Academic texts don’t usually manifest themselves as graphic novels. Whether Turkish Kaleidoscope, a narrative about political unrest in the Turkey of the 1970s, is technically “academic”, it comes from a university press; author Jenny White, although she has several novels under her belt, is also a social anthropologist with a clutch of scholarly volumes as well; much of the source material for Turkish Kaleidoscope comes from interviews she conducted in 2014. So, close enough.
Turkish Kaleidoscope tells the interlocking stories of four young Turkish students as they navigate the political violence of that time. It doesn’t read like an academic text, which is exactly the point: White writes in her brief introduction that
It occurred to me that academic analysis flattened these stories as it folded them into discussions of abstract issues, like factionalism.
The four characters—composites—are the “rightists” Faruk and Orhan and “leftists” Nuray and Yunus; the setting is Hacettepe University in Ankara in 1975. The supporting cast includes other students, parents, other adults in various walks of life. There are many meetings, demonstrations, graffiti, posters, followed by a lot of cracking of skulls, and worse; human relations struggle to break through the polarization.
This period was followed by a military coup in 1980 and elections from 1983, at which time “new consumer products and hopes for upward mobility gripped Turkey’s population.” At this remove, it can be hard to understand what they were fighting over: they called each other “Fascists” and “Communists”, but the divisions seem almost tribal. In a sort of epilogue, the protagonists themselves are left wondering: “people wanted to forget,” White writes.
“Today,” White continues,
Turkey is again experiencing extreme polarization… I thought the story behind Turkey’s polarization in the 1970s might be important for understanding today’s dynamics.
“Why a graphic novel?” asks the author in her introduction:
We can analyze data and build models to try to explain the origins of factionalism and descent into political violence, but the reality always involves complexities of real actors negotiating cultural, social, and historical pressures. A graphic novel explains the same things in a more subtle way by embedding them within highly evocative life experiences, personal turning points, and coming-of-age stories.
Turkish Kaleidoscope, with considerable help from illustrator Ergün Gündüz, does indeed do that. The graphic novel form has its devotees, of course, and the artwork here is very strong: mostly black and white, some splotches of color for emphasis, a few full-color illustrations. But graphic novels appeal mostly to either either these devotees, or to those who find them a less intellectually strenuous entree into a subject. But the subject is, for the English-speaking audience, quite far off the beaten track. In Turkey, of course, it would not be: a Turkish-language version would make considerable sense—were that currently possible.
Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.