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Exiled Turkish Author Speaks On Free Expression

Asli Erdogan speaks Saturday at Alphabet City

Turkish author Asli Erdoğan is acclaimed around the world. She’s written four works of fiction, and her writings have been translated into 20 languages, including two in English. In 2017, the French government awarded her the Légion d’Honneur.

Freedom-to-Write event with Asli Erdogan and Akhil Sharma. 5 p.m. Sat., Sept. 8. Alphabet City, 40 W. North St., on the North Side.

But some in her home country, including the government, think less of her, at least these days. The former particle physicist became a full-time writer in 1996, and has a long track record of journalistic articles, many about human rights in Turkey. The country was once considered friendly to free expression, but since Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became president, in 2014, it has grown more authoritarian. In 2015, Asli Erdoğan (who is unrelated to the president) faced lynching threats and went into exile in Poland, becoming writer-in-residence at Krakow’s City of Refuge. She returned to Turkey, but in 2016 was arrested on terrorism-related charges because she had served as literary adviser to a pro-Kurdish newspaper. She spent four months in prison.

Erdoğan now lives in exile in Germany, as writer-in-residence at Frankfurt’s City of Refuge. And she’s still outspoken about human rights. On Saturday, she makes her first visit to Pittsburgh – and her only U.S. appearance this year – as the keynote speaker at the annual Freedom-to-Write event at City of Asylum/Pittsburgh, which itself shelters writers under threat in their home countries.

On stage in conversation with acclaimed novelist Akhil Sharma, Erdoğan said, she will discuss her work, including The Stone Building and Other Places, a collection of stories. The stories are set in a prison and deal with torture, often with magical-realist elements. (The book was written before her own jail sentence, she said.) The Stone Building was translated into English last year. Her other works include the novel The City in Crimson Cloak.

The author says that under President Erdoğan, Turkish mass media is overwhelmingly pro-government, and even Facebook and Twitter are not safe.

“It’s really almost impossible to get true information from Turkey, and the social media is also very much controlled,” she said.

“If you deny the freedom of expression of journalists, you deny the freedom of the public to learn the reality,” she said.

Activists who previously organized via social media are also finding it harder to communicate. “Thousands of people are in jail because of one tweet. Just one tweet,” she said.

Press watchdogs and human-rights groups back up such claims. Erdoğan said that people should never take free expression for granted.

“These things like freedom of expression, human rights, these are so often pronounced words that they start to sound as clichés. But once you go to jail, because somebody got angry at one of your sentences,” she said. “You realize these concepts are centuries old and filled with blood. These are not words to juggle with, and these are not for trade or for show. … And that’s why they are so valuable. It’s like health, until you lose it, you don’t realize its value.”

Erdoğan’s conversation with Sharma is set for 5 p.m. Saturday, at City of Asylum’s Alphabet City. Admission is free but reservations are recommended. Learn more at the event’s web page.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: bodriscoll@wesa.fm