I Won One Competition, but Toured Three Countries: Notes from the Young Writers’ Festival in Almaty

From November 21 to 25, Almaty hosted a Young Writers Forum organized by the SEIP Foundation (Foundation for Socio-economic and Intellectual programs). The forum participants were young writers from Kazakhstan, Russia, and Kyrgyzstan. However, in the case of these writers, “young” does not at all equal “beginner”. Most of the authors already have publications in thick literary magazines, and some have already published their own books.

This is not the first time Kazakhstan has hosted such events. In 2019 SEIP held the inaugural festival, which, however, only included Kazakhstani and Russian participants. This time the guests of the forum were Russian poets Maxim Amelin and Elena Lapshina, novelist Ilya Kochergin, as well as critic and part-time deputy editor-in-chief of the “Знамя” magazine Natalia Ivanova.

The essence of the project was to establish cultural ties between countries, search for new talents, and promote the ones already known. The festival included separate master classes for prose writers and poets, panel discussions and round tables, as well as creative meetings. At the master classes, participants analyzed each other’s texts together with creative supervisors.

The round tables deserve special mention. The first one discussed the possibility of creating a single cultural space shared by representatives of the three countries. Some participants argued that such a space already exists within the former USSR. Others, on the contrary, argued that only the shared Russian language unites us (although this is already a controversial issue for Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan). The parties agreed that even if the cultural code has changed over the thirty years of independence, such discussions and festivals help not only authors, but also ordinary people from different countries to find a common language again.

The subject of literary translation also came up. Kazakh translators shared the problem of not having literature written in Kazakh translated into Russian, and vice versa. This is due to the dearth of qualified translators and the lack of support from the state. In this regard, it is worth mentioning the performance of the Kazakh literary magazine Dactyl’s team and the Russian magazine Formaslov’s team. The editors-in-chief of these publications talked about the inner workings of the publishing process and shared their challenges, which, despite the geographical distance, turned out to be very similar. Both magazines exist due to the sheer will and dedication of their creators who work for free. Donations from the public provide a modicum of support, but these funds are not enough. Nevertheless, at the moment Dactyl is the largest independent fiction magazine in Kazakhstan, while Formaslov maintains the status of one of the most popular free literary resources in the Russian Federation.

The final event in the series was a roundtable with the participants of the Almaty Writing Residency, which took place in September (and as a result of which you are now reading this text on this portal). Participants and organizers talked about their impressions and future plans – for example, intentions for the upcoming writing residency in 2022.

The festival was held on the territory of the “Kazakhstan” sanatorium. Everyone lived there, including participants from Almaty. For literary festivals this is a becoming a best practice because it puts writers in constant contact with each other and gives them plenty of opportunity for various communication. On the penultimate day, the guests were taken on a tour of Almaty, thereby having not only texts, but also beautiful photos for memory.

Kazakh writer Lydia Koshut shared her impressions:

“Such festivals give two great hopes. The first is that literature lives, breathes and has a future. The second one is more personal: it is the hope that your work will be seen, read, that it will be remembered by someone. That it will find new readers.

The fact that the festival included writers from three countries helps to better observe the differences and similarities of our cultures, to see if the texts will be perceived the same way, or whether everyone will see something completely different. For example, it was interesting to see the reaction of writers to a work from Kyrgyzstan: all agreed that the text was important, but it resonated in distinct ways with foreigners and the residents of the country. For me personally, it was also important to understand that literature can accommodate completely different genres and approaches. Each writer’s works were completely different, in style, in genre, and in plots. And yet, everyone read and discussed them. I know that, for example, non-genre and plot-free writing is not always welcome. Yet, at the festival, we found something interesting and important in everyone’s work, no matter how experimental. It really helps writers to believe in themselves and their texts.

As a participant, I would like to add that it was a wonderful experience. Not only from the point of view of writing, but also from the human side. Without such events, it is difficult to understand how many talented people surround you. Especially when it is possible to talk not only within the framework of seminars, but also in an informal setting, sitting in each other’s hotel rooms, reciting poems by heart. And I really hope that no pandemics will prevent us from hosting another literary festival soon.

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