My father, an Anatolian village boy, came to Istanbul at the age of thirteen. My mother, from another Anatolian village, also came to Istanbul as a very small child. They had to make this long journey, meet in Istanbul and get married so that I could come into the world.
The choice was not left to me, so I was born at a very unsuitable time–the bloodiest and most fiery days of World War I, in 1915. Again, the choice not being in my hands, my birth occurred not only at an unseemly time but also in an unfavorable place, on Heybeli Island. Heybeli lies offshore of Istanbul and was the summer residence of Turkey’s richest people. And since the rich couldn’t live without the poor–they had such a great need for them– we, too, lived on the island.
I don’t mean to imply with these remarks that I was unlucky. On the contrary, I consider myself as being quite fortunate in not coming from a rich, noble and famous family.
They named me “Nusret.” In Turkish, this Arabic word means “God’s Help.” It was a name entirely fitting to us because of my family, destitute of any other hope, bound all their hope to God.
Ancient Spartans killed, with their own hands, offspring who were born weak and puny, raising only the strong and healthy. This process of selection for us Turks is performed by nature and society. When I disclose that my four brothers died in infancy, unable to endure their hostile environment, you will easily understand how stubborn I was in surviving. And my mother, unable to endure beyond her twenty-sixth year, died, leaving this beautiful world, so worth living in, to those who were strong.
In capitalist countries, the milieu is excellent for merchants, in socialist countries, most favorable for writers. That is, a man who knows his business must become a writer if he’s in a socialist state, or a merchant if he’s in a capitalist one. How contrary a man I was going to be was already evident in my childhood, for even at the age of ten, in a country like Turkey–a capitalist scrap pile–I’d determined to become a writer though no one in my family could read or write.
My father, like every good father who gives thought to his son’s future, advised, “Forget this silly idea of writing and take a good honest job, one you can make a living at!” I was beyond listening to him.
My obstinacy didn’t stop there. Although I wished to be a writer, yearned to take pen in hand, I entered a school where they would thrust a rifle in my hand.
During my early years, I couldn’t do what I liked and didn’t like what I did do. I wanted to become a writer but became a soldier. At that time, the only schools where poor, penniless children could study free were military schools; therefore I was forced to enter a military boarding school.
In 1933, when the surname law was passed, which directed every Turk to select a last name, people’s secret feelings of inferiority surfaced: Some of the World’s stingiest became known as “Eliachik” (Openhanded), the greatest cowards named themselves “Yurekli” (Stoutheart), and many of the laziest took the name ”Chalishkan” (Industrious) . One of our teachers chose the surname of “Cheviker” (Dextrous) when he could barely sign his name to a letter. The rampant racism present caused people with mixed blood to grab for surnames which signified they were Turks.
Invariably I came last in any kind of scramble; I was no different in this one for nice surnames. No surname remained that I could take pride in, so I assumed the name of “Nesin” (What-are-you?). I wanted to think of what I was and pull myself together whenever anyone called “What-are-you? “In 1937 I became an officer, you know, a Napoleon. Well really, I was merely one of the Napoleons. Every new officer thinks himself, Napoleon. Some of them never recover from this sickness; it lasts a whole lifetime. Others are cured after awhile. ”Napoleonitis” is a dangerous and contagious disease. The symptoms are these: The victims think only of Napoleon’s victories, never of his defeats; they are prone to tuck a right hand between jacket buttons; they stand before a map of the world, drawing arrows with a red crayon and, after subjugating and occupying the entire world in five minutes, regret that the world is so small. Victims of this disease rave as in a high fever. There are other dangers. In later stages, they may fancy themselves Tamerlane, Ghengis Khan, Attila, Hannibal, Moltke, even Hitler or others such as these.
As a fresh young officer, twenty-two or twenty-three, I conquered the world a few times on the map with a red crayon. My Napoleon complex lasted only a year or two. However, even during this malady, I never leaned toward fascism.
From childhood on, I desired to be a playwright. In the army were infantry, cavalry, artillery and tank corps, but no military playwright branch, so I looked for a way out and was discharged in 1944.
Even after becoming generals, some officers still had an ache in their craws to be poets or writers and wrote poems or novels, much to the amazement of everyone but themselves. Yet how nonsensical and comical it would seem to them if a fifty-year-old poet should want to become an army commander.
I began story writing during my military service. Since in those times a soldier who wrote for the newspapers was looked upon with disfavor by his superiors, I didn’t write in my own name but under my father’s, Aziz. My real name, Nusret, was obscured by this first pseudonym and forgotten.
In those times they referred to me as the young writer. My father was a gray-bearded old man. When this gray-bearded old man had business in a government office and introduced himself as Aziz, nobody believed it and they gave him a hard time. My father persisted in trying to prove his identity as Aziz Nesin in various official bureaus until he died.
Years later, when my books were translated into foreign tongues, in order to collect my copyright royalties which had come to the bank in the name of Aziz, I fought to prove that I was Aziz although “Nusret” was written on my identity papers.
Like many others, I started my writing by composing poetry. Nazim Hikmet, while staging his hunger strike, advised me to give up poetry, that I wrote it badly, and that I should confine my writing to stories and novels. From these remarks, I concluded that Nazim was jealous (!) of me. To those who’ve asked why I gave up poetry, I’ve replied that I abandoned it because one doesn’t make money in Turkey as a poet. The truth of the matter is that, due to my great respect for poetry, I dropped it.
These days, many of those who claim the title of poet continue to think that what they produce is poetry, because they have no respect for poetry. I believe that poetry is a great art because of many writers, being unsuccessful as poets are pushed into becoming successful, famous writers. I’m not saying this about myself, for I won great popularity by showing just how bad poetry could be written. A large amount of interest shown in my published poems was not due to their beauty; it was because a woman’s signature appeared at the bottom. My poems were published under a female pseudonym and stacks of love letters poured in addressed to that name.
From childhood on, it’s been my ambition to set down words that would make people weep. I took a story, written with this intent, to a magazine. The editor-in-chief, who should have been sobbing as he read my story, showed such a lack of understanding that he laughed long and loud, then, wiping the tears of laughter from his eyes, said “Bravo! Very good. Write more stories like this and bring them to us.”
This, my first disillusionment in writing, continues: My readers laugh at most of the things I’ve written to make them cry. Even when I became known as a writer of humor, I didn’t know what humor was. I can’t say that I really know now, but I can tell you as much as I do know. I learned humor by doing it. Often I’m asked what humor is made of as if it were a recipe or formula. In summation of what I’ve learned about the subject, I’ll give such a formula: Humor is a very serious business.
In 1945, when those in power incited several thousand reactionaries to demonstrate and demolish the Tan Newspaper, where I worked, I was left unemployed and could find no work with any paper. They would not accept any writing under my name. Thus it was that I commenced writing for newspapers and magazines under more than two hundred assumed names. These were writings of all types including editorials, anecdotes, reports, interviews, police novels, and stories. Upon a newspaper owner’s discovery that a pseudonym was mine, I invented a new one.
Many many mix-ups occurred because of these assumed names. For example, I published a monologue children’s book under the name “Oya Atesh,” a combination of my daughter’s and son’s names. Those in power were unaware I’d penned these monologues, and they were used in almost every elementary school in addition to being recited at evening entertainments. “Oya Atesh” was listed as a woman author in the “Bibliographie of Turkish Women Writers” which was published later on.
Another story I wrote, which was published in a magazine under a French pseudonym, was accepted in an anthology of world humor as an example of French humor.
Still another of my stories, which I published under an invented Chinese name, later appeared in a second magazine as a translation from Chinese.
During the times I couldn’t work as a writer, though I tried many jobs like grocer, salesman, accountant, newspaper peddler and photographer, I was a failure at all of them.
As a result of my writing, I’ve been imprisoned five and a half years. Six months of those years were caused by King Farouk of Egypt and the Iranian Shah, Riza. King Farouk and Shah Riza claimed that I insulted them in my articles and through their ambassadors in Ankara had me brought into court, the end result being a six-month jail sentence for me.
From my first wife I have two children, and two from my second–altogether, four children.
At my first arrest (1946), the question the police asked me continually for six days was this:
”Who is the real writer of these articles that came out under your name?”
They wouldn’t believe that I wrote them.
Not long after this event–two years–the opposite occurred. This time the police claimed I wrote articles with other signatures. The first time I’d tried to prove I wrote, the second, that I didn’t write. On one such occasion, an expert witness testified that I’d written an article under another name, so I was imprisoned sixteen months for an article I didn’t write.
My first wife and I were married and walked under the sabers of my officer friends as the orchestra played the tango, “Comparasita.” I exchanged wedding rings with my second wife through the bars of the prison. You see that this was not a shining beginning.
I was thin. Languishing again and again in prison, I put on weight.
In 1956 I took first place at the International Humor Contest and won the Golden Palm. Newspapers and magazines which would not publish my writings with my own signature before my winning of the Golden Palm hastened to do so afterward. But this didn’t last long.
Then once more writings under my own name were banned from the newspapers and I was forced to enter the contest again in 1957 to win another Golden Palm. After this, my name reappeared in newspapers and magazines. In 1966, at the International Humor Contest, held in Bulgaria, I took first place and won the Golden Hedgehog.
Upon the political revolution in Turkey on 27 May 1960, in my joy, I donated one of the Golden Palms to the State Treasury. A few months after this event I was again thrown in jail. I’m saving the second Golden Palm and the Golden Hedgehog for future joyful days, saying to myself that they’ll be needed.
People are amazed that to this date I’ve written more than two thousand stories. Really there is nothing surprising in this. If my family, whom I’m obliged to support, numbered twenty instead of only ten, I should have had to write more than four thousand stories.
I am fifty-three years old, have fifty-three books, forty thousand lira in debts, four children and one grandchild. I live alone. My writings have been translated into twenty-three languages, my books into seventeen; my plays have been performed in seven countries.
Only two things can I hide from others: one my fatigue, the other my age. Excepting these two, all of me is exposed and open. It’s said that I look young for my age. It must be that I am so busy working I don’t have time to age.
I’m not one who says, “Had I the chance to come to this world again, I would do the same things all over again.” On my second coming I would want to do more than on my first, much much more and much much better.
If in the entire history of mankind had just one immortal been found, I would have looked to him for guidance and tried to achieve immortality too; but what am I to do without a model? It’s not my fault–I’ll die like everyone else.
I love humanity so much, so excessively, that I can even be angry with them.
This is my as yet unfinished story. I realize that readers are generally bored with long articles so I think the conclusion won’t take long. The thing I am most curious about is the end of this story which I will never be able to learn. (1968)
In 1972 the Aziz Nesin Foundation was brought into life being by himself in order to enable children in need of to get a proper personal and professional education.
Nesin’s outspoken atheism often made him a target of Islamic extremists. He most recently made international news by translating and publishing in a newspaper parts of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. Muslim fundamentalists tried to kill him in an arson attack at a hotel in the Turkish town of Sivas in 1993. Nesin escaped the fire, which killed 37 writers, poets, and intellectuals who had gathered to commemorate the death of a 16th-century poet hanged for his opposition to religious oppression.