Burhan Sönmez’s Istanbul Istanbul wins EBRD Literature Prize


Earlier this week, the London Book Fair announced Turkish author Burhan Sönmez’s Istanbul Istanbul, translated by Ümit Hussein, had won the inaugural EBRD Literature Prize.

Judged by historian Peter Frankopan, poet Gabriel Gbadamosi, Lucy Hannah, who founded and manages the Commonwealth Writers platform, and journalist Rosie Goldsmith, the prize awards €20,000 to the winning title, which is shared equally between writer and translator.

Launched last year in conjunction with the British Council, and sponsored by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the EBRD Literature Prize recognises and promotes the extraordinary richness, depth and variety of culture and history across a wide range of countries from Morocco to Mongolia, Estonia to Egypt.

The other finalists for this year’s prize were All the World’s a Stage by Boris Akunin, translated by Andrew Bromfield and published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, and Belladonna by Daša Drndić, translated by Celia Hawkesworth and published by Maclehose/Quercus.

Rosie Goldsmith, chair of the EBRD Literature Prize judging panel, said: “Istanbul Istanbul is a life-affirming novel of profound humanity and exquisite writing. And Burhan Sönmez is a major writer, a highly deserving winner of this major new prize. Yes, the novel is set in a prison cell, yes, it’s set in Turkey, but at no point does it condemn or take a position: it’s our story too. The four protagonists are on a quest to find kindness and beauty in a world of cruelty. They are fully rounded, real characters with flaws and oddities, gripping us not with accounts of violence and torture but through their humour and conversation. Burhan Sönmez wears his immense learning lightly and together with his literary companion Ümit Hussein, his outstanding translator, they have created a prize-winning novel of great passion and poetry.”

Sir Suma Chakrabarti, President of the EBRD, who presented the prize to Sönmez and Hussein at the EBRD headquarters in London on Tuesday, April 10th, said: “Through the EBRD Literature Prize, we recognise the work of scores of authors across the nearly 40 countries where the Bank works – most of whose voices would have remained unheard had it not been for the translators and publishers who bring these works to the English-speaking world. But our prize is meant to go beyond recognition.  It is meant to promote the wealth, depth and variety of culture and history in the countries where the EBRD invests.”

Burhan Sönmez is an internationally prize-winning novelist. First published in 2015, Istanbul Istanbul has been translated into more than twenty languages. Sönmez, a former human rights lawyer, was inspired to write the book by his own experiences of being imprisoned after a military coup. The book won him the Vaclav Havel Library Disturbing the Peace Prize in 2017. He is currently a board member of International PEN, which friendship and intellectual co-operation among writers and lectures around the world, and lectures at METU University in Ankara.

Ümit Hussein is a translator and interpreter of Turkish Cypriot origin who was born and raised in London. She has translated the works of Nevin Halıcı, Mehmet Yaşın and Ahmet Altan.

Burhan Sönmez’s award-wining Istanbul Istanbul, translated into English by Ümit Hussein

On winning the award, Burhan Sönmez said, “I feel very happy for my city, for my country. We are having maybe dark times, but in darkness we always have hope and beauty.”

Ümit Hussein said she felt “over the moon … proud, overwhelmed and delighted.”

About Burhan Sönmez’s Istanbul Istanbul

Below the ancient streets of Istanbul, four prisoners – Demirtay the student, the doctor, Kamo the barber and Uncle Küheylan – sit, awaiting their turn at the hands of their wardens. When they are not subject to unimaginable violence, the condemned tell one another stories about the city, shaded with love and humour, to pass the time. Quiet laughter is their balm, delivered through parables and riddles. Gradually, the prisoners’ underground narrative turns into a narrative of Istanbul itself, and we discover there is as much suffering and hope in the city above-ground as there is in the cells below.

Commenting on the book, award-wining novelist Elif Şafak said, “A writer of passion, memory and heart, Sönmez revives not only the stories of a land but also its bruised conscience,” while a review in Reader’s Digest said Istanbul Istanbul is “Destined to become a classic”. The English translation of the book is available from Saqi Books.


Main photo above: EBRD Literature Prize ceremony in London, 10 April 2018 (l-r): translator Ümit Hussein, author Burhan Sönmez and Sir Suma Chakrabarti, President of the EBRD. Photo © EBRD