Licence To Write

The ICORN Network Meeting & PEN International WiPC Conference

At Home Everywhere? -Writing and Literary Culture in Exile / ÇİLER İLHAN


After we moved to the Netherlands, I realized that I never fully realized what it means to be speaking your mother tongue and being actually understood. It’s a matter of life and death in both senses: If you end up at an hospital’s emergency room and say you’re speaking an almost extinct language, good luck; but also best of luck, to a writer just to keep on living like the adult you’ve come to known yourself for years. Language is a very political issue. Any government who wishes to wipe out a culture, an ethnic race starts with the language. It’s the “best” way of assimilation. “The villains” obviously had figured this out much earlier than my naïve self.

On the other hand, living in a forced or a voluntary exile also gives one a new way of thinking, of seeing the world, accompanied by something I might call a feeling of freedom. This continuous interaction between life, words and your inner voice creates a dynamic way of being and writing. Maybe if it wasn’t for his necessary parting we would never have read a Lolita from a Russian-born, American-turned author whose masterpiece’s first edition was written in English but printed in Paris. Great literature might emerge from an exile.

Another positive side of moving countries: Once you’re out of your nest, the world seems smaller. And who knows? You might become “bigger” than you imagine… Reading in a new language is also fun because you get to see how unfamiliar words come together in an unfamiliar manner to make that magical noise called a “sentence”. They say learning a new language at a later age helps to prevent Alzheimer; that, I can only say in a few decades.

And having moved from Turkey to the Netherlands; from a country where being a fiction writer generally doesn’t count as a full-time profession to a country where it does, the best bonus I received was finally dressing my favourite identity… In Turkey I always had (other) full time jobs which left me very little time to write. I’m 46 years old, and for the first time in my life, I happily answer this crucial question with only one noun: “What’s your occupation?” “I am writer.” Full stop.