Interview with Neşe Yaşın
September 13, 2017 at 10:00 a.m. in Nicosia
Anna Prodromou (AP)
Neşe Yaşın (NY)
AP: Neşe Yaşın. A writer a poet, a professor, a woman an activist. Numerous identities – individual, social, collective identities – intersecting in just one person and I’m sure we could add more. Which identity, or which part of your identity, do you feel defines you the most?
NY: I think being a poet is the most important identity I have because for me, being a poet is a lifestyle; it’s about devoting your life to writing, devoting your life to verse. So I am a poet, that’s my basic identity.
AP: How early in your life did you realize that writing is something that interests you?
NY: I come from a family of poets, because my father is a poet and my brother is also a poet and I actually started not writing poetry, telling poems. When I didn’t even know how to read and because my father liked to read poems aloud, when he was driving me to the kindergarten, he would read poems in the car and our house was a place where poets often came to visit, from abroad as well, from Turkey. My father had a bookshop and he had to buy books from Turkey; he would take me to Istanbul with him and we would see poets, you know, and we were going to publishing houses to buy books for his bookshop. I was meeting all these poets, writers in Turkey, so I don’t remember deciding to become a poet, it was so natural; there was no other choice for me. I just knew that I was going to be a poet.
AP: The environment in which we are raised usually plays a pivotal role in the decisions we make, but wasn’t there an inner need to express yourself through writing? Maybe it was the combination of the two?
NY: Yes, it was like I was amazed by the words, that they can make music and they can say something clever and these kinds of things. So I was very attracted by poetry, because it was part of my life - I was born into this poetical environment. Somebody was always reading poems in this house and they attracted me.
AP: What do you draw inspiration from? I know that Cyprus is a very strong part of your life and your writing.
NY: Inspiration is my inner voice. I mean it’s like in life, you’re inspired by everything, everything you see around you, things happening, things also happening inside of you, because of the things happening outside, they’re influential. So you have an inner voice and I have a very strong inner voice and in my childhood, for example, my father was driving my mother and I was sitting in the back of the car and I would make a story about myself - the little girl was sitting in the back of the car and she was looking at the trees – and I would create stories like that.
AP: Observing yourself as an outsider and narrating your story or the “other” girl’s story.
NY: Observing myself as an outsider, yes. So this is what being a poet is actually like. You are an “other”, even to yourself. You become an “other” and you start observing yourself. Also, books, I grew up with books because of my father’s bookshop; so this was a magical world for me, the books, the writing.
AP: This notion of the “other” is very strong in Cyprus; how we define ourselves, primarily ourselves, and then how we are defined in the eyes of others. And the other can be anybody, someone who comes from a different religious, educational or financial background. How does that affect you in your life? How do you approach the idea of the “other”?
NY: The others are the most important thing for us because we see ourselves through others and we exist in this world with the others, so they could either enrich or ruin our lives. You can fear others, you can connect with them, you can love them, you could be loved by them, but there are a lot of different kinds of relationships. In fact, the main theme in my poetry is relationships and I think everything starts between two persons. Like it’s been said, fascism starts between two persons, and peace also starts between the two. So, it’s like in my poetry, I can talk about a love relationship but people tell me “Oh, how you wrote about Cyprus” and I was surprised and then I realized it, everything I write is some form of political allegory, because it’s a model, the relationship between two people represents the larger issues we experience in this life. This is strongly related with identity, because of these identities, we are imprisoned because identities are like uniforms that dress us. And we have many identities and whichever identity is hurting you or people are victimizing you, because of this identity, it becomes more important to you. For example, if you as a woman are oppressed, then your identity as a woman becomes stronger, you think about it more and you want to struggle to get your freedom. In my childhood, early childhood, we were living in Peristerona and in ‘64, we became refugees and we came and settled in the Nicosia enclaves. So for me, those days I was thinking that our house had been looted, we couldn’t go back to that house after ‘64, we were locked in the Nicosia enclaves. It was a very difficult life, and it was like everything was upside down and all my life it was like, maybe it’s an illusion, but I was thinking there was this heaven in Peristerona, we had this beautiful life and then we lost it. It was like losing heaven, because it was an abrupt, dramatic thing that happened in my life. So, my father, who used to be a very talented young poet and was receiving positive reviews and his poems were published in Turkey in important magazines as well, he decided to devote his writing to the service of nationalism and he became the national poet. The environment we were living in after ‘64 was very militarized, was very heavily nationalized, and we were receiving this nationalistic education and listening about the martyrs, the dead people, the lost ones like the time we visited a family and the husband, the father, was lost in ’64. I was hearing all these stories. Also, in December ‘63, my mother was pregnant and she was taken as a prisoner when she was trying to go to the clinic and they took her to the hospital under armed guard. An older and younger man from the family that were driving her were taken as prisoners also. They were going with my grandfather’s car and we have never seen that car again; and there were also this suitcase with these beautiful things made for the baby, you know, it was a very important thing to prepare such things for the baby. This luggage was never found, it was taken. So, in this hospital, 10 people were lost and my mother was telling me that she heard the screams of people and she thought they were being thrown from the windows. I mean, there were these horrific things at the time, and when my mother gave birth to my brother, there was a soldier waiting near her. So this was extremely traumatic. I don’t know how much of these stories were constructed, but there were many horror stories in our family about the birth of my brother, such as when the baby was born, there was nothing to dress him in, so they wrapped him in my grandmother’s shawl. I heard all these kinds of stories in my childhood and also because of the education we received, I thought that the Greek Cypriots were the bad ones and we were the good ones. They took our house, they looted our things and my mother was suffering and it was all because of them. These kinds of ideas were imposed on us and also as a child, I could relate to these things. Those were the narratives that I experienced from my surroundings. However, later, I remember my father was meeting some Greek Cypriots, because my father imported printing materials from the Soviet Union and there was somebody, probably an agent, that was in the south and he was receiving technical support from them, so we would visit them. Also, because my father had a bookshop, he needed to buy some stationary for the bookshop and we could go to some Greek Cypriot shops and they would give me presents and things like that, so it was a strange thing - we were enemies, but they were nice and they would give me presents and they liked me, so it was confusing. But the real shift in the paradigm happened to me in ‘74. In ‘74, I observed terrible things. I saw a Greek Cypriot family who were taken prisoner and I will never forget the expression in their faces, how fear can freeze a person. It was like any minute they thought they would die. I don’t know, I always think of that family. A man, a woman and a daughter.
AP: Who were they taken by?
NY: Well, we were living in this block of flats in ‘74 and the first floor was empty and available for rent. The Turkish police took it because it was very close to the Turkish army base and some of the other floors in this block of flats where also used as positions for snipers, because we were facing the Greek Cypriot side. So, I was just going to the lift to go up to our apartment, I was a little girl, and I saw these people, you know, the Greek Cypriot family. I don’t know what happened to them. It was also very disturbing when I was watching television and I could see these Greek Cypriot mothers with their photographs looking for their loved ones and I was shocked, I thought there must be something, I mean, maybe we’re not the good ones; we killed these people.
AP: A shift in roles. Changing from victims to predators, and vice versa. As a young girl, you observed the different sides of human nature.
NY: Exactly! These roles keep changing, it’s called the drama triangle. And the other thing was that we were given a house in Katokopia, which was a Greek Cypriot house, and I was given the room of a Greek Cypriot child and I mean it was terrible, the feelings I had those days. People became thieves, there were all these Greek Cypriot properties that people were taking, looting, you know, this kind of thing. So I was very confused. I mean, I hated it, I hated what was happening. What was happening in Cyprus was so heartbreaking.
AP: You had these traumatic experiences and I guess you shared them with the rest of your family.
NY: Yes, we are actually five siblings.
AP: I was wondering how the rest of the family experienced these stories. Although you shared the same experiences, did you actually share the same narrative?
NY: Ok, let me tell you. One of my brothers has a different mother, that is my brother, the poet. Ηe is one year older than me, but he was living with his mother. He felt the same things as me, the same sensitivity. I have a brother one year younger than me, this brother also thinks exactly like me and he is living in this house in Katokopia and the owners of the house visited him in 2003. He told them I’m giving you the key, this is your house, I can leave any time, just don’t be stressed, this is your house. Any time you want me to leave, this is your key and I’ll move to another house. They had a very good relationship these two families, although they don’t speak the same language, I’m amazed, they have picnics and visit each other. They felt that my brother was sincere, because the Greek Cypriot guy was asking him “Can I pick some oranges?” and my brother said, “This is your garden! Pick all of them! Take the keys, stay here”. They felt that they were welcomed and this injustice was not because of this person who was living in their house, but because of what happened in Cyprus. Then, I have the other brother that was born in ‘63. He experienced a lot of trauma in ‘74. We had to seek professional help for him. He witnessed violence and he would take some soap and he would wash his hands until the soap disappeared; he was feeling dirty, filthy, because of the things that were happening around him. And because my father wrote some poems about him in ‘63 and there was a book devoted to him and his story was a special and he was interviewed because of that story and things like that, he became more nationalistic; but then I don’t think it was real, because when he crossed, he wanted to see the hospital where he was born and his perspective changed. My sister was just 2 years old and now she shares the same views as the rest of us.
AP: Your Turkish Cypriot identity marked you in that sense. You were born in an era where national identity was very important. Would you say that the fact that you are a woman also had an impact on your life?
NY: Of course, because from my childhood, my role model was my father; he was a politician, he was an MP and he was also a poet. My mother just wanted to teach me to sew dresses or to do other things, but my main interest was always the bookshop. I wanted to be in the bookshop, to hear people discussing things. Also, later on when my poetry was published and I became kind of a public figure, as a woman I experienced a lot of sexual harassment from the nationalists. They would write articles about me and would attack me as a woman. Also, because I had all these feministic ideas, there were a lot of women around me that liked my ideas and we would talk. For example, when a friend of mine got divorced, the husband accused me, saying that I was a role model for women and they wanted to live like me and things like that. Also, my marriage was kind of a nightmare. I married early with somebody from a Sunni religious family from Turkey. It was around the time that my mother died and I wanted to take my sister with me and the only way to do that was to get married. My boyfriend at that time was very insistent that we should marry; my mother was very ill and she sort of asked him to take care of both of us, you know. My sister was 8 years old and I couldn’t take care of her on my own. My ex-husband, he hated my poetry. I was a university student. Two of my books had been published and I was like a star in Turkey and everybody wanted to meet me. There were not many female poets at that time; and I was a young woman and I had made a name for myself, and my ex-husband hated it. He didn’t like it all. He thought I would leave him, he always had that fear, so he wanted to change me and make me the stereotypical, traditional type of woman. And it was a very difficult time in Turkey, because there was a coup and, because of the coup, most of my friends were in prison and it was a very bad time and then my father sort of left us, you know, and we were in a very bad situation financially. My ex-husband was a student, I was the only one working and Turkey was a mess and I would write my poems, and hide them under the bed and things like that. Those days, I started questioning what it meant to be a woman and I started thinking about all the woman I knew in my life, my mother, my grandmother, all the other women. I wondered why we were victimized because of our female identity and things like that. So this also became an important part of my life. But what I can say is that for me, freedom was the most important thing in life. I mean, if I don’t have freedom, I have to do something about it, that was the thing. For example, if your father oppresses you, you can leave the house, this was my idea; I can escape from the house. If your husband oppresses, you can divorce and if another male “state”- so-called state - is oppressing you and does not allow you to go to the other part of your country and the places to which you are emotionally connected, to people that you want to meet and you want to learn about them, you need to cross their borders. So I crossed their border, this is what I did.
AP: Why did you say a “male” state? Do you feel that men dominate the political arena?
NY: Yes, because the state is a male. I once wrote an article in Turkish to say “Mr State, this is an impossible marriage between us.” (laughing)
AP: (laughing) Clever word games. Do you think that women do have a voice but they are not given the space and that’s why they are not as present? Perhaps they’re not interested or maybe they are raised not to be interested?
NY: Look around the world, activists are now mainly women; women read more books. When you go to a cultural activity, you see women, because this is an era in which women are demanding change and they are part of a revolution, because they were oppressed for so many centuries. Women are now in public life, this is a very recent thing actually, because women were considered to be private and men were public and the public arena is still dominated by men. So I think about my childhood and how women were given a certain role and they had to take care of the children, take care of the elders, the house and things like that, so that men could participate in decision making and that kind of thing. So, I told you, I had my father and my mother, but I wanted to be like my father.
AP: You wanted what your father was entitled to, as I understand it. Not his masculine nature, but the rights and privileges that his masculinity afforded him. To be a professional, a poet etc.
NY: Exactly! Exactly! And what I did actually with my poetry was a kind of rejection of my father’s poetry. I mean this father figure, the male figure for me, it was something to object. I didn’t want to be a man, just the opposite! I wanted to do what they were doing; I wanted to be part of that. And I rejected the traditional roles that were assigned to me as a woman. My poetry was very feminine, very childlike, because I was a child and I had two books in the beginning and this was a kind of a rebellion against the nationalistic, heroic, male discourse. In Turkey, my poetry was attracting interest because it was so different, it was so feminine and talking about social issues in a very feminine way was not what people were used to.
AP: Your poetry was a form of activism and this takes me back to what you said in the beginning that sometimes you wrote a love poem and others would interpret it in a political manner. Maybe with your writing, you influence others on an individual level, but then the personal becomes collective and that could bring change. We are in a stale situation now and I would like to ask are you optimistic about the future, are you hopeful?
NY: So, I have never seen people so pessimistic in Cyprus. My optimism about Cyprus was always because of people, because I saw the potential in people. Like all those people that are around me, they are so devoted to a solution in Cyprus and living together in peace and things like that, so I thought these people represented hope, this kind of thing. But I never believed in the negotiations and I always wrote about this. I was so alienated from what was happening, the technical committees and things like that, because it appeared to me that these people, they don’t have the concept of a home environment and they are just business men trying to make a deal. It’s like they are not uniting the country, but they are uniting a company to get more benefits, more profits, and I give you this and you give me that and that kind of thing. So I wrote about these things and I hated the meetings that were done in this airport (Nicosia International Airport) and the photographs that they take; everything that was happening there didn’t speak to me and I kept my distance from it. The only time I connected with it was when we decided to do an art exhibition and I had an idea with a Greek Cypriot friend. We went and saw the two presidents at the time, Talat and Christofias, and they told me “Why don’t you also do something?” I said I’m a poet and this is going to be an art installation and they said “No you can do something”. So I thought I would write an oath for the negotiation table and I wrote an oath that was similar to the oath that doctors give. I thought the negotiators would take the oath, because this is about lives, it’s about people’s lives. And I wrote this oath in three languages and made it into an installation, put it in a zig zag pattern on the road that they would pass so that they would read it as they were walking. But the UN representative spoke with me and the security were very angry with my installation and they moved it to the side. But I saw them reading it, I put it on their desks as well as on the walls. I felt like nobody understood what I wanted to do or responded to it. I was disappointed, you know.
AP: You said that you felt that the negotiations, at least the way they’ve been conducted, are not what we need. So where is the solution going to come from?
NY: From the streets. I mean, if you look at every country that has undergone change, you will see that when hundreds, thousands of people go out into the streets, change comes. When there is a huge demand for change. But of course sometimes, that doesn’t work. Sometimes, it can be manipulated in a different way. This is also because these are chaotic situations most of the time. Ok, chaos is a good thing and can bring wonderful surprises, you can have very interesting combinations in chaos, but also other things might happen. At the moment, we have reached a deadlock, but things change; you never expect something to happen, but things change somehow; so maybe we will have the opportunity to bring about change.
AP: Thank you very much!
NY: Thank you!
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