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Bringing History Back to Life: Best-selling Turkish Writer Zulfu Livaneli on “Serenade for Nadia”

By Jim Ottaway, Jr.
Turkish writer, musician, and human rights activist Zulfu Livaneli talks about his latest novel to appear in English, Serenade for Nadia (translated by Brendan Freely), out from Other Press on March 3.

Zulfu Livaneli is an extraordinary cultural force in Turkish life—a songwriter, singer, band leader, and producer of huge political protest concerts, one a 1997 Ankara show with 500,000 people singing his songs in protest against a military coup. Livaneli is like the Beatles in England or Bob Dylan in the United States while being even better known for his bestselling novels and human rights activities.

There are three Livaneli Culture Centers in Istanbul and Ankara, each with a statue of the artist at their entrance. A seven-story museum of Livaneli history, detailing his contributions to both musical and literary culture, is under construction in Istanbul and scheduled to open later in 2020.

Livaneli has long been a human rights advocate and leading dissident against  dictators in Turkey. He was jailed by the military several times for anti-junta activities between 1971 and 1973 before escaping to Sweden on a fake passport as a political refugee. He lived there until 1978. He said of his time in military prison, “I was not a Communist. They jailed just about everyone who could read and write.”

After his return to Istanbul, Livaneli again faced interrogations and trials by the army following a 1980 coup. His books, poetry, and protests songs were banned by the government at various times.

In 1994 Livaneli was convinced to run for mayor of Istanbul against Recep Tayyip Erdogan, now the authoritarian President of Turkey. The rivals participated in several televised debates, and Erdogan eventually won by a small, contested margin. Livaneli then served in the Turkish parliament for the Republican People’s Party from 2002 to 2006, writing daily columns for the party newspaper.

In 1996, Livaneli was appointed a Goodwill Ambassador by UNESCO for its Culture for Peace Program “in recognition of his contributions to world peace in the areas of music and literature”; he would remain a Goodwill Ambassador until 2015. His initiatives included the Greek-Turkish Friendship Concerts, a series of events produced with popular Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis in Greece and Turkey.

In 1986 Livaneli was one of several distinguished individuals, including Mikhail Gorbachev, Arthur Miller, James Baldwin, and Peter Ustinov, to participate in the Issky-Kul Forum, focused on a “new way of thinking,” in Frunze, Kyrgyzstan. Gorbachev later said this meeting influenced his Perestroika reform policies. In 1997 Livaneli wrote a book titled “Conversations With Gorbachev on Revolution,” about Russian history during the period lasting from 1917 to 1997. Livaneli has also written a political science book, entitled Between the Arrogance of the West and the Ignorance of the East, published in Turkish in 2019 not yet translated into English.

Livaneli believes the Armenian massacre should be faced honestly, saying that “the debate about the Armenian tragedy is part of a more general discussion that Turks need to have in order to face reality with eyes open. This discussion within Turkey is a lot more important than external pressure on Turkey to accept its responsibility for the Armenian tragedy.”                                 

When Livaneli’s good friend Hrant Dink, a leading Armenian journalist, was murdered, Livaneli composed a piano-cello sonata in his memory that was played at a large gathering in Istanbul in 2015, the hundredth anniversary of the Armenian Massacre. The event was organized by Livaneli and a wealthy and philanthropic Turkish businessman named Osman Kavala, currently being held in jail as a political prisoner.

Skeptics might be tempted to write Livaneli off as simply a pop-culture phenomenon. But Judith Gurewich, publisher of Other Press, which will release Livaneli’s latest work in English, Serenade for Nadia, on March 3, says that would be a mistake. “Zulfu is a storyteller before all, “ Gurewich said. “He knows history, politics, culture, and ideology as well as any professor, and he is able to pull all this together to craft novels that are erudite, deeply empathetic, and absolute page-turners. That is why I love his work so much.”

Livaneli’s latest novel is Serenade for Nadia, inspired by the 1942 Struma disaster, in which nearly 800 Jewish refugees perished after the ship carrying them to Palestine was torpedoed off the coast of Turkey. On February 26, I spoke with Livaneli at his Turkish Hotel Marmara in New York City about his Serenade for Nadia.

—Jim Ottaway, Jr.


JIM OTTAWAY, JR.: Your latest novel to appear in English, Serenade for Nadia, is being published by Other Press in New York on March 3. How did you get your idea to write such a tragic novel?

ZULFU LIVANELI: One function of literature is to bring dramatic historical events to life by telling emotional human stories. Another function of literature is to transform society by helping it face historical truths.

Serenade is about the forgotten World War II disaster in which eight hundred Jewish refugees from Romania who paid $1,000 each to flee from the Nazis were prevented by the British and Turkish governments from reaching safety in Israel, held in quarantine, and then drowned when a Soviet submarine torpedoed their ship, the Struma, in 1942 while it was anchored at the mouth of the Bosporus in the Black Sea. All but one of the eight hundred Jewish refugees died. The death, in 2019, of the only survivor, David Stoilar, was reported in the New York Times. But for seventy-seven years, the sinking of the Struma was suppressed.

The popularity of Serenade forced the Turkish state to organize ceremonies of remembrance every year now; and Jewish synagogues in Turkey pray for those eight hundred lost souls on the February 24 anniversary of the now well-known sinking of the Struma.


JO:  When was Serenade first published in the Turkish language; and how many copies did it sell there?

ZL: I first published Serenade in Turkish in 2011. It has sold 750,000 copies just in Turkish, and has been translated into eight other languages. My fifteen novels and other books have been translated into thirty-seven languages. Serenade was translated into English by Brendan Freely, who has translated a number of other Turkish books into English, and edited by Judith Gurewich. Lionsgate is making it into a film.


JO:  I understand that Other Press plans to publish two more of your novels translated into English, Disquiet in 2021 and Leyla’s House in 2022.

ZL: Yes, my latest novel, Disquiet, was published in Turkish in 2015 and has sold more than eight hundred thousand copies. It was also published in German by the publisher Klett-Cotta, and in France by Gallimard.

Disquiet was translated by Sarah Gilani, a Turkish English woman living in London, and edited by Marco Roth, founder of N + 1 Literary Magazine and an author in his own right. It is the first novel to describe the horrendous experiences of the Christian Yazidis fleeing ISIS terror to take refuge in Turkey. And it is a love story about a boy from Turkey and a Yazidi girl from Iraq. The American film director Tony Kaye is making a movie of it.

Leyla’s House was first published in Turkish in 2004. It has sold about seven hundred thousand copies. A play based on this novel has been staged all over Turkey for the past ten years. It’s about a rich old lady who owns a $100 million mansion right on the Bosporus in Istanbul. Clever criminals get her declared mentally incompetent and evict her from her house.


JO:  What are some of your other novels? What sort of price do they sell at in Turkey?                        

ZL: Some of my other novels in Turkish include Riding the Tiger, which will come out with an initial print run of three hundred thousand in May [2020]. My Brother’s Story and The Eunuch of Constantinople were published earlier but not translated into English. My novels sell for a modest price equivalent to seven US dollars in Turkey, which is the eleventh-largest book-buying country in the world. 


JO: Your novel Bliss was published in Turkish in 2002 and in English by St. Martin’s Press in New York in 2006. What can you tell us about that book?

ZL: It’s the story of a teenage girl in conservative Eastern Turkey whose rape by her uncle will dishonor her whole family, so she is “taken to Istanbul” to get rid of her. It won the Barnes & Noble Discovery of Great New Writers Award in 2006 and was made into a movie in 2007.


JO: People outside of Turkey do not know that earlier in your life (you were born in 1946 and are now 74 years old) you were the most popular songwriter and big concert singer in Turkey, exiled to Sweden for five years after huge public concert-rallies protesting a military coup. Your songs are still sung today in public protests against the current Turkish government. How can you succeed in both popular music and popular literature and become such a respected national icon?

ZL: My ambition was always to be a writer. My first recording of songs came out in 1974 when I was twenty-eight and living in Sweden as a political refugee. On that first record I composed and sang protest songs against the military regime and its tyranny. When I returned to Turkey at the end of the 1970s, I performed songs with Joan Baez, and Theodorakis in Greece. But then I stopped it all. I went back to my first love—writing.


JO:  But here you are in New York showing your unique creative abilities in both popular song and writing. You are playing your Rumi Suite, composed in 2015, and other songs in New York February 28 to March 1 and then having a book party in New York on March 3 for the English translation of Serenade for Nadia. I think you are unique in modern culture.

ZL: Yes. There are a lot of things going on in my life. It is a matter of concentration and balancing. I have a strong emotional personality, but also cool intellectual control. I was never a hippie artist. Music was my way of expressing outrage against military juntas, and writing novels helps me express strong human emotions along with political and historical ideas.


JO:  Thank you, Zulfu, for this very interesting conversation.

Published Mar 2, 2020   Copyright 2020 Jim Ottaway, Jr.

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