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Other Press: I Will Never See the World Again: The Memoir of an Imprisoned Writer by Ahmet Altan, translated by Yasemin Congar

Other Press: I Will Never See the World Again: The Memoir of an Imprisoned Writer by Ahmet Altan, translated by Yasemin Congar

Other Press: I Will Never See the World Again: The Memoir of an Imprisoned Writer by Ahmet Altan, translated by Yasemin Congar

Other Press: I Will Never See the World Again: The Memoir of an Imprisoned Writer by Ahmet Altan, translated by Yasemin Congar

I Will Never See the World Again: The Memoir of an Imprisoned Writer

by Ahmet Altan and Yasemin Çongar

In 2017, Turkish journalist and novelist Ahmet Altan sat in the back of a police car, on his way to prison. He had just received a life sentence without the possibility of parole. A policeman in the car with him offered a cigarette. Altan refused it. "I only smoke," he told the policeman, "when I am nervous."

Altan, of course, had long had reason to be nervous. The failed coup in July 2016 had resulted in a crackdown by Erdoğan's government on dissent, and journalists were being arrested by the dozen. Altan's sentence was handed down following a sham trial--Kafkaesque in its absurdity, by Altan's estimation--after he was found guilty on charges of conveying "subliminal messages."

Written from prison, Altan's memoir I Will Never See the World Again offers his reflections on imprisonment, writing and freedom. The memoir reaches the world by way of friend and translator Yasemin Çongar, who was granted occasional contact by phone with Altan and was permitted to receive personal notes from him through Altan's lawyer. Gathered from November 2017 to May 2018, these meditative letters comprise the memoir. Each becomes its own brief chapter, exploring topics both internally and externally centered.

Altan sketches his early-morning arrest in the first essay, "A Single Sentence." He is arrested at dawn. As he waits while officers search his house, he puts on a kettle for tea--just as his father, a Turkish politican, had done 45 years before, during his own arrest. And the history repeats itself in multiples: Altan's brother, also a journalist, is arrested the very same morning.

In the essay addressing his sentencing--in which the policeman offers him a cigarette--Altan admits that he'd never before thought about the circumstances under which he would smoke; the words just came out of his mouth like air: "It was as if someone inside me, a person whom I could not exactly call 'I' but who nevertheless spoke with my voice, through my mouth, and who was therefore a part of me, said as he was being transported in a police car to an iron cage that he only smoked when he was 'nervous.' That single sentence suddenly changed everything."

What changed? Altan felt a sudden tear in the fabric of his reality; through language--through the power of crafting his own narrative of the world around him--he could regain control. Otherwise enclosed in every sense, Altan wrestles with how to construct an outlook reclaiming some semblance of freedom. In his mind half of the time, he can be lost in thought, in his own world. The other half sees him addressing the world at hand: his cell in the prison Silivri, two hours' drive from Istanbul. His cell mates and 11,000 or so fellow inmates. His daily, still-frozen cheese sandwiches. His steel sink. His iron bed.

Altan basks in the freedom afforded by his mind, his focus on his words allowing him the agency of crafting, creating, even forgetting. "Forgetting," he eventually argues, "is the greatest source of freedom a person can have." Writing itself becomes "a magical paradox," which "enables you not only to forget but also to be remembered," ultimately allowing him a sense of control and continued consequence.

After Altan is convicted and sentenced to life without parole, alone in his cell, he does finally light a cigarette. Then another. But Altan continues to occupy a space that is simultaneously in his cell and outside of it. "You can imprison me but you cannot keep me here," he writes. "Because, like all writers, I have magic. I can pass through your walls with ease." He finds freedom through his words, and through his readers. Altan speaks directly to us, his readers, his friends: "Besides, I have friends all around the world who help me travel, most of whom I have never met. Each eye that reads what I have written, each voice that repeats my name holds my hand like a little cloud and flies me over the lowlands, the springs, the forests, the seas, the towns and their streets."

Though more than 50 Nobel Laureates, along with many authors, publishers and organizations, have called for his release, as of now his sentence has been upheld. But Altan is not broken; "[It's] a rite of passage for any writer to spend time in prison," he says with a laugh, chatting with his lawyer during a visit. For now, readers can afford him at least the freedom of reading and appreciating his words, carrying them around the world, asserting them in thoughts, actions and ideas, commuting his sentences into guidelines for more consciously living our own lives. --Katie Weed

Other Press, $15.99, paperback, 224p., 9781590519929, October 2019

Other Press: I Will Never See the World Again: The Memoir of an Imprisoned Writer by Ahmet Altan, translated by Yasemin Congar

Ahmet Altan: The Power of Words

Ahmet Altan

I Will Never See the World Again is the memoir of Ahmet Altan, a Turkish author and journalist currently serving a life sentence on charges of sending "subliminal messages" to those involved in an attempted coup on the Turkish government in 2016.

The essays that comprise I Will Never See the World Again were translated by Altan's longtime friend Yasemin Çongar, a fellow journalist and writer. Çongar co-founded and directs P24, a nonprofit platform for independent journalism in Istanbul. She is also the co-founder of the Istanbul Literature House and the online book review site K24. Çongar is an editor, essayist and translator and has published four books in Turkish.

In your translator's note, you write, "I would read each piece, read it once again, then immediately type it out on my computer fighting hard not to be overwhelmed with emotion. Once I had the text on the screen before me, I began translating." What kinds of emotions do Altan's words inspire in you?

Ahmet's essays remind me of the power of writing and its ability to shape one's life from within no matter what external circumstances may be.

Can you share a little more about the process of the creation of this book? Did Altan write the chapters in this order? Has he received a copy of the book?

Ahmet didn't write the chapters in order. The last essay in the book was the first one he wrote. But he did put these essays in a somewhat chronological order according to their content for the book, and in doing that he also took into account "the balance between shadow and light"--a concept very important to him.

How did your friendship with Altan begin?

It began as I returned to Turkey from the U.S., where I had lived for 13 years, to join him and another colleague in editing a start-up newspaper in Istanbul, back in 2007.

When was the last time you saw Altan or members of his family?

Since October 2018, they have allowed me to visit him for an hour on Fridays.

You've published several books of your own. In what language do you compose your own work? Do you translate it as well? 

My books are all in Turkish. I also write essays in English.

How did you come to be a translator? What does being a translator mean to you, and how do you see your role? 

Whenever I read a text that moves me deeply, I want as many people as possible to read it in as many languages as possible. This is why I translated Ahmet's essays into English.

I studied six languages other than my native Turkish and used to translate Spanish poetry into Turkish, but at the moment I'm only comfortable with translating from and into English.

You've been arrested before as well. Are you at liberty to share whether you worry for your own security? 

I wasn't arrested, but I have an ongoing court case against me in which Ahmet is also a defendant, and the prosecutor asked for 52 years in prison for each of us. I am not worried for my own security. I am not the worrying type.

One of the policemen taking Altan to jail had read Altan's novel Cheating. It's almost unbelievable that Altan's words have reached those who put him in prison as well as those who are now guarding him there. Are Altan's books still available and/or read in Turkey? 

Ahmet's books are available in Turkey. He has been a bestselling novelist and essayist here for over 25 years now. His prison essays have not been published in Turkish, however.

How have your own ideas about language and freedom evolved throughout your friendship with Altan, as he's been in and out of prison?

My belief in the power of words and the possibility of mental freedom is stronger than ever.

Altan writes, "I am a novelist living his novel." It's an idea at once terrifying and compelling. As the translator, where do you see yourself as living, relevant to the text?

Ahmet's essays in this book are "personal" to me not only because they reveal so much about the inner life of my best friend, but also for their ability to make the reader look for the sources of life's joy and meaning inlaid within one's self. --Katie Weed

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