Novelizing Turkish Feminism: On Suat Derviş’s ‘In the Shadow of the Yalı’

September 24, 2021 | 2 books mentioned 6 min read

The novel In the Shadow of the Yalı has been translated afresh for contemporary Anglophone readers by Maureen Freely, an author of seven novels, chair of English PEN, and perhaps best known as a translator for Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk. In the Shadow of the Yalı was initially written as a Turkish newspaper serial in 1944, and Freely likens its flamboyant prose to the heady atmosphere of midcentury feminism led by Simone du Beauvoir, particularly in her book The Second Sex. When Suat Derviş’s pulpy novel first appeared for Turkish readers, France had just granted women the right to vote, a full decade following Turkey’s suffragette movement, which, while granting women voting rights in 1934, did not overturn single-party rule until 1950.

In the wake of such seemingly garish political contradiction, Derviş and her sister, Hamiyet, lived and starved in Paris between the Literary Left and the Communist Party, the latter eventually supporting Derviş because of her connections with poet Nazim Hikmet, who was then exiled from Turkey in the Soviet Union. In France, she rewrote her novel in Turkish, and Hamiyet translated it into French. The sisters were navigating the borders of liberality, where society and literature were lovers whose intimacies turned heads from Paris to Istanbul. Freely reflected on the pressures that Derviş experienced from the general secretary of the French Communist Party, putting her name to romantic fictions that served to express the very bind in which women were caught: between stable marriages and impetuous affairs, under the multigenerational gravity of patronymic male inheritance, and at the mercy of officialdoms that treated women as voiceless functionaries born to uphold family honor.

coverIn the Shadow of the Yalı, as it appears in the 2021 edition published by Other Press, is more true to the Turkish original, even if Freely herself confessed that its language was “breathy,” “occasionally baggy,” and dripped with the “gothic excess” of its emotional extravagance, making it comparable to a soap opera or telenovela. The plot is simple, even redundant, and although its literary merit is arguably farfetched, Derviş wrote with an evergreen intuition for metaphor. It is a classic tale of wifely disenfranchisement, of a party-going modern woman named Celile who goes from a steady, 10-year marriage with Ahmet to his financier and her seducer, Muhsin, whose political ambitions and unrivaled wealth appear as spectacular as the night sky. Celile, however, is from a decrepit Ottoman yalı, or seafront mansion on the Bosphorus strait, many of which still dot Istanbul’s shores. Her romantic tragedy is indicative of the dishonor that Ottoman families endured as 1920s modernism roared them into oblivion.

Derviş was a prolific novelist, writing since the age of 16, setting her fictions in the manner of social realism, a genre that, when she wrote, was surpassed by interwar postmodernism. Yet, with Turkish women as her readers, she drew her genteel audience to the page amidst a progressive if censorial publishing climate in Turkey that had printed feminist news and views since the 1870s. She had led double lives in those pages, as a political journalist, she earned the attention of her mostly male readership while becoming a popular subject of interest herself. She could be found overspending at dessert cafes in sight of the Bosphorus mansions that she novelized to capture Ottoman decadence—a reality that continues in Turkey’s government culture of Islamic populism. In the Shadow of the Yalı frames Celile and her mansion-bound grandmother, Çeşmiahu, as figments of a vestigial past in confrontation with a sociopolitical guard that, while changing, adheres to a shared and ongoing patriarchy in which Turkish women fall between the cracks of male-led Westernization.

Çeşmiahu is a lightly fictionalized autobiographical adaptation of Derviş’s grandmother, as both grew up as Circassian slaves to the sultan’s harem before being married to wealthy pashas. Yet, if Freely’s prefatory biographical notes are any indication, Celile was perhaps the least like Derviş herself (their beret-clad feminist bohemian fashion sense might have been similar). Although she would go on to marry the general secretary of the Turkish Communist Party, Derviş preferred to be seen as an independent woman, not in her husband’s shadow. She demanded to be introduced as a writer, not a wife. That the status quo saw her as subordinate to her spouse runs parallel to Celile, not only in the shadow of the Ottoman yalı but of her husband and lover. She rewrote her novel in French, but, as Freely’s translation emphasizes, its English reads like a quotidian Ottoman romance, Francophile in its gushing melodrama, roundly simplistic and full of tropes that challenge the reader to wonder if, at times, Derviş merely co-opted the salable objectification of women that she spent a lifetime rewriting, exposing, and overturning.

Toward the novel’s end, Celile repeatedly bemoans her fate, pitying herself after listening to Muhsin mansplain her into submission to convince her that their love is such that they need not marry, appear in public, or, when she is pregnant, have a child. But she later hides three months of pregnancy from him. He reacts by demanding she abort the baby. As a narrator and in Celile’s voice, Derviş blurred representation and critique of misogyny for dramatic effect: “‘What a helpless, passive creature I am!’ she thought. She lacked the will to die, just as she lacked the will to live.” In other passages, such as when Celile goes missing on the night of another young woman’s death, Derviş uses terms like “loose” or “demented” for women (as translated into English by Freely).

Celile’s character is divulged elaborately, her personality formed in the vise of her school, which was mostly comprised of modern children from the “new order.” That she came from a “rotting, crumbling yalı” where “dying traditions” could be smelled in the air, placed her square outside of the social life of her fellow students. Her anxiety as an outsider defined her marriage, although her condition, which she suppressed, went unnoticed by her husband Ahmet, who would not be able to detect her affair until Muhsin broke the news to him face-to-face. It was 10 years after they were married when Ahmet came across Muhsin at a “gazino,” where men gathered to eat, drink, and revel. Muhsin secured a bank guarantee for Ahmet, who had been involved in smuggling food from Bulgaria.

In the Shadow of the Yalı is shaped by the narrator’s voice, an omniscient observer whose running commentary reflects on Celile’s experience as a woman in Istanbul, where, despite being married, “a beautiful woman was always under watch, no matter how private or solitary her life.” The narrator wonders, on behalf of Muhsin, why Ahmet might exhibit his wife, and more, why she might accept his advances. The colorful narration has the effect of fomenting a gossipy Greek chorus that explores the dramatic tensions of moral conscience against the temptations of love and money—and of belonging to the saga of modernism. When the cat is out of the bag and Celile’s affair with Muhsin is known, Ahmet responds, firstly, with affectionate forgiveness. His relatively progressive stance is matched by Muhsin, who poses a number of arguments for Celile to remain with him, in love, but unwed.

Quite quickly, Celile exclaims that she loves Muhsin, the words falling from her lips to enchant him. As the narrator unsentimentally explains, “Wouldn’t any woman say this to her lover as she lay in his arms in his small apartment.” It is his love that provides an antidote, however fleeting and deceptive, to her lifelong waywardness. The yalı’s shadow lifts when they consummate their passion, and by the force of their desire slaked, she is, as Derviş wrote: “Freed at last from the decaying yalı and its dying breed.”

There is an undercurrent to Muhsin’s motives in which his desire to subdue Celile comes to symbolize the assimilative, even imperialistic tendencies of modernism. Celile, to him, is not merely a beautiful woman, nor simply the wife of his underling business partner, but an emblem of the past that they would all like to see snuffed out. After describing the voluptuous features of Celile—her “leopard eyes” and “white skin, soft as velvet”—Derviş wrote: “For what he sensed in Celile’s devotion was the extravagance of the old aristocrats, whose wealth and power belonged to the distant past.”

But instead of digging further into a more nuanced tale of socio-historical metaphor, Derviş, pressured by the conditioning of her immediate social spheres among the elite leftists who supported her in Paris, dove headlong into what Freely has called “puzzling aspects of indigenous sexual mores.” These, as her novel reads, are the surface-level tit-for-tat in which Muhsin and Ahmet engage, quite pathetically, by a series of unspoken or indirect gestures. Theirs is a shamefaced and rather flaccid passive-aggressive male sexual competition over the possession of a woman. The sore loser, Ahmet rages at parties defaming his wife as a prostitute, while Muhsin is rankled by doubt and jealousy. He imagines that Celile has successfully played him to benefit her husband, sacrificing herself to social suicide out of love for Ahmet, or worse that, eventually, she could leave him too.

Ultimately, Derviş leaves the last word to Celile, but her utterance is as obscure and unfulfilled as her very life. The men, as is common to patriarchal oppression, are heavy-handed in their words and actions so that by the time she has a moment to speak, she has lost all sense of love, life, and self. She is still every bit in the shadow of the yalı, those fixtures of the past that, like American suburbia or the downtown tenements of New York and Istanbul, once glimmered with the sheen of hope but since have endured the depravities of impoverishment—returning to capture the imagination of new money and old stories.

is an art writer and freelance journalist based in Istanbul. For the past three years, he has published weekly features of art criticism on Turkish and Middle Eastern contemporary art and art history, and has written for Tablet Magazine, Al-Monitor, ArtAsiaPacific, Hyperallergic, Words Without Borders, Rudaw English and forthcoming for the Jewish Review of Books.