Written by Marilyn Booth


            I write as the incoming Director of the Program in Middle East and South Asian Studies at the University of Illinois, but also as a literary translator:  I translate contemporary Arabic fiction into English.  Thus, I am very concerned with getting Middle Eastern literatures into English.  At the present political moment, I think it is crucial to provide as many channels of information to US and other English-speaking audiences, and I know that there are eager readerships out there.

Although I know something about modern Turkish literature (I'm also a professor of comparative and world literature at the University of Illinois), I am by no means an expert.  My colleague, Professor Mahir Saul, anthropologist with expertise in African and Middle Eastern societies, has kindly written a short description of Kemal from his knowledge of the subject.  I provide it for you below.

Orhan Kemal is one of the giants of the Turkish novel, of the period 1950-1970. There were three outstanding names in this golden period of Turkish prose: Yasar Kemal, Kemal Tahir, and Orhan Kemal (the three Kemals, as the saying went; and in no case was that their full or real name I might add).

Of these only Yasar Kemal has been widely translated, and achieved an international fame that is well deserved in my opinion (thanks to the fact that his wife was a superb translator into English and well-connected in the international literary circles). The other two are equally important and have very different authorial personas, but unknown internationally. Kemal Tahir's oeuvre runs into the problem that to appreciate his genius one needs considerable background in Turkish culture and history, and as well some hint of the polemics of post-1960 that drove him in his artistic life.

Orhan Kemal, in contrast, is very accessible to an international audience.  Now that Orhan Pamuk has grown so big in international literature, the momentum could be used to introduce Orhan Kemal as part of the context that made him, that is the remarkable growth of the Turkish novel after WW II.

Orhan Kemal is very different from Orhan Pamuk, in the settings he uses, in his sensibility, in his orientation to literary creation. The difference feeds from the great divergences in the biographies of these two authors, in terms of regional background, class, epoch, and education. Orhan Kemal created a literary universe out of unassuming men and women, the powerless, the mute, with a humanity and a skill of narration that matches those of the greatest novelists of the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

He will easily find a readership if he is translated. In my opinion this initiative deserves all the support we can muster.


Marilyn Booth
Associate Professor
Program in Comparative and World Literature
University of Illinois