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“Gülümser’s Story: Life History Narratives, Memory and Belonging in Turkey”1

New Perspectives in Turkey 20 (Spring 1999) :1-26.
Leyla Neyzi

Sabancı University

Herkesin bir tarihi var.

Herkesin bir dili.

Ne anlatır size yalnızlık

Bana, beni.

Ne anlatır size ölüm

Bana, kederli annemi.

Dokunsak ışığa…

Silinse yüzlerimiz.

Ah o gözlerimiz.


—Kemal Kahraman2

A small, dark office in the basement floor of an apartment building in Taksim. The sound of traffic filtering in from the busy street outside. Color photographs tacked to a wall next to a secretary’s desk: two young girls in red posing in the lush grass, with mountains in the background. These are the two worlds of Gülümser Kalik. One, the workaday world of the center city. The other, a small village in eastern Turkey. Memories and the dream of return. For Gülümser, like others who have lost the spaces of their childhood as a result of the war in eastern Turkey, places of belonging, and identities, are always plural.

This paper is part of a research project which explores the construction of notions of self and belonging among youth through the way the past is represented in life history narratives. In this paper, I take up the life history narrative of Gülümser Kalik, a

29-year-old single young woman from Tunceli, now living in Istanbul. I will show that in her narrative, Gülümser constructs a timeless image of her village, an image posed against the painful flux of migration. I will argue that Gülümser’s identity as a gendered person conflicts with her identity as the member of a collectivity; a conflict generated by the memory of opposition between this collectivity and the State. Thus, for Gülümser, her cultural origins are part of the material through which she interprets the past, constructing her story (and sense of self) in “personal time” which is coeval—though often in conflict with— “collective time” and “national time.”

Identity, Memory and Oral History

Few would disagree that the new millennium is ushering in an era in many ways distinctly different from the past. The harbingers of this new era include globalization/transnationalism, the eroding of the nation-state (nonwithstanding new or revitalized nationalisms), the emergence of new communication technologies, the expansion of the cultural domain exemplified by the rise of identity politics, the emergence of the “new” subject/citizen and a changed relationship to time

and space (Appadurai 1996; Boyarin 1994). Today, structures of power increasingly operate in the cultural domain and through the “body” (Turner 1996). The “new subject,” therefore, rather than the collectivity, has increasingly become the axis of contemporary debates on identity (Ochs and Capps 1996). The question facing contemporary society is whether post-nationalist democracies, embodying a notion of citizenship based on the acknowledgement of (cultural) difference as directly linked to civic rights, will emerge (Bader 1997). This concern helps explain the current preoccupation with belonging, and in particular, with the way the past figures for and in the present (Borneman 1992).

The rise of identity politics and the growing centrality of the subject/body as the axis of identity, has resulted in a rediscovery of oral/life history3 (Portelli 1997), a growing interest in other means of self-expression through text, image and performance (Lury 1997) and in a proliferation of theories of narrative and performance (Ezzy 1998). Research on memory confirming the presentism of human memory (Rubin 1996) has given added impetus to oral history research based on narrativist/hermeneutic perspectives (Somers and Gibson 1994), while leading some historians to argue in favor of a redrawing of the boundaries between “history” and “memory” (Megill 1998).4

With older adults, the usual subjects of life history research, the axis of the narrative tends to be located in the past, usually in the formative period of youth as emphasized by Mannheim in his classic study of generations (Mannheim 1952). For young people—oriented as they are towards the present and the future—the past, in so far as it exists, gains significance primarily in terms of the present. Since memory tends to work this way as well, life history research on youth is a useful means of exploring how the past is reconstructed in and for the present.
Research on memory is of particular significance in the Turkish context due to the discourse and experience of Turkish modernity. The Turkish modernity project tended to discount the everyday experience (including memories) of ordinary persons in its

attempt to create a single national identity within a historically multicultural

geography (Bozdoğan and Kasaba 1997). Legislation on the measurement of time, on

dress, on language, and the creation of a new “national” education system focused on building new rituals of public (and personal) life and new ways of thinking, feeling and being (Yapı Kredi 1998). But other ways of being persisted, coexisting and often conflicting with the Republican idea of personhood. The Turkish modernity project resulted in a gap between public (and written) discourse and the everyday experience of ordinary persons in Turkey.

How did communities, families and individuals come to terms with the Turkish modernity project? We don’t know very well, for, emanating from the same modernist elite that ushered in these political and social reforms, or moving up through the ranks in the “national” education system, Turkish intellectuals themselves had a built-in distance from the domain of (what is now referred to as) “popular culture.” This may be an artifact of historical continuity at a time of seemingly rapid change (Akarlı 1998). Like ethnography, oral history research makes it possible to bridge the gap between everyday life and public culture, and between lived experience and social analysis in Turkey. Life history also opens the way for the study of subjectivity, an area much neglected in Turkey due to the preoccupation with collective identity, epitomized by the “Republican generation”; educated youth sharing the ideal of transforming society in their own image (Urgan 1998). Oral history makes it possible to explore how ordinary persons from different backgrounds viewed this bold and costly social experiment, how they variously believed in it, contributed to it, opposed it; how they positioned their own lives and the lives of their families vis-a-vis the national project. In short, how they lived: in tandem with the national project, outside it, or in conflict with it?

Education, and therefore youth, played a central role in the Turkish social engineering project aimed at creating a homogenous population with a single shared identity (Kaplan 1999). Youth, the cornerstone of Turkish modernization, were also among the first to rebel. Alternative political projects to the left and right of the political spectrum have in recent decades been overtaken by identity-based movements, including Islamist, Kurdish and Alevi political projects, as well as by the actions of increasingly vocal individuals (and citizens’ groups) who have begun to make their own claims for the recognition of (cultural) difference and of the rights of citizens in an ostensibly democratic State, particularly through the new media (Aksoy and Robbins 1997). Youth, who embodied the Turkish “revolution” at the time of the establishment of the Republic, have since become a sizeable proportion of the population at the same time as increasing access to education and delays in age at marriage and in entry into the job market in recent years have led to the extension of youth as a life stage, coupled with the emergence of “youth cultures” (Neyzi 1998b).

The Turkish experience with modernity resulted in a radically changed relationship of persons to space. For those raised in urban areas, the locales of their childhood have been transformed. For those from rural areas now living in cities, their villages often live on primarily in memory. Rural-urban as well as transnational migration has meant that most youth are cut off from the spaces of their childhood and/or the places of allegiance of their parents, which affects their sense of time (and of the past). For second-generation migrants in global cities, their relationship to place has no historical depth; many circulate between several locales, nomads calling no place (or all place) “home.” (Seyhan 1996). For young people, the uncertainty associated with their economic futures and their sense of belonging have made this liminal stage of the life cycle ever more uncertain, a time of neither-here-nor-there outside the realm of adult public culture (Giroux n.d.).

The research project of which this paper is part asks, how is the discourse and experience of Turkish modernity, characterized as it is by a lack of continuity in relationship to time and space, a feature further accentuated at the wake of the new millennium, represented in life history narratives of youth of/from Turkey? How do (trans)national time, collective time and personal time overlap, coexist or conflict in these narratives? What is the space(s) and time(s) to which youth belong?

How may narrative/performance constitute a space within which youth construct an identity with its own time/place configuration? Is narrative/performance of the self/body a new space for the creation of continuity (or at least, of meaning) vis-a-vis identity? How does this affect perceptions of the past, both as a time and as a place? (Huyssen 1995). What is the nature of subjectivity among youth in the era of identity politics? How may life history open up new spaces for the expression of subjectivities distinct from, though always in relation to, collective identities? Can the seeming fragmentation of identities in Turkey today lead to a new post-national belongingness centered on the acknowledgement of a shared geography as well as a shared experience of living that spans many more generations than the four that came of age since 1923?

The study also asks, how do the life history narratives of youth, raised as they are in the age of new information technologies, differ from that of previous generations? (Ortner 1998). How does the increasingly visual orientation of the younger generation affect the narratives they create? In an era where lives are lived “virtually,” how may narratives, including visual narratives, be as “real,” if not more so, than the daily lives of young people? (Williams et al. 1997). An interesting question vis-à-vis oral history research in Turkey is the extent to which established oral traditions of narrative and performance affect the narratives of young persons today, including their self-expression by means of new communication technologies. Research on oral history in Turkey can also be used to create action projects of self and collective expression through the writing of autobiographies, family and regional histories, and the creation of multimedia projects based on personal/collective history. It can help bring praxis into the forefront of Turkish social science, which has been weighed down by largely “academic” debates with few direct links to the everyday experience of ordinary persons.

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