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Literature from Turkey

Gavin Blackburn
August 21, 2012

Books from all over the world are regularly published specifically for a German readership but Turkish authors always seemed to be overlooked until two sisters in Berlin decided to take matters into their own hands.

Image: Robert Jerzy

Inci Burhaniye, a practicing lawyer, and her sister Selma Wels, who works in business administration, were newcomers to the world of publishing when they decided to found their own imprint. Calling it Binooki, a corruption of the Turkish word binoki, meaning monocle or pince-nez, their aim is giving new Turkish authors exposure in Germany.

"We’re currently gaining experience," laughs Wels, "We’re learning on the job. There’s never been any history of publishing in our family."

Current statistics estimate there to be around four million people with Turkish heritage currently living in Germany, making them the largest ethnic minority group in the country. Turkey and Germany also share a relationship dating back to the early 1960s, when the first wave of migrant workers arrived in Germany, partly to escape rising unemployment in Turkey and also to fill a demand for skilled construction workers rebuilding war-torn German cities. But while this cultural link has been explored elsewhere, it was seldom reflected in literature.

"Binooki has a bridging function as it were," explains Burhaniye. "German-Turkish relations have been discussed at a political level and in the media, but it was always under-represented in books. Books from all over the world appear in German translations but Turkey always seemed to be overlooked. Maybe they were waiting for us!"

Burhaniye and Wels decided to do something themselves to redress the balance; they took the plunge and started their own publishing house, beginning with a hand-picked list of about 15 titles to launch Binooki with. They are always on the look-out for new material, either at book fairs or on regular business trips to Istanbul.

"Our main focus is contemporary Turkish literature, books which are currently popular in Turkey," explains Wels. "That’s very important. We hope to expose the reader, be they Turkish or German, to Turkish life, culture and society."

Inci Burhaniye und Selma Wels
Wels (left) and Burhaniye want Turks in Germany to understand their cultural backgroundImage: Barbara Dietl

Door to a new world

Both sisters roll their eyes when asked why they choose to release books in German and not Turkish. For them the answer is obvious: because they are based in Germany. The idea is not for readers with Turkish roots to improve their German, but to deepen their understanding of their own cultural heritage.

"You find that the second, third generation of Turkish migrants speak much better German than Turkish anyway," says Burhaniye. "It’s got nothing to do with encouraging them to improve their language. Rather it’s a facilitation for them to be introduced to their own culture. And for German readers, it opens a door to a new world."

Opening doors to new worlds is something Ercan Karakoyun is very familiar with. As managing director of the Forum for Intercultural Dialogue, a Berlin-based agency fostering cultural diversity, he’s been involved in many projects which have explored the links between Germans and Turks.

"The migrants that came here from Turkey have a culture which was frozen 50 years ago," he says, "Whereas in Turkey the culture has always changed and developed. I think it’s important to de-freeze people so they can adapt to the changes which are currently happening in Turkey. Also it’s important for Germans to learn how Turkish migrants think. It encourages a more harmonious living situation."

One of the most popular titles from the Binooki stable is "Verschütt gegangen" (Gone Missing) by 31-year-old author Emreh Serbes. It’s the latest in his series of stories featuring the hard-drinking, chain-smoking homicide detective Behzat C., a highly popular yet controversial figure in Turkey.

Going digital

In one of the countless Turkish snack bars which are dotted around the Berlin district of Kreuzberg, 20-year-old Burak Bulbul has just finished reading the book and thinks that Binooki provide an important link between him and his cultural background.

"It’s important for me to be able to read books like this," he says, "I come from a Turkish family but I was born and grew up in Germany. I don’t get the chance to go to Turkey very often so this is a good way to learn more about my own culture."

The feedback to Binooki’s expanding range of titles has been positive, from German and Turkish readers alike. While Bürhaniye and Wels have already presented the imprint at big league literature trade shows such as the Frankfurt Book Fair and German-Turkish literature festivals, the thing they are most excited about right now is offering Binooki titles digitally.

"We’re going digital in just a few weeks and all our titles will be available as e-books," says Wels, "I think that’s the most exciting thing right now."