ISTANBUL, TURKEY — When novelist Yasar Kemal was a boy, he listened to his father sing Kurdish songs on a hilltop overlooking their village in the southern province of Adana. The songs told sagas of Kurdish heroism, of wars, lost sons, and migrations in past centuries.
But Kemal, Turkey's best-known author and nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature, never promoted his Kurdish background. When asked about his ethnicity, Kemal says: "I'm a Turkish writer - of Kurdish origin."
But he has been forced to pick sides as fighting between Turkish forces and Kurdish rebels has worsened. With each report of rights abuses against Kurds, Kemal felt pushed to act.
"I had pangs of conscience," Kemal said during a recent interview. "'You are a writer. You have to speak up,' I kept telling myself."
In Turkey, speaking out sometimes carries a price. The 72-year-old writer was convicted in March for an article denouncing racism against minorities in Turkey, especially Kurds. He was sentenced to 20 months in prison for "inciting hatred and promoting racism." The sentence was suspended on the condition he doesn't repeat the "crime" in the next five years.
"That's censorship!" Kemal cried during the interview. "Asking a writer not to write for five years is torture!"
Although Kemal is not the first writer sentenced for writings on the Kurdish issue, his fame has made him a symbol of government repression of alternative views about its treatment of Kurds during the 11-year guerrilla war in southeast Turkey. Nobel laureate Arthur Miller recently sent a letter of support to Kemal and called his sentence "a painful absurdity."
Born in a small Turkish village to Kurdish parents, Kemal grew up hearing Kurdish at home and Turkish outside. "In my village there was no Turkish-Kurdish split," Kemal explained. "I never saw Turks looking down upon Kurds. But in the last 11 to 12 years, strong winds of anti-Kurdish propaganda are blowing."
'I don't want a separate Kurdish state, nobody does," he added. "All that the Kurds want is their universal human rights - the right to preserve their language, culture, identity."
Kemal has appealed the court's ruling, asking that the suspension be canceled so he can serve his sentence immediately. He was jailed twice for short periods before being acquitted for making "communist propaganda" in his writings during the cold war.
Kemal wrote his best-known novel, "Memed, My Hawk," in 1955, a story of feudal ties in southern Turkey. The book, like most of his 35 others, has been translated into more than 40 languages. He has also won numerous awards, including the prestigious Legion d'Honneur from the French government.