orta Direk (The Wind from the Plain) (1960)
- Yer Demir Gök Bakır (Iron Earth, Copper Sky) (1963)
- Ölmez Otu (The Undying Grass) (1968)
- Ince Memed II (They Burn the Thistles) (1969)
- Akçasazın Ağaları/Demirciler Çarşısı Cinayeti (The Agas of Akchasaz Trilogy/Murder in the Ironsmiths Market) (1974)
- Akçasazın Ağaları/Yusufcuk Yusuf (The Agas of Akchasaz Trilogy/Yusuf, Little Yusuf) (1975)
- Yılanı Öldürseler (To Crush the Serpent) (1976)
- Al Gözüm Seyreyle Salih (The Saga of a Seagull) (1976)
- Allahın Askerleri (God’s Soldiers) (1978)
- Kuşlar da Gitti (The Birds Have Also Gone: Long Stories) (1978)
- Deniz Küstü (The Sea-Crossed Fisherman) (1978)
- Hüyükteki Nar Ağacı (The Pomegranate on the Knoll) (1982)
- Yağmurcuk Kuşu/Kimsecik I (Kimsecik I – Little Nobody I) (1980)
- Kale Kapısı/Kimsecik II (Kimsecik II – Little Nobody II)(1985)
- Kanın Sesi/Kimsecik III (Kimsecik III – Little Nobody III) (1991)
- Fırat Suyu Kan Akıyor Baksana (Look, the Euphrates is Flowing with Blood) (1997)
- Karıncanın Su İçtiği (Ant Drinking Water) (2002)
- Tanyeri Horozları (The Cocks of Dawn) (2002)
- Üç Anadolu Efsanesi (Three Anatolian Legends) (1967)
- Ağrıdağı Efsanesi (The Legend of Mount Ararat) (1970) – the base of the opera Ağrı Dağı Efsanesi 1971
- Binboğalar Efsanesi (The Legend of the Thousand Bulls) (1971)
- Çakırcalı Efe* (The Life Stories of the Famous Bandit Çakircali) (1972)
- Yanan Ormanlarda 50 Gün (Fifty Days in the Burning Forests) (1955)
- Çukurova Yana Yana (While Çukurova Burns) (1955)
- Peribacaları (The Fairy Chimneys) (1957)
- Bu Diyar Baştan Başa (Collected reportages) (1971)
- Bir Bulut Kaynıyor (Collected reportages) (1974)
- Ağıtlar (Ballads) (1943)
- Taş Çatlasa (At Most) (1961)
- Baldaki Tuz (The Salt in the Honey) (1959–74 newspaper articles)
- Gökyüzü Mavi Kaldı (The Sky remained Blue) (collection of folk literature in collaboration with S. Eyüboğlu)
- Ağacın Çürüğü (The Rotting Tree) (Articles and Speeches) (1980)
- Yayımlanmamış 10 Ağıt (10 Unpublished Ballads) (1985)
- Sarı Defterdekiler (Contents of the Yellow Notebook) (Collected Folkloric works) (1997)
- Ustadır Arı (The Expert Bee) (1995)
- Zulmün Artsın (Increase Your Oppression) (1995)
- Filler Sultanı ile Kırmızı Sakallı Topal Karınca (The Sultan of the Elephants and the Red-Bearded Lame Ant) (1977)
Awards and distinctions
- "Seven Days in the World's Largest Farm" reportage series, Journalist's Association Prize, 1955
- Varlik Prize for Ince Memed ("Memed, My Hawk"), 1956
- Ilhan Iskender Award for the play adapted from his book with the same name, Teneke ("The Drumming-Out"), 1966
- The International Nancy Theatre Festival – First Prize for Uzun Dere ("Long Brook"), 1966 -Theater adaptation from roman Iron Earth, Copper Sky.
- Madarli Novel Award for Demirciler Çarşısı ("Murder in the Ironsmith's Market"), 1974
- Choix du Syndicat des Critiques Littéraires pour le meilleur roman etranger (Eté/Automne 1977) pour Terre de Fer, Ciel de Cuivre ("Yer Demir, Gök Bakır")
- Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger 1978 pour L'Herbe qui ne meurt pas (Ölmez Otu); Paris, Janvier 1979.
- Prix mondial Cino Del Duca decerné pour contributions a l'humanisme moderne; Paris, Octobre 1982.
- The Sedat Simavi Foundation Award for Literature; Istanbul, Turkey, 1985.
- Premi Internacional Catalunya. Catalonia (Spain), 1996
- Lillian Hellman/Dashiell Hammett Award for Courage in Response to Repression, Human Rights Watch, USA, 1996.
- Stig Dagerman Prize (Swedish: Stig Dagermanpriset), Sweden, 1997.
- Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (German: Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels), Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 1997.
- Premio Internazionale Nonino for collected works, Italy, 1997
- Bordeaux, Prix Ecureuit de Littérature Etrangère, 1998
- Z. Homer Poetry Award, 2003
- Savanos Prize (Thessalonika-Greece), 2003
- Turkish Publisher's Association Lifetime Achievement Award, 2003
- Presidential Cultural and Artistic Grand Prize, 2008
- The Bjørnson Prize (Norwegian: Bjørnsonprisen), Norway, 2013.
- Commandeur de la Légion d'Honneur de France; Paris, 1984.
- Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres, Paris, 1989.
- Grand Officier de la Légion d'Honneur de France; Paris, 2011.
- Krikor Naregatsi Medal of Armenia, 2013.
- Doctor Honoris Causa, Strasbourg University, France, 1991.
- Doctor Honoris Causa, Akdeniz University, Antalya, Turkey, 1992.
- Honorary Doctorate, Bilkent University, 2002
- Honorary Doctorate, Çukurova University, 2009 
- Honorary Doctorate, Bogazici University, 2009
- Honorary Doctorate, Bilgi University, 2014
Yasar Kemal, Yasar also spelled Yashar, original name Kemal Sadik Gogceli, (b. 1923, Hemite, Turkey - d. February 28, 2015, Istanbul) was a Turkish novelist of Kurdish descent best known for his stories of village life and for his outspoken advocacy on behalf of the dispossessed.
At age five, Kemal saw his father murdered in a mosque and was himself blinded in one eye. He left secondary school after two years and worked at a variety of odd jobs. In 1950, he was arrested for his political activism, but he was ultimately acquitted. The following year, Kemal moved to Istanbul and was hired as a reporter for the daily newspaper Cumhuriyet, where he worked in various capacities until 1963. During this time, he published a novella, Teneke (1955, "The Tin Pan"), and the novel Ince Memed (1955, Memed, My Hawk). The latter, a popular tale about a bandit and folk hero, was translated into more than twenty (20) languages and was made into a movie in 1984. Kemal wrote three more novels featuring Memed as the protagonist. In 1962, he joined the Turkish Labour Party, and in 1967, he founded Ant, a weekly political magazine informed by Marxist ideology. He was arrested again in 1971, and in 1996 a court sentenced him to a deferred jail term for alleged seditious statements about the Turkish government's oppression of the Kurdish people.
Kemal's other novels include the trilogy Ortadirek (1960, The Wind from the Plain); Yer demir, gok bakir (1963, Iron Earth, Copper Sky), Olmez otu (1968, The Undying Grass), and Tanyeri horozlan (2002, The Cocks of Dawn). He also published volumes of nonfiction -- including Peri bacalan (1957, The Fairy Chimneys), collection of reportage, and Baldaki tuz (1974, The Salt in the Honey), a book of political essays -- as well as the children's book Filler sultani ile kirmizi sakalli topal karinca (1977, The Sultan of the Elephants and the Red-Bearded Lame Ant). In 2007, an operatic adaptation of Kemal's Teneke premiered at La Scala in Milan.