Yaşar Kemal's statue in
Yılmazbüyükerşen wax museum
|Born||Kemal Sadık Gökçeli|
6 October 1923
Gökçedam, Osmaniye, Turkey
|Died||28 February 2015 (aged 91)|
Yaşar Kemal (born Kemal Sadık Gökçeli; 6 October 1923 – 28 February 2015) was a Kurdish writer and human rights activist, and one of Turkey's leading writers. He received 38 awards during his lifetime and had been 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 about sensitive issues, especially those concerning the oppression of the Kurdish people. He was tried in 1995 under anti-terror laws for an article he wrote for Der Spiegel highlighting the Turkish Army's destruction of Kurdish villages during the Turkish-Kurdish conflict. He was released but later received a suspended 20-month jail sentence for another article he wrote criticising racism in Turkey, especially against the Kurds.
He was born Kemal Sadik Gökçeli to Sadık and Nigâr on 6 October 1923 in Hemite (now Gökçedam), a hamlet in the province of Osmaniye in southern Turkey. He was born into the only Kurdish family in the village. His family had Caucasian and Assyrian origins. Kemal had a difficult childhood, and his family had to flee from Van Province to Diyarbakır Province. From there, they were deported to Adana Province. He lost his right eye in a knife accident when his father was slaughtering a sheep on Eid al-Adha. When he was five years old he witnessed his father being stabbed to death by his adoptive son Yusuf while praying in a mosque. These traumatic experiences left Kemal with a speech impediment, which lasted until he was twelve years old. At nine, Kemal began school in a neighboring village, and later he continued his formal education in Kadirli, Osmaniye Province.
Kemal was a locally noted bard before he began 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. He became interested in writing as a means to record his work after talking to an itinerant peddler, who was doing his accounts. His village paid his way to university in Istanbul.
He worked for a while for rich farmers, as a labourer in cotton fields and ostensibly guarding river water against poor 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. The Turkish police confiscated his first two novels.
In 1950, Kemal was imprisoned for alleged communist activities. He visited Akdamar Island in 1951, where he saw the beginning of the planned demolition of the island's Holy Cross Church. Using his contacts, he helped stop the demolition (the church was restored by the Turkish government in 2005). He then moved to Istanbul to work for the Cumhuriyet newspaper, where he adopted his pen name.
In 1962, Kemal joined the Workers Party of Turkey (TIP) and "served as one of its leaders until quitting after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968". Because of the spate of political assassinations during the 1976–1980 political violence in Turkey, Kemal moved to Sweden for a time. He was often arrested for his political activities. In 1995, he was prosecuted for making separatist propaganda after writing an article for Index on Censorship, because of his support for Kurdish dissidents. He was sentenced to 20 months and received a suspended sentence in March 1996. In December 2000, he was involved in negotiations concerning the hunger strikes against the F-Type prisons.
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 in 2001 (aged 78) from pulmonary complications at a hospital in Istanbul, and was buried at Zincirlikuyu Cemetery. Thilda was also survived by her son Raşit Göğçel and a grandchild.
Yaşar Kemal remarried on 1 August 2002. His second spouse was Ayşe Semiha Baban, a lecturer for public relations at the Bilgi University in Istanbul. She was educated at the American University of Beirut, Bosphorus University and Harvard University.
Later years and death
On 14 January 2015 Kemal was hospitalized at Istanbul University's Çapa Medical Faculty, due to respiratory insufficiency. During the afternoon of 28 February 2015, in the intensive care unit, where he had been admitted owing to multiple organ dysfunction syndrome, he died. Following a religious funeral service held at Teşvikiye Mosque, attended by former Turkish president Abdullah Gul, political party leaders, high-ranking officials and an enormous assembly of mourners, he was buried on 2 March 2015 beside his first wife Thilda's grave in Zincirlikuyu Cemetery. Kemal is 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.
Kemal published his first book Ağıtlar ("Ballads"), a compilation of folkloric themes, in 1943. This book brought to light many long forgotten rhymes and ballads, which he had begun to collect 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 theme of his works was the toil of the people of the Çukurova plains and he based 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 composer Fabio 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.
- 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); also published as "Salman the Solitary" (1997)
- 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.
- Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels, Frankfurt, 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, Ankara, Turkey, 2002
- Honorary Doctorate, Çukurova University, Adana, Turkey, 2009 
- Honorary Doctorate, Bogazici University, Istanbul, Turkey, 2009
- Honorary Doctorate, Bilgi University, Istanbul, Turkey, 2014
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...for Yasar Kemal has become perhaps the best known champion of human rights in Turkey, the godfather of freedom of conscience. He is no stranger to prison and currently has a suspended prison sentence hanging over him.
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