Book Lovers: Discover Turkey’s Most Popular Writers & Poets

One of the best ways to understand a country’s culture, society, history and its people is to discover and spend some quality time indulging in its literature through the works of its writers and its poets.

The most popular writers from Turkey sometimes write both in their native tongue and in English. It certainly helps that works are produced and translated in English so that those of us who don’t know the Turkish language are able to enjoy world literature. Of course, there are a select few that write exclusively in English and they’re much more accessible than the ones that need translated prose to reach a wider audience.

Turkey has a good number of writers and poets and a tradition of literature going back to the Ottoman times in the form of Divan poetry and literature tradition. A number of writers and personalities from Ottoman times and modern ones have kept literature lovers pleased.

Translated foreign works are incredibly popular in Turkey but the same cannot be said about Turkish writers. Only in the last decade or so have we seen an increase in translated works in English, for instance. For that reason, Turkish writers, apart from the ones who’ve won awards, remain mostly unknown to the world and that is unfortunate. Here’s hoping there will be more translated works in the future!

Image sourced from Unsplash

Nonetheless, a few internationally known names such as Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak stand out among the long list of litterateurs. For example, Sabahattin Ali’s work translated into English as Madonna in a Fur Coat has become more popular in recent years reaching best-seller lists. Aziz Nesin and Nâzım Hikmet are beloved writers and poets in Turkey, especially with the later gaining worldwide recognition for his struggle against state oppression. Then, there are other writers gaining more popularity for both fiction and non-fiction. These include names such as Ahmet Ümit, İlber Ortaylı, Iskender Pala, Zülfü Livaneli, Perihan Mağden, Buket Uzuner, Ece Temelkuran and Kaya Genç are on the rise, with foreign readers and international reader booklists.

In modern Turkey, bookstores and even second-hand bookshops are popular places, especially if the places have cafes attached to it. Check out our list of incredible bookstores in the city in our article on the 10 Unmissable bookstores in Istanbul here and explore some of the many books by authors we’ll mention below — be sure to ask for an English copy or if available, you can even order your copy in your language!

Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk is perhaps Turkey’s most popular and internationally recognized writers. His work has been successfully translated into English and other languages. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006 and has won many other awards for his work.

His first novel was Cevdet Bey and His Sons and was published in 1982. The novel is the story of three generations of a wealthy family living in a wealthy Istanbul neighbourhood called Nisantasi. It is also where Pamuk grew up. The novel was awarded both the Orhan Kemal and Milliyet literary prizes. His second novel called The Silent House, won the Prix de la découverte européene (French translation) in 1991.

Later works such as The White Castle (1985) about the frictions and friendship between a Venetian slave and an Ottoman scholar was published in English and many other languages. This subsequently brought Pamuk international fame and led him to Columbia University in NYC to teach comparative literature and writing. During his three years there, he wrote his next novel The Black Book. Published in 1990, the French translation of this latest work won the Prix France Culture that year.

His non-fiction book Istanbul: Memories of the City, published in 2005, is a must read for those who love Istanbul and its streets and want to understand its uniqueness, its melancholy and nostalgia. Pamuk weaves an autobiographical non-fiction work from the 1950s. We recommend reading it after having visited the city and spent some time in it.

Another book called The Museum of Innocence is a love story based in Istanbul and was published in 2008, after his Nobel Prize award. Pamuk accompanied the novel with creating an actual Museum of Innocence. The place is housed in an old 19th century home, painted red, and houses objects from the fictional story. The museum won the European museum of the year award in 2014. It is located in the now famous district of Çukurcuma, where you can wander the streets and find an antique or indulge in a hammam experience. Read about our article on the top hammams in the city here.

Pamuk continues to write new work with the latest ones called A Strangeness in my Mind and A Red-Haired Woman. His most recent photography book called Balkon is curated, edited and published by world-famous German publisher Steidl.

Elif Şafak

An award-winning novelist, Elif Şafak has published 19 books, whose work has been translated into 55 languages. She is well known around the world as a women’s right advocate and a vocal activist. She has taught in various universities around the world and even holds a PhD in political science.

Her most recent work called 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and RSL Ondaatje Prize. It was also chosen as Blackwell’s Book of the Year. 

Another book titledThe Forty Rules of Love was chosen by the BBC among the list “100 Novels that Shaped Our World.” Her book Honour is listed among the 40 best books of the decade by the newspaper The Independent.

On the other hand,The Architect’s Apprentice was chosen for the Duchess of Cornwall’s inaugural book club. She has also served as a chair for the Wellcome Prize and as jury for many literary prizes such as the Man Booker International prize and the PEN Nabokov prize, for instance.

Her latest book The Island of Missing Trees: A Novel is due to be released in the summer of 2021.

Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar

Born as the Ottoman Empire was on the way to decline, Tanpınar can be considered early Republican Turkey’s finest modernist writers, teachers and literary critic. Orhan Pamuk considers him the greatest Turkish novelist of the 20th century! According to the NY Times, “his monumental “A Mind at Peace” (1949), which […] Pamuk has called “the greatest novel ever written about Istanbul,” found its way into English in 2008.”

He was a Ottoman judge’s son and spent his childhood traveling around Anatolia. He pursued higher education as a veterinarian but later transferred to the faculty of letters to study history and philosophy. He later transferred to the department of literature to take classes with a famous poet, Yahya Kemal Beyatli, who had a great influence on him. He studied western and Divan literature including Baki, Nefi and many others. After graduating and working as a school teacher, he was appointed to the Academy of Fine Arts as a lecturer of art history.

In 1939, he started working at Istanbul University as a professor of contemporary Turkish Literature. The following decade, he worked in various high profile jobs, including as an inspector for the Turkish Ministry of National Education. Soon after, he returned to Istanbul University and taught fine arts and literature until his death. His grave features his most famous verses: “I am neither inside time / Nor am I completely outside of it.”

Book cover art by Jim Tierney

His style and work dealt with contradictions between the West and the East, social troubles and inner struggles versus challenges of values and lifestyles. On the other hand, time and dreams are some of the prominent themes in his work. For example, his novel, Huzur (meaning Peace in Turkish), which appeared as a daily series in a local newspaper between February in 1948 is one of his most important works and features a 24-hour time frame. His most famous translated work titled Saatleri Ayarlama Enstitüsü (the Time Regulation Institute) deals with society and the individual. 

His work and his legacy is preserved in the form of the naming of the Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar Literature Museum Library, a library-museum of Turkish literature housed in a 19th century Ottoman pavillion in Istanbul’s historic district. It houses many works by Turkey’s most important thinkers and writers.

Yaşar Kemal

An award-winning writer and human rights activist of Kurdish origin, Yaşar was one of Turkey’s leading writers and was even shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Literature. His work had a major influence and contribution to Turkish literature after the language reform in the new Republic of Turkey.

His most famous work is Memed, My Hawk (Ince Memed in Turkish). This debut novel of his won Turkey’s highest literary prize when it was first published in 1955 and propelled him to national fame. It wasn’t until 1961 when the book was translated into English by Edouard Roditi. In the novel, the protagonist struggles under the rule of the local landowners in Anatolia, who later flees and eventually returns to exact revenge.

Image by Penguin NZ

Kemal’s works primarily highlighted the struggles, lives and legends of the people of his land. His first book titled Ağıtlar (Ballads in Turkish )was a compilation of folklore tales from Anatolia and was published in 1943.  He was an outspoken represented for Kurdish issues in Turkey, highlighting racism against Kurds in modern Turkey. His other works have been adapted into plays and even operas!

Bilge Karasu

One of Turkey’s prominent modern writers, Karasu’s subject matter was behaviours and emotions within the context of society and culture in Turkey. Born in Istanbul in 1930, Karasu studied philosophy at Istanbul University and later went to Europe to study. He then went on to work at the country’s capital, Ankara, at Hacettepe University as a lecturer in philosophy. He is nicknamed “the sage of Turkish literature.”

He won the Turkish Language Institute’s Translation Award with Olen Adam, for a translation of D. H. Lawrence’s The Man Who Died. His collection of stories calledTroya’da Olum Vardi (Death in Troy) is his first work. Later on, he won Sait Faik Story Award withUzun Surmus Bir Gundu Aksami (A Long Day’s Evening). He experimented with many styles in his writing including the Kafka-esque work called Gece (Night), for instance.

Ayşe Kulin

Born in 1941, Ayşe Kulin can be considered modern Turkey’s best-selling writer and most-read Turkish novelist, screenwriter and short story writer.  Hailing from a Bosniac immigrant family from her father’s side, Kulin is a granddaughter of the last Finance minister of the Ottoman empire.

She graduated from Turkey’s most famous educational institute, Robert College, then called the American college for Girls. She has worked as an editor and reporter for various newspapers and magazines, and also as a stage producer, art director and screenwriter in television, commercials and movies. Her first book of short stories was published in 1984. Her story called Gülizar was made into Kırık Bebek, a movie that won the Ministry of Culture Award in 1986.

Her biographical novel titled Aylin was published in 1997. Soon after, she was chosen as the “Author of the Year” by the Istanbul University Faculty of Communication. She has written many other books since then. Her fourth novel Köprü (Bridge) was published in 2001.

A few of her most famous works have been translated into English and makes her work more accessible. Photo “Sabah” Pictures was awarded the 1998 Haldun Taner Short Story Award, the 1999 Sait Faik Story Prize, and was republished in 2004 in English. Last Train to Istanbul was published in 2002 and became an international best seller. The English version was published in 2006. Aylin  with an English translated version published in 2007. Face to Face, known as Bir Gün (One Day) in Turkish was first published in 2005, and later republished in English in 2006. Farewell  is her latest novel. Published in 2008 first, it was soon translated in English the following year.

Burhan Sönmez

Burhan Sönmez is one of the most interesting voices in modern Turkish literature today. A Kurdish novelist from a Kurdish village in central Turkey, he grew up learning and speaking Kurdish during a time when it was heavily stigmatized.  His novels have been translated into 42 languages and he has won awards for his work. Writing novels in exile initially, he draws inspiration from traditional stories and his village upbringing.

Image by Kalem Agency

His works include North (Kuzey, 2009), Sins & Innocents (Masumlar, 2011), Istanbul Istanbul (2015), Labyrinth (Labirent, 2018), Stone and Shadow (Taş ve Gölge, 2021). He has translated poetry of William Blake (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell ) into Turkish. He’s also a well-known figure at the PEN institutes and on the board of PEN International as well as serving as jury at the Geneva International Film Festival. He has also lectured at Turkey’s top university – the Middle East Technical University.

In 2011, he won the Sedat Simavi Literature Prize as well as the Izmir St. Joseph Best novel award. He also received the BUYAZ Best Story Honour Prize in 2015. Soon after, he was awarded the “Disturbing the Peace” award by Vaclav Havel Foundation in 2017. The following year, he was awarded the EBRD Literature Prize.