Culture grants no monopolies on great writing.
While Europe has grabbed the lion’s share of the Nobel Prizes in literature — over 70% since 1901, more recent winners include writers from China, Trinidad and Hungry.
When I was at Rutgers, I took a remarkable series of courses — German and French literature in translation. It was taught by the foreign language department so that the books were taught with the nuances of the native language.
So, we might read a line like “he plucked an apple from the tree.” The professor would say that in the original German the word for apple had multiple meanings — perhaps the nuance that the apple was unspeakably bitter. It opened a window into what meanings were impossible to grasp in even a good translation.
In 2004, I began reading Orhan Pamuk’s Snow. (Kar in Turkish) — a interesting mélange of politic and romance in a gray zone of poverty and paralysis in a small town that is an epicenter of Ottoman, Russian and Islam cultures.
Two years later, Pamuk was awarded the Noble Prize. The Academy praised Panuk as a writer who, “in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city (Istanbul) has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures.”
Born in 1952, Pamuk was educated private schools in Istanbul, and after studying architecture for three years, dropped out, and enrolled in a journalism course. Until the age of 22, he had dreamed of being a painter. “I had no idea why I gave up painting at the age of 22 and began to write my first novel, Cevdet Bey and Sons. It was to explore that mystery that, years later, I wrote Istanbul.”
In his Nobel Prize Lecture “My Father’s Suitcase,” writes eloquently about his thoughts about being a writer.
“A writer is someone who spends years patiently trying to discover the second being inside him, and the world that makes him (her) who he (she) is: when I speak of writing, what first comes to mind is not a novel, or poem or literary tradition; it is a person who shuts himself up in a room, sits down at a table, and alone, turns inward; amid its shadows, he builds a new world with words.”
“To write is to turn this inward gaze, to study the world in which that person passes when he retires into himself, and to do so with patience, obstinacy and joy. As I sit at my table, for days, months, years, slowly adding new words to the empty page, I feel as if I am secretly creating a new world, as if I am bringing that other person inside me, in the same way one might build a bridge or a dome, stone by stone.”
“For me, to be a writer is to acknowledge the secret wounds that we carry inside us, the wounds so secret that we ourselves, are barely award of them, and to patiently explore them, know them, illuminate them, to own these pains and wounds, and to make them a conscience part of our spirits and our writing.”
“I write because I can’t do normal work like other people. I write because I want to read books like the ones I write. I write because I am angry at all of you, at everyone. I write because I like sitting in a room all day writing. I write because I can only partake in the real world by changing it. I write because I want others, all of us, the whole world, to know what sort of life we lived, and continue to live in Istanbul, in Turkey. I write because I love the smell of paper, pen and ink. I write because I believe in literature, in the art of the novel, more than I believe in anything else. I write because it is a habit, a passion. I write because I am afraid of being forgotten. I write because I like the glory and interest that writing brings. I write to be alone…I write because I have never managed to be happy. I write to be happy.”