Leyla Erbil, a prominent novel and short story writer of Turkish literature, was born in an old mansion in Fatih in 1931. One of three children, Erbil spent her childhood in Fatih district and then in Beşiktaş. She started her primary school at Esma Sultan Primary School and continued her education at Beyoğlu Girls’ School and Kadıköy Girls’ School. Erbil started writing short stories and poems during her high school years, when she began to develop close connections with an artistic milieu comprised of intellectuals of the time such as Metin Eloğlu, Selahattin Hilav and Nevzat Özmeriç. In 1950 Erbil commenced studying English Literature at İstanbul University, and following her freshman year she married Aytek Say. The couple stayed married for a short period of time. From 1953 to 1955 she worked as an airline attendant at Scandinavian Airlines. Her acquaintance with Sait Faik Abasıyanık, whom she deeply admired, took place during these years. Until Sait Faik’s sudden death in 1954, the two were close friends.
In 1954, Leyla Erbil married Mehmet Erbil. When the couple moved to Ankara in 1955, she ended up in a circle of artists and intellectuals, including Vüs’at O. Bener, İlhan Berk, Mithat Fenman, Fethi Kopuz and Kaya-İlhan Kopuz. In 1956–57, she worked as a translator and secretary at the Ministry of Water Affairs in Ankara. Encouraged by Metin Eroğlu, Erbil published her first short story Without Struggle in the journal Selected Short Stories. This publication was followed by others in famous journals of the time, such as Ataç, Dost, Dönem, Papirüs, Türk Dili, Türkiye Defteri, Yeditepe, Yelken, Yeni a, Yeni Dergi and Yeni Ufuklar.
In 1957 Erbil and her husband moved to Izmir, and in 1960, she gave birth to their first child, Fatoş Erbil. The same year, her first short story collection, Carder, was published. In İzmir, Erbil could not find the intellectual atmosphere of İstanbul or Ankara, and when her husband went bankrupt, they moved to İstanbul and settled down in Teşvikiye. In 1961, Leyla Erbil joined the Turkish Workers Party, which was then headed by Fethi Naci, and worked in the Arts and Culture branch of the party with Edip Cansever and Ahmet Oktay.
In 1967, for a short period of time, Erbil worked at the Turkish Embassy in Zurich. Her second short story book, At Night was published in 1968. In 1971 her first novel, A Strange Woman, and in 1977 her short story collection, Old Lover, were published. After her father’s death in 1969, Erbil quit her job and devoted herself to writing full time. She was among the founders of the Turkish Artists Foundation in 1970 and the Turkish Writers Union in 1974. In 1979 she was chosen as an honorary member by Iowa University in the United States. She participated in the International Writers’ Workshop as a guest of the Center for American Culture and gave a seminar there on Turkish literature.
In 1984, Erbil’s mother, who suffered Alzheimer's disease for a long time, passed away. Her second novel, Day of Darkness, was published in 1985. Her close friend Tezer Özlü passed away in 1986, and her third novel, Letter Loves (1988) was co-designed by and dedicated to Özlü. In 1995 Letters from Tezer Özlü to Leyla Erbil was published.
Throughout the 1990s, Erbil was prominent both for her literary output and her political stance. In 1996 she wrote a declaration to draw attention to F-type prisons and hunger strikes, and gathered support from almost 100 poets and writers. In 1999 she ran for parliament for the Freedom and Democracy Party (ÖDP). Shortly after the elections, she left her party membership.
The Turkish PEN Writers’ Association nominated Leyla Erbil for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002. In their nomination, PEN described Erbil with the following words: “Her mastery in Turkish language and literature, the unique world she creates in her works through her creative language and the universality of this world, her contribution to arts and also her sensitive intellectual manners for ordinary people, life and world.” She was the first woman from Turkey to be nominated for a Nobel Prize.
Erbil’s recent publications have included Dragon with Three Heads (2005), The Remaining (2011), and A Strange Man (2013). In 2013 she was awarded with PEN Short Story Award with the following citation: “As matter of gratitude for her extraordinary literary works, and an appreciation of her constant struggle for a secular and democratic Turkey, we are more than delighted to offer 2013 PEN Short Story Award to our masterful writer Leyla Erbil. We are thankful to her for fostering her creativity with intellectual responsibility and never-ending youthful enthusiasm.”
Leyla Erbil passed away in İstanbul on July 19, 2013. Leylim Leylim: Letters from Ahmet Arif to Leyla Erbil, a collection she hoped to publish in her lifetime, was published posthumously. Her works have been translated into many languages, including German, English, French, Kurdish and Russian.
From the 1950s onwards, using a new and experimental vocabulary challenging traditional literary writing styles and techniques, Erbil developed a unique punctuation system and played with the rules of syntax to exhaust the possibilities of literary writing and tried to subvert the boundaries of language. Erbil wrote extensively on middle class morality, individualism, male-female relations, and the position of women. In her works, where she challenged the boundaries between truth and fiction, poetry and novel, and the past and present, Erbil tackled the tense relationship between the inner world of the individual and society.
The Leyla Erbil Special Collection was donated to Boğaziçi Üniversity in 2016 by Erbil’s daughter Fatoş Erbil. The collection includes approximately 40 notebooks that Leyla Erbil filled from 1940 until her death, correspondence with her friends, hand-written notes, personal documents, newspaper and journal articles, various published texts, posters, awards and several personal objects. The collection offers valuable materials for those researching and working on a particular period of cultural and literary life of Turkey.