Words with Friends

The Manchester Letters
Saturday 20th October 2012
International Anthony Burgess Foundation

An interesting project, The Manchester Letters consists of a series of correspondences between UK writer and University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing alumnus Jenn Ashworth and the Turkish novelist (now based in Barcelona) Nermin Yildirim. Meeting for only the second time (the first being on 1st October as part of Istanbul Tanpinar Literature Festival), the two come to the International Anthony Burgess Foundation to discuss their lives as writers from two very different backgrounds, as well as to tell what they have learned from one another’s letters.

Ashworth begins with a reading from her upcoming novel The Friday Gospels, a tale about a family of Lancastarian Mormons which explores both the writer’s regional and religious heritage. Yildirim is next as she reads a piece from her second novel Dreams Are Untold; a natural in front of a crowd, Nermin’s effortless confidence is obvious both in reading the passage in its original Turkish and explaining what it means to the crowd in English.

When asked what they have gained from the project, Nermin talks of her love for letters, stating that they have ‘more soul’ in them than other, more convenient methods of communication. She goes on to claim that, having learned so much about Ashworth through her letters, their first face to face contact seemed more like a return meeting with a friend. Ashworth similarly states that she immediately felt the two shared an affinity and that, having felt drained from finishing a novel, the letters helped to remind her why she writes.

On the question of whether she felt English writers had an advantage in their seemingly one way export system of literature, Nermin argues that such worries are irrelevant to her as she does not consider the scope of her readership when writing and would not make alterations in order to make it more easily translatable. Ashworth points out that she too faces a similar problem of translation, albeit on a smaller scale, in the pressure put on her by editors to make the dialogue of her Lancashire-based characters more easily understandable for a general audience. Yildirim supports Ashworth’s view that it is sometimes necessary for writers to inconvenience their readers, stating that she ‘(doesn’t) write to make people happy’ but rather as a means of self-expression.

When asked about writers’ responsibility in presenting truth, Ashworth states that she doesn’t find it necessary to present an accurate map of the real-life places she writes about yet asserts that, in her upcoming novel, she sought to present an ‘authentic’ Mormon experience, doing so through various different perspectives. Yildirim responds to the question by stating that there is no universal ‘truth’ but rather different truths based on different perspectives. As a writer, she feels, she cannot necessarily present ‘the truth’ but simply her truth.

As regards censorship, Yildirim points out that rather than being told that there are topics which may not be written about, Turkish writers simply know that such things exist. Ashworth points to George Orwell’s claim that ‘the sinister thing about English censorship is that it is voluntary’, stating that, although they may not be aware of it, British writers also suffer self-enforced limitations as regards what they may write about.

There is undoubtedly a great likeness of minds between the two and as they end with expressions of mutual respect, they state an intention of continuing their correspondences and even consider a potential future collaboration, language barrier be damned.

Sean Doherty is a second year English Literature student at the University of Manchester.

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