PROVIDENCE - Speaking at Brown University last night, the novelist who brought Turkey its first Nobel Prize sought to turn attention to his writing, rather than his actions.
Even during a panel discussion on censorship and freedom of expression, Orhan Pamuk spoke of broad trends, rather than the situation in his home country.
Pamuk, 54, won the 2006 Nobel Prize in literature, and the Swedish Academy, which confers the prizes, gave only literary reasons in its announcement. Still, there was a political subtext to giving the award to Pamuk. He was charged last year with insulting Turkish identity by denouncing, in an interview with a Swiss maga zine, the Ottoman Empire’s mass killing of Armenians during World War I. After much publicity, and speculation that restraining free speech might jeopardize Turkey’s entry to the European Union, the case against Pamuk was dropped on a technicality in January.
The salt-and-pepper-haired Pamuk answered audience questions on his craft with considerably more fervor than he did questions on politics, nationalism, Turkish identity and the like. At one point, he quipped, “The real punishment the Turkish state gave me was political questions like this.”
In an interview after the Nobel announcement last month, Pamuk told The New York Times he is “essentially a literary man who has fallen into a political situation.” Fittingly, he sidestepped one pointed question last night.
A student began by saying that Pamuk’s novel The New Life had changed her life - as in the novel’s first line, which reads, “I read a book one day and my whole life was changed.” The student said she read it in Turkish at age 14, that it was “the first serious book” she read, and that it opened the world of literature to her.
Then, she asked Pamuk whether, in the interview that prompted the charges against him in Turkey, he deliberately avoided using the word genocide. (The heart of the controversy is that the Turkish government denies the killings constituted genocide.)
Pamuk’s aggravated response: “Can I pull myself out of this question for awhile?
“I don’t want to go into it,” he said, then went on to the next question.
The discussion - part of Brown’s weeklong event titled “Strange Times, My Dear: A Freedom-to-Write Literary Festival” - offered insight into the way Pamuk views his work.
Pamuk aspired as a child to become a painter and attended, but did not finish, architecture school. He said yesterday that he sees himself as “a visual writer.” With some authors, he said, “narration of the drama and dialogue are more important to them than painting the picture.” In his case, he said he would write a murder scene including a description of the flowers growing in the field alongside the body, as well as a description of the corpse itself. ” ‘There’s a killing and a lot of blood all over’ - I’m not that kind of writer,” he said.
The discussion also offered delightful tidbits about Pamuk’s methods. For instance, he’s no longer a night person. Pamuk said he used to write consistently until 4 a.m. and sleep consistently until noon, but that has changed since his daughter, Rya, was born in 1991. He now wakes around 5 a.m. to write for a couple of hours before waking Rya and taking her to school, he said.
Pamuk also said he still writes his manuscripts by hand. By the time the computer became a household fixture, he said, “I was already writing for 20 years. I decided I didn’t want to change.”
He said he tried a computer, but found the light from the screen hurt his eyes. “It’s like writing in front of an aquarium,” he said.
Before the solo question-and-answer session, Pamuk participated in a panel discussion - titled “Warning: Writing May Be Hazardous to Your Health” - alongside three other authors who have faced censorship of, and persecution for, their writing.
Pierre Mumbere Mujomba, the Congolese author of The Last Envelope, a commentary on the excesses of the Mobutu regime in the former Zaire, spoke about how writers, musicians, journalists and religious leaders are all censored in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Iranian writer Shahrnush Parsipur spoke about how she was imprisoned four times for her writings, which are banned in her home country, available only on the black market.
She and fellow Iranian author Shahryar Mandanipour said freedom of expression is blatantly repressed in Iran, but that such repression exists elsewhere, including in the United States, in less blatant forms. They said writers may be silenced just as effectively by inspiring a climate of fear through surveillance and government secrecy as by throwing writers in jail or executing them.
“In Iran, it’s very clear,” Parsipur said. “In other countries, it’s hidden.”
As chairwoman of the Writers in Prison Committee for International PEN, a group that supports freedom of expression, Joanne Leedom-Ackerman publicizes the cases of writers imprisoned, or threatened with prison sentences, for their writings, and advocates for those writers’ release.
She said yesterday that she sees her work as “insisting on the role of the individual in society,” and as a celebration of the power of the individual vis-a-vis society.
“You can imprison a person’s body,” Leedom-Ackerman said. “You can confiscate his computer. You can burn all his books. You can torture him. You cannot - cannot - take away his imagination.”
The festival continues today with a panel on trends in Iranian literature and readings by Mandanipour and Parsipur. Salman Rushdie, the Indian author who went into hiding after Ayatollah Khamenei of Iran called Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses blasphemous against Islam and offered a bounty for Rushdie’s death, will speak tomorrow and give two readings on Friday. The festival concludes Friday evening with screenings of several Iranian films.