Kaya Genç

See all fellows >

Turkey | 2017, 2018

Kaya Genç is a contributor to The New York Review of Books and the author of Under the Shadow (I.B. Tauris), a ‘fascinating and informative compilation that represents both investigative and literary journalism at their finest’ according to Publishers Weekly. The Economist called Under the Shadow a ‘refreshingly balanced’ book whose author ‘has announced himself as a voice to be listened to’. The Atlanticpicked Kaya’s writings for the magazine’s ‘best works of journalism in 2014’ list. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, The Paris Review, The Times Literary Supplement and The London Review of Books. Kaya is a critic for Artforum, and he gave lectures at venues including the Royal Anthropological Institute and appeared live on flagship programmes including Midday on WNYC and BBC’s Start the Week.



One day during my first week at Santa Maddalena, I woke up in the middle of the night to birdsong. My sleep, interrupted by the piercing sounds of nature, gave way to a dream that I started having half-awake. There, I imagined my room, on the second story of the Tower, transform into a garden. According to the strange logic of the dream, I had fallen asleep in this garden’s impenetrable darkness, and had been left outside the structures of ordinary existence, surrounded by shadows of numberless trees.


Now, I could hear birds singing from all directions a tune that might have been designed to wake me up. For a moment, all those portraits of Ottoman Sultans and their imperial edicts hung on my room’s walls, had disappeared. It was as if, after a long wait, the moment had arrived. The moment — of what?


I felt unprotected, precarious and yet maddeningly alive in that dream, thrown into the naked bosom of existence. At the Tower, I had found myself in that privileged position where all those distinctions between interiority and exteriority, sleep and wakefulness, fiction and reality, were subtly removed before my eyes. In the silent surroundings of this stone building, nothing particularly interesting was going on —a deer walked into the night, a lizard climbed upstairs, a melancholy blind dog howled a distant cry and the wind turned trees into instruments— but in the world of the mind, only interesting things were allowed to happen. In the dark of the night, I suddenly remembered why I was here, on this earth, and how I had imagined my role in it all those years ago, when I had decided to devote my life to writing.


To Donnini I had travelled as a heartbroken, sad man who had lost his way in life. In Istanbul, where I live, I used to start crying in the middle of a telephone conversation. I was restless and would change places constantly throughout the day. I felt purposeless, a man who had forgotten who he was, what he lived for, why the world was worth waking up to every morning. When I got off the train at Sant’Ellero with a small, gray luggage next to me, I was also carrying an odd weight, the burden of a sad season. An unsurpassable feeling that this was my last year on earth, that I had reached the end of things, was bothering me for the past months.


Hours after Andrew Greer brought me to the Tower, I found myself looking out of the window of my room and listening to that curious sound — of what? In the following mornings, I would get up from my bed at seven in the morning and rush downstairs, my bare feet touching the cold stone steps, and I would open the door and head outside, craving — for what? When the night fell and fireflies surrounded the stone table at the garden, I was ecstatic to finally see, in that stark darkness — what?


Was it the presentness of the present time? Beatrice, I suspect, had curated this feeling very carefully and meticulously. She had sculpted this moment—a moment in my life and that of the world, a moment that always felt for me in those six weeks as the moment. Many authors before me must have experienced this feeling of the presentness of the present time at the Tower, its naked openness to possibilities of writing and to the potentials of imagination. At the Tower, all clocks are set to that moment, to the cold and beautiful nakedness of the present time which one wants to fill by forging words and paragraphs.


Now, hearing birdsong from outside the window of my Istanbul apartment only a few hundred meters away from the Pera mansion of Beatrice’s parents, that moment comes back to me, albeit in the form of a recollection. It has passed, the moment, as it had for many writers staying at Santa Maddalena before me. But I am an optimist, have been one even when I used to feel before coming to the Tower that there was nothing more to live for. Yes, the moment that has passed was merely the prologue to a future of moments, of minutes and hours and days of creativity, curated by the baronessa, that inimitable sculptor of time.