ORHAN KEMAL (1914 – 1970)

Orhan Kemal, whose real name is Mehmet Raşit Öğütçü, was born on September 15th 1914, in Adana and died on June 2, 1970 in Sofia, Bulgaria.

During his literary career, he wrote under various pseudonyms, including Orhan Raşit, Reşat Kemal, Raşit Kemali, Hayrullah Güçlü, Rüştü Ceyhun, Ülker Uysal and Yıldız Okur, which is his daughter’s name.

In 1930, his father, the former representative Abdülkadir Kemali Bey, published the Ahali Fırkası, which was a newspaper with dissident twist. Because of this publication, along with his father, the young Orhan Kemal spent two years in exile in Beirut, Lebanon from 1930-1932. Upon his return to Adana, where he worked on cotton fields and factories and played soccer from 1932 to 1937. During his military service, he was found guilty for breach of the penal code, and he served a prison sentence from 1938 to 1943. His break into the literary world came in 1940 as his first story, Balık  (The Fish) which he had written in prison, was printed in various periodicals. After the completion of his prison sentence, in 1950, unemployment forced him and his family to move to Istanbul.

Many of Kemal’s stories, especially Baba Evi and Avare Yıllar carry hints of the years he spent in exile with his father. The landmark work that depicted his prison years was the novella 72. Koğuş, which was also the first instance of the “prison story” genre in Turkish literature. This novella relates the hardships the convicts had to endure due to poverty and deprivation. The convicts were not only rejected by society,  but also had to withstand abuse and isolation inflicted by other convicts. In 1967, Ankara Sanat Tiyatrosu (The Ankara Art Theater) adapted 72. Koğuş for the stage, earning Kemal the “Best Playwright” award of the Ankara Sanatsevenler Derneği (Ankara Society for Art lovers). Many of his works carry traces of his childhood years spent in cotton fields. His novels Vukuat Var , Hanımın Çiftliği Kanlı Topraklar and Kacak deal with the conflicts between wealthy landlords and farm workers, and between factory owners and workers. These novels portray characters from various walks of life; from the smalltime clerk to the young girl who dreams of becoming a famous singer. After exposing the troubles of workers and wage earners in Anatolia, he wrote novels and stories dealing with the phenomenon of migration, just as he experienced it in his own life. The most important among these is his novel entitled Bereketli Topraklar Üzerinde (On Fertile Lands), which focuses both on the problem of workers and on the issue of migration from rural to urban areas. These realist novels feature characters that pursue petty deals in their quest of salvation. His novels Murtaza and Gurbet Kuşları also took up the theme of migration. Kemal’s urban novels are set in the slums of large cities. The novels El Kızı, Suçlu, Sokakların Çocuğu, Arkadaş Islıkları, Müfettişler Müfettişi and Üç Kağıtçı, relate how high-level administrators abuse their positions to exploit  poverty stricken people.

Kemal has been celebrated as the mastermind of dialogues in Turkish literature. Kemal used his signature hyperrealist style based on natural observation, to describe the abuse inflicted on the people. His fiction was realistic and bitter, and he preferred to portray his characters without idealizing them, in fact he ensured that they were as “lost” as possible. Furthermore, all of Kemal’s works feature traces of the great love and respect that he felt towards humankind, this in turn makes him loving and natural even in his bleakest fiction.

In 1970, The Writers Union of Bulgaria and Romania invited Kemal to Sofia, Bulgaria and this is where he died from a hemorrhage of the brain. Just like the large families that he portrayed in his stories and his novels, Kemal had six children. Since 1972, Kemal’s family has been holding a novel competition in order to introduce his humanist approach to new generations, and to honor new novelists of Turkish literature.

Orhan Kemal’s complete works:

Anthologized short fiction: Yağmur Yüklü Bulutlar (Rain Clouds 1974), Kırmızı Küpeler (Red Earrings 1974), Oyuncu Kadın (The Actress 1975), Serseri Milyoner / İki Damla Gözyaşı (The Vagrant Millionaire / Two Teardrops 1976)

Novels: Baba Evi (The Paternal Home 1949), Avare Yıllar (Idle Years 1950), Cemile (1952), Murtaza (1952), Bereketli Topraklar Üzerinde (On Fertile Lands 1954), Suçlu (The Criminal 1957), Devlet Kuşu (Windfall 1958), Vukuat Var (The Incident 1958), Dünya Evi (Marriage 1958), Gavurun Kızı (The Daughter of the Heathen 1959), Küçücük (Tiny 1960), El Kızı (Foreign Girl 1960), Hanımın Çiftliği  (The Farm of the Mistress 1961), Eskici ve Oğulları (1962), Gurbet Kuşları (In Foreign Lands 1962), Sokakların Çocuğu (A Child of the Streets 1963), Kanlı Topraklar (Bloody Lands 1963), Bir Filiz Vardı (There Was a Bud 1965), Müfettişler Müfettişi (The Inspector of  Inspectors 1966), Yalancı Dünya (A World of Lies 1966), Evlerden Biri (One of the Houses 1966), Arkadaş Islıkları (Whistling Friends 1968), Sokaklardan Bir Kız (A Girl of the Streets 1968), Kötü Yol (The Wrong Path 1969), �?ç Ka�?ıtçı (The Crook 1969), Kaçak (The Fugitive 1970), and Tersine Dünya (The World Inside Out 1986).

Drama: İspinozlar (The Finch 1965)

Memoirs: Nazım Hikmet’le Üç Buçuk Yıl (Three and a Half Years with Nazım Hikmet 1965)

İstanbul’dan Çizgiler (Sketches from Istanbul 1971)

Children’s literature:
Küçükler ve Büyükler (Children and Grown-ups 1971)

Senaryo Tekniği ve Senaryoculuğumuzla İlgili Notlar (Screenplay Techniques and Turkish Screenplay Writing 1963).

Works adapted to film:
Suçlu (The Criminal 1960), Devlet Ku�?u (Windfall 1961, and 1980), Sokakların Çocuğu (A Child of The Streets 1962), Murtaza (1965) and the same under the title Bekçi (The Guard 1984), El Kızı (1966), Sokaklardan Bir Kız (A Girl of The Streets 1974), Bereketli Topraklar Üzerinde (On Fertile Lands 1979), Kaçak (The Fugitive 1982), 72. Koğuş (The Seventy Second Ward 1987), Eskici ve Oğulları (The Ragman and his Sons 1990), Tersine Dünya (The World Inside Out 1993).

* Biographical information concerning Orhan Kemal has been gathered from Tanzimat’tan Bugüne Edebiyatçılar Ansiklopedisi.

Sources: Akyüz Kenan, Modern Türk Edebiyatının Ana Çizgileri, Inkılâp Yayınevi, 1995.

Reference: Yesim Gokce (Bilkent University)/Turkish Cultural Foundation, photograph courtesy of Ara Guler.

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