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(Göğceli [Gökçedam] village/Osmaniye/Adana,1923)


Yaşar Kemal was born in Hemite (now called Gökçeadam),as Kemal Sadık Gökçeli. His mother Nigar and his farmer father Sadi, had been moving from one small settlement to another since leaving their foreign occupied, original home village, during the first world war. They came from a small village called Ernis on the shores of Lake Van (on the Van-Erciş road,) and their search for a place to settle had ended in the province of Adana, which is on the plains of Cilicia in South Anatolia, when they chose to settle in Göğceli.
He lost the use of an eye, in an accident, at a very young age and witnessed the murder of his father while praying in a mosque, when he was 5 years old. This traumatic experience left Kemal with a speech impediment which lasted until he was twelve years old. He started primary school at the age of nine at Burhanlı village school and continued at Kadirli Village Primary School, after moving there to live with some relatives. He continued his education at a secondary school in Adana where he also worked as a laborer in a cotton ginning factory. After he left school during the third year of secondary school, thus ending his formal education, he worked at numerous jobs.
He worked as a cotton picker’s clerk at the Kuzucuoğlu Cotton Plantation (1941), as a clerk at Adana Public Library (1942), as a field boss for the Agricultural Prevention Institution and as a substitute teacher at the village school in Bahçe, Kadirli. He continued to work at odd jobs as a cotton picker, threshing machine operator, tractor driver, and foreman in the rice fields. His longest held job during this time, when he worked at more than twenty different jobs, was as a field boss in the rice fields, where he remained in the same job for five years. Meanwhile, he had his first experience with the law at the age of 17, when was arrested for his political beliefs.
After completing his military service, Yaşar Kemal went to Istanbul to work for the French Gas company as a gas controller. He consequently returned to the little town of Kadirli in 1948 and worked briefly in the rice fields again. He then bought a typewriter and earned his living as a public letter-writer (a job performed for those who had business in government offices and could not themselves write the petitions they needed to apply for any bureaucratic procedure) for a while. He was unable to continue this job for long due to many circumstantial difficulties.
In 1950 he was arrested on charges of disseminating communist propaganda and placed in Kozan prison, until he was acquitted at the trial, which took place a few months later. After his acquittal he went to Istanbul where he endured many hardships and difficulties during a brief period of unemployment. He eventually joined the staff of the most prominent Istanbul based, national daily newspaper, Cumhuriyet (Republic). He began his career at Cumhuriyet by conducting reportages. These articles have since been published in book form and caused a sensation with their unheard-of-style for Turkey and won the annual Journalists’ Association Prize for the best reportage. He continued to work for Cumhuriyet as well as setting up a National news service. He became the director of this news service and remained in that capacity from 1951 to 1963.
Kemal became a member of the Turkish Labor Party in 1962 and was active within the party as a member of the Central Committee, the Chairman of the Propaganda Committee and as a member of the Board of Directors. After leaving Cumhuriyet in 1963, he became a full-time writer. In 1967 he became a founder of the weekly Marxist magazine Ant. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison as the publisher of this magazine after publishing The Guide to Marxism, in an issue. This sentence was suspended after an appeal to higher court. Yet he was repeatedly under investigation for various articles and features he wrote for this magazine. He became one of the founders of the Writer’s Syndicate in 1973 and was the first president of this association during 1974 and 1975. In 1995 he was tried at the Istanbul Court of National Security for an article he had published in Der Spiegel, condemning the government’s oppression of the Kurdish minority and offering support to the Kurdish Worker’s Party. Though he was sentenced to 20 months in prison, this was later suspended. He is a member of the PEN Club International, continues to live in Istanbul as a writer and is the father of a son. His work has been translated into more than forty different languages. He has won more than twenty awards, including Prix mondial Cino Del Duca, Commandeur de la Ordre national de la Légion d'honneur, Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres, Premi Internacional Catalunya, Légion d’Honneur Grand Officier and Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels. He has seven honarary doctorates, five from Turkey and two from other countries.
The author became interested in folklore at a very young age; he started to play a local string instrument (saz), sing folkloric songs and tell epic tales. He also improvised songs according to the Anatolian tradition of folk minstrels. Kemal has been writing poetry since his primary school years and has since then deeply familiarized himself with Turkish folk elegies. He accumulated a wealth of folkloric material by traveling extensively among villages of the region
In 1939 he had his book of poetry named Türksözü published under his birth name of Kemal Sadık Göğceli, in a local paper called Yeni Adana (1939) and Vakit newspaper(1940), as well as in four other magazines namely Varlık, Ülkü, Millet and Beşpınar. He developed relationships with intellectuals and writers through a local Adana magazine called Çığ at around the same time, and his poetry also began to be published in the same magazine. His friendship with Abidin Dino and his brother Arif Dino, during the same period, deeply influenced his cultural formation. He also read everything he could get his hands on while he worked at the Ramazanoğlu Library and had the chance of reading a wide variety of books ranging from the ancient Greek classics to the history of Chukurova region. At this juncture of his life he also met Orhan Kemal.
His first stories “Bebek” (“The Baby”), “Dükkancı” (“The Shopkeeper”), “Memet ile Memet” (“Memet and Memet”) were published in 1950. He had written his first story “Pis Hikaye” (“The Dirty Story”) in 1944, while he was serving in the military, in Kayseri. His first stories are based on observing the people of Chukurova and the place itself as a terrain. He observes the residents of the Chukurova plains in their fight for survival against economical hardships and the harsh landscape. He weaves his tales around a mesh of three criteria: humanity, nature and locality and begins to write increasingly longer novels.
His first book Ağıtlar – (Ballads 1943) is a compilation of folkloric themes. This book brings to light many long forgotten rhymes and ballads. The author who had started collecting these ballads at the age of 16 then started working on the oral folk tales of Karadjaoglan (Karacaoğlan). The folkloric legacies of this harsh land and its toiling people, which he collected over many years, were to be a major source for his later works.
He assumed the pseudonym of Yasar Kemal while working as a journalist in Cumhuriyet newspaper. He started to gain recognition with his reportages during this period, which encompassed the economical and communal problems of Anatolia. He wrote; “Fifty Days in the burning forests” (“Yanan Ormanlarda Elli Gün” 1955), While Chukurova Burns (“Çukurova Yana Yana” 1955), “Seven Days at the world’s largest Farm” (“Dünyanın En Büyük Çiftliğinde Yedi Gün” 1955), “The Fairy Chimneys” (“Peri Bacaları” 1957).
The public’s interest in his name was increasing steadily by the time his story “Bebek” (The Baby), (originally published in his first story book (Sarı Sıcak) “The Yellow Heat”), was serialized in Cumhuriyet. His first novel, İnce Memed, which was also serialized in Cumhuriyet in 1953 and 1954 , evoked great public enthusiasm for his works.
The focal point of his initial works was the toil of the people of the Chukurova plains, during what could be called the industrialization period of Turkey, taking place during the 50’s. As old agrarian Turkey gave way to a new and modern industrial nation, and machinery became widely available in the plains, power battles between the Aghas (feudal masters / lords) caused the already poor villagers to suffer at extreme lengths. Yasar Kemal based the initial themes of his writings on these suffering people and their toil. In İnce Memed (Memed, My Hawk) Yasar Kemal criticizes the fabric of the society through a legendary hero, a protagonist who flees to the mountains as a result of the oppression of the Aghas. The novel tells the story of the war Memed declares on the aghas in an effort to defend his fellow villagers. It is a dramatic tale of the adventure of the hero as he resists, fights and tries to overcome the Agha, who owns five villages in the area. At the end of the novel he kills the Agha, distributes the land among its rightful owners, the villagers, and disappears into the mountains, becoming a legend. In the words of the author himself, the story of İnce Memed is the story of a “man who had to”. The author created a contemporary yet romantic story by using traditional stories, legendry themes and motifs. Teneke (1967) – Drumming Out, tells the tragic story of a young and idealistic small town mayor in the Chukurova region and how he sides with the villagers in their struggle against the tyranny of the rice plantation owners, the aghas. It brings to life the “the fighting power of the intellectual”. This book has also been adapted and staged as a two act play.
Orta Direk (1960) is the first volume of the Trilogy “The Wind from the Plain”, a book where psychology and symbolic representations are often used to tell the story of villagers who travel to Chukurova, struggling with severe nature conditions, in order to work as cotton pickers in the fields. This is an epic novel and the use of language is appropriately matching in style. This Trilogy is based on the observations and true life story of the author himself, as he mentions in the prologue.
The second book of the Trilogy, (Yer Demir Gök Bakır) “Iron Earth, Copper Sky” printed in 1963 describes how the savagely pitiful peasants, victims of oppression and corruption create a mythical character and pin all their hopes on this myth, as all hope of justice has been extinguished in them and they know of no other way to deal with their dilemma.
(Ölmez Otu) “The Undying Grass” is the final volume if the Trilogy and tells the destruction of this myth when conditions change, as well as telling the creation of another murder myth by someone else. Yasar Kemal begins the Trilogy in the first book by masterly depicting the economic and communal realities of Yalak village, yet his approach to the horrendous living conditions and the hardships of the characters are told factually rather than sentimentally. In The Undying Grass he puts aside the factual approach and emphasizes human issues by concentrating the daily realities and the living conditions of the villagers.
The first and second books of the “bildungsroman”, Akçasazın Ağaları (The Lords of Akchasaz), namely “Murder in the Ironsmiths’s Market” (Demirciler Çarşısında Cinayet) published in 1973 and “Yusuf, Little Yusuf” (Yusuf, Yusufcuk) published in 1975, tell the story of how the social order of the Chukurova plains change as a result of the historical evolution of the country: the Aghas, the remnants of feudal lords, start to become obsolete and the consequent developments that paralleled this new state of affairs. The story continues with how the Aghas, who are given governmental aid by the Democrat Party to help them invest in the newly developing industries, begin to disappear in their old status. Yasar Kemal does not emphasize this particular change in the societal make up of the country, but rather treats the subject more as an indication of how the whole society was becoming increasingly corrupt and eventually demolishing itself. He recounts the last attempts of survival for the existing system and its feudal families, after the introduction of capitalism into the Chukurova area. He uses a realistic narrative to tell the story of two agha families, and displays how the whole fabric of the society changed and eventually collapsed by the introduction of capitalism into an age-old societal system. In “The Pomegranate on the Knoll” (Hüyükteki Nar Ağacı) he evaluates the subject of unemployment due to the introduction of machinery into the agricultural world of Chukurova as a natural recourse of industrialization. He evaluates the helplessness and drama of the people living in the countryside who had previously been coming to the Chukurova plain to find employment. The first book of the Kimsecik novel (Little Nobody Volume 1), named Yağmurcuk Kuşu (The Rain Bird) is in part an autobiographical work. It tells the adventure of a family migrating from the shores of Lake Van to the Chukurova plain, through the hardships, and problems they encounter on their path. The focal point of this trilogy is villagers, but especially village children, as Kemal recounts thoughts, feelings, and desires through the voice of a village boy. The theme of this Trilogy is fear, and especially the second volume of the trilogy, Kale Kapısı (Castle Gates) can be considered a horror novel. The final book of the Trilogy Kanın Sesi (The voice of blood) is the story of people who all reside in the same house, but especially of the boy, Salman, and through him, all the other children. Kanın Sesi (The voice of Blood) is as much the “the voice of love” as it is “the voice of fear” and “the voice of murder”.
Yaşar Kemal has used the legends and stories of Anatolia extensively as the basis of his works. He published the, oral folk-tales of Köroğlu (The First Gest of Koroglu), Karacaoğlan (Karadjaoglan) and Alageyik (The Fallow Deer) in the book “Üç Anadolu Efsanesi” (The Anatolian Legends) in 1967. He told the story of the power of community in the face of adversity through the symbolism of a love story in Ağrıdağı Efsanesi (The legend of Mount Ararat), published in 1970. In his book Binboğalar Efsanesi (The Legend of a thousand Bulls), printed in 1971, he tells the story of the Turkmen nomads who settle in the skirts of the Taurus mountains and their disappointments, the difficulties that arise as a result of their new status and their yearning for their old way of life. Çakıcalı Efe (The Life Story of the famous Bandit Chakırdjalı), published in 1972, tells the story of the famous bandit who reigns in the mountains as a rebel against injustice during the last days of the Ottoman Empire. Filler Sultanı ile Kırmızı Sakallı Topal Karınca (The Sultan of the elephants and the red-bearded, lame Ant), published in 1977 is inspired by a folk-tale and is about the relationship between the oppressed and the oppressors, in an allegorical style.
Yaşar Kemal started to produce what could be called a different style of works during the late 70’s. Al gözüm Seyreyle Salih (The Saga of a seagull), published in 1976, Kuşlar da Gitti (The birds have also gone), published in 1978 and Deniz Küstü (The sea-crossed fisherman), published also in 1978 were the first novels that saw the author move out of the Chukurova region, into the city and the seaside and its residents. In Deniz Küstü (The sea-crossed fisherman) he recounts how corrupt and chaotic city life is. He starts off by telling how sea-side residents are alienated in the big city and the sea is ecologically destroyed. The same theme is used in Kuşlar’da Gitti “The Birds Have Also Gone”, weaved around the world of children. He brings to life the problems, chores, and relations among themselves in Al Gözüm Seyreyle Salih “The Saga of a Sea Gull”.
In “Bir Ada Hikayesi” (An Island Story) is a trilogy and the first volume is Fırat Suyu Kan Akıyor (The River Fırat runs with blood). This book analyzes the pain caused by the pacts, treaties and agreements of near history, woven around an island. The island is one that has been evacuated by the Greeks as stipulated by a treaty and the story is worked around the lives of these Greeks, spanning a wide area ranging from the war-ridden Balkans to Sarıkamış. K. Şahin reviewed the book as “It seems as if the true aim of this book is to remember and remind people of the long forgotten and no more mentioned wars that had took on these lands, in the now quiet days following these treaties.”
The author’s style, which is the combination of orally recounted Anatolian legends, ballads, folk stories, tales, folk songs and a modern approach to novel writing, has given him a unique contemporary identity. The symbolic and mythical world he has created, as well as his representational and descriptive style, his recounting of all aspects of nature, the language he uses, colloquial vocabulary, proverbs, aphorisms and curses are appreciated as the elements that make his writing as lively and effective as it is. The uniqueness of his style is due to his success in being able to portray “dreams within a reality and humanity and nature as an intermarried force”. Kemal outlines the physical appearance of the world he has created vividly. His poetic style, incredible imagination and his ability to successfully blend the modern and epic styles of story telling are some of the main factors that make him as great as he is.
The author’s most prominently recognised novel (İnce Memed) Memed, My Hawk has been published in 40 languages, while his other works have been published in many languages as well. He has had over 140 editions published outside of Turkey. He is an internationally recognised and widely read author who has also been a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Adaptations from his novels and stories have contributed to Turkish Theatre as well. Yer Demir Gök Bakır (Iron earth Copper Sky) was staged with the name of Uzundere (Long River) in 1965. Teneke (Drumming Out) was adapted as a play and staged by Gülriz Sururi-Engin Cezzar Theatre in 1965, while Ağrı Dağı Efsanesi (The Legend of Mount Ararat) was staged in various theatres in 1974. Many of his works were also adapted for the cinema. Beyaz Mendil (The White Handkerchief) was directed by Lütfü Akad in 1955; “Namus Düşmanı” (Dishonourable) was directed by Ziya Metin in 1957. “Alageyik” (The Fallow Deer), “Karacaoğlan’ın Sevdası” (The love of Karadjaoglan) and “Ölüm Tarlası” (The Field of Death) were directed by Atıf Yılmaz in 1959, 1959 and 1966 respectively. “Ağrı Dağı Efsanesi” (The Legend of Mount Ararat) was directed by Memduh Ün in 1974; “Yılanı Öldürseler” (To Crush the Serpent) was directed by Türkân Şoray in 1981, “İnce Memed” (Memed My Hawk) was directed by Peter Ustinov in 1984 and “Yer Demir Gök Bakır” (Iron Earth, Copper Sky)was directed by Zülfü Livaneli in 1987.
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