The Danish girl: how a journalist from northern Europe wrote a book about Almaty, part 1

When foreigners write about Kazakhstan, it always causes some jealousy. But the Danish writer Mia Tarp Nurmagambetova is an exception. Tweny two years ago, life connected her with our country, gave her a family and inspiration here. Mia has written a book about Almaty, which will soon appear on the shelves under the title “Frequency”. In this interview writer shared with us about what Kazakhstan means to her and what it is like to be a foreigner in the country.

How did you end up in Kazakhstan?

I was born in Denmark and lived there until I was 12. We lived in a small town by the sea, so for me the smell of childhood is the smell of fish. When I turned 13, we moved to Almaty. My father worked in the oil sector, and he was offered a job here. It was 2000, the industry was just developing, so I was not the only foreigner. I studied in an international school, and many of my classmates were also non-local.

I lived in Almaty for a year. But then my parents divorced and I returned to Denmark. However, my father continued to work here, and I often visited him. I was just an ordinary Scandinavian girl when I first arrived. And living here has become a culture shock for me – in the best sense.

After school, I decided to study Russian at the university. It was the only opportunity to get closer to the region – after all, it is unrealistic to learn Kazakh in Denmark. I really wanted to return to Kazakhstan. But my father had already left at that time and I didn’t know how to get a visa. And suddenly I found an internship in Russia. And from there by train I got to Kazakhstan again, and this trip changed my life. I’ve been finding ways to come back all the time – so much comfort I feel here. I have lived in different countries: Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, studied in Australia, but Almaty has always remained the center of my world.

I have been living here for four years permanently with my husband, but previously lived here also for longer periods.

Read more: The Danish girl: how a journalist from northern Europe wrote a book about Almaty, part 1

How did you start writing?

My story is so much cliché (laughs). I was one of those kids who didn’t look up from books. And I dreamed of becoming a writer. It seemed to me that this is the most powerful force – to create pictures in people’s minds. I didn’t study it anywhere on purpose, I just loved to write and read. I have always considered myself to be a creative person. As an adult, I went to Australia to write my doctoral thesis on Kazakhstan. Besides, I worked as a journalist, so I wrote a lot. And in 2015 I started writing for myself. I had a severe crisis and started a diary with the hope of feeling better. And at some point I caught myself making up stories. I took real events as a basis and reworked them. Moreover, I didn’t write in the first person – always in the third. It seemed strange to me that I was distorting reality, but it was a great therapy, because you see everything from the outside. I wrote every day and got good at it.

And what are the results?

I wrote my first book while living in Bishkek. I was chatting on the phone, we were discussing Bowlers (a coffee chain in Almaty) and everything that happens there. And suddenly I said out loud – hey, it’s like a book! And realized that I have to write about it. For three weeks I was creating only with breaks for the ordinary work, and without any plan I wrote 70 percent of the book. But finishing it took quite a while: I finally moved to Kazakhstan, started a relationship, gave birth to a child. However, I did not stop writing – it’s like a scratch that you touch a little – and it starts bleeding!

Now I have one finished book and one is in development. And recently I started a book in Danish – a big novel about a Dane who discovers that he has a stepsister in Kazakhstan. This is a story about Soviet and Danish spies, as well as about family vicissitudes.

Mia Hansen

In a nutshell – what is your Almaty book about?

It won’t take long anyway – the book is small, you can read it in a couple of hours. It is about seven Almaty residents who are part of the city, but at the same time they are absolutely independent people. Each of them goes through difficult times, but the city brings them together and helps them overcome difficulties. The city itself is a character on par with people. It is different: sometimes bright and cheerful, sometimes gray and disgusting. The book is somewhat philosophical – about how each of us sees life.

And what path will the book take next?

I couldn’t wait for the Russian version of the book to be released. I was very lucky that my friends recommended me to contact Anton Platonov and Yuri Serebryansky. Anton headed the translation, and Yuri edited.

I was thinking of releasing the book in Denmark, but I’m not sure that it will take root. There is no specific connection with the country, so Danish publishers are unlikely to be interested. I translated the book into Danish and printed 50 copies, but they didn’t sell. Interested people read in English. Therefore, if somewhere the book should be accepted, then it should be here. After all, it’s about Almaty, and I hope that I was able to convey how someone who knows history looks at the city, but sees it from the outside.

It seems to me that we have not overcome the perception of the Iron Curtain yet, and for us a book written by an author from northern Europe is a puzzle that needs to be put in our head.

Yes! Plus, the book is not written in the standard manner “from A to Z”. And I hope that my creative presentation won’t confuse readers. For example, the action takes place for one day, but this day lasts for a whole year. Morning is winter, day is spring, and so on.

Mia Tarp Nurmagambetova is Danish, but came to Almaty in 2000, and has since lived in the city periodically. She has two university degrees in Russian studies and has been doing postgraduate research about Kazakhstan for several years. Besides Kazakhstan, she has lived and worked in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Australia, Russia and Czech Republic, and spent a lot of time travelling the world. For the last four years she’s been based permanently in Almaty with her Kazakh husband Dias and their kids. Besides being a writer, Mia has worked as a journalist and with human and civil rights. Her debut novel, Frequency, which takes place in Almaty, came out in February 2022 in English. The Russian version Частота will be out soon. 

One thought on “The Danish girl: how a journalist from northern Europe wrote a book about Almaty, part 1”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: