Nâzım Hikmet Book Talk in Texas

Saturday, October 1, 2022

This past week I spent a few days in Austin talking about a book of mine that'll be coming out next year. 

I gave a book talk for
Longhorn anti-Leninists of Texas 

It was a really great trip. Over the summer when I was in Istanbul I'd received an invitation to discuss the book on Nâzım Hikmet that I've been working on. The book, called Red Star over the Black Sea: Nâzım Hikmet and his Generation, isn't finished yet--I'm going through the copy-edited   draft right now--but it's supposed to come out (through Oxford University Press) in March of 2023.

I've been working on the book for about seven years. During the summer of 2015, I took a two month vacation through 
Russia and Turkey as a way of celebrating the publication of my first book, Turks Across Empires
I'd just received tenure and had, with my promotion to associate professor, gotten a small raise. Not really knowing what I wanted to do next, I decided to just travel over the summer--no research--and re-kindle my relationship, in a way, with the countries that I work on professionally. 

It was a good idea, one that I would recommend to anyone just finishing a project. Rather than diving straight back into research, I traveled to areas of Turkey and Russia that I had always been interested in but had never visited. So, I checked out places like Leo Tolstoy's estate outside Tula, Yusuf Akçura's hometown of Simbirsk (Ulyanovsk), and Urfa & Mardin in southeastern Turkey. Now that the book was finished, I wanted to just travel and think about my surroundings without trying too hard to immediately find a new research topic right away. 

One day, I was in a bookstore in the Istanbul district of Beşiktaş looking for something in Turkish that I could take to the beach in Bodrum. I just wanted to read something in Turkish--fiction or non-fiction, and didn't really care what it was. On a shelf I saw a book about Nâzım Hikmet's travels in Azerbaijan and ended up buying it. The book itself wasn't so amazing, but it did get me thinking: has anyone ever written a biography of Nâzım Hikmet using materials from not only Turkey, but also Russia?

Upon further investigation, I learned that there were literally hundreds of books about Nâzım Hikmet, mostly in Turkish but also in dozens of other languages. Indeed, after Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, I would wager that Nâzım is the most written-about figure in modern Turkish history. 

But while there have been lots of books written about Nâzım, no one had ever used Russian sources, or archival materials from anywhere, really, in telling his story. So, over the course of a year-long sabbatical in Russia during the 2016-17 academic year and later research trips, I worked in archives not only in Moscow, but also Istanbul, Amsterdam, and Washington, DC. 

More importantly, I felt like I had an angle in writing about Nâzım that others hadn't seen. Whereas most of the books written about Nâzım focus mainly on his poetry or his politics, I was more interested in looking at him as a "border-crosser," i.e. someone whose life had been significantly affected by the fact that he'd crossed a border and lived abroad. Nâzım spent about six years living in Moscow in the 1920s when he was still a young man. Later, of course, he would make his famous escape by motorboat to the Eastern Bloc in 1951.  

Turkish communist Sabiha
Mesrure, code-named Rosa  
Once I actually started researching in Russia, I realized that Nâzım's story was not such a unique one. Looking through files outlining the life stories of more than 150 other Turkish communists who had lived in the USSR, I saw that there were a lot of parallels between their lives and that of Nâzım. Sure, they hadn't gone on to become a famous poet like Nâzım, but in many ways their experiences resembled his for decades to come. While Nâzım died in 1963, the final chapter of my book traces the lives of the friends and acquaintances who survived him up through to the final years of the Cold War in the late 1980s.  

As an historian, I was ultimately more interested in seeing what Nâzım had in common with others from his generation--people who, like him, had been born at the turn of the 20th century and came of age in the early 1920s. What, collectively, does this generation's story tell us about the eras in which they lived? So, rather than treat Nâzım's life as an exceptional case in the style of most of his biographers, I began to explore the ways in which his life resembled those of other Turkish communists.  

What happens when a generation grows up in an era of relatively porous borders, only to find the doors closing behind them once they begin to approach middle age? This was the fate of Nâzım's generation, people who first made their way to the Soviet Union at a relatively young age, where they were embraced as "easterners" interested in communism. What happens to people like this once attitudes toward the frontiers--and the people who cross them--change?  

This is, after all, the story of our own present age as well. People from my generation, who grew up during the Cold War, came of age during a time when walls were being torn down. Now we're living through a time in which many are calling for re-building those walls. Red Star over the Black Sea describes the ways in which Nâzım Hikmet and others from his generation maneuvered their ways through changing conditions of this sort.  
While Nâzım is at the center of the story, my book isn't just a biography, but also a work of world history. The point isn't to show how unique Nâzım's experiences was, but rather to place them within the context of his generation.   

And the trip to Texas? It was just super. I met with a group of undergraduates studying Turkish history and culture, had lunch with graduate students, and really enjoyed meeting the faculty and others who came to my talk in the afternoon. Afterward, we had a nice dinner. I'd never been to Austin before, and thought it was a really cool place. 

I'll be honest with you, sometimes I can't believe how lucky I am to have a job like this, where I get to fly to Texas and talk about a book I've written. I remain very indebted to the folks at the University of Texas for inviting and hosting me. 


Also see: 

Children of Trans-Empire: New Article re Nazım Hikmet

New Article Out: The Letters of Münevver Andaç to Nazım Hikmet  

The Birthdays of Nazım Hikmet


Are you a Turk across empires? Order a copy today, then get another one for your library.

More commentary, photos, and links can be found in the Borderlands Lounge.  

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