The role of literature in improving international relations
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Presentation of Iraklis (Hercules) Millas in the international symposium “Prose in South-Eastern Europe” organized by the Hellenic Authors Society - Rhodes, 2/3-9-2002


The role of literature in improving international relations



     During my contacts with authors, translators and literary critics - as a translator of literary texts myself - I came across with a quite widespread conviction that literature plays a positive role in improving relations across national borders. In this short presentation I will try to demonstrate that the role of literature is quite complex and cannot be abbreviated with simple aphorisms. I will choose my examples from Greek and Turkish literature.

     Literary texts are, apart from any other characterization we can attribute to them, social products. As such they bear a historical legacy. Within the literary texts one can find the hopes, the fears, the aspirations, in short, the ideologies and the beliefs of the societies in which these texts are created and are being accepted. Within this capacity, literature is a reflection of the society and of a time period. Literary texts not only do they portray the best aspects of a society but also show the worst parts.

     Approaching the phenomenon more closely and in a more specific manner, one can easily demonstrate that in South-Eastern Europe, especially in the last quarter of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, literary texts did present common characteristics but that these “common” traits were mostly not really positive.[1] They rather jeopardized inter-ethnic harmonious relations and they spread ill feelings for neighboring nations. Referring to Greek and Turkish literature with which I am more familiar, it has been demonstrated that after the appearance of the nationalistic ideology and of the nation states in the area, literary texts not only were they influenced by this ideology, which in “the Balkans” expressed an irredentist and aggressive understanding, but in many cases famous writers used literature itself as a means to propagate nationalism.[2]

     In Greek literature, for example, it is almost impossible to find a positive reference to a Turk in the literary texts of the 19th and most of 20th century.[3] Actually the image of the “Turk” is almost always negative. Statistically, three famous and “patriotic” Turkish writers in their texts presented the Greeks as very negative personalities in a frequency of 98 % (174 negative and only 3 positive attributes to the “Other”).[4]

     In other words, there is not an intrinsic positive role that can be attributed to literary texts in building a friendly atmosphere among neighboring nations. Not only prose of any kind - historical or other kinds of novels and short stories, memoirs, etc. - but also poetry, especially romantic and patriotic poetry at certain periods played a negative role by strengthening xenophobic feelings among the peoples of South-Eastern Europe. The political controversies in the area were accompanied with a kind of literature that suited the dominant ideologies within the existing ethnic communities.[5] Like the textbooks which are still read and taught in our countries, these text are not suitable to be translated to the language of the neighboring country either: it will harm bilateral relations.


     Naturally not all literature is like that. As it is with people, there are all kinds of texts. In all societies there are humane texts, distanced from nationalistic ferment as well as pseudo-humane texts which still do not reproduce the vulgar negative image of the “Other”. These literary texts, generally, do not initiate hatred among nations and perceive human beings not as groups in controversy but close to each other. In a study on Greek and Turkish literature and on how the “Other” is portrayed, a great variety of this “humane” literature was detected. The matter is quite intricate and complex. In summary the following “kinds” of texts were encountered.

1- Religiously oriented texts. In these human beings are portrayed either (a) as “brothers” due to a common divine creative source, and where all human beings are included in this brotherhood, irrespective of their belief, or (b) as “brothers” but covering only the religious people and/or mostly those of “our” belief. This second category of writers, who are normally strongly attached to their own religion or sect, perceive the members of other groups as “Others”, actually not very differently from the way nationalists do.[6]

2- Marxist texts. This group of writers that were numerous in the 20th century did not separate the characters as “us” and the “Other” on an ethnic basis but on a social class basis. To the extent that they were sincere in their credo and not in fact crypto-nationalists, they portrayed positive and/or negative characters on either side of the national borders. Of course there are a great number of writers who claim to be internationalists and/or Marxists but who in practice follow the nationalistic understanding of xenophobic approach in matters of the “Other”. Normally the positive heroes are the oppressed and the negative the oppressors.[7] Often the “Other” in the texts of these writers becomes the positive hero since he acts in an “exemplary” manner.[8]

3- A third and quite controversial group is composed of writers who do a lip service to humanistic approach and to anti-nationalistic understanding, but who actually are indirectly xenophobic and advocates of ethnic strife. There are many variations of this group.

(a) Some profess their liking for the “Other” because they consider the “Other” as ethnically and/or racially “belonging to us”. In fact these writers approach the “Other” almost in a racist way: he is good because ethnically he is one of us.

(b) In Turkey a group of writers - here characterized as Anatolianists (Anadolucu) - portray the “Other” positively, but not because he/she is perceived as a positive “Other”, but because he/she is seen (and presented) as one of “us” and who actually - like “us” - hates the “Other”. The same phenomenon is noticed - in smaller scale - in Greek literature too. [9] This supposedly positive “Other”, who in fact is an assimilated “Other” who thinks, feels and expresses himself as a fanatical “us” is called “naively positive ‘Other’” in my studies (because this kind of “positiveness” incorporates a great portion of naϊveté).

 4- Finally there is real - and simple - humane approach. According to this, human beings do of course present a great variety and some are “good” and some are “bad”; but all these are not based on ethnic and nationalist basis. This really humane approach is ascending the last decades. In Turkish literature authors like Sait Faik - and many others - can be mentioned. In Greek literature as an example Rea Galanani can be mentioned. In texts of this category, not only the “Other” does not compose nationalist stereotypes, but in most cases the existence of national and ethnic identity itself is questioned.

     It is clear to those familiar with the latest developments in political science that the notion and the definition of nation itself has changed drastically the last fifty years. The nation is sometimes defined as an “imagined” entity, an imagined community. The modern humane texts question the nationalistic paradigm itself. It seems that this direction is the most efficient way to cope with the nationalistic stereotypes in literary texts


     Summarizing the above one may conclude that:

(a) Literary texts present a great variety in the way the “Other” is perceived and portrayed: this image of the neighboring nation may be good or bad.

(b) The role of literature in influencing inter-ethnic and international relations varies too: it may be positive or negative depending on the ideological approach of the creator.

(c) The type of writing does not automatically secure a positive result.

(d) And finally, as a positive and optimistic sign, the last decades, as nationalistic world-view recedes, more and more authors appropriate a more humane and anti-nationalistic approach. 

     When the “Balkans” really change to “South-Eastern Europe”, e.g., being closer to the European Union of the 21st century and more distanced from the Balkans of the 20th, then the views expressed and the texts produced in the area will be less and less nationalistic and more and more open to internationalist humane approach where human beings will be portrayed as individuals and not as agents of stereotyped nations. 

[1] We speak of “South-Eastern Europe” and not of “the Balkans” because of the negative connotation the word “Balkans” bears. The Balkans are notorious of the ethnic and nationalistic strife. The literature of the Balkan countries is not immune of these nationalistic understandings and feelings.    

[2] A detailed account of these phenomena can be found in my studies. See for example:

(A) Türk Romanı ve ‘Öteki’, Ulusal Kimlikte Yunan İmajı, Sabancı Üniversitesi, İstanbul, 2000

(B) Εικόνες Ελλήνων και Τούρκων, Σχολικά Βιβλία, Ιστοριογραφία, Λογοτεχνία και Εθνικά Στερεότυπα, Αλεξάνδεια, Αθήνα, 2001 (Δεύτερη Έκδοση 2002)

 (C) ‘The Image of Greeks in Turkish Literature: Fiction and Memoirs’, in Oil on Fire?, Verlag Hahnsche Buchhandlung, Hannover, 1996

(D) ‘Les Romans, Les Femmes et Les Relations Greco-Turques’, Oluşum/Genese, Nancy, 5/1999, No. 60-61 (In French and Turkish).

[3] Writers like G. Viziinos and I. Venezis are rare exceptions.

[4] See: H. Millas ‘The Image of Greeks in Turkish Literature: Fiction and Memoirs’, in Oil on Fire?, Verlag Hahnsche Buchhandlung, Hannover, 1996

[5] I was a small boy in Istanbul, of course many years ago, when I first heard the word “Balcanic”. A cake (a pastry) that I liked very much had this name. It was rolled and long, and it was cut in pieces like salami. In cross sections you could see that in was composed of different parts, of different colours and constituents: chocolate, bitter and milk chocolate, whipped cream, custard cream of other colours etc. All these were kept clearly separate from each other by rolls of dough. The impression that I have from the literature of the Balkans is mostly of this sort: national narratives, mostly in opposition,  events presented as black and white - white in one country and black in the other - sealed in national borders and exalted within each ethnic community.   

[6] The Greek author Ph. Kontoglou (1896-1965) and the Turkish authors Semiha Ayverdi (1903-1993) are examples of the first kind. Necip Fazıl Kısakürek (1905-1983) and İsmail Hekimoğlu (1932-) are two examples of the second case.  

[7] M. Lountemis (1912-1976) and D. Sotiriou (1911-) on the Greek side and Sabahattin Ali (1907-1948) and Orhan Kemal (1914-1970) on the Turkish side are classical examples.

[8] In the early novels of Orhan Kemal and in the short stories of Sabahattin Ali for example some Greek characters are shown as pioneers in a class struggle or as industrious positive citizens.

[9] In Greek literature the case of Viziinos and his novelette “Moskoph Selim” is typical. This Turk - Selim - is a positive personality because in fact he repeats the political and ideological views of the Greeks, he does not like the Turks and he admires the Christians. The same understanding - of course the roles being the mirror image of Moskoph Selim - is found in Turkish literature in the group named as Anatolianists, the texts of Halikarnas Balıkçısı and Kemal Tahir being the best known expression of this understanding. 


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