Until now, Erbil’s A Strange Woman had been one such work. Controversial upon initial publication for its bold feminism and leftist themes — it also deals frankly with sex and incest — the book is just as daring for its form, one of a handful of Turkish works at the time that traded traditional narrative for a strategy of fragmentation, stream of consciousness, multiperspectivity. Perhaps the only conventional aspect of the book is its “coming-of-age” story: the psychological birth of Nermin, an ardent and conflicted communist and aspiring poet. In fact, the book’s four sections — “The Daughter,” “The Father,” “The Mother,” “The Woman” — are so disparate in voice that the book was initially perceived as a collection of short stories.
“The Daughter” narrates Nermin’s university years in diaristic form, mainly involving her attempts to gain independence from her mother and agency over her own sexuality, while also asserting herself as an equal among a group of performative and narcissistic male poets. “The Father,” meanwhile, is an elliptical reminiscence told in a Black Sea peasant dialect, which translators Nermin Menemencioğlu and Amy Marie Spangler thankfully did not attempt to render into a false English equivalent. (Indeed, one priceless quality of a translator is the ability to recognize what shouldn’t be tried.) While the last two sections are episodic, their events — a memorial service and a long scene in a hotel room — blend the real world with dream and fantasy, concluding with the now-40-year-old Nermin sitting alone in her room at a ski resort. And this is my favorite part: she finds herself thinking of “Ilyich,” becomes embarrassed, turns off the light, and finds herself
nose to nose with Joseph, and they both laughed, he was the only man she’d gotten together with, now and then, since Bedri [her husband]. She snuggled up to him lustfully, hiding her face, burying it in his firm chest. “We’re on our own again Joseph, without a party, we’re a mess, we’re in pieces,” she complained. Joseph seized Bayan Nermin by the hair and lifted her head off his chest, and they stayed like that, face to face. “You all rolled up your pants before you even caught sight of the stream!” he said.
Joseph is, of course, the onetime seminarian from Ossetia, and not since the Devil shows up near the end of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes (1926) had I been so surprised by a character’s last-minute appearance, even if — or, more likely, because — this version of him is a sort of twofold author-narrator fantasy.
Perhaps one of the stranger aspects of the novel is that it technically remained unfinished until Erbil’s death in 2013. As Nermin’s father, Hasan, succumbs to cirrhosis (“the disease of Atatürk!” his wife laments), his memories of his days as a ship captain during the Turkish War of Independence begin to revolve in ever-tightening circles around the death of a historical figure named Mustafa Suphi. It’s an unfamiliar name for most Turks today, let alone for foreign readers. “Who killed Suphi?” Nermin’s father keeps asking. “Who is Suphi?” the reader responds. Erbil includes a short chapter of quoted material entitled “Documents, Information, and Commentary on Mustafa Suphi” in the middle of the book, just before Hasan’s death. The short version: Suphi, a revolutionary communist active during the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, was assassinated along with 14 of his comrades on a ship in the Black Sea in 1921.
Who ordered his murder is a matter of debate. Many leftists believe it was Mustafa Kemal. Others, including Erbil, believe Suphi intended to consult with the nationalist leader about possible collaboration, insisting instead that it was Enver Pasha, the leader the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), an infamous revolutionary organization and political party that, catastrophically, brought the Ottoman Empire into World War I and orchestrated the Armenian Genocide. These snippets of scholarship and journalism give the book a curiously anachronistic flavor. As Erbil said in an interview shortly before her death:
I took up the Mustafa Suphi incident in 1971 but left it open-ended, and if I found new research related to the event I included it in each edition of the book. It was initially thought that this bloody episode was Mustafa Kemal’s doing, but the information I found eventually changed my opinion, the Unionists were behind the whole thing. Although, I still don’t think the Mustafa Suphi incident has been entirely revealed.
What are we to make of this religious, nationalist, and terminally agitated sea captain obsessing over the 50-year-old assassination of the first leader of the Communist Party of Turkey? For one thing, we come to learn that Hasan’s life is rather entangled with Suphi’s; it is Hasan’s brother Captain Ahmet, for instance, who sailed Suphi to his exile at Sinop Fortress in 1913, and from whom Hasan inherits the question of the man’s murder. Nearing death, he also recalls his and Nermin’s philosophical father-daughter conversations, which Nermin can’t help steering toward her disaffection with “the system” that she blames for everything, including her father’s poverty and illness. At the same time, Erbil attributes to Nermin the traditionally male prerogatives of agency and power, while the one section narrated by a man shows him in a state of utter weakness and shame. (Nermin and her mother keep pulling visitors aside to show them Hasan’s bloody stool.) The Turkish novelist Nazlı Karabıyıkoğlu, who wrote her graduate thesis on Erbil, sees this as a sort of bargain with the patriarchy, an idea she borrows from Deniz Kandiyoti, a Turkish academic who studies gender relations. In this feminist novel, Nermin’s father trades his power and pride for the right to speak, a narrative technique that, according to Karabıyıkoğlu, Erbil reemploys in other early novels, such as Karanlığın Günü (The Day of Darkness, 1985) and Mektup Aşkları (Love Letters, 1988).
Perhaps it’s no wonder that the father of a communist should, at his lowest hour, fixate on two questions that most Turkish communists have surely asked: who killed Suphi, and what might have come of Turkey — and, by extension, Nermin’s father — if Suphi had lived? A Marxist state in Turkey, or anywhere, doesn’t have to seem that strange. Strangeness, connoting absence, is nothing more than a lack of familiarity, the kind we associate with familiar things such as patriarchal family dynamics, rigid gender roles, cruel political systems, boring literature. As Nermin goes about doing strange things, like renting a shanty in one of Istanbul’s slums (to “come down to the people”) and installing her baby grand piano beneath a plum tree in the yard, Erbil seems to be obliquely answering the above questions. One possible answer is that a communist Turkey is no stranger than an unconventional narrative form — and now here that form is a little less strange and a little more familiar simply because it has begun to exist.
But it’s also a form of revolt. Karabıyıkoğlu says that Erbil experimented with narrative styles as a way of rebelling against the hegemony of Turkish government and society, a direct response to the patriarchy’s toxic power that becomes more pronounced in later works, such as Cüce (Dwarf, 2001). No doubt, Erbil had more than Turkish society in her sights. Cüce was translated into English and performed as a play — but never published — while Erbil attended the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa in 1979. Erbil is also Turkey’s first woman writer to be nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, a writer as close to having an international audience as Turkey was to having some form of communist leadership — a closeness, let’s be honest, that depends on one’s reading of the facts.
Fittingly, the circumstances behind A Strange Woman’s translation are almost as unusual as the book itself. I assumed it was a dual effort, judging by the two names on the cover, but these translators never met, nearly 50 years separating their respective work on the text. Nermin Menemencioğlu, a scholar and translator of Turkish poetry who died in 1994, translated A Strange Woman in the early 1970s, but publishers repeatedly rejected the book, while translator/agent Amy Marie Spangler never saw Menemencioğlu’s manuscript until 2013. In her preface, Spangler, who knew Erbil, discusses the necessity of “updating” the English translation of a novel whose Turkish original had been amended by the author over the years. Further comparing the two texts, she noticed how the reader-conscious Menemencioğlu “smoothed out” many of Erbil’s deliberate stylistic choices, such that Spangler had to intervene to the point where the English version we have today cannot be attributed to Menemencioğlu alone.
As the first-time English translator of a difficult Turkish classic whose author has been dead for over 40 years, I understand how intimidating this endeavor can be: not only is the author unable to answer our calls, but there’s also a complete absence of translated work to which we can refer. But Spangler did her homework, reading the letters between Erbil and Menemencioğlu and duly familiarizing herself with the trajectory of Leylâ Erbil’s body of work. Spangler is also keenly aware of something I wish more publishers realized: “[I]t does the reader no favors,” she writes, “to simplify for them in translation what is challenging in the original.” Bravo to Spangler for keeping translation weird, and to Deep Vellum for publishing such a strange book.
The author thanks Nazlı Karabıyıkoğlu for sourcing some materials for the piece.
Ralph Hubbell is a writer and a translator from the Turkish. His translation of Oğuz Atay’s 1975 Korkuyu Beklerken (Waiting for the Fear) will be published in 2023 by NYRB Classics.