My long relationship with modernist writing

Written by
Demet Karabulut Dede, Department of English
Jan. 18, 2024

Soon after Demet Karabulut Dede joined the English department last fall, we invited her to discuss the project she’ll be working on while in residence with us, and to travel freely from it or to it through her encounters with literary modernism and its influence beyond its origins.

— Sarah Malone, Communications and Project Manager

My initial encounter with modernist writing took place during high school with Mrs Dalloway. Much like many readers, I found the novel rather perplexing and even experienced a tinge of frustration, as I was accustomed to more straightforward narratives with easily discernible plots. Over time, however, this initial difficulty evolved into a source of intellectual intrigue, sparking my keen interest in unraveling the intricacies of Woolf's works and those of other modernist writers, as well as exploring the locales depicted in their novels. The geographical and temporal chasm that separated me, an undergraduate student in Turkey, from these writers prompted me to explore the concept of space, contemplating how these novels functioned as literary bridges spanning the gaps in both time and space.

This early interest turned out to be an important force in my academic career. My research primarily focuses on the exploration of literary intersections, looking for the ways in which modernist works influence other literary works, and draw influences from diverse literary and cultural sources, and, importantly, how some of these influences are often overlooked.

My ongoing book project, titled “Modernist Continuities: Virginia Woolf and Women in Turkey,” examines the enduring impact of Virginia Woolf's literary legacy in Turkey. It investigates how Woolf emerged as a seminal figure influencing modernist writing, particularly examining her afterlives within the Turkish literary landscape. Beyond merely demonstrating Woolf's influence on the stylistic and contextual approaches of women writers, the book sheds light on her pivotal role in catalyzing the women's movement in Turkey, especially since the 1980s. Significantly, the project underscores the nuanced trajectory of modernist writing in Turkey, a phenomenon that unfolded at a distinctive pace compared to its European counterparts.

While Turkish literature experienced substantial French influence starting from the 1850s, and modernist writers were known in Turkey during the early 20th century, the emergence of modernist writing within Turkey is situated in the 1940s. The impact of the First World War, coupled with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent establishment of the Republic of Turkey, ushered in significant political and cultural transformations. However, these political upheavals concurrently created a void in the fabric of daily life and urban existence, initially construed as a form of cultural degeneration — an overarching theme prevalent in the literature of the era. Rooted in the tension and dualism between belatedness and modernization, Turkish literature embarked on a quest for its distinct poetics. In this pursuit, Western modernist literature, and particularly Virginia Woolf, emerged as literary guides in navigating the path towards the creation of such poetics. The temporal disparity, however, serves as evidence that modernism operates in diverse ways across different geographical and cultural landscapes. And it advocates for an expanded perspective that transcends the Eurocentric framework traditionally applied to the study of modernist writing.

My other book project, “Imperial Encounters: The Ottoman and Byzantine Empires in Modernist Writing,” takes a reverse perspective on modernism. It explores how the Ottoman and Byzantine Empires served as cultural and literary resources for modernist writing, shedding light on Constantinople's significance — an urban landscape often portrayed by modernist writers, which, I argue, is as pivotal as Paris, London, New York, and Berlin. I hope that, by unraveling the intricate ways in which conceptions of the “Orient” shaped perceptions of modernity, influencing both geographical and cultural hierarchies within a global context, my book will be an important contribution to the new modernist studies and Orientalism studies, which will hopefully raise questions about the ways orientalism is seen and studied at the moment.

Demet Karabulut Dede is a 2023-24 Fulbright Visiting Scholar and visiting fellow in the Department of English at Princeton University.