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Alexei Ulko: “The author’s love of the text should be obvious”

Very soon results of the feature competition among citizens of Central Asia “Novellasia” will be summarized. Tomorrow the short-list with 15 nominees will be announced, and the final selection of 5 winners will be made on May 1, 2014. Now I invite you to meet with the chairman of the jury, culture expert with extensive knowledge of Central Asia – Alexei Ulko.

Alexei Ulko was born in Samarkand in 1969. In 1991, he graduated from Samarkand State University majoring in English, and in 2000 he received a master’s degree in education at the college of St. Mark and St. John in Plymouth, UK. At different periods of his life Alexei engaged in painting, graphics, photography and video, as well as in literature, linguo-stylistics, translations, cultural studies, journalism and theory of art.

As the chairman of jury Alexei together with experts from the five participating countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan) will determine the winners based on different criterias as well as by presence of the author’s love of the text, which is an important factor in writing a qualitative work.

What is the situation with authorship in Central Asia, and what prospects are opening up for the “Novellasia” winners? Read answers to these and other questions in the interview below.

Nurzhan Kadyrkulova (NK): Nearly 100 works from 94 authors were submitted to participate in the competition. What caused such a stir among the citizens? Why do people wanted to participate in the contest?

Alexei Ulko (AU): A certain kind of Renaissance literature as a form of creativity was only recently designed in Central Asia. It is probably related not only to its commercialization, but also to the new forms of existence of text as, for example, blog or twit. In any case, it is obvious that the number of people who write in the region increased, even as always with a delay. But there is still a lack of opportunities for authors to express themselves and to be published. This is particularly true for literature in Russian language, which has significantly less support from the authorities in each of the states in the region. There are very few literary competitions and literary magazines in Central Asian region, especially those created on a voluntary basis – hence there is a huge interest to “Novellasia”.

NK: Do you think that young Central Asian writers have resources to start publishing and have a real opportunity to make a name for themselves?

AU: I think that many authors still mostly focus on a traditional book format or, in extreme cases, on a thick literary magazine, to be “really” published. But it is expensive, and is often associated with censorship. In literature, as in many other forms of art, some inertness prevails mixed with the conviction that the world owes you something for purported talent – but until then you can sit back and notice skeptically that “we don’t have a creative environment”. Well, how it would be if you do nothing to create it?

Алексей Улько

NK: How you will evaluate the works of “Novellasia” participants?

AU: For each language we have our own expert, who will be assisted by advisers. Collegiality will be applied in the selection process. First, there will be created a short-list of the works, and then we will read them again and discuss. Naturally, works are classified according to the language in which they were written, but there will not be any regional quotas. As evaluation criteria it is necessary to highlight primarily an originality of what used to be called “the form and content”. Among the selected works I would like to see more of those in which there is an obvious author’s love of the text, not just somehow decorated anecdotes from his personal life or oriental cliches. Unfortunately, in our region – and this, again, is not just about the literature, many authors believe that they always have to add “oriental flavor” in any of their works. And this super-idea leads to the fact that there is a fair amount of “hot horses”, “boundless steppes”, “aromatic lepeshkas”, “wise elders” and modestly lowered “almond-shaped eyes” in literature of the region. It certainly does not mean that populism has no place in modern literature, I just think it is already time for us to stop perceiving ourselves as a kind of exotic, and our art – as a product oriented to travelers.

NK: What prospects and opportunities are opening up for the “Novellasia” winners? What is unique about “Novellasia”?

AU: It’s difficult for me to talk about this, because it all depends on the competition organizers and on the authors themselves – how they wish to see the prospects and opportunities for themselves in this competition. But since the collection of the winners’ works in Russian and English languages will be released (and which people can then buy in the Internet) – the prospects of “Novellasia” seem to me very promising.

As far as I know “Novellasia” is the first and so far the only literary competition on a regional scale organized from inside, unlike Open Central Asia that is organized by the British publisher. Of course, being unique is good, but I would personally prefer that there would be at least 10 such contests as “Novellasia”. But still it is necessary to start with something!

NK: What do you think about literature of Central Asia as a whole? What are the problem points in its development and popularization?

AU: Trying to somehow synthesize the Central Asian literature Asia is much more complicated than the so-called contemporary art, artifacts of which from different countries in the region can be assembled in one collection without any problems. National, state or ethnic discourse in the literature has a much greater weight. In each country there is a development of its publishing culture and politics, and most of which contribute to a further fragmentation of the field of literary creation, which makes it less transparent. We see how various political, ideological, national, linguistic, financial and other barriers almost totally prevent publications of, for example, the contemporary Uzbek authors in Kyrgyzstan or Kazakh authors in Turkmenistan. All this in the best case becomes possible after translation into Russian. There are several almost autonomous language environments in literature of the region that communicate with each other only through a narrow channel of Russian-speaking communication.

This in itself creates a certain tension and fragmentation of the literary field in Central Asia, which could be regarded as post-colonial and post-socialist prospects. Development of so-called “national culture” in each of the countries in the region looks as natural and widespread reaction to colonial and Soviet domination, but with reference to the literature it is a serious obstacle for regional integration.

Therefore, for all writers of the region the question of identity is so acute: regional identity, national, local, and so on. But again, I wouldn’t want the situation when everything is rest against these identities. Even though we can’t escape this. Power of the literary work lies not in that the author is Kazakh or Tajik, but in his artistic content, in the depths and beauty of the text itself. In our literature, unfortunately, I see little interest to the text, and if we want to see our literature strong and significant, then we need to develop somehow this exact interest, and not to hang on the question of “national identity”.

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