In September of 2021, the Almaty Writing Residency welcomed its first cohort of poets, fiction writers and essayists. Centering on the theme of Kazakhstani identity, the six writers chosen to participate considered the past, present and future of Kazakhstani literature and the multifaceted challenges facing Kazakhstani writers.
Drawing on partnership with the US Embassy and the Iowa Writer’s Program, the residency did not simply ask this question in the context of Kazakhstani literature — but rather, in the context of literature as a global conversation that transcends the linguistic and cultural realities of one country. A diverse founding team that this year included translator and poet Nina Murray and poet and cultural diplomat Christopher Merrill established the residency as a meeting ground for diverse languages, ideas, and ultimately a launchpad for Kazakhstani literature into the world.
While the residency concluded on September 22, the questions raised by the writers, guest speakers and authors remain unanswered — as is, perhaps, the nature of all good questions.
THE FUTURE OF LANGUAGES IN KAZAKHSTAN
(Contemporary Kazakhstani literature: working languages and publication opportunities)
Nowadays, as globalization has taken root, the ability of society to be competitive as well as the national identity has not lost its importance. In this regard, the language issue has received special attention in the cultural and literary sphere.
It may seem that modern Kazakhstani culture needs a kind of bridge connecting the two languages. This is noticeable during various events that take place and in the literary process on the whole. Sometimes there is a feeling that for this very reason it may be difficult for authors to find their place in the modern literary space, to exchange views with like-minded people.
Nevertheless, I have noticed that recently there have been projects aimed at developing a dialogue between authors writing in the Kazakh and Russian languages. Among those I would point out the project MÄTIL, held within the framework of STYQ online. The word “MÄTIL” is derived from the words ” мәтін ” (text) and ” тіл ” (language). The project comprises three blocks — exhibitions, panel discussions and translation workshops — and aims at creating language practice in the field of culture. This practice focuses on the language of contemporary art, dialogue between authors, and literary translation.
At this year’s Literary Translation Workshop, Kazakh and Russian-speaking poets translated each other’s texts. They also had the opportunity to exchange experiences with foreign writers. The workshop was conducted in Kazakh, English and Russian.
The MÄTIL panel discussions dealt with language initiatives. Professors and students of Nazarbayev University, philologists, art critics, translators, poets and other representatives of the activist part of the society were engaged in the discussions. They would bring up language related issues, share their experiences and opinions about the interaction of languages.
During the panel discussion entitled “Тіл бастамалары” (“Language Initiatives”), held as part of this project, the speakers discussed the activities of initiative groups and public movements, created to solve the problems related to the functioning of the Kazakh language. Among them are QazSoz , QazaqBubble, QazaqshaJaz  and the Solakaylar  literary club, which is engaged in literary translation. The initiators of these projects, young people, talked about the importance of increasing the prestige of the Kazakh language, about the changes that have occurred in the language culture, and about common problems. This example shows society takes interest in the language.
I often see endeavors like that in literary life, namely in the field of poetry. It is gratifying to see joint poetry evenings and meetings of Kazakh and Russian-speaking poets. Such initiatives provide authors with an opportunity to publish their work and reach diverse audiences.
I believe that such exchange of experience is one of the most effective ways to strengthen ties between authors who find themselves in active creative search and to broaden their understanding of the literary process.
 QazSoz – translates as “Kazakh word”
 QazaqshaJaz – “write Kazakh”
 Solakay– «left-handed person», which can mean – «a person not taking others’ opinions into account»
LIFE AT THE INTERSECTION…
I was born in the city of Atyrau, and it takes just one step across the bridge to move from Asia to Europe. I lived in the Soviet Union and it took just one December dawn to wake up in the Republic of Kazakhstan. At the click of the clock’s second-hand, I turned from a resident of the twentieth century into a Generation X person, who has seen times without the Internet. And Covid-19 forced me to balance between “offline” and “online”.
Existing at the junction of continents and eras, cultures and concepts, I often feel uneasy, unable to feel like I belong to any particular community:
– Kazakh by nationality, but writing and thinking in Russian;
– A software engineer by profession, but a novelist and playwright by vocation;
– A woman with an Eastern upbringing, but a European education.
I watch Kazakh cinema, whose stories seem copied from foreign movies. Even the sound of the cue from the first scenes, imbued with the rustle of dry grass and the rumble of the wind, seems foreign. I read modern Kazakhstani authors, and sometimes it is not easy to feel the nationality of the characters and where they come from. The names of the characters have become international, the events that happen to them can happen anywhere in the world, and it only requires a change of names and place, and the impression of the uniqueness is lost.
One wonders how, for example, the American writer Khaled Hosseini, who left Afghanistan as a child, managed to preserve his national identity and wrap his books in it. And why is it so difficult for authors living in Kazakhstan to make Kazakh heroes recognizable, and native steppes not similar to the prairies of Ernest Seton-Thompson?
I write my stories and plays in Russian, which immediately severs off Kazakh-speaking readers who make over 60 % of the population. I do not write in my mother tongue, and modern Kazakh authors are seldom translated from Russian into Kazakh, which automatically strips me of the status of a Kazakh author. But I don’t consider myself a Russian author either. To become a Russian writer, you must be born and live in Russia, like Leo Tolstoy in Yasnaya Polyana, and feel Russian with all your soul: the bright green of flooded meadows, strawberries beaded on a stalk of grass, a creaking wooden bridge across the river.
To be a Kazakhstani author these days, for me, means to be limited: limited in readership; limited in the subject matter, since there is always a fear that the work will turn out parochial and neglected by readers from other countries; limited in freedom of expression because of ethnicity and the phenomenon of “Uyat” (Kazakh for “shame”).
How to find balance in your work and your life? How to write about events in Kazakhstan and destinies of Kazakhs, preserving something unique, not thinkable in other countries? How to understand who you are — a Kazakhstani, Kazakh, or Russian writer?
I guess I have long decided for myself that I am a Kazakhstani author. Now it’s up to the reader.
Akzhan Amanzhol was born on March 31, 2001 in Almaty. Works under a pen name Ai kyzy (Moon girl). She is currently in her third year at the Zhurgenov Kazakh National Academy of Arts majoring in “Film Dramaturgy”. She is head of the poetry group “Qoltanba” (“Autograph”). Since 2018, it has held creative meetings and poetry evenings. Her poems were published on a republican level in newspapers “Kazak әdebietі”, “Ұlan”, “Madeniet” magazine, Internet portals “Massaget”, “Qalamger”, “Әdebiet portals”.She is a member of the creative association “Burshaq”.From October 14, 2017 to February 10, 2018, she participated in the Youth Literature Workshop of the Almaty Open Literature School, where she took the prose master class led by Dina Makhmetova and Aizhan Akhmet. The works written at the time were included in a collection of stories “Zheke kenistik” (“Personal Space”).In August-November 2019, she was the editor of the website of the Union of Writers of Kazakhstan.
Nuraina Satpayeva lives in Almaty. She graduated from Kazakh Technical University as a systems engineer. She studied at Almaty Literary School. She participated in the forum of young writers in Lipki, the Children’s Writers Forum of the SEIP Foundation. Laureate of Litodrama contest, finalist of Grand Remark contest, semi-finalist of Voloshin festival, Lubimovka contest, Badenweiler contest, Author to the Stage contest. She was published in the magazines Neva, Sibirskie Ogny, LiterraNova, Novaya Yunost, and in a collection of short stories by AST Publisher and the SEIP Foundation.