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Central Asian literature: what’s on the cards?

‘Come to the Russian stand, I’ll meet you there’, says Hamid Ismailov, a writer from Uzbekistan, the head of the BBC Central Asian and Caucasus Service, a quiet and soft-spoken gentleman in a black velveteen jacket. It’s the last day of the London Book Fair 2013, and I’m visiting the huge Earls Court Exhibition to meet Hamid-aka and Marat Akhmedjanov, perhaps, the leading publisher about all things Central Asian, at least in the UK.

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London Book Fair 2013. No Central Asian countries were represented there

This time Central Asian literature as such is not represented at the exhibition, as it would require colossal sums of money to book a pavilion or at least a stand, which brings us to the issue of governmental support of such events. However, each government has its own idea about the kind of literature it wants to support , and in our region, only authors of the stories, novels and poems written in one of the titular languages  may hope to gain some official recognition and backing. It leads to a different question: do writers need any support from the government which will surely come with a moral price tag the size of the Kyzylkum Desert?

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Hamid Ismailov (centre) takes part in the roundtable discussion at the ЯEAD RUSSIA stand

Meanwhile, today Central Asia is sort of made visible by Hamid, Marat, and to a certain extent by Layla Alexander-Garrett, a lively woman born in Tashkent and the author of a book about her friend, the famous Russian film director Andrey Tarkovsky. They are sitting in front of a red stand adorned with large square letters ЯEAD RUSSIA and not before long someone from the audience asks Hamid-aka: ‘What is Russian literature?’ – to which he gives a snappy answer: ‘Any literature written in the Russian language’.  Hang on, what about translations, I want to ask him. In other words, will an author of an authentic text, let’s say, in Tajik lose his or her ownership of the text if it is translated into Spanish or Japanese? Surely not, and both Sadriddin Ayni and Chingiz Aytmatov, the titans of the Tajik and Kyrghyz literature respectively, have remained such and only have had their stance enhanced by numerous translations of their works into other languages. Yet it is not as simple as it seems.

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Hamid Ismailov talking to a British colleague. An ethnic Uzbek writing in Russian and living in London? Can he qualify as an Uzbek writer? 

Which, if you think about it, is kind of a paradox. By bringing a writer’s literary identity down to the issue of their language identity, not only does Hamid Ismailov justify his claim to be a Russian writer (of Uzbek origin) when he writes in Russian, but he also effectively confines local authors writing in the titular languages to a certain audience and cultural context. It seems that the literary historical paradigm has made a full circle: if in the recent past very few would have suspected that both Joseph Conrad and Guillaume Apollinaire were, in fact, Polish rather than English and French writers, today one’s ethnic background is not to be discarded. To most, Hamid Ismailov, writing in Russian and living in London, remains an Uzbek writer, while only few would confer such status to Rifat Gumerov, Victoria Osadchenko or Galina Dolgaya (the winner of the 1st Open Central Asia literary competition). Who are they, just other Russian writers simply living in a different city of a different country?

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Layla Alexander-Garrett, a Tashkent-born writer presenting her book About Tarkovsky. Is this a piece of Uzbek, Russian or English literature? 

I have written about the complexities of the national question in Central Asia in many previous publications; when it comes to literature, everything becomes double complicated because of the all-too-sensitive issue of the language. What seems to be at work here is not the vagueness of writers’ position in respect of their allegiances but the shifting concept of the national and, subsequently, of belonging.  Take, for example, Alisher Navoi. By what virtue is he regarded ‘the father of Uzbek literature’?  He spent about four years on the territory which today belongs to Uzbekistan and wrote (only some of his works) in Chagatay, a Turkic dialect which some historians and linguists believe to have been a mere cousin of the modern Uzbek. The answer is as simple as it is slightly baffling: he is the father of Uzbek literature just because he was institutionalised as such. Even twenty years ago this would have been regarded as a ridiculous and highly artificial argument, but today, when the power of social constructivism and manipulation has been (almost) universally recognised, Alisher’ Navoi conferred status does not seem to be less legitimate than that of any other symbolic figure. So, where does it leave us with the contemporary Central Asian literature?

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Riaft Gumerov, a leading figure in the post-modern Central Asian literature

One of the answers would be to determine the writer’s identity on the basis of the identity their readers impose on them. Yet, in the context of virtual absence of the readers that can consciously articulate their preference, it would usually be up to literary critics to make their informed choice for the public. Where there is no literary criticism to speak of, as in today’s Central Asia, it puts the author in a highly favourable position: they can single-handedly claim whatever identity they may wish for themselves and can rightly expect to face no challenge. Several years ago Rifat Gumerov (with the little help of his friends) founded the Ferghana literary school; nobody objected and now it’s a well-established and respected concept. Later he offered me the position of the leader of the Samarkand underground literary scene; why not, I said, at least I lived in this city ten times longer than Alisher Navoi. Andrei Kudrayshov has developed the Chilanzar  school of I’m not quite sure what. So, It’s basically up for grabs. Let’s write in all languages we could master and set up literary schools and movements  and construe new identities hoping the history will sort it out later. May be, if we are lucky, it may even work.

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Victoria Osadchenko and Bach Akhmedov, two of the most established poets writing in Russian – Uzbek poets or just poets from Uzbekistan? 

All photos – by Alex Ulko

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