Seven years ago this winter I took a plane to Istanbul to meet the great Turkish novelist Yasar Kemal. In truth, I was a plus-one. My partner had just become his literary agent, so I was the beneficiary of a lot of collateral generosity, beginning upon arrival.
We were met at the gate by Kemal and his wife, Asye, and whisked through the airport on a cart, guards stopping us to shake Kemal’s hand, thanking him for his voice.
This warm reception continued in every public place we entered, from restaurants — where the kitchen emerged en masse to present Kemal the best fish — to hotels (“the owner of his hotel is Kurdish,” Kemal said, as the director walked away, nodding at his iconic status as a Kurdish writer who had stood up to oppressive regimes) — to the street.
Even when he was not with us, he was with us. Not far from the hotel where we stayed, I stumbled upon a statue of Kemal, overlooking the Bosphorous.
It is hard to translate the effect a writer like Kemal could have in his own country. In America, Kemal was best known for his 1955 debut novel, “Mehmed My Hawk,” a book he wrote when he was just 25 and so poor he couldn’t put wood in his stove.
It was later published in 40 languages and sold over a million copies around the globe.
The book spins a transporting tale about a boy from a mountain village who is horribly beaten and tortured by a vicious land owner. His marriage is dashed. Mehmed eventually escapes and sets up as a wandering outlaw, becoming a legend celebrated in song by the powerless.
Many of the people I met revered Kemal for this or other books, or simply for the idea of him. “We met in prison,” they’d say, looking at each other, and erupt with laughter. Most of the writers I met in fact had — like Kemal — had run-ins with the state and had suffered for it.
For a long time, if he wasn’t in prison, Kemal was broke. One cold morning we visited a mosque where he slept when too poor for a roof. As we stood, admiring the mihrab, he told of how he decided at this point — penniless, with nothing but the clothes on his back — to travel his country and tell the story of people — many of them minority Kurds — who were not seen.
People from all over the world admired Kemal for the inclusiveness of his vision. During dinners he told stories about them, Asya translating. François Mitterrand was a friend, and Arthur Miller, who in 1996 wrote a letter of support when the Turkish government tried to sentence Kemal to 20 months in prison. But the person he spoke of the most was James Baldwin.
Baldwin first visited Istanbul in 1961. Arriving in October in the middle of a party held by the actor Engin Cezzar and his wife, Gulriz Sururi, “Jimmy was literally and figuratively embraced by the entire Istanbul intellectual world,” Baldwin’s biographer David Leeming wrote.
Baldwin was introduced to Kemal, and the Kurdish man from the mountains taught the former evangelical preacher from Harlem folk songs until the latter fell asleep in the lap of an actress.
Thereafter Baldwin was a friend, admirer, and defender of Yemal’s as Istanbul became the American novelist’s third home. As accounts go, Baldwin, who was gay, loved the social and sexual complexity of Istanbul, but it also helped teach him to see American life in a different way, to see “the crippling power of the American myth.”
It was in Istanbul, Leeming notes, that Baldwin wrote “As Much Truth As One Can Bear,” his eviscerating essay about the so-called giants of American literature and what he believed was their abiding weakness: “a way of looking at the world, as a place to be corrected, and in which innocence is inexplicably lost.”
Writing to a friend from Istanbul, Baldwin described how “the whole somber question of America’s role in the world stared at me in a new inescapable way; and the question of America brings up, of course, the question of what the role of the American negro is, or can be.”
Although far more known for his time in France, Baldwin spent eight years on and off in Istanbul. He’d host evening seminars in his apartment overlooking the Bosphorous, where he’d read and debate and joke with Kemal and all comers. The streets he said reminded him of Harlem, and it’s where he wrote his novel “Tell Me How long the Train’s Been Gone.”
In 1983, Baldwin traveled with Kemal, Miller, the actor Peter Ustinov, and others to the USSR to meet with Mikhail Gorbachev for a conference of intellectuals discussing the future of the world. The highlight of this trip, according to Leeming, was a party on a lake in Kirghizia, where he and Kemal traded folk songs for blues songs late into the night.
I didn’t hear Kemal sing on my trip to Istanbul, but that was one thing he did say about Baldwin: He had a beautiful singing voice — and was a great friend in time of need. It is easy to see how much could go unsaid between writers who had known the power of a state to harass, to imprison, to beat.
In the past year, we have witnessed the American state embrace these powers at the highest level. We have witnessed and protested when the state has attempted to ban individuals traveling from seven primarily Muslim countries. We have absorbed an orgy of nationalism unleashed in the name of some Americans.
Baldwin’s work has surged back into public view recently in the wake of racially motivated police killings, but perhaps American writers ought to take a page from the life as he lived it, too. He never really left America, but he left it often enough to see this nation from the outside, and through friendships with writers around the world he learned how to grapple with America for what it was — inside and out. (“We are cruelly trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are,’’ Baldwin wrote in an unfinished manuscript near the end of his life.)
Whatever 2018 brings, be it constitutional crisis, or more of the same, those who will have the best playbooks for how to live and how to see America clearly will be the writers who have lived under regimes that have attacked and imprisoned the press, some supported by US policy. Writers here — so used to the world coming to us — may have to learn to travel in the opposite direction for fellowship and a glimpse of other lives. To learn how to operate, how to refuse to back down, how to figure when to stay and when to go. And how to sing for joy even when there is so little of it to go around.John Freeman is the editor of Freeman’s, a literary biannual published in seven countries, and author of “Maps,’’ a collection of poems.