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Dr Meltem Gürle: exploring Europe’s peripheries

6 June 2018Dr Meltem Gürle arrived at Trinity Long Room Hub in September 2017 to work on one research project linking Ireland and Turkey, two countries on the opposite peripheries of Europe – and when she leaves this autumn she will take with her the beginnings of an entirely different research project connecting the two, thanks to another link she has happened upon during her time here.

Meltem came to the Hub as a Marie Sklodowska-Curie CoFund Fellow in collaboration with the School of English and the School of Languages, Literatures and Cultural Studies; her two mentors during her fellowship have been Prof Jürgen Barkhoff and Dr Pádraic Whyte.

Her primary research project has been ‘The return of children: A comparative study of contemporary Turkish and Irish novels’ . The topic evolved from her interests in the relationship of Turkish literature to the modernist masterpieces of the West (including the works of James Joyce and Flann O’Brien) in the volatile context of recent Turkish political history, as well as German idealism and the Bildungsroman or coming-of-age novel.

In a fascinating lecture at the Trinity Long Room Hub in May, Meltem highlighted the increase in the number of coming-of-age stories written in Ireland and Turkey over the last two decades, drew parallels on how they differ in similar ways from their twentieth century counterparts and identified the reasons for this shared evolution.

Her talk was illustrated by examples from both literatures of young protagonists who resist the narrative arc of the twentieth-century Bildungsroman and its typical trajectory towards maturity and entry into the world of the grown-ups. Instead, ‘they live in a constant state of self-experimentation and are terrified of the descent into maturity’.

But Meltem identifies this expressed desire to remain in an eternal childhood not as stagnation, but as a rejection of the structures of late modern society and a choice to remain in the realm of experience, which can offer a new and different terrain of possibilities for the young protagonists.

And the re-emergence of childhood narratives in Irish and Turkish literature and their shared rejection of the reality of contemporary adult life is no coincidence. Both countries are relatively young Republics, ‘belated modernities…'peripheral spaces’ which position themselves against Europe as a strong and dominant centre.’ Meltem cites Irish critic Declan Kiberd who has said that most writers of the Irish Revival ‘identified their childhood with that of the Irish nation’ and she compares the ‘infantilization’ of both cultures during their nation-building decades of the twentieth century.

In Irish and Turkish childhood narratives from that period, the young protagonists went through trials and tribulations but emerged morally intact and emotionally unblemished to take their rightful place in the adult world, just as both young nations were portrayed in their national narratives as moving along a trajectory towards full membership of the elite club of long-established Western states.

But in the early years of the twenty-first century Ireland endured economic collapse in the wake of huge societal change, while Turkey entered a period of political instability and a series of economic crises. It is at this point that the new narratives of young characters with a very different world view begin to emerge, in novels whose young protagonists respond to the ‘lifeless’ adult world by resisting the idea of maturity and replacing it with a life of their own. ‘ The future that late capitalism is presenting to them is a new slavery but it is very difficult to earn enough to even have an apartment or to raise a family… the ‘American Dream’ is gone… but this global capitalism is everywhere and if you don’t buy into this narrative, what do you do?’

Meltem emphasises, though, that this is not a nihilistic or hopeless stance, but an expression of ‘tragic hope’: the rejection of the current societal status quo in favour of a potentially improved alternative, not in the future but now. Against the backdrop of economic crisis in Ireland and political instability in Turkey, ‘their problem is being born into a world where it is not even possible to hold ideals and believe in a better future’ and many contemporary childhood narratives convey ‘impending doom and very dark stories, but there is also this story of resistance… this spark of hope despite everything…It is the kind of hope that comes to the foreground at the darkest hour’.

She sees these young characters as driven by the same impetus as her own students in Istanbul some years ago when they spontaneously occupied a city park targeted for development, or the high school students in the U.S. who are now driving the demand for gun law reform. The new representation of childhood as a liberated state also opens up a space of liberation for the national identity of the two countries, as it suggests giving up on the idea of a traumatized past or a perfected future and embracing the uncertainty of the present.

Later the same evening the Trinity Long Room Hub hosted the launch of Meltem’s children’s book, Talking to Roko, by Dr Pádraic Whyte, Associate Professor of English and Director of the Masters programme in Children’s Literature in Trinity’s School of English. Inspired by the ‘existentialist crisis’ of her seven year-old niece when confronted with mortality, the book draws on the Platonic dialogues in what Dr Whyte describes as ‘a tale about friendship between a wonderfully curious young girl and an often-times grumpy crow…that simultaneously asks us to ponder the bigger questions of life…introducing younger readers to philosophical debates in a way that is clear and accessible’.

Dr Whyte spoke of how the desire to know and the search for meaning are key to both children’s literature and philosophy, and placed Talking to Roko in the long tradition of philosophy in children’s literature that includes such classics as Alice in Wonderland and The Tao of Pooh. On 5 June Meltem gave a reading of Roko for Turkish speaking children followed by a drama workshop.

During her time at Trinity Long Room Hub, Meltem has actively engaged with other disciplines, particularly within the Identities in Transformation research theme: she became a member of the theme Steering Group, contributed a paper on ‘Experience and the new Coming-of-age Novel’ to a workshop on ‘Transformations and the Lived Experience’ (and was later interviewed on her contribution by Lyric FM’s Culture File radio programme) and spoke at a Research Exchange Session. And earlier this month at the Hub, Meltem interviewed Alper Canıgüz, one of the leading writers of the new Turkish novel, in an event hosted by the Trinity Centre for Literary and Cultural Translation.

Meltem has also enjoyed interesting and productive exchanges with Trinity School of Education researchers and academics who were involved in the Identities in Transformation workshops with whom she found many shared areas of interest including the collective quality of education and, in the work of Dr Francesca La Morgia, childhood bilingualism.

Another stimulating aspect of life in Trinity Long Room Hub has been the interaction between the three Marie Sklodowska-Curie CoFund fellows, the other visiting Fellows and the 50 PhD and post-doctoral students who are resident in the Hub. Encounters in the Ideas Space and at the weekly coffee mornings recalled for Meltem a time when, while working on her Masters, she met regularly with an interdisciplinary group of fellow students, some of whose research interests led her in new directions that inform her work to this day.

When Meltem leaves Trinity Long Room Hub in September, she will return to Germany to start a two-year fellowship provided by the Thyssen Foundation at the University of Cologne, within the Department of Oriental Studies, an interdisciplinary institution for research and teaching, where she will continue work on her book on the Turkish Bildungsroman.

She will also delve further into her next research topic linking Ireland and Turkey: the story of ‘young Irish soldiers dying under Turkish sky’; the Royal Dublin Fusiliers who fought at Gallipoli in WWI against the victorious Turkish forces, one of whose young officers, Mustafa Kemal (later known as Ataturk) would go on to lead Turkey to independence after the war. Their story, and the very different position held by Gallipoli in the national narratives of Ireland and Turkey, has captured Meltem’s imagination and will continue her involvement with Ireland and Trinity.

Dr Gürle's Marie Skłodowska-Curie Cofund Fellowship for 2017-18 is in collaboration with the Trinity College School of English and the School of Languages, Literatures and Cultural Studies.

Cofunded by the Horizon 2020 Marie Sklowdowska-Curie Actions, this fellowship scheme builds on the Trinity Long Room Hub’s existing Visiting Research Fellowship programme which has hosted over 140 fellows from 25 countries to date. The call for 2019-2020 Fellowships will be launched in August 2018.

More information on forthcoming events at Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute.

Contact: Niamh O'Flynn, Communications Officer | Trinity Long Room Hub | | 01 896 3895

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