Nobel winner recounts tumultuous writing career

Orhan Pamuk, this year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, spoke about his personal experiences as an author and the importance of freedom of expression at the kickoff of “Strange Times, My Dear, A Freedom-to-Write Literary Festival” Tuesday in a packed Salomon 101.

Pamuk, a Turkish author, was one of a handful of authors and literary activists participating in a roundtable discussion that preceded a conversation with Pamuk moderated by Robert Coover, adjunct professor of literary arts and director of the International Writers Project, which sponsored the event.

The festival, which runs until Friday, is sponsored by the Program in Literary Arts and the Watson Institute for International Studies and includes lectures, readings and an Iranian film festival.

Each year, the IWP awards a fellowship to one writer who is unable to practice free expression in his or her own country and sponsors a festival to increase awareness of the situation in the IWP Fellow’s homeland. This year’s fellow is Iranian novelist Shahryar Mandanipour.

Yesterday’s roundtable discussion, titled “Warning: Writing May Be Hazardous to Your Health,” focused on contemporary threats to freedom of expression.

Pamuk was a natural choice for the festival, Coover told The Herald.

“He never backed down on issues of freedom to write,” Coover said.

According to an October Reuters article, Pamuk was charged and tried in Turkey last year for insulting “Turkishness.” He was charged after telling a Swiss newspaper that Turkey should confront the World War I-era killing of Armenians that some term a genocide. The charges against Pamuk were eventually dropped in January, largely due to outcry from the international community.

But political issues were largely avoided during yesterday’s conversation. According to Coover, Pamuk is “essentially a man of letters” and not a political figure.

When one audience member tried to ask Pamuk about his statements to the Swiss newspaper, Pamuk said he did not wish to address the issue.

Instead, the conversation focused on Pamuk’s literary achievements and his personal struggles to become an author.

He said that after giving up the study of art and architecture, he elected to become a writer. It took Pamuk many years to achieve success.

“It was very hard for me to get published in Turkey,” he said, adding that at age 30 he still relied on his father for pocket money.

Pamuk said his original interest in art affects his writing.

“I think I care about space (in my novels) because I am more of a visual writer,” he said.

During the question-and-answer period, Pamuk said his chief concern is to produce quality literature and not to write for political objectives. “Most of the time, I write for personal reasons,” he said.

During the roundtable, Mandanipour addressed the gravity of the situation facing writers in Iran.

“More than 8,000 books are on a waiting list to get a publication permit in Iran,” he said.

Former IWP Fellow Shahrnush Parsipur, a native of Iran, echoed this sentiment. “I feel the problem of censorship with my skin,” Parsipur said. Parsipur’s literature is banned in Iran, and she has been imprisoned four times for her writing.

Mandanipour said it is difficult to write in Iran, where he said he became distracted and lost hope because of the tumultuous environment.

Coover told The Herald that the larger goal of the festival is to “reinvigorate and re-emphasize what we think of as our First Amendment right of free expression.”