The receipent of the English Pen Translates! Award 2013, The Well of Trapped Words by Sema Kaygusuz is a collection of short stories previously published in her various short story collections in Turkish. The stories in this book have been translated by Maureen Freely, the translator of prominent Turkish writers including the nobel laurette Orhan Pamuk, Ahmed Hamdi Tanpınar, Hasan Ali Toptaş and Sait Faik Abasıyanık. Combined with Freely’s loyal and fluent translation, Kaygusuz’s strong narrative marks her first English collection as a good introduction to her literature. Sema Kaygusuz has penned four novels and four short story collections all of which have been welcomed by critics, strenghtening her place in contemporary Turkish literature. The Well of Trapped Words includes nineteen short stories of varied subject and tone, allowing the reader a taste of Kaygusuz’s ouevre. They offer a powerful glimpse of socio-political events and conditions of Turkish history and contemporary Turkey as experienced in people’s daily lives, from the Dersim massacre to suicides in the army, from skyscapers and shopping centers all over Istanbul to child brides, but all this remain in the background. The reader is not bombarded with explicit political messages, and the stories do not demand any prior knowledge of Turkish society and politics. With a touch of magical realism, her short stories take the reader on journeys from houses with snakes to women who dream of flying.
The short story that gives its title to the collection is one of the most vivid. “What we have heard is true, but only those who hear can know” claims a snake telling its stories to a little girl who indeed hears its stories. In Kaygusuz’s world, hearing the snake’s stories is a gift passed from grandmothers to granddaughters. “The Well of Trapped Words” begins with the snake’s secrets, but neither these tales nor the other stories in the book are driven by the supernatural. “If you are the only one who knows something you’re in trouble. You’ll end up all alone, like me. You’ll rot inside, but never die,” the grandmother of the story tells her little grandaughter. If there is anything that mutually exists in these short stories, it is the weight of secrets, of knowing things that noone else does.
The characters of these short stories indeed rot inside or go mad or are struck by disabilities that all of a sudden appear on their bodies with no apparent reason. Their tragedies and histories appear on their bodies like open wounds. One of the repeated themes of Kaygusuz’s stories is sick and macabre bodies. Bodies are not cherished in these stories. They rot, get sick, swell. Every body is a map to the narrated character’s misery, pain and past. These short stories are the last drop before the end, be it madness, death or epiphany. For instance, “Half Way Down the Middle” is the story of a man rotting without dying. The smell of his body is so heavy that with him the whole neighborhood stinks. In “Many Years Ago, I was Standing in a Meydan,” an old man arrives in a village without giving any clues as to who he is and proceeds to make up stories about his past, a new disability appearing on his body with every embellishment. Reflecting the inaccuracy of his stories, he claims his disabilities have always existed. Often stories melt into magical realism in the form of legends told by villagers or grandmothers or as experienced by child protagonists. They portray the domestic space as a place full of magic and mystery. In “E in Elif,” for example, the process of naming a new born baby becomes a scene of sorcery as a woman plants ideas into her husband’s mind in the middle of the night by asking him questions.
Women play central roles in many of the stories, such as “Zilşan’s Feet” where a cleaner goes to a luxurious shopping centre for the first time and tries shoes, revealing the only beautiful part of her body, her feet. The rest of her body is wrinkled from airlessness due to the layers of clothing she wears when house-cleaning. Or in “Aşkar” a mother washes her daughter, who has found out that her abuser has recently died. “Army Story” and “Nine Sons” however are quite different than the rest of the collection with their style and choices of subject. “Army Story” is about the death of a raped young soldier. “Nine Sons” is a letter from a villager to the prime minister telling him that because of a hydroelectric dam, all of his nine sons have left their village. His letter remains unanswered, his complaint remains unheard.
Most of the short stories are not more than ten pages. Given her powerful choice of subjects, sometimes they feel a little too short, demanding of more space and exploration. However as they are, they are still emotive and original pieces of artful writing. The Well of Trapped Words give themselves away as if whispering a secret, but only to ears who are willing to listen.