“I am much more a child inside than an adult”: Interview with Agata Niyazova, part 2

“I really want to show that we have enough authors, and that they are all very cool.”

How then to choose a book for a child? 

It is very important for children under the age of nine to have pictures in books. They are afraid of the hopeless mass of text – for them it is synonymous with boredom. And parents, in pursuit of improving their children’s reading techniques, buy them massive volumes without illustrations and completely kill the love of reading. A colorful visual is more inspiring. I follow this principle myself: the volume of text increases from book to book, but so does the number pictures. That is, children read more without noticing it.

It is also worth paying attention to the content of the text. Many fairy tales that have become classics were written not only for children, but also for adults. And it is completely normal that some of their aspects may incomprehensible or traumatic for modern children. As an adult, I reread a children’s book by a Soviet writer and found that the main character does not have his own opinion and adapts to someone else’s. It is clear that for that period it was not uncommon, and the book was commissioned, but for the fragile psyche of the child this is a direct path to low self-esteem. The formula “These are the books of our childhood!” is irrelevant. You need to go down to the level of the child and understand his/her experiences. And then find a book that will help respond to these experiences and inspire the child to try something new. Read the stories for yourself. Also pay attention to the authors themselves. Check out their biography, because every author gives a piece of their life to their books. I believe it has an impact.

In Kazakhstan, the writing and publishing environment is fundamentally complicated. What about children’s writers? Do you have a connection with any of your colleagues? 

I agree that the situation is not easy. Stores do not seek to sell and advertise Kazakh literature. If you want to promote something, you have to do it yourself. I have a connection with my colleagues. I communicate and make friends with many poets and writers, and not only children’s ones. Now I plan to make an exhibition of children’s writers and get closer to those whom I know through social networks or in absentia. I really want to show that we have enough authors, and that they are all very cool. 

Is it difficult to publish a book in Kazakhstan? Have you had to use to crowdfunding?

With the help of publishers – yes, it is difficult. Everything will have to be done at your own expense. Although as far as I know, Meloman Publishing sometimes releases someone. Some authors resort to the help of foreign publishers or agree to release for royalties. But for me personally, it is not profitable to work for royalties. I decided that it would be easier to produce and sell my books myself. I resorted to crowdfunding, I wanted to release books in Kazakh. But it was not possible to collect the amount, so the idea has been shelved for now. If sponsors suddenly appear, then I am ready to revive it. Any books that might come out of it would still have to be promoted through targeted events–otherwise they risk just gathering dust in bookstores. Of course, the first experience of book publishing was stressful for me, since I didn’t know a lot of things. But when you have already learned, there are almost no difficulties left. It’s just a matter of resources, you need to constantly pull money from somewhere. I print books in the amount of 1000 copies, so the circulation costs about seven hundred thousand tenge. 

Do you test books on your own children? 

Absolutely. My eldest son is 14, the youngest is 7. And when I write a story and doubt whether it is necessary to continue working with it, the children confirm, choose – this one is good, this one is not. They especially like books aimed at personal growth, so I rely on their opinion and try to write about it. Plus, they really help me choose names and colors for the characters, and the older one also proofreads after the final editing. 

How are things going with the translations of your texts? 

At the moment we have finished working with Nina Murray (American poet and translator), we translated four of my fairy tales. Two are already ready for release in English. I am now looking for publishing opportunities not only in Kazakhstan, but also abroad. My books are already sold in America, but in Russian. 

Who are your favorite writers?  

Of the children’s writers, I like Jacob Martin Strid and Astrid Lindgren. They both inspire me a lot, and Astrid has been an icon for me since I was a child. The adults are Isabel Allende and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Another one is Laurent Gunel, he is a specialist in human development. 

What are your plans? Any ideas for future projects and books? 

Now there are plans to develop events in Nur-Sultan and Almaty. Next – to release a new book in the near future and draw the next one. To hold a book fair — an exhibition of writers and several book presentations. And, as I said, to take my books to children around the world – maybe it’s a big word, but it’s a rush of the soul.

Sometimes interesting collaborations are born. Last October we did a concert with a book – I read, and an accordion player and a violinist accompanied. The music emphasized particularly emotional moments in the text, and it is difficult for me to express in words my delight at the result. So far we haven’t repeated this experience, it’s still an additional burden, but both we and the audience really liked it. Ideas for something like this appear all the time. And it is doubly pleasant that there are people who are ready to engage in such projects – it is very inspiring.

And finally: during the January events, I set myself the goal of writing something new. The result was bigger than others. To be honest, I cried while writing. This is a children’s book, but it is also for adults. Often parents read and understand something themselves. For me, this book is especially important in light of the events taking place in the world. It does not relate to anything heavy, but at the same time touches the strings of the soul. I hope the world will see it soon.

Agata Niyazova-Belova was born in Kyrgyzstan, since 2004 lives in Almaty. Founder of child development center. Since 2020 she has published 5 books from the series about the Ginger Fox and 1 book from the series about the Donut Penguin. In 2021 Agata staged a play on her books. She has developed 3 master classes on her books and conducts them in Almaty and Nur-sultan.

Alyona Timofeyeva is a novelist, publicist, theater columnist. She was born and lives in Almaty. Three times alumni of the Open Literary School of Almaty. Participant of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. Participant of the Young Writers’ Forum of Russia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (2021). Co-founder and editor of the blog about Kazakhstani literature “The Alma Review”. Published in “Dactyl”, “Angime” literary magazines, the almanac “Literranova”. Alyona is engaged in journalistic activities on various media platforms. Studies at KIMEP University at the Faculty of International Relations.

“I am much more a child inside than an adult”: Interview with Agata Niyazova, Part 1

Art for children is a huge layer of culture which nonetheless does not attract much attention in the modern world. But there are exceptions. Agata Niyazova-Belova is a children’s writer, teacher of master classes and creator of puppet productions. 

Agatha, please tell us how you got into children’s literature? 

My education is not related to children – I trained as a hotel manager. I studied, like many at that time, what my parents suggested. Later, however, I wrote a diploma in animation work with children. My family is full of teachers, and my grandmother also had her own theater. The pedagogical vein in me made itself known very early: when I was still a child myself, I often looked after younger kids, then worked in a summer camp. And when my eldest son was born, I plunged into the study of psychology and pedagogy. Then I opened my own center. At first, it was confusing that I didn’t have the right education. But one day one of the pedagogical college’s key persons came to my classes and said that I was born a teacher. I had the gift from above. And then I believed in myself. I had taken many courses in art and fairy-tales. And when queues began to line up at my center, I realized that I was on the right track. 

Why children’s literature? Isn’t writing for children much more difficult? 

My children’s center has been working for nine years. I bought books for it myself: in preparatory school, many kids were starting to at four and a half years old – and I saw a shortage. It was clear that the materials were outdated, and today’s children no longer liked them. And then I wanted to write myself. I started to study how a book is made. For a long time I did not allow myself to write, but then I decided to try. And it is absolutely not difficult for me to write for children. I feel them very well, and, frankly, I am much more a child inside than an adult. 

What are you doing now? Do you write, conduct educational courses, art therapy? 

At the moment, I am most focused on my books. I have a self-publishing project – I work with illustrators, editors, and layout designers myself. I am currently in the process of releasing my seventh book, and the eighth is already in development. I base my creative activity on my own books. I came up with a performance and three master classes based on them and have already taught them to teachers in Almaty and Nur-Sultan. Now my job is to create and promote content. This year, my colleagues and I launched our website and are now engaged in active targeting. As for the master classes, they are mostly therapeutic. They are different: one has a detective spin, in the other the kids themselves prepare a book and come up with a “theater” for it. Plus, I have developed felt finger-puppets based on books, and this brings additional interest. Sometimes, I do get asked to write something specific. For example, recently, I was asked to develop fairytale-style curriculum for a school-preparation class. On top of all that, I also write songs. 

What children’s literature resonates with you on a daily basis?

Literature with deep meaning, books that help a child to believe in himself, to become more confident. Books that teach kids more about the structure of the world, and not from the point of view of hard science, but from a psychological one. A lot is connected with the development of emotional intelligence. In one of my books I wrote: “Ginger the little fox decided to be sad, because his mother always told him – cry, be sad when you want to.” I often ask children at master classes – can we be sad? And as a rule, they say “no”. But if a person does not allow themselves the whole range of emotions, then this leads to negative consequences up to psychosomatic diseases. And all this is learned in childhood. It is important for me to present the material so that a child becomes curious. Therefore, some of my books are magical, others are detective stories, and still others are rich in facts about nature. I want the child to learn the world through them. 

In your opinion, why is reading important? 

Reading develops empathy, which is also emotional intelligence. It has already been proven that you can’t go far with naked intelligence, you need to develop so-called soft skills. Parents now indiscriminately sign up their children to different clubs. That’s good. But if the child is not well-read, speech and writing skills immediately suffer. It is easier for a reading child to communicate, write and take turns when speaking. Books also help children grow spiritually, to orient themselves in life. This is especially true of adventure and historical literature. The child will read, and when he gets into a certain situation, he will remember – but the hero of that book did this! Now there is also a lot of non-fiction literature that helps to understand yourself. 

And then how to instill a love of reading in children? Especially if modern parents themselves almost do not read. 

The easiest way is to go to the store with your child. According to my surveys, many children under the age of seven have never been to bookstores. So parents choose the books themselves – if they choose at all. Children from the age of five quietly pick up their own clothes, and they like it. So why can’t we do the same with literature? A neural connection should be formed: reading is normal. Even if the child is very small, and you make all purchases online, ask him – how do you like this book? Then he will feel that it is his choice. And in no case blame the child if he did not like it. As a child, I myself had the experience of “well, you yourself chose that, who is to blame?”, and this was negatively postponed in the future. Support the child – you are well done, because you are in a process of searching and you are aware. 

Many people cannot find the entrance to reading – the very book after which they will want to read further. You can focus on cinematic preferences. By what cartoons the child chooses, it is easier to understand which books he is likely to like. He watches horror movies – try to find some kind of horror book, likes educational programs – try encyclopedias. And, of course, it is very important that adults read for themselves. After all, children tend to copy the behavior of their elders. 

Agata Niyazova-Belova was born in Kyrgyzstan, since 2004 lives in Almaty. Founder of child development center. Since 2020 she has published 5 books from the series about the Ginger Fox and 1 book from the series about the Donut Penguin. In 2021 Agata staged a play on her books. She has developed 3 master classes on her books and conducts them in Almaty and Nur-sultan.

Alyona Timofeyeva is a novelist, publicist, theater columnist. She was born and lives in Almaty. Three times alumni of the Open Literary School of Almaty. Participant of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. Participant of the Young Writers’ Forum of Russia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (2021). Co-founder and editor of the blog about Kazakhstani literature “The Alma Review”. Published in “Dactyl”, “Angime” literary magazines, the almanac “Literranova”. Alyona is engaged in journalistic activities on various media platforms. Studies at KIMEP University at the Faculty of International Relations.

A Half-Year Anniversary Celebration!

The English-speaking community in Kazakhstan is not as big as it could be, but it makes up in quality what it lacks in numbers. The KIMEP University has been a great example of Kazakhstani-Western relations for 30 years. KIMEP has a huge alumni base and contacts all over the world. And one of its most resounding voices is KIMEP Times. The newspaper is published through the efforts of both students and invited specialists. Therefore, it is a great pleasure for us here at the Alma Review to grab a piece of attention from the audience of at least 2,500 people. A great gift for our half-anniversary – we have been with you for six months! Cheers!

Russian Language in the Time of War

A guest post by Yuriy Serebriansky

Photo from the author’s archive. The picture shows Yuriy (on the right) and Igor Belov, a poet, literary translator and journalist from Kaliningrad.

What doomed Putin’s blitzkrieg and continues to make his war against Ukraine absurd is a strategic mistake which I believe to be socio-linguistic in nature. 

Let me recall the literary festival held in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in November 2021, long before the Bloody January in Kazakhstan (which now feels like it was years ago—time has expanded). The festival was the second collaboration between the SEIP Foundation (Russian Federation) and our Open Literary School Almaty (OLSA, Kazakhstan) in the last ten years. The program of the festival, with its prose and poetry workshops for Kazakhstani writers and meetings with Natalia Ivanova, Maxim Amelin, Vitaliy Nayshul and other established Russian authors and editors, was designed around the theme of “A Single Cultural Space. Kazakhstan, Russia, Kyrgyzstan: From a Dialogue of Cultures toward a Single Cultural Space.” You can find the recordings of the panel discussions on OLSA’s Facebook page. 

I clearly remember being disappointed by both the speakers and the content of the discussions (except those who skipped the topic and focused on literature, as, for example Natalia Ivanova, Evgenia Jane Baranova and Anna Markina). Not a single speaker—all of whom, I believed, aspired to the ideals of a liberal and multicultural society—could clearly articulate the idea they mentioned several times, that of the “Russian World.” Speakers evoked a range of ideas whose relevance was not easy to grasp, from the economic reforms of the nineteen-nineties to conspiracy theories. Perhaps the most honest thing I heard from a Russian colleague was, “Folks, to be frank, I really don’t know what to tell you.” I wondered why our discussions felt tense and the talks of my Russian colleagues so unfocused. The only answer I have is that the original idea behind their lectures—that the use and promotion of the Russian language beyond Russia self-evidently meant also the promotion of Russian culture and ideas—was unsustainable. It had bankrupted them just as it had failed Putin. 

Kharkiv and Kyiv, the two biggest Ukrainian cities Russia attacked first, are both predominantly Russian-speaking. I have no doubts (in fact, I recognize the sentiment that informed this delusion) that the Russian troops had expected to be greeted with flowers by people thanking them in Russian.  Instead, they faced a ferocious resistance from the local forces whose ranks included just as many speakers of Russian as of Ukrainian. In the same vein, in Poland, a country dealing with an enormous influx of displaced Ukrainians, the demand for interpreters from/to Russian is as critical as the one for those working to/from Ukrainian.

It grieves me to say this, but in one way, Putin’s ideological plan has succeeded. Now is probably not the right time to talk about any of this war’s victims other than Ukrainian civilians. However, I am compelled to name one more casualty: the Russian language. The global urge to ‘cancel’ anything describable by the adjective “Russian” is real, understandable, and damaging. Damaging because something ‘Russian’ might have as little relationship to the Russian Federation as something ‘English’ to the actions of England—yet the aversion to all things ‘Russian’ feeds the Kremlin’s narrative of grievance. Old fears and political instruments they had spawned are familiar and therefore easy to use. The disappointed voices of Russophone people on social media are a song of alarm, confusion, and upheaval as Kremlin’s propaganda hooks sink into individual linguistic identities.

Getting back to Kazakhstan again, I anticipate that the status of the Russian language will be revised in the near future in line with the decolonization effort to revise the available history of the Kazakhstan famine and the persecution of Kazakh leaders after 1917.  I believe the status of the Russian language in Kazakhstan needs to be officially reconfirmed. Along with Kazakh as the national language, Russian remains a critical language of inter-ethnic communication. Kazakhstan has the third largest Russian-speaking population in the world, after RF and Ukraine, and it has fallen to our country to navigate this linguistic relationship now. 

Yuriy Serebriansky is a Kazakhstani author of Polish origin and cultural researcher. His prose, poetry, and non-fiction have appeared in Kazakh, Russian, and American literary journals, and been translated into several languages. Editor-in-Chief of Esquire Kazakhstan from 2016 to 2018, he is currently Editor-in-Chief of the Kazakhstani Polish diaspora magazine Ałmatyński Kurier Polonijny and the prose editor of the Russian-language literary magazine Literatura. He is an alumnus of the International Writing Program and served as an instructor in the IWP’s Between-the-Lines 2019 session.

In the Eye of the Storm: What Poems Written in January are Silent about

A review by Selina Taisengirova

Translated by Alyona Timofeyeva

Qantar and The Limits of Silence are two collections of poems by Kazakhstani authors who were at the heart of the tragic January events that claimed numerous lives of ordinary people. The Limits of Silence came out on the Dox platform almost in the wake of what happened, and Qantar in the February issue of the magazine “LiTTERAtura”.

In many ways, these collections are similar. The authors are the most notable Kazakh poets who write and publish in Russian and Kazakh. Many of them are represented in both publications. But there is also an important difference: the texts in the “LiTTERAtura” were written during the days of Bloody January, when residents of Kazakhstan were were compelled to shelter at home without communication and Internet, while people were being killed on the streets. The selection on the Dox for the most part includes works by the same authors written much earlier, when it was difficult to imagine that something like that could happen in our country. 

At the same time, an unintended, and therefore even more reliable connection arises between the events of the past and the present, between both publications. There is a thread that stretches from the present back in time, and each author has touched it in his or her own way. For example, Ksenia Rogozhnikova:

they say
loving kindness
has flooded our entire country
go ahead now
to wish yourself
to ask for forgiveness
from your enemy
--"The Limits of Silence"

light-and-sound grenades
traffic lights off
the crowd that walks
down the middle of the street
in the streets of the city
  -- "Qantar", also in full here.

Or, from Irina Gumyrkina:

Only where it's thin--there the fragile ice cracks,
the thread falls apart, and all sound is silenced:
life comes to a stop just like a broken clock.

- "The Limits of Silence"

And it's scary, Lord, it's so scary: 
there's no way to escape this left. 
The tower stands black on the square, 
snow falls to the ground dead. 

- "Qantar"

In my opinion, this connection is especially evident in the two texts that become each collection’s respective centers of gravity. The first is the poem by Yedilbek Duysen “1782 KM” translated by Anuar Duysenbinov, which gave the name to the whole collection “The Limits of Silence”:

an ancient
tentative hope
turned into patience
and perished
somewhere in the limits
of silence...

...you see your nightmare's shadow in daylight when you look over your shoulder and think: 

look, we are all riding one dandelion head
through the heart of the storm
clasping at seed stems

The second is Zair Asim’s poem “We are Silence” in Qantar:

we want to have wishes but it's as if we're not there
we are as out of reach as the dead
it is unbearable this silence...
...we are an empty space
we are the silence

Are there limits to silence, are we there when there is no hope, can we shout over the storm when silence is unbearable? On a physical, emotional and mental level, these texts create probably the most accurate sense of what is happening to people in a situation of global cataclysm in which Kazakhstan finds itself.

At the same time, we see in these collections living notes from shelter or hideaway, reminiscent of  Anne Frank’s diary entries or Sartre’s “No exit”, where “hell turns out to be an ordinary room in which three sinners are locked up forever.” And if the family of Anne Frank was locked up and cut off from the whole world because of the persecution of the Nazis, can we consider the similar predicament of Almaty’s residents truly coincidental? Or are the coincidences not accidental, and life itself throws us secret clues?

Interestingly, there are more than twenty authors in these two collections, and they are all completely different – by age, by self-identification and national affiliation, by the language they think in, and the environment in which they exist. But if you look at the poems written before the January events, then they are all united by the understanding that something has gone seriously wrong at the global level in our country and our life, and the sense of foreboding is overwhelming. of what is coming is insurmountable.

So Aurelia Akmullayeva deconstructs Kazakhstan’s national anthem to compares the hackneyed messages about the eternal Kazakh land and independence with a tranquilizer injection. Its frequent use leads to an overdose and early death, like happened with many stars who are in the sad circle of the “Club 27”. Oral Arukenova paints Kazakhstan’s “end of the world” as cyclical and endlessly repetitive: “here in the middle world without changes, akyr zaman becomes permanent.” And Victoria Rusakova sees her homeland as a mother who has had no milk in her breasts for a thousand years and whose children are fed the same mixture Aurelia calls a tranquilizer injection.

Returning to the “Diary of Anne Frank”: just as in the notes of this ordinary girl, in many texts of the Qantar collection, written directly during the rampant war outside the windows, we see a lot of everyday, completely ordinary and such human details:

my eight-year-old
writes in her journal: 
"We have a war here now
and must stay at home,
but the neighborhood store
is already restocked
with bread 
and potatoes"
- Ksenia Rogozhnikova

The DVD player 
and disks we got down from the shelf
but couldn't find the right
cables -
those movies still rock
- Aleksei Shvabauer

I will hold your hand,
so that you can sleep, 
and you, please, hold my hand, 
so that I can sleep
- Vadim Dergachev

Probably, it is this simple, patient and unpretentious humanity that allows us to hold on in terrible circumstances, that gives us the very hope for which we search in vain in political figures, social movements, and promising reforms. We are constantly losing in the information and political war, becoming victims or tools in someone’s hands. But for now, while remaining completely different, we look at unshakable things in the same way – we will not be the losers in this war.

Selina Taisengirova was born in Almaty, graduated from KazNPU named after Abay. Majored in Russian language and literature. Graduate of Pavel Bannikov Poetry Seminar in the Open Literary School of Almaty (2017-2018). Editor of the criticism and journalism section in the literary magazine “Dactyl”. The author of poetic collections published on “Polutona” and in “Dactyl” magazine. Finalist of the Metajournal literary award in the nomination “Poem of the Year” (2021). Entered the prize list of the Russian literary prize “Poetry” (2021).

“Loyalty to yourself vs loyalty to others”: A review of Valeria Krutova’s stories by Veronica Voronina

Translated by Alyona Timofeyeva

Valeria Makeeva (pseudonym Valeria Krutova) is a Kazakhstani novelist and children’s writer. Valeria started publishing relatively recently — in 2019, and immediately proved herself as a good regular author of the well-known literary magazines “Druzhba narodov” and “Unost’”. Her texts appeared in the literary magazines “Autograph”, “Litterratura”, “Formaslov”, “Dactyl”, in the LiterraNova almanac, and in the collection of prose “The Road without End”. Valeria was in a long list of the FICSHN35 Literary Prize (2020) and was a finalist of the literary prize “Danko” (2021).

Male-female relationships usually are the center of most of Valeria Krutova’s stories. She has a masterful command of the word, a special linguistic flair. This becomes evident already in the very first collection of her stories “They love me” (“Druzhba narodov”, No. 9, 2019). As the prose writer Alina Gatina (“Dactyl”, No. 4, 2020) said about this collection:

The collection “They Love me” is also a game letter, where the author is engaged in weaving meaning through the weaving of words; she juggles words, placing them in their places in a filigree way, so that the reader does not have the opportunity to jump to the next phrase without reading (read: not having mastered) the previous one.

The plots of two stories from this collection, “The So-so Bride” and “They love me. They do” call to each other. The significant theme of choosing between loyalty to oneself and loyalty to others unites them. The author presents us with two opposite views.

“The So-so Bride”

In the “The So-so Bride,” the internal conflict of the main character, on whose behalf the story is being told, takes the first place. She painfully chooses between loyalty to herself and her world and the need to be “acceptable” for the groom. The man does not see her real self behind the mask of the ideal bride; next to him she refuses herself.

The author draws the reader’s attention to how the narrator deals with secondary – unnamed – nominalizations. The main one is already contained in the title itself: “The So-so Bride”. The Russian word “nevesta” (bride) itself is of Old Slavic origin and means “unknown”, “undiscovered”. Many wedding rituals contain a reenactment of the groom not recognizing the bride. And the narrator remains truly unrecognized by her man. In addition, the word “nevesta” is phonetically consonant with the name of Vesta— the ancient Greek goddess of the family hearth. “Ne-Vesta” (not-Vesta) indicates that the character does not create this hearth.

Another secondary nominalization relates to the metaphor of the caught fish. At first, the main character compares herself to a fish pulled out of the water. And then a man calls her a “fish”, reinforcing this comparison.

I am a fish. I open and close my mouth. There is not enough air. I’m waiting for someone to hit me on the head with something heavy. And they will let you go.

And let go.

– Fish, dear, I’ll come early.

The fish as a symbol associates with dumbness, with the absence of a voice — the So-So Bride does not speak about herself out loud, does not insist on her own, the groom does not hear her. Two nominations — “(So-so) bride” and “fish” – complement each other, adding another dimension to the image of the character. The story ends with the fact that the narrator eventually chooses herself and loyalty to her own world, and not to a man.

“They love me. They do.”

In the story “They love me. They do.” the situation is exactly the opposite. The narrator has lost herself, her internal compass so much that she misinterprets as love a number of toxic, dysfunctional relationships first in her family, and then in her own life. She endures beatings, humiliation and depreciation, finding excuses for rapists and remaining faithful to them, not to herself.

Nominalizations/labels also play an important role in this story. The main character’s name is Lyuba (in Russian “love” is Lyubov’ – both the noun and a woman’s name). And she repeats all the time like a mantra: “They love me. They do.” – speaking of those who destroy her. It’s like she’s talking herself into it. And also: “Fear appears where there is no love”. But Lyuba never becomes Love-Luybov’ during the story. There is really no love. There is only a lie that covers up and justifies violence: “If he beats you, it means he loves you.” Lyuba lies on behalf of her loved ones; Lyuba’s lies to herself. Long-term stress results in constant tears, anxiety, fear and self-destructive behavior (alcohol, self-harm).

The character’s husband’s name is Vladik. The name Vlad is also of Slavic origin, meaning “possessor’, “lord”. But the author attaches the diminutive suffix “-ik” to it. And here we have a petty tyrant, asserting himself by means of domestic violence and insults to his wife.

– Lyuba! Have you been drinking again?! – my dear shouts. Worried about me.

– Yes, when should I drink? Look, everything is clean at home, dinner is here. When should I drink? – I am smiling, I know how good it will be for me now. I’ll finally feel how much he needs me. How he loves me…

And I feel it. I feel it! I feel it with my whole body. He hits me in the face. And kicks even then.

Lyuba “accidentally” breaks a large mirror. One of the symbolic meanings of the mirror is a person’s knowledge of herself, introspection, self-identification. The character does not want to see herself and her life as it is.


The plots of the stories overlap. Their characters are, in a sense, twins. Lyuba may well have been a so-so bride herself, one who had made a different choice and still married the “perfect groom”, relinquishing her own world. One who ignored all the alarm bells.

Who should one really be loyal to? What if those to whom we are loyalm destroy us? Valeria Krutova’s answer is unequivocal:

And what is the main thing in love? Loyalty…

That’s it, without pathos. However, loyalty not to a partner, but to yourself. Loyalty to the place you are in. The world you live in. (“The So-so bride”)

Valeria Krutova is a novelist and short story writer from Kazakhstan. She holds a degree in law. She took part in the 18th and 19th Young Writers’ Forums of the SEIP Foundation. Her works have been published in the journal “Friendship of Peoples”, “Youth”, in the literary online magazines “Daktil”, “Literratura”, “Formaslov,” the literary magazine “Autograph”, the literary almanac “LiterraNova”(2018) and in the prose collection “The Road without End.”

Image credit: Formaslov

Veronica Voronina graduated from the journalism faculty of Moscow State University. Research articles were published in the “Archetypal Studies” almanac, Russian Academy of Sciences’ journal “Medical Anthropology and Bioethics”. She has published prose in the “Neither Two nor one and a half’, ‘Maryinskaya Muse’, ‘Fellow Countrymen’, magazines ‘LiterraNova’, ‘Nizhny Novgorod’ almanacs, ‘Literary Festivals’, ‘Heroes and Creators’, ‘Reasonable Arguments’, ‘Transylvania’ collective collections. Journalism, literary criticism and essays – in the magazines “Formaslov”, “Velikoross”, “World of the North”, in the newspaper “Literary Russia”, on “Literary Radio”, etc. Winner of the literary contest “Without Borders-2021” (nomination “Journalism”). Diploma winner of the ‘International One-Story Contest’ on LITER-RM.RU-2019. Additional education: Open Literary School of Almaty (seminar of literary criticism and essay studies with Evgeniy Abdullaev).

Living in Alina Gatina’s prose – a review by Alexander Mendybayev

Translated by Alyona Timofeyeva

Reading Alina Gatina’s stories, I subconsciously searched for the trends of our era—darkness, pessimism, hopelessness. And they would be there—accompanying tragedy, death, illness, the death of a child, broken hearts, loneliness, a sleep disorder. However, I did not find the darkness. There was no vulgar frankness, the kind that’s only a step away from a perverse voyeurism. There was no depressive melancholy there either. Only the author’s observations of the adventures of the human soul. Alina Gatina  reveals the mechanisms of motivations of her heroes with surgical care. She invites the reader to study, draw conclusions, look into the very depths of her characters’ hearts. And that is it. No naturalism, no moralizing. Everyone will take what they need. And you can take as much as you want, as long as you are strong enough to carry the load.

Gatina’s deliberate negligence conceals her impeccable control of the text:

“All Irish wolfhounds look the same, and so do all homes inhabited by philologists. I said that my neighbor was not a philologist, but a pensioner, and he replied that it was also the same thing.”

Gatina masterfully mixes styles. Tragic and funny interweave organically:

“- Who would cry about me like that, – said Vadik and gave me a nudge. – Maybe you?

—I’ll leave earlier, – I replied. – Ask Marya Stepanovna.

— I didn’t turn in the books. I’d better not get caught by her.”

The text is rich in various literary finds: “After all, we all began from somewhere”, or “They left three hundred kilometers from home, where, according to Isaev, people ended and animals began.”

Who are the heroes of Gatina’s stories? Ordinary people familiar to each of us, dealing with everyday situations. The skill of Alina Gatina is to breathe life into them, make them attractive, pull out the human. Even in animals. Even in objects. 

I began my acquaintance with the work of Gatina by reading the story “The Soul and the Desert,” a universe of broken destinies and crippled souls. Friends who managed to escape and stay together. Hot Spot—the heroes used to call it HS in a casual, military way. The civil war is mentioned in a few oblique references, but its impact, its breath affect each character. The war left deep scars in people’s souls, and did not bypass anyone with its diabolical generosity. But before the war, there had been another, very different life. And a new one came, dividing their destinies into “before” and “after”. The war is over, the heroes are safe. They are still friends, they try to get together every year. They are fragments of something big, once whole. But they will never be the same again. The heroes are acutely aware of this upon returning to their homeland. They are together, but they are strangers. Still, they go to the town of their shared childhood, discussing a certain Zarrukh, the father of a huge family, who accidentally killed his son. Zarrukh could not forgive himself and did not find an answer among people. He was shouting into the desert, which also had no answer. Now, having left his family, having punished himself with complete detachment, he is living out his life. What for? He probably doesn’t have an answer himself. He died as a person, his soul burned out.  

I read “The Garden”—an eternal dispute between a physicist and a poet—after I met Alina Gatina in person (we are neighbors). Seva is full of life and ideas, a romantic enthusiast, a fanatic of science. And his companion is the practical down-to-earth Raisa. Ironically, Seva is a disabled person who lives with paralysis, and Raya is full of life and strength.

“But it’s beautiful,” Seva said.

“But not for long,” said Raya.” 

“Come on! He’s a hunter, he’s a dog, he’s made to bark.”

The author herself perfectly characterizes Raisa: “She gave everything material in life a second, and a third, and a fourth chance.” Without Raisa, Seva would not last long. Not only because he would run out of food and the medicines he needs so much. Without Raya, her garden, something that motivates Seva to take his medicine every day and hobble around until it’s time for the next pill, would perish. We cannot say what will become of Raya without Seva. I want to believe that Raya’s frenzied energy will pull her out of any scrape. But for some reason it seems to me that Raya without Seva will not last long either. It is for his sake that she tinkers with the garden, sells flowers at the market, collects vegetables and clears her mouse traps. So different, but so related, the antipode of the dead during the life of old-world landowners. And the neighbor girl Lilya is a bright ray that flashed for a moment in their magical garden. 

If Gatina’s stories are presented as combinations of sounds, then “The Soul and the Desert” will turn out to be the dominant chord – long, understated, ambiguous. “The Garden” is the undoubted major note, but “Hostility” is an alarming minor one. A talented physicist with the soul of a vulnerable poet, Isaev resists life. And yet he lives – he watches other people’s twins, falls in love, serves in the army, drops out of university, goes to another one. He is constantly looking for something, tasting life. But everywhere, in everything and in everyone, he feels hostility. It seems so easy to solve his problems. Hey, man, come to the mirror. Here it is, your main enemy and main fear. But Isaev can only be understood by Isaev himself. Each of us will have a couple of similar acquaintances. The guilt for the broken boy displaces Isaev from the institute, deprives him of bright love. Jealousy of the mother’s next hobby stops the desire to seek affection. Life is spent in anxiety and torment, in a hostile environment. And only after experiencing the most acute stress, Isaev finds the peace he needs so much in the circle of his unharmed wife and son. 

In Alina Gatina’s stories there are deep, multifaceted, original, often tragic fates of the most ordinary people. Finding the interesting in the mundane is one of the distinguishing features of the author’s unique style. While reading, I got too deep into her characters and worlds. Surfacing– I pondered for a long time over her main message. Perhaps Alina Gatina perfectly defined it herself: 

– “Writers deliberately compose sufferings in order to torment the hero and thereby scrape a man in him.”

Alina Gatina was born in Shymkent in 1984. She is a graduate of the Gorky Literary Institute, laureate of the literary awards “Altyn Tobylgy”, “FIKSHN35”, and the founder of the literary workshop “LITKLASS”.

Alexander Mendybayev was born in Almaty in 1982. He is a graduate of the Kazakh State Law Academy, majoring in International Law. Since 2015, he has been a student of the Open Literary School of Almaty. He was published in the magazines Neva, Volga, Literary Alma-Ata, Esquire Kazakhstan, ZaZa, and Dactyl. An excerpt from his story “Lodgers” was published in the anniversary collection of prose “The Road without End”.

Creative Writing for Youth Workshops Celebrate Five Years at Open Literary School of Almaty – Apply Now!

Five years ago, in 2017, a group of teenagers read their short stories before an audience at the presentation of their first prose collection that was published at the end of Creative Writing for Children Workshop. Since 2017, instructors of Open Literary School of Almaty, supported by Chevron Corporation and the U.S. Consulate General Almaty, have been running Creative Writing for Children and Youth seminars every year. Four collections of the best stories in Russian as well as three such books in Kazakh have been published so far.

For some of these books workshop participants designed the covers themselves.

I was lucky enough to complete the youth workshop twice: in 2016 and 2018. The first experience turned out to be so memorable and useful that I applied for the second time. It is no exaggeration to say that this was my first step into great literature. The youth workshop is an invaluable experience, no matter how you look at it. Venerable authors take you under their wing and teach you not only to write, but to think, to fantasize, to create. Classes are not like boring school lessons. During the workshops you work with the syllable, style, logic. Mentors help you to create a text from scratch and bring it to perfection. But the most important thing is that they communicate with you as an equal. Authors whose books are already on the shelves of stores do not babble with you as with a child. They see talent in you and help you in developing it. Thanks to the Workshop, I met many Kazakhstani writers. I was lucky enough to work and learn with some, and to form strong friendships with others. Plus, in the circle of young authors you feel at ease – it’s a language community where like-minded people understand each other instantly. And even if it becomes clear in the future that literature is not your life’s pursuit, writing, editing and drama skills will be useful in many other areas.

At the seminars, writers and playwrights Dina Makhmetova, Merey Kosyn, Elena Klepikova and Ksenia Rogozhnikova teach teenagers how to write stories in Kazakh and Russian. Since the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in 2020, the workshops have been held online. As a result, the reach of the program has expanded to include the whole territory of Kazakhstan. Last year, teenagers from such cities and towns as Aktobe, Kokshetau, Atyrau, Zhambyl, Karaganda, Kyzylorda, Turkistan, Shymkent and Almaty joined the workshops.  

This year, from March to July, the workshops for Kazakh and Russian-speaking participants are scheduled to be held simultaneously so that students in both groups can receive the same writing assignments and can study the same theoretical topics week by week.  Two joint meetings of Kazakh and Russian groups are planned as part of the course. Thanks to the Almaty Writing Residency 2021 the teachers and writers of Literary School realized that Kazakhstani literature could not be divided into different segments based on language. There is one Kazakhstani literature that is inseparable. So, two times during the workshop teenagers and young adults from both groups will meet and discuss each other’s stories to share their opinions and tricks of the trade.

Open Call for Participants of Creative Writing for Youth Workshops 2022 – Apply Now!

Open Literary School of Almaty supported by the U.S. Consulate General Almaty and Chevron Corporation is happy to announce a new season of Creative Writing for Youth Workshops. We welcome applications from residents of Kazakhstan: 15-21-year-old authors writing in Kazakh and their 15-18-year-old colleagues writing in Russian.

Workshops participants will acquire creative writing skills, get acquainted with different literary genres, learn how to edit and proofread their texts and how to write reviews of short stories. Also, they will meet their peers – emerging Kazakhstani authors writing in another language.

A collection of the best stories written by the authors from Kazakh and Russian groups will be published at the end of the course.

To apply for the Workshop please send us your short story and a brief essay “Why Do I Want to Participate in the Creative Writing for Youth Workshop?” by email to litshkola@gmail.com. The deadline for applications is March 15, 2022.

The Workshops are free but there are only 15 places in each group. So, to get a place you have to win the writing contest.  

Good luck! We are looking forward to hearing from young authors!

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.

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

On the other side of a magic mirror: Elena Klepikova, Ksenia Zemskova, “The Adventures of Little Quarantine People”/”Карантинные человечки”

Елена Клепикова, Ксения Земскова. Карантинные человечки. Алматы: издано при поддержке Американского консульства в Алматы, 2020. 120 pages. ISBN 978-601-06-6508-8.

At the very beginning of the pandemic, there was a joke that every writer is obliged to create at least one quarantine work. And what if it is not just a work, but a whole quarantine world?

In just two years, our lives have changed beyond recognition. And if now we remember the first months of madness in quarantine almost with a smile, back when we were living through them, it was definitely not a laughing matter. Especially for those who have small children.

Kazakhstani writer Ksenia Zemskova was among just such people. Ksenia has three children, two of whom do not even go to school yet. I’ll let you imagine what fun reigned in the house during the quarantine. But Ksenia was not at a loss and, after watching the pranks of her toddlers, decided to write a book.

The second author, Elena Klepikova, has children who have grown up a long time ago. But a mother’s heart is always sensitive, especially if it is also a writer’s heart.

This is not the first book that the authors have written together. Before this, there was a poetry collection “Two Letters” (2018) and a teenage novel “The Queen’s Crawl, or Times of Change” (2019).

“The Adventures of Little Quarantine People” is a collection of stories about an ordinary Almaty family of four people. In the center of the story is a pair of siblings, Danik and Diana. Just when they are getting pretty bored in lockdown a magic mirror falls into their hands. From this moment, tempting adventures begin. The children encounter everyday problems, so routine they are hardly noticed, from completely different angles. Young readers, together with the heroes, go to medieval Paris struck by the plague epidemic; they travel into the human body to find out how the immune system fights viruses. They make masks and medicines for fairy-tale characters and invent new means of communication which no quarantine can disrupt.

“The Adventures of Little Quarantine People” is written in the genre of magical realism. ‘The Little Quarantine People’ is how the magic mirror—a character in its own right—refers to Danik and Diana.

“You must be having an epidemic then!” the Mirror said. “Now I see why I had to wake up. I am always there whenever the family is in danger. And—I do like you, little quarantined people.”

The book is written in Russian, and has been translated into Kazakh. Published in hard-cover, it looks like a flip book, complete with gorgeous colorful illustrations. The book is not sold in retail stores, because its publication was grant-funded.

The inventive and empathetic story delivers public health lessons: why it is important to wash one’s hands and wear a mask; how infectious diseases spread; and the use of quarantines to stop them. A thousand copies of the book were distributed to the Kazakhstani libraries. The book won the “Altyn Kalam-2020” award in the nomination “Daraboz” — the best children’s and adolescent literature.

“The Adventures of Little Quarantine People” is a book about children and for children. It is perfect for self-reading. It will also be a pure pleasure to read out-loud for parents who recognize their own children in the restless main characters, and themselves in the sincere and funny Mom and Dad.

 Dad had put on a shirt of his, and Mom was helping him button it. 

“Nope. No way,” Mom said, giving up. “Done with this shirt, I guess.” 

“Really? I love this shirt,” Dad said. 

“Daddy,” I heard Dee say, “are you crying?” 

“Indeed I am. I’m just keeping it inside.”

“But why?”

“Because I’ve gotten fat during the lock-down.”

“I put on ten pounds this month, too,” Mom said, sounding sad. “Take off the shirt.” 

“Fine. I like a T-shirt better anyway.” 

I heard Dad open and close the wardrobe. 

“Let’s go eat something to cheer ourselves up,” he said.

“The Adventures of Little Quarantine People” is a guide-book to the world of childhood. No matter how old the reader is, he or she will surely want to join the indomitable Danik and Diana. And then surely visit his or her parents. Because the main thing this book teaches us: no virus is too terrible if you have family around.

The complete English translation of the book is also now available.

Ksenia Zemskova is a poet, children’s writer. She graduated from the Higher Literary courses at the Gorky Literary Institute, was published in Russian, Kazakh and Ukrainian literary magazines. Participant of the young writers forums in Russia. Leads a seminar of prose and children’s literature at the Open Literary School of Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Elena Klepikova is a novelist, children’s writer, and essayist. Author of eight and co-author of six books. Laureate of the literary awards “Golden Feather of Russia”, “Korneychuk Prize” (Ukraine), “Daroboz”, as well as laureate and prize-winner of literary prizes and competitions held in Russia, Kazakhstan, Germany. Has publications in literary journals and collections of Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Germany. Stories and fairy tales were translated into Kazakh, English, and German. Leads a seminar of prose and children’s literature at the Open Literary School of Almaty, Kazakhstan.