Turkey Is Just a Thread That Ties All These Interesting Ideas Together




Kaya Genç interviews Izzy Finkel & Thomas Roueché

Turkey Is Just a Thread That Ties All These Interesting Ideas Together

July 15th, 2013 reset - +

IN TURKEY, BÜLENT is not the first name that comes to mind when you want to establish a new magazine that publishes lengthy essays on cultural and political issues. It is a very common name, like Tom or Joe, and it is essentially masculine. Bülent Ecevit, a left-wing Turkish prime minister, was perhaps the most famous bearer of the name. But even his legacy fails to match the popularity and the significance of another Bülent: Bülent Ersoy, the legendary transgender singer of Ottoman classical music, who got into trouble with authorities when he had a sex change operation in 1981, a few months after Turkish generals started ruling the country, banning everything they considered socially deviant.    

Izzy Finkel and Thomas Roueché, the editors of this new journal on Turkish culture, politics, and literature, were so inspired by the discrepant legacies of Ecevit and Ersoy that they decided to name their journal BÜLENT. Their online journal recently published its first two issues. The preview issue, “Issue 0,” features an essay on the Turkish electronic music pioneer Ilhan Mimaroglu, an interview with the late film director Ömer Kavur, translations of poems by Ilhan Berk, a short photo piece on Turkish kiosks, and a fascinating article about Turkish nationalism by the acclaimed social anthropologist Jenny White. By the time they got to their first proper issue, Turkey’s protests had exploded across the landscape they had made it their mission to write about, so they devoted their second issue to coverage of Gezi Park.

Finkel grew up in Istanbul and went to Cambridge where she studied English literature and sociology, before doing an MA at The School of Oriental and African Studies, in Turkish and Central Asian politics. She is currently editing a book on the “future of Europe” and translating the work of the Turkish author Ömer Seyfettin into English. Roueché grew up in London and studied medieval and Islamic history at Cambridge and Turkish studies at SOAS. He is working as a writer, researcher, and editor in London, Istanbul, Amsterdam, and New York. I talked to Finkel and Roueché about BÜLENT and their fascination with Turkish culture.

— Kaya Genç

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Izzy Finkel and Thomas Roueché

KAYA GENÇ: How did you come up with the name for BÜLENT?

IZZY FINKEL: Part of the point is to poke fun at the idea of those lifestyle magazines named after women. Stella or Marie Claire or whatever it might be. Like them, this publication has a woman’s name at the top. But it’s the name of a woman who used to be a man, so already something is different from how you expect it to be. I suppose the idea throughout is to bend genres, and that is something that both Ersoy herself and the use of BÜLENT as a journal name manage to do.

THOMAS ROUECHÉ: It took a lot of discussion, but this was one of the first names that came to us. It really encapsulates a lot of the ideas that we want to explore with the journal. BÜLENT is a catchall that we hope allows us to range across many different subjects.

KAYA GENÇ: Are you guys Bülent Ersoy fans? And what about Bülent Ecevit? What does he represent for you?

IZZY FINKEL: Patently she is fabulous, but it’s not really about “fandom” as such. We didn’t name it after the people we admire the most, but the people we found the most interesting. Both lives act as a kind of springing point for lots of interesting issues we want to cover, but it neither starts nor ends with them. Ecevit seems a very political choice, but actually we’re interested in him for every reason other than those that have to do with his political career. He worked as journalist, poet, and translator of Sanskrit before entering politics, and it’s these sides of him which chime with what the magazine’s about.

THOMAS ROUECHÉ: Ecevit’s yearbook at the American high school in Istanbul said, “A cup of tea, a piece of paper, a pencil, and a poetry book are the most faithful friends of Bülent.” Hopefully the same could be said for our BÜLENT.

KAYA GENÇ: How did you decide to start the magazine?

IZZY FINKEL: We met at university in 2006 and immediately had Turkey in common. We have been intending to work together on some sort of project like this for a while.

THOMAS ROUECHÉ: We decided to start the magazine in the autumn of 2012. We just felt that there was a certain type of content that we wanted to read about Turkey but couldn’t find.

KAYA GENÇ: Can you tell me about the Issue 0?

IZZY FINKEL: The first part of Issue 0 is a diverse collection of things including an article about Turkey’s reception in Somalia from the perspective of a Somali journalist and a photo essay about Istanbul’s ubiquitous fiberglass kiosks, which riffs on all these ideas of urban transformation, security, paranoia, enterprise, casual labor, and making a home for yourself in the unlikeliest of circumstances. I love that piece because although superficially it might seem a bit frivolous, somehow it ends up cutting across so many interesting political issues without treating them dogmatically. They are issues which all came to the fore in a much more explicit way in our subsequent issue, which coincided with the outbreak of protests in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. 

It wasn’t the plan, but I am pleased that a few of the first pieces can be read as commenting on the project of the journal itself. In this vein, Jenny White wrote a wonderful essay about [the businessman, politician and former Istanbul mayor] Bedrettin Dalan and the highly charged nature of knowledge about other cultures, which seemed playfully self-reflexive in the context of the first issue of an English-language magazine about Turkey! There is an essay about James Baldwin, [the Turkish rock band] Mor ve Ötesi and the mistranslation of music across cultural borders.

There are also these Ilhan Berk poems which dance around notions of reference and meaning. Reading them does strange things to your head. I’m not exaggerating. On the whole I’m a pretty jaded reader but I find reading these exhilarating. The fact that the poems are translated adds an extra dimension through which to appreciate the ideas in them. I’ll be bold in saying they’re almost more interesting as translated texts. One of the lines in the poems goes: “The world belongs to imitations!” (The other line I want our readers to carry around with them is “I have always been suspicious of meaning”!) Their translator George Messo is a violently talented translator who worked closely with the great Turkish modernist before he died. So the first half of the issue is not explicitly themed. But if you start to look you can find that each part of it reflects in interesting ways on the other.

THOMAS ROUECHÉ: The other half of the magazine has ended up as something of a retrospective of electronic music pioneer Ilhan Mimaroglu. He was born in Turkey but he worked in New York for many years. I have been a fan of Mimaroglu for some time, and following his death last year we felt that it was important to do something to recognize his astonishing oeuvre. The way we’ve presented those pieces illustrate what we are trying to do at BÜLENT: we are not engaging with Mimaroglu qua Turk, but as one of the 20th century’s most innovative and internationally influential contemporary musicians. Turkey is just a thread that runs through the journal and ties all these interesting ideas together. It was important to us that our content could stand up to the scrutiny of people who have little or no interest in Turkey.

KAYA GENÇ: Can you tell us about your coverage of the Gezi events in Istanbul?

THOMAS ROUECHÉ: When the Gezi protests started we were working a very different Issue One. It soon became clear that these protests demanded our engagement. The protests amplified the need for fresh analysis on Turkey in English. Our plans for Issue One were rapidly supplanted by reactions to what was unfolding in Turkey at the time.

KAYA GENÇ: What about future issues?

THOMAS ROUECHÉ: We have a long list of ideas and subjects we want to explore in future issues. We are both very interested in the work of [the avant-garde Turkish author] Sevim Burak, and we are really hoping to run a special issue on her, including work in translation and commentary. We also hope to get more material in translation. Basically we have a lot of ideas and a lot of eager contributors. The only thing we lack is funding. We are looking for different ways to reach donors and supporters. BÜLENT has a vibrant future, but it does need help.

IZZY FINKEL: We’ve got a few long essays that I’m really excited about. They center on the cultural interactions between Turkey and its neighbors. We just published one by an anthropologist in Sarajevo who used the mania for Turkish cultural products in the Balkans as a lens for criticism of art and literature produced across that border. We’re also commissioning a series of pieces from international writers on Turkish art.

KAYA GENÇ: Can you tell me about your contributors?

THOMAS ROUECHÉ: We are lucky enough to have a great stable of young writers and academics working on Turkey from all over the world. They have been incredibly helpful and supportive at every stage. Hopefully, once we get funding for translations, we can accept and publish submissions in both languages.

KAYA GENÇ: Do you have any plans to publish a print edition?

THOMAS ROUECHÉ: Anyone who wants to can print out the articles! Printing and distributing a journal in a more classic way isn’t really top of our agenda. Our first priority is to have the journal in both languages.

IZZY FINKEL: Although it can be nice to hold a printed object in your hand, this way distribution is as easy as the click of a button. We want as many people as possible to be able to read and share the articles; that’s our most important consideration. We have unexpectedly had hundreds of people from Japan and Kenya on our site, which would have been impossible if we had to arrange to send out magazines. The other huge advantage of the format is the ability to embed video and hyperlink. For instance, with the archival interview with director Ömer Kavur, you can either read the article quickly and be done with it, or you can watch the clips and even the films which are embedded as you go and really understand the conversation in light of his work and the work in light of the conversation. We may well take this in other directions than just the online journal, but print seems one of the least exciting of the many possibilities in front of us.

KAYA GENÇ: Since Bülent Ecevit died in 2006, it seems unlikely that you can talk to him, but you can surely interview Bülent Ersoy for the journal. What do you think?

THOMAS ROUECHÉ: We would love to have a special issue on her life and its many intersections with Turkish history, culture, and politics. Bülent Abla [“Sister Bülent”], if you are reading this, please get in touch!

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Kaya Genç is a frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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