Turkey’s Feminist Autofictionalist: On Tezer Özlü’s “Cold Nights of Childhood”
By Kaya GençOctober 16, 2023
Cold Nights of Childhood by Tezer Özlü
Özlü grew up in 1950s Istanbul and lived with her family in Fatih, a dilapidated neighborhood, while attending a German language school in Pera, the city’s bohemian quarter. Dropping out in her final year, she hitchhiked across Europe, met a Turkish playwright in Paris at the Montparnasse café Le Select, and married him. But marriage, with its standardized rituals and ceaseless requirements, broke her. She spent her late twenties in treatment for bipolar disorder in several psychiatric hospitals in Istanbul and Ankara.
Cold Nights of Childhood is autofictional. Its unnamed diarist lives her childhood under the shadow of the founder of modern Turkey, Atatürk, and other symbols of Turkish officialdom—which, 37 years after Özlü’s death, Turkey’s strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan replicates. She is subjected to the unceasing gaze and discipline of the Turkish state, which brands her a madwoman precisely because she sees through the madness of Turkish autocracy. Her father, a former gymnastics teacher, wakes her daily by blowing a whistle and shouting: “No pussyfooting in the army! Out of bed now! On your feet!” At night, she nestles in her mother’s arms “to escape the cold, but also loneliness.”
On winter mornings, the narrator walks to her school, bowing her head to blizzards. Catching sight of a “snub-nosed bus” on its way from Istanbul to Ankara, she looks with longing at its travelers headed to the big city. “One day I too shall come to know those faraway lands,” she thinks. But their house is claustrophobic and unwilling to let her go: six family members live there, and she shares a “pretty much collapsed” bed with her sister Süm. Their grandmother Bunni prays five times daily and advises them to be good Muslims. The narrator’s mind races at night, and she has difficulty sleeping: “Heard every noise. Saw every light. Even in silent hospitals, the children crying in the clinic next door would keep me awake.”
The plot of Cold Nights of Childhood zigzags in time and space with awkward beauty. The narrator moves to the city a year after Süm does, and her sister shows her all the new things she’s learned:
She throws powder into a dirty toilet.
—It gets sparkling clean, just like that. She scrubs the bowl.
—Did you see that?
She visits the grocery store, stands in front of a refrigerated cabinet, and sees, for the first time in her life, pasteurized milk.
The narrator scrutinizes the conventions of middle-class existence and begins to see through her parents. What binds them together, she notices, are their “weighty petit bourgeois responsibilities.” She sketches a pen portrait of their life: “Loveless days. Loveless nights. They have guests now and again. Most of them couples who share their devotion to duty and the nation.” This type of life—spent entertaining guests, sprinkling cologne on their hands, and talking about their wealth, aspirations, and the greatness of the Turkish nation and its leaders—unnerves her:
Pass around the candies. Serve tea with sweet biscuits. On holidays, there are also chocolates and liqueurs. My father does most of the talking with these guests. The subjects never change. School. Duty. Success. Disputes with management. The children’s successes. Then it’s back to talking about school. And duty.
With every word that describes those experiences, the reader suffers alongside the narrator. Each page becomes gloomier until both the reader and the author can’t stand it anymore.
In describing its narrator’s travails, Cold Nights of Childhood maps out Istanbul, from its Bankalar Avenue (“lined on both sides by dark grey buildings whose architectural features call to mind the sombre streets of an old city in central Europe”) to Kuledibi, Şişhane, and Tünel, the quarters that American and European tourists most frequent these days and which emerge as former bohemian enclaves in Özlü’s telling. The book allows us to walk those streets in her shoes.
There are amusing details about girls’ schools in Istanbul run by Christian nuns who sing Mass with one voice, which reminds the narrator of the Middle Ages. The language of instruction is German; after pronunciation lessons, a teacher tells a cautionary tale about the death of Nietzsche:
He had refused to acknowledge God, and so God had punished him, by having him die of madness:
—He ate the excrement in his own bedpan. And in his last moments, he shouted these words: (She would be shouting as she said this, declaiming like an actress on stage.)
—Bring me a nun! But it was too late. The Lord would not take him in.
When news of Stalin’s death arrives, nuns make their pupils celebrate it like a holiday: “We dance on maps. Plant tombstones for Stalin and the Soviet Union. Eisenhower is an angel. When he becomes president, we join hands to jump up and down, and cry, ‘America is our brother! America is our brother!’”
More than Nietzsche, Stalin, and Eisenhower, the narrator obsesses over boys who study in a school connected to hers via a narrow passageway. “Nothing more amazing than to see a boy coming out of this passageway during break time,” she says. When girls notice him, they “begin to titter and whisper in each other’s ears. It’s as if they’re all imagining themselves in bed with him.”
Özlü writes openly and powerfully about her narrator’s blooming sexuality. Her first encounters, we learn, had been with her female cousins. “We find opportunities to be alone. Then we strip and climb on top of one another,” the narrator says. “My cousin’s stout body and full stomach, her swollen hairless vagina, the orgasms we give each other by stroking each other’s vaginas—for many long years, I won’t be able to forget them.” With men, she hopes, orgasms will be more sublime. They are not. Until she hooks up with a man, she masturbates, but devoting her time to self-pleasure leaves her feeling alone. Still, she finds, in her wetness, a potential union with life.
When the narrator begins to bed boys, however, she realizes they cannot fill her void either. Those boys live in a different world from hers: “They find their happiness in cars and comfortable homes, music, motorboats, summer evenings spent at private clubs, or garden parties under the shade of tall trees, exulting in the moment.” One of my favorite scenes in the book is set at the fancy Pera Palace Hotel’s high-ceilinged bar, where she flirts with a married man who knocks back glasses of whiskey and turns, at the end of the night, into a metonym of the typical Turkish rich male. Eating out every night, he’s unwilling to allow his wife into the kitchen. “Women who cook stink of food. After supper we play cards,” he says. “Then, if I feel like it, I watch a video on television. I choose my own film.” Intellectually, the affluent Turkish man is vulgar; he reads bestsellers by Mario Simmel, whom he believes is a “wonderful writer.” When the narrator reminds him how, in the West, people say that Simmel “writes the sort of things a cleaning lady would enjoy,” he doesn’t get it. The superficiality of this wealthy man emboldens her life choices: “How glad I am, not to be cut off from the world, in a trap like his. To be a captive, aging by the day.”
The narrator takes refuge in Istanbul’s Pera neighborhood, where there are shops, cinemas, and crowds—where the roads are always full of traffic. She explores the city’s nightlife through new friends with whom she wanders from club to club until dawn. She finds solace in Grace Kelly’s films, their “beautiful world[s]” and “fluffy pink ensembles.” She notices how different Kelly’s world is “from our dark boulevards and garbage-strewn streets. To us it’s a dream world.” Noticing Turkey’s economic shortcomings doesn’t lead her into politics, though. She finds “talk about antidemocratic practices of our thieving overlords” necessary, yet she leaves it to others. Increasingly, she seeks personal liberation.
Özlü is a master at depicting the emergence of dread and the sudden breakdown in optimism: her sentences and voice are as bipolar as her protagonist. “I don’t want to go home. I want to be somewhere else when evening answers the city’s call,” the narrator muses at one point, with a sliver of hope. Yet we’re reminded she has no choice but to return “with the darkening sky to the dim lights and disquiet of home.” Reading highbrow books and watching art-house films consoles her until voices get to her:
Raised voices from every window. Radios blaring from every flat. Leaving not a moment for silence.
Thoughts of death chase after me. Day and night, I think about killing myself. My reasons unclear. To carry on with life, or to die—either will do. A vague disquiet, nothing more. Troubled thoughts, pushing me towards giving suicide a try.
So, late one night, the narrator rises from bed to walk into darkness. She gulps down pills she has gathered for days: “Then I eat some bread and jam to keep from vomiting them up.” She makes sure that her dead body looks beautiful. “As if a beautiful dead body were a way of taking revenge. I’m objecting to these houses, these armchairs and carpets, these teachers. This music. These rules. I’m screaming! You can have your little world.” About the next two and a half days, she remembers nothing. Then she returns home. This sets a circular pattern of confinement and release, of sedation and lucidity: “I’ve put all thoughts of suicide behind me. Now, like most people, I await a natural death.”
There are breathtaking ellipses in the novel, with em dashes carrying a lot of weight. I marveled at Özlü’s use of jump cuts and her fragmentary depiction of Turkey’s social and economic changes, which recalls The Years (2008), Annie Ernaux’s mosaic of 20th-century France. “Year follows year, grey and wet, cold and damp,” one section reads. “Suddenly everyone wants a car. The old order overthrown. The new order that changes nothing.” The razoring of Istanbul is told in similarly sparing prose: “The city changing shape. Widened boulevards. A Hilton Hotel built.” That is all one needs to imagine Istanbul’s urban transformation in those years.
Arguably, the narrator’s biggest mistake is considering marriage to escape life’s many boredoms. When one of her brother’s friends wants to marry her, she erroneously calculates: “That way I won’t have to go home. I’ll have my records, and my books. I can read when I like, sleep when I like, leave the house when I like. No more lonely nights. No more cold nights of childhood either.” Of course, the opposite happens: she misses her freedom and the prospect of a future lover who can transform her, but it’s too late once the knot is tied. We find her in Germany in a writing residency. Living all alone in a vast, silent house, she loathes the prospect of her husband, based in Paris, arriving there to interrupt her peace. “When I come home in the evening, I am met with beautiful silence.” Everything she sees “is so much more beautiful without him.”
Yet he’s coming back, as they always do, and the narrator can see what’s in store for her. “He’ll add his own unhappy suspicions about the world to the flow of my own confusions. His hopelessness, too.” Let him stay in Paris, she thinks. “Or if he comes back, let him live without me. There is no friendship between us, no marriage, or love.” She betrays him with a young man whose eyes she finds beautiful, but her husband refuses to acknowledge her infidelity. The resultant familial drama is excruciating to read, and the narrator’s actions inspire the reader to act as boldly as she does when the time comes. After her husband says he can’t live without her, she snaps: “You can. Everyone can live without anyone.”
This is when the forces of order begin to exact their revenge, forcing her into a deep depression. It starts raining outside; she can’t get back to sleep: “The world is turning faster. My brain has burst out of my skull. I can’t stop it flying. My thoughts know no bounds.” Özlü captures her snowballing paranoia skillfully: “My mind is racing. The thoughts just won’t stop. Put me to sleep. Don’t hide the pills.”
The narrator ends up in a “joyless room” inside a mental hospital. Entering the institution at age 23, she spends the next five years there. She’s put on medication; for comfort, she listens to Torelli and Marcello through her small radio. Seized by her obsessions, she can’t get out of bed. Every other day, doctors give her an injection to put her to sleep. When she awakens, she knows nothing: “Who am I? What am I? I see myself to start with. This is me. I’m ill. I’m coming out of a drugged sleep. My arms bruised and ruined by the needle. I see the plants in the room. Then slowly, very slowly, I begin to remember. Myself. This is me. I am twenty-five years old. I am a woman.”
One remarkable scene depicts her watching the 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. As the doctors in the film give electroshock treatment to a rebellious patient, the narrator can’t take it anymore: she stands up, leaves the theater, and lights up a cigarette. “I was the only one in the audience to have undergone electroshock treatment,” she guesses.
Tezer Özlü’s brother, the writer Demir Özlü, was arrested during the 1971 coup d’état. Cold Nights of Childhood chillingly details that event, which echoes Erdoğan’s countercoup in 2016 when the Turkish state had a free hand to crush all dissent. “On the radio, endless announcements about those who’ve been arrested, endless lists of those still being sought,” she writes, depicting the narrator taking refuge in a village on the day of the coup. “A harsh terror to these announcements. My brother and I return to Istanbul. It’s as warm in May as it usually is in July. My brother is arrested almost immediately. But nothing seems as terrifying as it did from a distance. Terror, too, knows how to hide in plain sight.”
Özlü was an existentialist and a feminist as well as an autofictionalist. She didn’t need to be an openly political novelist: she lived her life novelistically among political radicals. “I am dying, the revolutionary struggle must continue without me,” her narrator jokes at one point before acknowledging that she “was never a part of a revolutionary struggle.” “All [she] ever wanted,” she writes, “was to be free to think and act beyond the tedious limits set by the petit bourgeoisie.” Her struggle to lead a life outside Turkish conventions allows us glimpses into the longtime suffering of writers and intellectuals in the face of narrow-minded nationalists like Erdoğan; it also shows how male-dominated the revolutionary circles of that era were. This was why she kept her distance from revolutionary politics. Still, at her core, she desires the revolutionary struggle to succeed.
It isn’t the narrator’s revolutionary dreams that cure her in the end, however, but her unwavering realism, the “deep dark terror at the prospect of ever again being locked up in one of these clinics.” The clinic has left her so tired that she struggles to share her friends’ joy at being released from prison. When her husband dies (“No part of me died with him. When people die, they take only themselves”), we receive another dose of Özlü’s refreshing, revolutionary honesty: “In a little stone square surrounded by apartment blocks, I catch the first scent of autumn.”
Özlü married three times, yet it wasn’t those men but her self-processing of her experiences that gave her life its meaning. While dismissed by critics, her autofictional writings inspired generations of feminist writers, including Perihan Mağden and Ebru Ojen, some of whose similarly frustrated narratives—Mağden’s 2 Girls (2002) and Escape (2007), Ojen’s Lojman (2020)—have been rendered into English. In 1986, Özlü died of breast cancer, aged 42, after years of battling with bipolar disorder.
In the moving finale of Cold Nights of Childhood, her narrator reaches an illumination:
Life’s beauties are not somewhere else. They are here, all around us. In Taksim Square. In the black swarming crowds of shoeshine men and vendors selling pickles, sesame rolls, flowers, postcards. In the traffic-clogged streets that stink of exhaust and piss; there is no life more beautiful than the one in which we open our hearts and minds to this black swarming crowd before us.
Fleeting joys of love, sex, and desire, with their illusory warmth, knock on our door frequently and promise to save us, yet in the end, the cold nights descend, always. Many readers, and not just those in Turkey, will recognize themselves in Özlü’s depiction of “all those who cannot sleep on nights when the moon is full. Who, on the pale and misty mornings that follow those sleepless nights, wait for death.”
Kaya Genç is the Istanbul correspondent for the Los Angeles Review of Books.
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