Interview series with Turkish Political Refugees (1): Author Gokhan Yavuzel
In this interview series, we will be compiling the stories of people who left Turkey for various countries across the world as political refugees, exploring their lives before and after their migration. We will talk about the significant breaking points of their lives as Turkish citizens who were forced to migrate as political refugees.
Rachel Hebun Ozdemir and PEN member and author Gokhan Yavuzel discuss his story.
Gokhan Yavuzel is the author of the books titled “Poems Without Owners,” “Murderers Are Always Alone,” and the recently published “Notes in Exile.” His books have entered the best-seller lists in both Turkey and Cyprus. Writing primarily literary pieces for various newspapers and magazines, Yavuzel also writes arts and culture themed articles in addition to working as a freelance editor.
What was the most important breaking point of your life and when did it take place?
There have been many breaking points in my life. I became experienced in most areas of life at a tender age. Many of these breaking points pushed open other doors. While some breaking points led to heavy losses, others flung me onto paths of personal development and growth. If you are asking about the details of the biggest breaking point, well that would be too long of a topic. And if I were to summarize it, some parts would remain incomplete. Yet, of course, the most drastic breaking point was the series of events that followed my departure from Turkey, and those things that I have lost and gained in my confinement to this place.
What sorts of problems or difficulties did you come across throughout your career as a writer in Turkey? Had you been receiving threats even while living in Turkey?
If we take into consideration the reality of the current system and administration, elements such as softening the language of written work and living in anxiety over preventing possible negative developments bothered many writers.
I took care to make sure that the nature of my writing was literary and that I was using universal language. I frequently held talks and autograph signings across Turkey and was often a guest on TV and radio programs. While my career was going quite well, with my signing of the Petition of Academics for Peace* in 2016, I began to receive threats and became the target of investigations. And, of course, the July 15 coup attempt** consolidated the totalitarian situation by escalating the fear and pressure felt by society.
What was your reasoning for leaving Turkey? If there are lawsuits filed against you, can you specify what they are?
At the time, I believed that I was only leaving Turkey temporarily, and had hopes to return after spending some time learning a language. I applied for the Ankara Agreement shortly after my arrival as an independent writer and was granted a visa. However, subsequent developments forced me to seek asylum instead.
There are four separate lawsuits, as well as investigations and countless arrest warrants against me, including allegations of inciting the public to hatred and enmity, publicly insulting the judicial bodies of the state, and insulting the president, all based on my written work, a majority of which is about culture and art.
When and how did you leave Turkey? When you look back on those days, what can you say you experienced? What sorts of difficulties did you come across during the course of your departure?
I left Turkey in 2018. After the withdrawal of my books from publication and the issuance of an arrest warrant following my departure, the asylum-seeking process began. The application, prolonged periods of waiting and anxiety brought forth many difficulties…
Can you talk a little about your new life as a political refugee? If we look back at the first step you took into this new life, what did you feel, what kinds of emotions did you experience?
Truth be told, it is near impossible for one to assimilate into a new society, culture, and language after a certain age — and even more so if you are alone. It’s difficult to overcome certain things by yourself. I know that many authors, journalists, or artists who became refugees alongside their families or friends emerged from that dark period much more quickly.
When compared to my life in exile, I had a good thing going in Turkey. I had never experienced a forced and lengthy separation from my loved ones. Some of my friends and relatives passed, and I couldn’t visit them. There were situations in which I should have been involved but was unable to do so. Each of these shook me in a way that was difficult to recover from. You’re all alone at the mercy of this onslaught. So, I can say that in the last five years, I have faced many of life’s cruelties, took serious lessons, and learned different things. I matured.
How were the first stages of life as an immigrant in this country and how is it now? What sorts of cultural problems did you experience? Were you able to get accustomed to life in the country you now live in?
When I compare the present moment to the first stages, I’m more experienced in their culture than before. I’ve improved my language. I can say that I’ve improved my living and accommodation conditions. I was obligated to change to be able to adapt.
What do you do nowadays? What are the difficulties surrounding building a new life?
After many years, I’m experiencing the joy of the publication of my new book. Honestly speaking, I didn’t believe that anyone’s book could be published in Turkey. However, an unexpected development came to play and after many years, my third book was published. I work as a freelance editor, book editing especially occupies a large portion of my time. I take care to remain in tune with nature, and often take walks.
Building a new life is difficult. For example, most immigrants never make a new life for themselves here. They insist on living their own cultures and remaining in contact with their own people within the parameters of their own traditions. What this means is that they will never be capable of building a new life.
Integration is also difficult. To match the level of integration of the general public and its systems, one must either have been born here or have moved here when very little.
I consider my situation to be rather different compared to most and try to remain in harmony with this society without losing my own essence.
During your new life in Wales, not only have you been threatened, but you have also been physically attacked. Your name was written under the “execution list.”*** Can you talk a little about what you experienced during that ordeal?
Yes, my name was included in the 2021 execution list. I believe I was the only writer whose name was mentioned on the list. It’s common knowledge that I was being threatened even before this list. In fact, Ferhat Tunc, Pinar Aydinlar, and I had released joint statements on the matter twice.
After the lists became public, and a few days before the attack, I notified the Wales police department. They let me know that they were aware of the lists, but settled for telling me to be cautious. Yet, I was physically assaulted by four people soon afterwards.
Wales police and intelligence officers even visited me at my home, and although they said that they would be following the situation closely, they later informed me that the investigation was inconclusive. In fact, they requested that I delete the photograph I had posted regarding the assault and warned that any escalation of the topic would only create negativity for their community.
To tell you the truth, even the authorities of this country were shocked because they hadn’t experienced anything like this in years prior. What was important was the arrest of the assailants, but the authorities either did not or could not accomplish this.
Your last book, “Notes in Exile,” was recently published. What are you trying to get across in this book? Have you received any criticism of this work yet?
I consider “Notes in Exile” to be a more “mature” work in comparison to my other books. It consists mostly of essays, culture and arts articles, and my collected interviews. Frankly, my happiness at the publication of the book was bittersweet. The excitement and joy surrounding the release of my previous works were better. This book is being released in Turkey, yet I am not there.
I don’t have the opportunity to participate in many activities relating to the book release here. The book just came off the press last week. I can also see that most companies haven’t yet put it on their sales lists. But despite all the obstacles, I believe that the book will receive positive reviews from critics. We shall have to wait and see…
* Petition of Academics for Peace was released in 2016 as a call for the Erdogan government to end its systematic violation of human rights in key cities and to restart the peace process with Kurdish political parties. Signatories were targeted by the administration for terrorism.
** July 2016 coup attempt that the Erdogan government has associated with the Gulenist community, which it labels "FETO."
*** 2021 list targeting dissidents abroad which was propagated with the intention of physical assault.
*Rachel Hebun Ozdemir
Trans woman journalist in exile with an International Press Card. Author, political refugee, conscientious objector, antiwar activist. Journalist since 2005 in Turkey. Focuses on stories of people, wars, conflicts, intelligence, diplomacy, human rights, the climate crisis, migration. Left Turkey following the constitutional amendment referendum in 2017 and had to migrate to Germany. Tried for TCK 318. Has four published books. Presents special reports, documentary content, interviews, and news from earth on YouTube.