APRIL 10, 2020
DERSIM LIES HIGH in the Taurus Mountains in central Anatolia. Today, the town is guarded by arched metal lights that create a psychedelic looping red tunnel when approached at night. The effect is to fix it immutably in this world while also pushing it into a dreamscape. The lights leave an imprint on the mind, haunting the subconscious with red as you enter. Perhaps the place will disappear entirely if you blink twice. Guarding the streets alongside the Turkish soldiers stationed here in the present are the ghosts of those Zaza-speaking Alevi Kurds, massacred by the Turkish state in 1937–’38. The place is also guarded by the slippages of language that elide over the name “Dersim,” pushing its existence to the marginalized spaces of censored papers, people’s tongues, memories, and archives. In all official capacities, Dersim has been known as Tunceli since the Turkish Parliament changed its name in 1935. Dersim is alive mostly in the silences and spaces of absence, which are also spaces of resistance.
Every Fire You Tend, written by Sema Kaygusuz and recently translated into English by Nicholas Glastonbury, traces the impossible lines of those silences carved not only by the trauma of witnessing and surviving the 1938 massacre and the excruciating history of dispossession that followed, but by the corrosive colonization of the Kurdish Zaza-speaking Alevis by a homogeneous Turkish nationalist project. This is an examination of a double act of forced silencing. The lines she traces crack fissures in totalizing knowledge. They map her suspicion that language has the ability to capture truth, in communicating through the page and between two people: “At any rate, what difference will it make if you write this story, for goodness sake? You might glue letter to letter, word to word and thus fashion some inventive sentences … but in the end, what effect would any of it have?”
Trauma, guilt, and shame haunt the psychology of the young female protagonist, the granddaughter of a massacre survivor. Narratives of heroism, self-sacrifice, and the blind worship of Gods are scorned. Interrogated is the space between life and despair, and how to avoid making “meaning” out of cruelty while simultaneously resisting the same cruelty. Fragments of myths and half-conscious recollections distort linear time between the Assyrians, Hittites, Lycians, and Ottomans to present-day Istanbul, dodging perpetual erasure. These fragments confront the ways in which trauma destabilizes relationships to power, and to individual and collective consciousness. In her epilogue, Kaygusuz describes the work as “a question mark that opens the threshold onto this corrupted world.” It reads like a deep wound.
“How exactly are you going to step free from this sorrow, etched as it is into the fabric of your soul?” the protagonist is asked by the narrator’s often laborious, psychoanalytic reflections. It may seem a defeatist framing, but Kaygusuz’s stated intention is to break the normalization of violence, which official documentation often produces, by refusing to portray this history and its people “already so dehumanized, as if this were their only fate, their only essence, frozen in time and place.” She measures time not by the emptiness of the market or the uniform, abstract laws constructed by the Enlightenment, but by the natural cycles of reproduction of the fig tree, whose shadow “became the gathering place for punishment and praise, for poison and antidote, for arousal and calm” over centuries, and whose roots “emerged among humans in strange places, splitting the walls and cracking the foundations of derelict homes across the four corners of Mesopotamia.” Slow, unimpeded, rhizomatic movements are dislodged by the daytime human struggle for survival, which gives way to the “forbidden kingdom of night” when “other beings,” like the djinns and spirits traveling to Snake Mountain, come to life. Time is unstable, kingdoms are lost, subjects are split, and objectivities warped. The lamentations of emptiness remain. So, too, does the question of what to do with the “irreparable wounds” of genocide and massacre. “We are fighting,” says Lauren Berlant, “for new ways to care about, redress, and refuse the reproduction of the ordinary of violence.”
A woman is killed, along with her two young children, in a cave by her husband Celal to prevent them from submitting to the approaching soldiers during the Dersim ’38 massacre. Her story prompts a revisiting of the collective self-destruction in the ancient city of Xanthos against the Persian General Harpagos’s invading army, and once more against Brutus the Roman’s 600 years later. An olive tree planted from a 2,000-year-old seed guards the entrance, “trees always act differently from humans. It can’t forget, nor can it remember.” The cave in which the character Zülfü relates this story to the book’s protagonist is the same cave in which the murders occurred. He also tells the story of his own family during the massacre, the “unspeakable things that one human can do to another.” The protagonist notes how
[h]e was not simply relating the stories as he had heard them; he was outright remembering them. Mind you, he was not an individual subject remembering. His remembrance was expansive, without centre, without bone; it exceeded the locus of a single pair of eyes, a single body, one’s individual senses.
Our relationship to the past and how it is governed are questions of political concern. The line between being trapped within the repetitive cycles of history and remembering the resistances to oppressive structures of every particular conjuncture is thin. Trauma, even when experienced collectively, is profoundly isolating, and it destabilizes the relationship of the self to the self, and to others. It has social and political dimensions, alongside personal. The way it is processed, integrated, and healed is rooted in social conditions and relations of power.
Kaygusuz describes how the basic material fuel for survival becomes haunted for the survivors in the immediate aftermath of the massacre: “[W]ater smelled of blood, fire screamed, and bread turned into a sacred pittance they hoped would fall from the heavens.” The weight of their grief is borne alongside the physical realities of repeated dispossession and the harshness of concrete life (“The people of Dersim settled into a language they didn’t understand, three to five families living in makeshift shacks without roofs, sharing the long and muted night together…”). The fig tree in the protagonist’s garden of present-day Istanbul is barren, unable to bear fruit in the unnatural pollution of contained urban life.
It’s not really a garden, you’re right, only a small space between apartment buildings. This narrow patch of grass only exists because they were never able to construct here[.] […] There in your garden, overshadowed by buildings looming over us, laundry drying on back patios, old belongings wrapped in plastic, rolled-up carpets …
Violence emerges within spatial, legal, psychic, and material conditions.
In Ghostly Matters, Avery Gordon describes haunting as “an animated state in which a repressed or unresolved social violence is making itself known, sometimes very directly, sometimes more obliquely […] especially when they are supposedly over and done with […] or when their oppressive nature is denied.” Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake, which she undertakes in relation to African-American slavery, explores ways of knowing the past, of recognizing the fictions of the archive and their residue in the present. She performs “wake work” in the context of the “legacies of slavery’s denial of Black humanity,” by looking at
forms of Black expressive culture […] that do not seek to explain or resolve the question of this exclusion in terms of assimilation, inclusion, or civil or human rights, but rather depict aesthetically the impossibility of such resolutions by representing the paradoxes of blackness[.]
While it cannot be equated with the experience of blackness rooted in enslavement, the violence of being forcibly silenced and made invisible holds its own unresolved paradoxes — how to speak when the language you have is not recognized, while the stories you narrate are in the colonizers tongue; how to be made visible in a world whose eyes are not open to you; how to avoid reproducing the structures of violence through the act of resisting them; which source of hope to turn toward. The figure of Hızır, the principal deity to the Alevis of Dersim, who is, according to Islamic philosophy, “neither saint nor prophet, neither angel nor dervish, and yet he is all of these at once,” appears frequently throughout the book as a figure of worship. He comes before the protagonist’s grandmother, Bese, in her old age, in the guise of a beggar and is, for her, a “symbol of poetic justice.” Yet he may have been complicit in her rape as a young girl, and also damages the boat of a poor man and kills a young boy.
The desire still persists to fix in the material world the feelings of the present, to create discrete and controlled memories as knowledge, and to make a claim on the world through this knowledge despite its partial truth. The protagonist tries to capture with a camera the euphoria of an exuberant dancing man celebrating the Alevi Hıdrellez festival, but it is impossible. “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed,” writes Sontag. “It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge — and, therefore, like power.”
Every shot in which his body, tensed like a bow, appeared in the negative like a pitch-black ghost, as transformed into a farewell proffered by the dead; a gentle murder. […] As you deftly sculpted the joy you so envied into sentimental snapshots, the dancing man was unaware of your voyeurism, of your gaze that refuses the accept the world as it appears, of his own transformation into a vulgar symbol, into a symbol of abandon, tasked with filling the emptiness in your mind, exhibited in a manner even he would find strange.
Desire, in its conflicted, corrupting, unfulfilled guises, is used as a metric throughout the text to emphasize the reduction of women to bodily (sexual and reproductive) functions, but is also utilized for its potential to be subverted. Across the sweep of history, patriarchal colonization repeats violence against women in the same guise in the discomforting matrix of power, violence, and desire. Eliha, a migrant Pharisee, who witnesses the murder of her mother and siblings at the hands of her father, is presented as a woman of physical repulsion and inescapable desire who is condemned to heal men with searing affection, including Melchizedek, king of Salem. Bese, the grandmother of the protagonist, was raped as a young girl and then abandoned by her son. A woman is slowly weakened and ultimately killed by her husband who insistently celebrates her beauty (“there’s an entire universe swirling inside me, but you would rather have me cast into the hell of impossible perfection”). Even the relationship of the unnamed narrator toward the protagonist is caught in the disturbing intimacy of voyeurism which is often disturbingly erotic: “[I]n my eyes you become a distant lover, perpetually out of reach. If only you could teach me all you’ve gleaned from water, if only we could speak in that language.”
But it is the women who create spaces of resistance. Eliha uses “the milk of the unripe [fig] fruit to heal warts on people’s hands […] used its branches to end unwanted pregnancies”; Bese “participates in the ritual of loving another being without compromising herself”; women share a mutual understanding in unspoken solidarity. The sensuality — which is present throughout the text — is celebratory, a sign of how to “respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does,” in the words of James Baldwin. These are spaces in which relations to power and its entangled relations are subverted in a myriad of ways. They brush history against the grain, providing a more redemptive account of the world than that of absolute victimhood.
In the epilogue, Kaygusuz writes of how “corrosive” her own suppression of her Alevi identity has been, particularly growing up as the daughter of an officer in the Turkish military. She has written elsewhere about her discomfort at being categorized abroad as a “Turkish” and “Muslim” writer, as if the Nation has a higher symbolic power than the limitless expanse of the imagination, which continually seeks to cross borders. Such narrow identifications erase other ways of existing in, and understanding, the world. Language, the self, and how we interpret and process the world are intimately connected, often precariously so. Translator Nicholas Glastonbury should be praised for his sensitive work; he notes that the original Turkish version of the novel is “peppered with Ottoman-era literary flourishes” that foreground “the linguistic and cultural intimacy that Turkish still shares with Arabic, Persian and Kurdish.” On one hand, the translation into English undermines that project. On the other, as Kaygusuz writes, it “attaches the language in which that silence belongs to all languages, to all humanity.”
This addressing of the work “to all humanity” raises another question about “our” relationship to violence: how we, as collective humanity, are positioned in relation to continued precarity, and the intimacy we as readers have with any work which addresses it. Kaygusuz’s narrative choice of an unknown and unidentified narrator who questions and measures the protagonist’s own psyche conveys some of the distortions of split perspectives which never fully overlap, of presumed yet false intimacy and the troubled space between the two. The silences are, therefore, also a matter of the silence of representation and interpretation. And yet, as Kaygusuz concludes in her afterword, silences should not simply be a matter of fragmentation — after all, “each of us has written the others into being.”
Ultimately, this is an account of the unsettled, ruptured complexities of grief and embodied trauma, wherein power can harm without “seeming to ever touch you.” It is also a celebration of love, which is expansive, generous, and a form of resistance: “[S]he knew in her bones that if you were loved, you would never be defeated.” But the question of Kaygusuz’s own asking, how to break the paralysis of the “shame of being human,” seems to have become more entrenched through her meanderings. Indeed, it may be that, in order to “break the back of the reproduction of the violence we repudiate,” as Lauren Berlant suggests, “we have to disturb the intelligibility of the world.”