Behind the scenes of “Novellasia”
Submission of works to the «Novellasia» fiction competition for residents of Central Asia was finished. Process of accepting novels, essays, short stories and blog-publications lasted nearly two months. During this short period of time 100 works from 94 authors were submitted.
Very impressive, you say, taking into account the fact that only citizens of five countries had a right to participate in the competition: citizens of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. And now according to the results of the competition, it is quite obvious how many talented people live in these sunny Central Asian states!
April 1, 2014 the competition closed its doors to the submissions. And now five members of the jury from the listed above countries (each of them will judge the works on his/her own language), headed by the well-known culture expert Alexey Ulko from Uzbekistan, have to decide who is the most talented and extraordinary writer in his/her country. Names of 5 lucky winners will be announced on May 1, but for now let’s look behind the scenes of the literary contest and see how work was going on, what tricky situations occurred during the admission process, and who is generally engaged in the work on «Novellasia».
Organizers and ideological inspirers of the «Novellasia» competition – Vice President of NGO NewEurasia Citizen Media Christopher Schwarz and Project Manager and Editor of NewEurasia Sanjar Rakhmatov – answered on these and other questions.
Nurzhan Kadyrkulova (NK): How and when the idea of conducting «Novellasia» competition was born? Tell us about the development of the whole “plot”, was the idea initially a little bit another or are you following the same structure from the very beginning?
Sanjar Rakhmatov (SR): The idea to conduct «Novellasia» competition came to Christopher. «Novellasia» has been funded by HIVOS arts and culture program called Bringing Central Asian culture into the spotlight.
Christopher Schwarz (CS): Originally, we were going to write our own small non-fiction book focused on Central Asia’s arts and culture scene modeled upon our previous volume, CyberChaikhana: Digital Conversations from Central Asia (2011). HIVOS provided us some money for such an initiative. However, gradually as a group we came to realize that the money would be better spent on directly supporting local talent, and moreover, to produce several small books, rather than just one made by us.
NK: Have you faced any difficulties during the competition process? Were there any difficulties in attracting public attention, or with the conditions that you have defined for the contestants?
SR: «Novellasia» is a very complex project because it involves the participation of writers who write in 7 languages, and it was very difficult to come up with a fair and transparent mechanism for judging, as well as to conduct advertising and to attract audience of 5 countries simultaneously.
The hardest thing was to “reach out” to the audience who writes on the national languages - Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, etc. Communities of such writers are usually far away from the internet, and it wasn’t easy to inform them about our competition. But nevertheless, we have completed the task, and «Novellasia» represents writers in all Central Asian languages.
NK: Why competition is conducted only among the citizens of Central Asia?
CS: Although NewEurasia is a media entity, to some degree we are also involved in development – specifically, cultural development. It is not enough to build roads or establish governmental institutions if there isn’t also a healthy culture to accompany such infrastructure. This means it’s important to develop minds. Necessarily, the minds which must be developed are those who have a permanent and intimate stake in the society which is being developed. Such minds are those of the citizens.
NK: Where did the name «Novellasia» come from?
SR: I came up with the name of the competition – it combines the word “novella”, the essence of our contest of short fiction, and the ending is inspired by the work of George Orwell 1984, which featured three superpowers – Eastasia, Eurasia and Oceania. Posters of the competition (with watermelons and chapans) were developed by the illustrator Julia Drobova.
NK: Why as the main judge for the contest was chosen a culture expert but not a person from writers’ circles?
SR: We initially decided not to make a writer as the main judge, but to give this privilege to a culture expert, a person who is well versed in all the intricacies of cultures of Central Asia, and who will be able to look at all the works as a person from outside. Alexey Ulko wrote many works on the Central Asian identity and cultural processes at the regional level. There are very few professionals now who can think and create in the context of the entire Central Asian region.
NK: By which criteria you will choose the winner in each country?
CS: All of the submissions have been anonymized: the names and personal data of the authors have been removed, and each author has been assigned a number. The file names of the submissions have been changed to the following structure: author number + the country of their origin + language of their submission.
Because we feel that at this stage in history it is more important to develop the expressive capacities of Central Asian languages – i.e., how authors use these languages, not what they specifically say with them – the judges have been instructed to assess submissions in Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkmen, and Uzbek by the sophistication and originality of the author’s language usage, rather than the themes, plot, characters, etc.
Russian submissions will be assessed by a more well-rounded set of criteria because this language is much more developed at the moment.
Besides the five winners, there will also be many runners-up. The runners-up will, of course, not get any money, but they will have secondary publishing priority after the winners. That means the winners will be published first, then the runners-up, and then everyone else.
NK: Do you think that young Central Asian authors have the creative potentiality? Do they have real opportunities to publish their works, to attract readers, and to receive recognition not only in their own country, but around the world?
CS: In terms of creativity, Central Asians really have imagination! I have been studying Kyrgyz and I was very happy to discover the works of Begenas Sartov, the science fiction author. In his work When the Edelweiss Flowers Flourish («Мамыры Гулдөн Маалда») he was incredibly creative, even too creative.
As for opportunities to publish, attract a readership, and receive international recognition, unfortunately, the situation isn’t very good at the moment. For international exposure, they really need to aim for the bigger languages – Russian and English, and perhaps also French, German, even Turkish. In fact, I suspect that Central Asian authors might find a lot of readers in Turkey, where they might be perceived as distinctive.
I think the best strategic option for Central Asian authors writing either in their own national language or another language lies in science fiction, at least at the beginning. Chingiz Aitmatov broke into the international scene initially because of science fiction, and Sartov has now also been recognized, albeit only in some elite Western circles.
Finally, Central Asian authors should not be afraid to think commercially.
NK: How important is «Novellasia» for residents of CA? And what is its main mission?
SR: Our mission is to enable a wider audience to touch the works of talented authors from Central Asia. We plan to make our competition annually, which means that each year at least 5 writers of the region will have an opportunity to get a translation of their works into Russian and English languages, to work with a professional editor and publish their works in our electronic (and in the future – printed) book.
P.s. Organizers secretly admit that during the admission process there were a lot of amusing cases when the participants swamped the organizers with questions about conditions of the competition, although all information was provided in detail in the description. “In addition, we still receive letters with requests to accept the work after the deadline,” – Sanjar Rakhmatov says, “When you ask authors to comply with the rules they are sincerely resent – “Well, it’s just some rules! They can always be broken!”. Unfortunately, the rules for us is a holy thing, so please do not ask us to break them.”