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Dawn by Selahattin Demirtaş

Published in Turkey in 2017; published in translation by Hogarth on April 23, 2019

Selahattin Demirtaş’ preface explains that he is a human rights lawyer and a dissident who is held in a Turkish prison. He wrote these stories while awaiting trial for acts of opposition to an authoritarian government that classified his speeches as criminal provocations. Americans who chant “lock her up” either have no idea or do not care that they want political opposition to be criminalized in the United States just is it is in the world’s most oppressive nations.

Demirtaş was a Turkish politician before (and even after) his arrest. The last story in this collection describes a utopian society that is presumably his vision for what Turkey can become. Many of the stories explain how far the nation is removed from that utopian vision.

In “The Man Inside,” a prisoner watching sparrows building a nest imagines them standing up to law enforcement sparrows that want them to tear the nest down. “Seher” tells of a girl who must keep her date with a man a secret, lest her father break her legs. When she is raped, she receives a punishment commanded by her father (in the name of defending the family’s “honor”) that is even worse. “The Mermaid” is about a woman who flees from Hama with her daughter and comes to an unfortunate end.

“Nazan the Cleaning Lady” is arrested after being injured by people fleeing tear gas that the police used to break up a demonstration. She imagines what kind of vehicles the people she meets drive based on their social status. “Greetings to Those Dark Eyes” considers the consequences of villages that promote child labor and child brides. One story is written in the form of a letter to the prison guards who read letters written by prisoners.

While the stories lack the complex subtlety that a more experienced writer might provide, the subject matter is inherently powerful. Demirtaş’ best story uses indirection to reinforce the impact of violence on innocent lives. “Kebab Halabi” is set in a marketplace where a man who is famed for his cheese-filled pastry künefe feels doomed love for a woman he cannot have, not realizing the woman is doomed to die at the hand of a suicide bomber. The emphasis on the normalcy of life with its simple joys and longings, contrasted with the sudden violence that rips those lives apart, makes the story memorable.

When Demirtaş departs from the theme of oppression, his stories are less successful. A story about a love triangle that does not end well is mundane. “As Lonely as History,” about a couple who learn a lesson about placing work and wealth ahead of love and family is pleasant but contrived. It is so obvious that it might be considered a parable rather than a literary story.

I could not find the point in “Asuman, Look What You’ve Done,” in which a bus driver tells a telenovela-type story to a young passenger and years later hires the passenger as his son’s lawyer. The stories of growing up told in “Settling Scores” also fail to impress.

The collection features one strong story and several stories that illustrate Turkey’s human rights violations. Collections like this are always an important reminder that authoritarian governments endure, and that free countries must always be vigilant to guard against leaders who mimic authoritarian rulers. I recommend it for the political stories; the others are less interesting.


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