Literature from Kazakhstan for the rest of the world
Author: dana kanafina
Dana Kanafina is an author from Almaty, Kazakhstan. She writes prose and essays, as well as works as a journalist part-time. Dana is a graduate of the Summer School of Almaty Open Literature School for Young Writers (2017), Between The Lines of the International Writing Program (2019), Fem-Writing with Oksana Vasyakina and Galyna Rymbu (2020), Get Dusty Creative Writing Seminars with Anna Poloniy (2020) and Almaty Open Literature School, faculty of prose (2021).
Almaty is vibrant even if you don’t know where to look for cultural events, but it’s even more impressive if you do know where to look. Last weekend, the Central Asian research group Davra Collective hosted a contemporary poetry reading at Dom 36, a social-cultural space in the city. The poetry evening was specifically dedicated to Kazakh and Uzbek young poets, and it got me thinking about the very nature of poetry outside of the existing power structures in local literature.
Poetry evenings in Almaty are not a rare occurrence on their own, but most of them are handled by OLSHA (Open Literary School of Almaty). This results in more or less the same performers (or lecturers, depending on the format) being represented. Most of these people are writers in their forties, with strong and explicit ties to Russia. This often alienates individuals like myself and many more – Asian (and otherwise non-white), queer authors. Having evenings like the one hosted by Davra shows what the alternative might look like.
Tillaniso Nuryog’di was the performer of the night who read poetry in Uzbek. Her poetry is an examination of the way the personal relates to the political in the contemporary Uzbek society. Nuryog’di’s poetry features a lot of action verbs, an invitation to participate directly in the life of the country. In many ways, it reflects the modern attitudes in the country. “Those who say hope // Those who say moral // Make me laugh. // Every kind of weakness // Every kind of violence // […] Looks like going to the toilet.” she writes. Her other works were a personal commentary about womanhood in a culture that has strong ideas about shame and appropriate behavior for a woman. “[…] my manners were not suitable for them. // I learn and am tired a lot. // I am a perfect woman. // I changed the way I walk // But anyway, I am the second one” she writes, “A woman throughout all her life searched for the true and false. // World is divided into hierarchy, // And those who knew became dominant // Over those who did not. // But those who knew knew what?”
The Kazakh poets, including myself, were represented by the Jalanash poetry collective. This group of talented individuals has been covered by Alma Review before and it is as strong as ever after its rebranding. Jalanash poetry now focuses not only on LGBTQ+ representation but also on decolonizing contemporary Kazakhstani poetry, in all the ways that are relevant to its participants. One of the poets of the night, for example, presented a poem that talked about Russia’s predatory political practices while using the metaphor of the Rubik’s Cube. Other poets talked about love, including queer love, and the complexity of navigating it in my big city, especially while being so young. One of the performers was MEREY, a poetess and a singer-songwriter who recently saw major mainstream success with her song Betperde. I was second to last to read my poem, and my work was a homage to one of Bianca Phipps’ poems.
The Q&A session after the readings was arguably as engaging as the performances themselves. One guest in the audience has lived in Uzbekistan for some time and she took great interest in Nuryog’di’s work. The exchange was later translated into Kazakh; the same thing followed all the questions asked in English and the discussion about the nature of modernism that bloomed as a result. Nobody in the audience asked for an interpretation into Russian. Moments like these really bring forth the understanding that Central Asian culture exists independently from contemporary Russian culture, and therefore its forceful interference is not necessary. While the whole event lasted slightly under an hour and a half, it is nights like these that bring us as a community forward.
The copy of Voices of Freedom: Contemporary Writing from Ukraine, edited by Kateryna Kazimirova and Daryna Anastasieva, found its way to me on December 16th, Kazakhstan’s Independence Day. I read it immediately – I was home all day anyway. After almost getting arrested for being in the wrong place at the wrong time (post-Soviet jargon for “being seen protesting or being mistaken for a protester”) a few times I try to play it safe. Either way, the matter of the fact is that at the end of 2022, bloody for most post-Soviet countries (Qandy Qantar, the war in Tajikistan, unrest in Kyrgyzstan, further escalation of Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, and, of course, the full-scale invasion of Ukraine), I was home reading through the literary collection of contemporary Ukrainian authors. And I was grieving. And I was furious.
The full-scale invasion of Ukraine has shaken everyone in the former Soviet Union (except Russia, but it seems so desensitized to violence at this point that shaking doesn’t seem to be possible or preferred), and I speak for most Kazakhs when I say we felt it acutely. For most of colonial history, Ukraine and Kazakhstan unintentionally mirrored each other in suffering. The genocide attempt of the Stalinist period – known in Ukraine as Holodomor and in Kazakhstan as Asharshylyq – took lives of 4 million on Ukrainians and 4 million Kazakh people. Both had their languages banned from public use, their celebration days outlawed. Many significant Kazakh authors – Akhmet Baitursynuly, Magzhan Zhumabai, Zhusypbek Aimauytov, Mirjaqip Dulatuli – were executed during the 1930s. In Ukraine, this period is known as Red Renaissance and has its own victims – Mykola Kulish, Mykhaylo Semenko, Les Kurbas, Klym Polishchuk, and others. Despite this, Kazakh and Ukrainian lands have been the largest source of income for Soviet Russia. The idea of brotherhood is overused as a part of the Soviet propaganda, but if there truly are twins within the former Soviet rule, Kazakhstan and Ukraine would be them.
This April and May, Aspan Gallery in Almaty hosted an exhibition dedicated to Sergei Maslov. Maslov was born in Samara, Russian Federation, in the early 1950s and died in 2002, “suddenly” as described in the biography included with of The Space Nomads (“Звездные Кочевники”), his only and unfinished novel. The 92-page work tells of intergalactic adventures of a number of Kazakhstani artists. Like a lot of sci-fi works, The Space Nomads serves as a commentary on the nature of the time, and, I argue, the nature of current Kazakhstan also.
But Who is Sergei Maslov?
Not just born in Russia, Maslov is also an ethnic Russian. He studied at a university in Kazakhstan, when the country was still a part of the Soviet Union. Maslov is now considered one of the “founders of contemporary art in Kazakhstan”. His style is described as unique because of the “mixture of various media forms—painting, performance, installation, video, and text,” to quote his biography again. Maslov was a peer of artists like Sergey Kalmykov, whose works inspired the controversial theme of the first Kazakhstani Pavilion in Biennale in 2022, and Elena Vorobyova, who wrote the preface to Maslov’s book under a male alias (Lenya, short for Leonid) Vorobyov) and who, under the same alias, is a character in the book. The personal relationship formed with these and other people has clearly inspired a good portion of the book which is perhaps why it is important to consider what this relationship could mean to us now, in the present.
Maslov staged his suicide in 2002, after which he stopped pursuing art and withdrew from public view. The “suicide” took place after fictional correspondence with Whitney Houston, in which she and Maslov repeatedly confess love and sexual interest in each other, and both express dissatisfaction and anger towards Houston’s husband. The entire series of fake letters were on display at the art exhibition, without any comment regarding their authenticity.
Most of the art that was exhibited featured black people in different places and circumstances, most commonly different realities with animals of mismatched sizes (giant fishes or very small cats) and deserts. All the women in the works (and most characters are women) are depicted either completely naked, in poses that expose their private parts, or wearing elaborate jewelry.
But since I am a literary and not a visual art critic, this article focuses on the merit (or the absence of thereof) of The Space Nomads. I borrowed my copy of the book from a friend, but anyone who came to the opening of the exhibition could get one for free. The printer, Art Depo Studio (2021), lists the print-run of 300 copies, meaning that 299 more are out there, in the possession of their rightful owners.
The Plot, the Characters, the Violence
Not unique to a sci-fi book written by a white male author, the protagonist is Maslov himself. It is implied that in the alternate universe of The Space Nomads he is also an artist and a writer, but most importantly, he is a space traveler. At the beginning of the book, he takes off from an unspecified planet and finds himself in a bar on a foreign planet. After having a drink, he briefly ruminates on the pathetic state of the other customers in the said bar. Eventually, he pays a prostitute for sex service. The prostitute is described as a creature most closely resembling an earthly lizard, but she can certainly speak Russian. While this author’s mind can and does invent entirely new ecosystems and living beings, it is yet unable to conceive of a world where colonization and the grip of a forced language are not in place.
As Maslov is having sex with the prostitute he wonders out loud about the nature of the male-female dichotomy. His thoughts are interrupted by the prostitute announcing:
“You are a real man, but I am not a real woman. I am an artist of planetary importance, Sergei Kalmykov, I just had a genetic operation.”
At this point, an African man (Maslov doesn’t refrain from using the N-word) comes in and shoots up the bar. Having escaped the bar, Maslov meets a woman named Natasha. She convinces him to travel across the universe with her to look for her father who disappeared while searching for intergalactic treasure. Maslov agrees. On the spaceship, both get drank and eventually have sex. Natasha’s insides are described as “squid-like” which made me uncomfortably wonder if this description was an allusion to hentai. The book doesn’t provide enough content to judge, but frankly, as an Asian woman, I don’t really want to know.
Maslov convinces Natasha that they need a team to accomplish their task. For that, they travel to a different planet (again) and recruit other Kazakhstani authors. This team includes Vorobyova, who wrote the introduction to the book, alongside her husband. This becomes an issue almost immediately since Maslov’s protagonist’s next idea is to find every member of the crew a female sexual partner. He gets briefly enraged about the homosexuality of two of the crew members (here, again, he doesn’t refrain from using the F-slur) but eventually abandons the issue. Everyone travels to a different planet.
There a reader is introduced to a number of women, each briefly described. Some of them are (or at least are intended to appear) American but most are either Russian or Kazakh. Notably, one of the American girls, Jennifer, is Black and is described as having a special talent in rap and modern dance.
Having taken the women onto the ship, the men decide how to divide them amongst themselves. Aside from the gay couple, every man gets to make his pick. Then the crew travels on, again, drinking through most of the way and occasionally having graphic but confusing sex.
Having arrived on the new planet where Natasha’s father was last located, the crew leaves the ship. While they are gone the womenestablish a feminist resistance movement they call “The Shining Virgins”. When the men come back, “The Shining Virgins” attempt to seduce and then poison them. To do this, they get the men and themselves high on an unspecified drug. As a result of this, Jennifer has sex with a man who wasn’t initially assigned to her. Another female character shoots Jennifer dead, removes her body, and takes her place on the man’s erect penis instead. (As I am writing this I’m realizing that The Space Nomads doesn’t really come off as a kind of book an actual sexually active person would write). The party goes on and everybody comes to the unspoken conclusion that the resistance didn’t work out. Maslov’s stand-in and another male character drift off to talking about the superiority of the Russian nation and eventually everybody falls asleep.
The book cuts off when a few days later the characters explore a cave and discover their magical (mostly telekinetic) abilities there.
The Starry Nomads in the Literary Discourse about Race
Given the outright racist nature of Maslov’s writing and visual art, the biggest question I want to address in this article is why do we, Kazakhstan, a predominantly Asian country, still put Maslov on a pedestal?
If the writing in his novel is an indication of his style (even if the final draft researchers came across was in reality a rough draft), then clearly kazakhstani literature did not lose a genius inMaslov’s pretend-suicide. Putting the plot aside for the moment (which we shouldn’t do—this book is a fever dream in the worst possible way), this is simply not a good book. The description of events is simultaneously packed and poor: things just happen one after another without a clear indication of transition; the surroundings of the various planets are incomplete and far from specific. None of the characters seem distinct from each other, and their only real difference lies in the labels Maslov generously applies both to his friends and his slaves. The dialogue is unrealistic and most of the verbal interactions between characters do not bring anything new to the plot. The book tries really hard to present itself as satire, but it is unclear what exactly it satirizes and why. It’s only clear that Maslov had some sort of semi-friendly fight with his peer artists, which really just makes The Space Nomads a diss-track in book form. And the last time I checked, this wasn’t a real genre.
I can think of two explanations for Kazakhstan’s desire to settle for racists.
First, in a post-Soviet society, only a very limited number of people can do a very limited number of activities that earn the label of “real art”. A lot of it is hypocritical and counterintuitive. A man, for example, can talk about sex and relationships since thesehelp shape who he is, while if a woman chooses to explore the same topics she is seen as “just wanting to talk about her life.” A white person can combine various art forms, present them in flamboyant colors, and have the result received as “innovative” and, again, to quote the introduction to the book, “unique”. A person of color, especially an Asian person, doing the same thing is seen as savage-like and unprofessional. Maslov, for example, takes advantage of that by depicting black people as objects, an interesting “accessory” to the painting. It is perceived as acceptable but if it was done the other way around (a black artist showcasing white people lewd, inactive, often faceless) it would likely cause outrage.
Second, the white-dominated art community does not recognize racism as an issue in the first place. Not shockingly perhaps, stepping over non-white individuals in the art world (including Kazakhstani literary society) has always been perceived as “just how things are”. Decolonial activists are actively challenging this view online and offline, so things are slowly changing. The backlash against the Kalmykov-inspired exhibition is good evidence of that. Both of these issues are slowly getting recognized in Kazakhstan’s literary and art worlds and are getting addressed little by little. I personally dream of the day when a man can write something like The Space Nomads and face nothing but rejection and hopefully even a bit of shame—but not in the bizarre kinky way Maslov describes.
Despite being a solitary activity, literature thrives in numbers, especially when numbers in question can coalesce into an institution of any kind. The collectivity and unimity of literary individuals across history helped shape main movements and themes within literature. If every creator existed on his or her own, there wouldn’t be any way to understand or compare works in any meaningful way. So this cooperation, a symbiosis of sorts, between not just specific writers and poets but entire artistic movements is what keeps literature fresh, relevant and accessible. This is why it is a great joy to know that communities such as Closet Poet exist in Kazakhstan. Founded by incredible female poets, Closet Poet is a space that is meaningful in two distinct and equally important ways for the Kazakhstani community and the world as a whole: they help inspire and spread incredible poetry and they are a crucial space for a community.
Literature as an intercultural creative space
Closet Poet markets itself as a bilingual community, welcoming poets who write in English and/or Russian, though poems in Kazakh are welcomed and read quite frequently, as well as partial excerpts that feature words in phrases in other languages. Despite Kazakhstan being a multilingual country, it’s still relatively rare to find a community as welcoming as Closet Poet. English-speaking communities tend to include foreigners who don’t have immediate means of understanding Russian or Kazakh, while Russian-speaking communities, unfortunately, tend to fight for the purity of Russian language, rarely allowing additions into it. The diversity of languages (and even dialects) within Closet Poet adds a fresh thematic wave to the participants’ works, allowing the influence of international writing to spread organically from within.
This community also greatly emphasizes the importance of not just what the poem is like but also why and how it was written. After each reading, the poet is encouraged to tell what the background for a particular piece was, and listeners encourage authors to share the details with non-invasive questions and comments. This creates an opportunity to almost live through experiences as a collective, destigmatizing everything the participants go through.
Lack of censorship is another side of the community that makes Closet Poet stand out. It is important for the organizers to make sure every topic that concerns its members can and is spoken about when it arises. This introduces and destigmatizes whole societal levers of concern, not discussed in mainstream Kazakhstani literature. These include, but aren’t limited to homosexuality, (internalized and external) racism and xenophobia, sex, economic class, religion (the Bible being a recurring theme in some poets’ works, challenging the dogma in various ways), war, and much more. This aspect of the Closet Poet intertwines with the wider importance of the community.
Sociopolitical importance of Closet Poet
With Open Literary School of Almaty (OLSHA) being the biggest literary institution in Kazakhstan (it has collaborated with the funding of Russia-based Fund of Socioeconomic and Intellectual Program (Фонд социально-экономических и интеллектуальных программ) and accepts various resources from a few other Russian organizations) at various points in its history, it is important to note that, much like a lot of other institutions run by post-USSR people, OLSHA is not necessarily impartial, especially now during the time of the informational war when every institution must be aware of its public stance on the war; since not being public about it implicitly agrees with the military status quo of the aggressor-country, it feels like. In order to be able to counterbalance the influence OLSHA has on Kazakhstani literary society, it is important to support institutions that allow representation of a different perspective.
Closet Poet does not shy away from LGBT+ authors. In fact, every meeting begins with poets introducing themselves and their preferred set of pronouns, and requesting not to be referred to or not using pronouns is also an option. Authors often write about their romantic and sexual interest in people of the same gender, and some of these poems are featured on Closet Poet’s instagram page.
Similarly, Closet Poet welcomes conversations about the current war in Ukraine and the January revolution in Kazakhstan . There was space for both personal and societal interpretation of events for all members.
Trauma and the experience of growing up are major themes in a lot of the works. There is a very special level of sensitivity surrounding the various ways individuals grow up, which again goes against the morose post-Soviet structures of shame and negligence.
Most meetings of Closet Poet have specific topics that poets are asked to consider when preparing for the poetry evening (though it isn’t a requirement). These themes are often political, like the war in Ukraine, though many others are a lot lighter, for example asking poets to think about colors or alliteration and reflect it in their work. This created a good environment for driving a conversation into a direction without forcing it to go a specific way or even obligating anyone to participate to any degree. IAttending a Closet Poet meeting in no way obliges one to read their poetry — not just on specific meetings, but ever. Everyone is allowed to take their time before sharing their pieces and only share the work they’re comfortable reading out loud.
Personally, I still cherish the first time I attended a Closet Poet meeting. It was the first time I was in a literary community where, while not being forced to speak, I could have the space to read poetry and to be able to engage with others’ work, explore new voices and ruminate on my own, and – though that sounds incel-y and ruthlessly discrediting – hold a girl’s hand in public. It is thrilling whenever the artistic intertwines with the personal – thus, in a way, coming back to its roots, as all literature stems from human love for storytelling.
Closet Poet can be contacted via their instagram, and meeting times and locations are discussed via their Telegram chat (new users must request to be added). Another way to reach out to them is through their email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s note: This piece was written on January 5th, but could not be published until now due to the internet service shutdown in Kazakhstan.
What echoes, what doesn’t, what should
Protests started two days ago across the country and reached my city, Almaty, on the 4th of January. On the 5th, with the wi-fi service shutting down for the most part around the country, and then entirely just a few hours later, people’s apartment windows and word-of-mouth were the only news sources. It was cloudy and gloomy that day, unbelievably so, borderline inappropriate. One had to keep the lights on all day.
In the Old Square, they stormed the capitol and set it on literal fire. The malls and stores were looted, horribly so. It was the day my sister learned what a Molotov cocktail is. I—not a character in a novel, or a lyrical speaker in a poem, but I, a body made out of my ancestors’ blood, and I, the mind within it—I could not reach many of my friends. On the few videos we saw of the revolution, those that came earlier in the day, I had to look carefully into the faces of the protestors, dreading that I would recognize even one.
It is inescapable and unalterable that Kazakhs have art flowing within them, and this art bursts out in times like these. A nameless poet in Almaty performed a quy, an improvised song, and the way it spread across the crowd was chilling. “The leading government party doesn’t hold any responsibility, and it doesn’t provide us with any answers,” he sang. The word-by-word translation from Kazakh is even more beautiful: “They don’t give answers and they don’t take any, either.” We are a nation of spoken-word poets, throat singers, orators, but there is no point in loosing our words into the wind. Our words are the air we breathe and no less. Our words shake us, and the whole world better be ready for them, because it will be shaken too.
As people, as a collective, we heed the words of Oyan, Kazakh, a famous poem by Mirzhakyp Dulatuly:
“Open your eyes, wake up, Kazakh, raise your head,” he says in the first, most quoted line of the work. These words, too, had come out into the streets, having been quoted for many years in private conversations.
For the short amount of time we did have the internet, young people supported each other with the lines from Men Zhastarga Senemin(“In Young People I Trust”), also a famous work by Magzhan Zhumabayev, in which he compares us to tigers and lions, ascribing animalistic boldness and fearlessness to us.
Both Dulatuly and Zhumabayev were poets during the Soviet era, the time when colonized Kazakhstan was the most oppressed. As much as it is chilling to know that we as a nation find solace in spoken art, that the way we shape our world implies singing and composing, it is imperative to understand that ours is a unique form of expression, given the circumstances.
Soviet propaganda for a time insisted on equating artistic expression and leisure. Think of Marshak’s Dragonfly who “spent the summer singing songs, found winter on her door!” (“лето красное пропела/оглянуться не успела,/как зима глядит в глаза”), or every school-teacher damning a distracted student for heh-heh’s and hah-hah’s (“хиханьки-хаханьки”). While many would agree that this attitude to art-making—this de-valuation of the colonized people’s organic forms of expression—the events of the past few days represent a new invitation to reconsider the place of art in the political life of Kazakhs.
Why talk about this
Since the Stalinist period, keeping politics well clear of one’s spoken and written expression has been a matter of personal safety more than a political strategy. In the 1930s, plenty of Kazakh writers and journalists, including Ahnet Baytusynov and Ulyas Zhansugurov were “repressed.” “Repressed” or “taken away for the sake of public safety” meant the same thing it means now. These seemingly faceless words refer to people as young as twenty being shot to death.
Blood stains. Death, individual death, matters. For almost a century now Kazakh authors have been, for the most part, trying to avoid saying anything committal in their writing, in regards to the colonial period, or the government, or anything, for that matter. It is an unspoken rule to write as if art existed only for art’s sake, and was ultimately irrelevant to an average citizen.
But it is relevant. Art and politics flow into the same direction, they shape and influence each other—the developed world has agreed on this for decades. Kazakh literary and civil voices deserve to be heard. We deserve a place in our own history, at least now, after all this time, despite the lack of resources or public trust. Why must I be hindered from doing honest, important work? Why must I not see the sun? Why, having let my language and culture be taken away generations before I was born, why must I continue to allow myself to be separated from my language? Why must I live in fear and die the same way? I am a slave to none. Every Kazakh is a slave to none. We have survived intelligentsia purges, we have survived a genocidal famine, we have survived 1986. Enough.
It is time, just like Zhumabayev urged, to raise our heads.
There are steps that we, authors and civilians can take.
As authors, it is imperative we listen to the experiences of those who have survived similar events. We must put the stigma of colonization where it belongs: on the colonizer. Incredible lessons have been shared by indigenous writers in the U.S., by Korean authors emerging after the colonization by the Japanese, by post-colonial African authors, and even by Ukrainian authors, who share our post-USSR space but are moving at a faster pace. It is time for us to ponder how all of this applies to us.
As citizens, we must not neglect the perspectives and life-stories of those around us. National trauma speaks on many levels, and it can’t be silenced. We have to let it speak.
In Olga Breininger’s novel There Was no Adderall in the Soviet Union something important happens in the first few chapters. The protagonist, a German-born Kazakhstani citizen, gets introduced to the concept of race through her new Moscow-born classmate. The latter shows indisputable signs of antisemitism and xenophobia. The protagonist doesn’t challenge her but is instead left wondering how she never noticed such obvious differences before. The only discrepancy between her and certain others, she claims, was in the skin color and name. In the otherwise unnecessarily simplified, hilariously far-fetched, young adult novel, this particular scene still makes my every bone ache.
Paradoxically to perhaps any other Asian country in the world, the easiest way to live in Kazakhstan is as a White-passing, Russian-speaking individual. Despite Russians constituting less than a fifth of the total Kazakhstani population, Russian is the country’s only other official language. Almost everything displayed for the public is translated into both languages, whether it is shop signs or government laws. Outside of school, one isn’t required to even learn Kazakh. Employment, dating, and traveling opportunities are more available, if not better, for Russian-speaking individuals. The dynamic exposes not just them, but the entire country to an intimate and undefendable relationship with Russia – a relationship often painful and never equal. Alma Review has examined this huge issue on a smaller, strictly literary scale. It asked for the perspective of Kazakhstani authors who write in English and analysed what they had to say beyond the art and politics of language. For this, Alma Review relied on the interviews of Egor Breus and Kamila Mushkina, both of whom write predominantly in English.
The Who: Historical Relevance for Literature
As a post-Soviet country, Kazakhstan’s past is intertwined with Russia, though being “intertwined” implies consent of some form, mutual cooperation. Colonization and attempted genocide, therefore, are mutually exclusive to the idea of intertwining. Yet it wasn’t the perception of Russian as a language, and, by extension, culture. Russian was glorified as the language for the elite – which went hand-in-hand with the world’s perception of the Russian literary classics. The general stagnation of discovery and novelty of any kind in the USSR amplified it – and not to the advantage of a Kazakhstani author.
To this day, this status quo persists. If one writes in Russian and is in any form engaged with the literary community, they will find themselves eventually and inevitably subjugated to the Russian literary standards – without any acknowledgment that these are as foreign as any import. Kazakhstan, after all, has been independent for thirty years now, and so has its literary community.
This is why Breininger’s novel, despite being set in Kazakhstan, does at its core miss the point of what it is like to live here. As Breigninger portrays them, Kazakhstan writers are a knock-off version of Russian authors, similar but more inferior; superficially the same, yet never quite good enough. In reality, this isn’t the status quo – it is actively moving away from being such.
For this reason, among many, writing in English can be perceived as a subconscious rejection of Russian standards. Egor Breus, a sci-fi author, claims that one would have to look a long way down along the list of his favorite literature to find something that isn’t in English. He says the immersion into English for him is more natural than into Russian. “The fact that everything I read was in English was just a quirk of my childhood,” he said, “a combination of seemingly random factors that brought me closer to English, and made me isolated from my native Russian: being incredibly shy, introverted, spending lots of time on the internet, reading by myself, watching and listening to English online, and talking in English to the few friends I did have. So only naturally, when I realized, oh! I quite like writing my own stories, the fact that they might be written in anything other than English never even crossed my mind.”
Shyness leading to English is also a theme in Kamila Mushkhina’s writing. “In real life, I am painfully shy,” she writes, “through writing is how I mainly speak up”. This, interestingly, makes her relationship to writing in English both personal and political, and for personal reasons she sticks to being a bilingual author, working in both English and Russian.
The older generations in the Kazakhstani literary community, who had grown up during the Soviet times, seem not to realize exactly how divergent the experience of the post-Soviet generation is from their own–and how radically it will continue to depart.
The aspiration to “make it” in the Russian market is, for a Kazakhstani author, essentially paradoxical. On one hand, there is an inherent understanding that no Russian-speakingKazakhstani author can ever be a Russian author. Even Egor, who is a skilled storyteller in English, says that the standards for having a ‘Russian voice’ are too high. There is always a significant, yet ever-elusive distance between the terms Russophone and Russian which ultimately accepts the latter but alienates the former. A Kazakhstani author, however fluent in Russian and however immersed into the country’s literature, will always be seen as one of the “others”. This really shouldn’t be shocking to the local literary community- and yet it is.
A Kazakhstani character, especially a Kazakh character, is perpetually objectified by a Russian author. By extension, most Kazakhstani authors who desire success on the Russian market do the same – which is the ultimate form of betrayal. This is another thing that Breigninger gets wrong, and the one that reveals shows the narrator’s – and, perhaps, the author’s – complete lack of self-awareness. The authors with Russian ancestry, especially white authors, have a false sense of belonging to a community. So those of us who aren’t white or who don’t write in Russian don’t even have that – why must we stick to Russian literary standards anyway? Especially considering that many young Kazakhstani writers don’t consider themselves Russian or belonging to Russia in any way – as both Egor and Kamila point out.
For many young authors, literature written in English stands for more than just the literature itself. Our relationship with Russian literature is not different in form–but the opposite in content. Russian literature signifies a stagnant, apolitical world with little to no place for change. The writing is a product of a zero-sum game between a regular person and an inexplicably cruel, poorly defined society. Russian literature is the very stuff for misery, Nabokov’s toska; it exists exclusively in the realm of the vaguely terrifying “Molodoy chelovek, proydemte” with potatoes and buckwheat for every meal. It is whole and unalterable in itself, its feet are buried in the ground. It never welcomes you.
Literature in English, especially that of the past fifty or so years, is a polar opposite. English-speaking – primarily American – literature represents things one yearns yet never asks for; this literature speaks to its readers directly yet softly. Whether you are horny for an internet celebrity (of any gender!) or mourning a friend’s death from cancer, it allows you to talk about it. It lets you be messy, and unforgiving, and to cringe – a word that, incidentally, doesn’t exist in Russian, thus begging the question: does that imply nobody in the entire history of Russia cringed or nobody did anything cringe-worthy in the first place? Literature in English is trustfund young people sex, caviar any day, not just on the New Years, freedom not just to do but to say. Kamila Mushkina described English literature as genuine, honest, traumatic, and revealing – which are all heavy adjectives, yet none of those miss the point. Russian literature is for those judged not to be a simpleton, it is designed to be understood only by the chosen ones – but when the chosen ones are old white people hanging out in handfuls in Moscow, how are they not the negligible minority? Paradoxically, English-language literature does more to describe most people who speak Russian – and, at least in Kazakhstan, we should let it.
Egor and Kamila are a perfect reflection of this trend. One of the main themes in Egor’s work is technology, the radical ways in which it affects lives and its rapid development. Kamila writes about the strangeness adulting and the associated anxiety. Both of these topics are normally looked down upon in Russian literature, especially coming from young people. On the other hand, Breininger furthers the unhealthy trends in Kazakhstani literature – and this must stop.
There should be ways for Kazakhstani authors to create a more welcoming and more diverse literary market. And whether it is through textual primary source or translation, English could be a way for Kazakhstani authors to grow bigger and better.
Those of us who don’t or can’t write in English have to be invested in the institution of translation, support translators and non-Russian local literary ventures as much as possible, for that is one of the best ways to finally leave the USSR. For that is one of the best ways to actual literary independence – new and raw like the first snow of the year.
The Kazakhstani community tends to disregard its English-speaking authors, but it’s impossible to ignore Sultan Kamysbayev. The first Kazakh writer to be published in the Netherlands, the author of The Outcast Presidents revealed to Alma Review what it was all like.
When it was released in 2021, I was extremely surprised “The Outcast Presidents” didn’t get more attention in Kazakhstan. Set in the fictional country of Dalabistan, the first book of the upcoming trilogy recasts the last a hundred years of Kazakhstan’s history through a decolonial, racially critical lens.The story takes a leap forward in time, to the grim future that Dalabistan – and, by extension, Kazakhstan – could face. Much like in Kazakhstan’s past, Dalabistan is initially overtaken by a corrupt government. The revolution takes place. It resulted in the protagonist, Alisher Karabars, to become the new leader, despite him clearly having authoritarian tendencies himself. The Outcast Presidents covers the cyclical nature of corrupt government
Reading it as a Kazakhstan citizen is almost eerie. The book reminds the reader that once a regime is established, people soak it in, making us wonder if the way out is really possible or if we are doomed to inhabit endless cycles of different degrees of authoritarianism. I think about the way Lenin came to power in the Soviet Union and all the hope that was associated with it at the time. Contrasting it with the post-communist reality Kazakhstan still faces, the debilitating, ingrained societal views on poverty as status quo gives The Outcast Presidents relevance. Sultan hints at that during his Instagram Live hosted by The Student Hotel The Hague where he mentions that he based the protagonist on various historical and contemporary political figures, both real and fictional. He seconds this in his interview with Alma Review:
“I chose Mustafa Kemal Atatürk as one inspiration for my main protagonist, because Atatürk managed to transform an archaic religious society quickly into an egalitarian secular state with advanced industry. His government provided women with equal rights earlier than many European countries. The world of Dalabistan I designed has a lot of issues entrenched for centuries, such as corruption, tribalism, discrimination, economic stagnation, and great inequality. As a result, Atatürk would be a great mentor for my protagonist. If my protagonist ruled Dalabistan, Atatürk’s experience would show how to solve a lot of entrenched issues and dogmas through radical reforms of society and the state.