Back to AWR: essays about kazakhstani identity from participants

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.


(Contemporary Kazakhstani literature: working languages and publication opportunities)

Akzhan Amanzhol

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 [1], QazaqBubble, QazaqshaJaz [2] and the Solakaylar [3] 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.

[1] QazSoz – translates as “Kazakh word”

[2] QazaqshaJaz – “write Kazakh”

[3]  Solakay– «left-handed person», which can mean – «a person not taking others’ opinions into account» 


Nuraina Satpaeva

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 NevaSibirskie OgnyLiterraNovaNovaya Yunost, and in a collection of short stories by AST Publisher and the SEIP Foundation.

A Life-Critical Need – interview with Kseniya Rogozhnikova and Mikhail Zemskov, part 2

Students of the Open Literary School of Almaty. Mikhail as a head is observing from the side

— You established the Almaty Open School of Literature in 2009. Mikhail, you told an amazing story of its emergence (and of the school that preceded it) when we talked one day. I would like to ask you to tell it to the readers as well…

M.Z.: The Open Literary School of Almaty actually continued the work of the Musaget Foundation, which existed from 1997 to 2008. Kazakhstani writer, philologist and teacher Olga Markova created the foundation. The major activity of the fund was to hold literary master classes – three-month courses in writing skills, which were held three times a year. Once I graduated from the very first literary workshop in 1998. In addition to the literary courses, the foundation published the literary magazine Apollinarium, maintained a literary portal on the Internet, held various literary and educational events, and later opened a publishing series. The major activities of the foundation were in turn financed by the Dutch foundation Hivos. Olga Markova died in 2008, and the foundation ceased to exist. My wife Ksenia Rogozhnikova and I were living in Moscow at the time, and Ksenia was studying at the Higher Literature Courses of the Institute of Literature. She had also graduated from the Musaget workshop, and that is where we met. We returned to Almaty in 2009 and felt a complete emptiness in the literary life of the city without the foundation and its projects. We really missed the literary events, communication with like-minded people, lectures and conversations about literature. That is why we turned to our friends and acquaintances from the Musaget Foundation, mainly the alumni of the previous master classes, and suggested creating our own literary school, the Open Literary School of Almaty (OLSA). We mainly recruited teachers from Musaget at the beginning, and later we started inviting the most interesting teachers from different Almaty universities. Compared to the Musaget courses we expanded the program, the duration of the course was not three months, but eight. We made it very close to the program of Higher Literature Courses of the Institute of Literature, we expanded the practical seminars, and we launched seminars on dramaturgy and children’s literature in addition to seminars on prose and poetry.  Recently, a seminar on literary criticism was also held. Some time later, in addition to literary courses, the OLSA started launching other projects — various literary events, even up to large festivals, seminars for teenagers. The Almaty Writers’ Residency was launched two years ago. Last year, the Qalamdas literary prize has started.

— By the example of your students, but not only: what do contemporary writers in Kazakhstan care most about, about texts, about meanings? Including the youngest ones, whose two books you’ve published (I’ve held them in my hands and read them; the newest one is quite a weighty volume).

M.Z.: Generally speaking, the concerns range from history to social issues to personal relationships. A lot of young authors write fiction. I’m interested in different periods of history – from pre-revolutionary history of Kazakhstan to events of revolution, Stalin repressions and jute, famine in Kazakhstan in 1931-1933. That seems to me somewhat surprising: I am interested in late-Soviet history – 70-80s of the twentieth century, the related texts  I have met more often than the texts about the 90s, for example, despite the fact that the 90s seem much more dramatic and eventful. At the same time, in 2022, after the January events in Kazakhstan and later events in Ukraine, there was a sharp growth of interest in acute social and historical topics related to the search for one’s own Kazakhstani identity, comprehension of history in terms of imperial/colonial past and post-imperial/post-colonial present, inheriting old behavioral patterns and worldview and their expression in a world that has rapidly changed over the past twenty years.

K.R.: Let me explain right away, or the day after the interview there will be a queue for publications in weighty volumes (smiles). We are talking, of course, about the collections that can be formed of stories written at children’s and youth literary workshops, which are projects sponsored by the U.S. Consulate General in Kazakhstan and Chevron. We accept children and teenagers from 13 to 21 years old to participate in these workshops. Workshops are held once a year in Kazakh and Russian.

I like the fact that there are a lot of Kazakh themes in the texts of teenagers, they write about the legends their grandmothers told them, about occasions that happened in auls, they even write fiction based on Kazakhstani material. The authors at the LitSchool seminars have the same tendency: more stories about us, about Kazakhs and Kazakhstanis.

— I can’t resist asking, where can graduates of your school publish in Kazakhstan? I know about the magazine Daktil, which I am personally very interested in. How important is it to contemporary Kazakh/Kazakh literature. What else is important?

M.Z.: Yes, first of all Dactil. In just a few years this magazine has become probably the main bilingual platform for modern Kazakh literature. In addition, there are Russian-language magazines such as Prostor, a “thick” literary magazine that has survived since Soviet times, another young electronic magazine called Angime, the annual almanac LiterraNova, and Kazakh-language magazines such as electronic magazine Adebiet Portaly, Zhuldyz (also since Soviet times, the official organ of the Kazakh Writers Union), and Kazak Adebieti.

K.R.: In addition to Daktil (, where one can publish in Kazakh and Russian, there is also the trilingual Angime (, whose editors try to do translations of texts into English as well. There is also the Alma Review project (, which publishes reviews and articles about Kazakhstani authors in English.

– Ksenia, I managed to read your book Little Quarantine People, published in the covid year of 2020 (which is actually about the covid situation) during my short stay with you. How important was it for you to tell this story for young readers? It’s also about overcoming maybe not fully realized stress, putting anxiety into a playful and entertaining form, which I think is important…

K.R.: “Little Quarantine People” turned out to be a kind of escape from quarantine. I gladly got involved in writing the story so I wouldn’t go crazy at home with two small children and one older one. The three of us wrote the story: Elena Klepikova and I as co-authors and my daughter Lydia as the protagonist. We only had to peek, take notes in time, and give all the quarantine “splashes” and phrases in the style of Chukovsky’s From Two to Five the right facet of the plot and adventures. It is good that this book has performed a double function : first, it helped the authors to pass the forced sitting in four walls, and secondly, it became interesting for children readers.

— This book and The Queen’s Crawl, or Times of Change are co-authored by you and Elena Klepikova, whom you have already mentioned twice. Tell us a little about your co-author. How do you work together? Do you write in fragments or in some other way? How is your collaboration structured?

K.R.: Elena and I met in 2010, and within a year we began teaching at prose and children’s literature seminars at the LitSchool together. After six or seven years of teaching together, we began to feel that we could follow up on any idea each other had in common. That’s when the idea arose to try writing in co-authorship, and our first book was a book of poetry, a book-dialogue called Two Letters, which came out in 2018. For two years, beginning in 2016, we exchanged letters written in the form of tankas, hokkas, tankas, and beatankas-creating a kind of contemporary ranga, poetry dialogue. In 2018, we also edited each other’s books: for Elena it was my novella for teenagers, In the Rhythm of Salsa, and I edited her quest, The Mystery of the Blue Web. It was only in 2019 that we wrote our first teen novel together, The Queen’s Crawl or Times of Change, which was published in Russia by Meshcheryakov Publishing House.

When we realize that we have an interesting story, we can spend hours on end discussing and sketching out the plot, describing major and minor characters, inventing their hobbies, dreams, and inner conflicts. We usually write chapter by chapter, then edit, proofreading and correcting each other’s chapters, and bringing the style to a common denominator. After two or three edits, when we feel that the text has “sung”, we let the story rest and return to it later, engaging beta-readers, after whose comments we arrange the major editing.

Kseniya Rogozhnikova and Elena Klepikova

— As for the stories: how much of it is reality, and how much is fiction?

M.Z.: It depends. There is probably none in which fiction is 100%. But there are no 100% documentaries either. Most of the time it’s about 50%/50%, I guess, but the scale can shift left and right. But what’s funny is that many of those stories that may seem fantastic or readers think they are outright fiction are actually based on real events and details such as the search for the Gospel of John in the steppes of Kazakhstan in Sectarian or the method and techniques of regressive hypnosis in Gabriel Saxophone.

— Your work on the word is also interesting. I was surprised at how stereoscopic the text is. Usually, when I read, I notice extra words that I, as an editor, would cross out. But in your book, the text is sharpened with a sharp blade. Tell me, does this happen to you by itself or do you work with language in a special way? For example, how many edits does your manuscript go through?

M.Z.: I do not like unnecessary words or deliberate “beauties” in the text, I prefer a minimalist style (although I do not consider myself a minimalist). So, yes, I am usually very strict about my text in an editorial way and try to get rid of extra words, superfluous turns and images. After writing a manuscript it usually goes through at least two revisions.

— How do you see the future of Kazakh/Kazakh literature? I mean in terms of language, distribution, and other aspects.

M.Z.: It seems to me that first of all Kazakh literature (both in Kazakh and Russian) will try to make its way to the Kazakh reader, I hope that in the coming years it will be more successful in this than before. For objective reasons connected with the problems of the Kazakhstani book market, which I mentioned above, a wide audience of Kazakhstani readers still knows very little about modern Kazakhstani authors and their works. But small shifts are already observed. Also in the last 2-3 years the growth of interest to the modern Kazakhstan literature by foreign researchers and philologists is noticeable. It is hoped that the rather narrow interest of scholars will grow into a broader interest of publishers and literary journals, and then – of readers. As for the future of the language, it seems to me that the number of books in Kazakh will undoubtedly grow. But literature in Russian will also develop. Ideally, I would like to see an increase in the number of literary translations from Kazakh into Russian and back. This would help both the mutual enrichment of Kazakh and Russian-language literature, and the mutual increase in the readership, and the emergence of new themes and new points of view on the same events.

K.R.: It’s important for Kazakh literature now to be translated into English and other languages, to go to the West, to other countries. But here we have a translation problem. There is an acute shortage of literary translators in Kazakhstan, and their qualifications are often insufficient. We tried to solve part of the problem during our most recent Almaty Writing Residency 2022, where Kazakh-, English-, and Russian-speaking translators worked.

There is good news here as well: a collection of prose by Kazakhstani women writers was published this year in New York by Gaudy boy, and Amazon Publishing has also signed a contract to publish books in English by Kazakhstani children’s writers Lilya Kalaus and Zira Naurzbay.

This interview is translated by Almaty Writing Residency 2022’s translators seminar, namely Yulia Gubanova, Gulsaya Mazhenova, Catherine Petrikova, Meirzhan Kourmanov. Alma Review expresses gratitude to the translators!

Vladimir Korkunov is a poet, translator, critic, editor. Born in 1984 in the city of Kimry, Tver region. He graduated from the Moscow State University of Instrument Engineering and Computer Science and the Gorky Literary Institute. Candidate of Philological Sciences. Co-editor of the journals “Context” (2018-2019) and “Paradigm” (2019-2021). Poems and articles were published in many literary magazines. Author of the book of poems “The Last Concert of the Ghost Orchestra” (2021), the book of interviews “The Urge to Speak: 15 interviews with modern poets about life and literature” (2020), etc.

Kseniya Rogozhnikova (Zemskova) — poetess, children’s literature writer. Kseniya graduated from the Maxim Gorky Literature Institute in Moscow. Her works have been published in a number of magazines such as “Dactyl”, “Literratura”, “Angime”, “Apollinaris”, Soloneba art-digest, Polutona, etc. She is an author of three and a co-author of four books. Kseniya also holds a workshop on prose and children’s literature in the Almaty Open School of Literature. She is currently based in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Mikhail Zemskov — prose writer, playwright. Born in Almaty, Mikhail graduated from KazGU (Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics) in 1996, and VGIK (Screenwriting Department) in 2003. Mikhail’s works were published in various magazines, including “Apollinaris”, “October”, “Friendship of Peoples”, etc. He was announced Laureate of the Russian Prize (2005) with a collection of novels and short stories named “Alma-Ata Stories”. He is also a Laureate of the mono-play competition called “The Man” (2007). Mikhail is a founder and leader of the Almaty Open School of Literature and author of four books. Currently lives in Almaty, Kazakhstan.  

A Life-Critical Need – interview with Kseniya Rogozhnikova and Mikhail Zemskov, part 1

On literature in Kazakhstan, Open Literary School of Almaty and their own artistic endeavor.  Interviewed by Vladimir Korkunov.

Kseniya Rogozhnikova and Mikhail Zemskov are partners not only in life, but also in literature. They write in almost every genre: children’s and adult poetry, children’s prose, literary criticism (Kseniya), adult prose, dramatic art, and film scripts (Mikhail). With the same loving attitude to all aspects of the family life, they are raising together three beautiful kids.    

Another child of the couple is the Almaty Open School of Literature, which has trained hundreds of young (and not too young) writers in Almaty. And now, thanks to the method learnt during the covid years, number of authors joining from other countries is constantly growing. All the above mentioned constitutes a solid base for an interview, but I was mostly curious to know about what’s happening in the Kazakhstani literature: where it is going, how it is developing, and, of course, who are the stars of our days we should immediately read (from Kseniya’s and Mikhail’s point of view). That is why the interview came out to be ‘multidimensional”, just like the interviewees.  

Kseniya, Mikhail, the way to literature is often paved in a family, e.g., with children’s readings. I suppose, you both grew up in the company of books. How did you find yourselves in literature? 

Mikhail Zemskov: True, there were lots of books in our house. I grew up in a family of city intellectuals: my mother and grandmother were university professors; my father was an engineer. But I must say I became interested in literature “by a reversal of logic” – I didn’t quite like those soviet children’s books I used to read to my little brother. So, I started writing stories for him myself. That’s how it began. 

Kseniya Rogozhnikova: Mother got me a subscription to the Krylov library when I was in the 2nd grade. I ended up going there almost every week till the 8th grade. A couple years ago I had a chance to revisit the Krylovka within the campaign for my book called “In the Rhythm of Salsa”, where I met many adorable schoolkids. 

— Your teachers in literature (I am referring to books here) – are they mostly Russian, or Kazakh? Or, maybe, different ones?

K.R.: As a kid, I used to devour books by Vladislav Krapivin, Yuri Koval, Yuri Tomin. I still love going over and re-reading Fazil Iskander, Jane Austen, and Francis Scott Fitzgerald. I have recently discovered another beautiful author – Narine Abgaryan.  

As for the Kazakh-language authors, I read them only in translation. It is “The Lonely Yurt” by Smagul Yelubai, poetry by Mukagali Makatayev and Ardak Nurgazy. In terms of poetry, as a teenager, I adored the Silver Age poets: Marina Tsvetaeva, early Mayakovsky, Boris Pasternak, Anna Akhamova… Years later, I could get my hands on the uncensored poetry of the Soviet period. 

M.Z.: I would say, it was mostly the 20nd century European literature. I discovered its true nature (I mean the true power of literature – when it gets deeply into you and influences your beliefs, your mindset, your emotional state, etc.) after reading Camus, Hesse, Hamsun, Sartre, Cortazar, Ionesco, and Kundera. And a bit later, through the prism of the 20nd century European literature, I discovered the Russian classic literature in a new light: Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Gogol, and Leskov. 

If we talk about Kazakh and Kazakhstani literature (by the way, tell me which is correct), what key books/authors would you highlight/recommend? Who are the “must-reads” for a Russian reader?

K.R: For sure: Anuar Duisenbinov, Zair Asim, Aleksey Shvabauer, Pavel Bannikov, Yuriy Serebryanskiy. As for Kazakhstani children’s writers: Tonya Shipulina, Adeliya Amraeva, Zira Naurzbayeva and Lilya Kalaus.

The issues of identity are not simple: there can be Kazakh authors, and Kazakhstani Kazakh-speaking authors, similar to Kazakhstani Russian-speaking authors, and Kazakh Russian-speaking authors (some authors are Kazakh by nationality, but write in Russian). It all depends on how one defines oneself.

M.Z.: First of all, I would recommend Abai. He was the first to most fully convey the traditional worldview, philosophy and culture of the Kazakh people. Ilyas Yessenberlin, Abdizhamil Nurpeisov, Mukhtar Auezov, Smagul Yelubai, Rollan Seisenbayev – the classics of Soviet and late Soviet literature. As for the most modern literature, there is a good collection “Read Kazakhstani” (“Читай казахстанское”) available on electronic library. The collection, which was made by the literary school of Almaty as part of cooperation with the website, included the best Kazakhstani literature pieces of the last 30-40 years (available in electronic format).

Mikhail and Kseniya in Almaty’s mountains

I notice that some books released in Kazakhstan are given in bilingual format: in the Kazakh and in the Russian languages. Including yours, Ksenia. What is it done for? Just to draw attention to the Kazakh language?

K.R.: I have always dreamt about publishing my books in Kazakhstan, both poetry and children’s literature, both in Russian and Kazakh. The dream came true in 2020, when our story for children “Little Quarantine People” (I write children’s literature mostly in co-authorship with my friend and colleague Elena Klepikova) won the “Altyn Kalam” award in the “Best Children’s Literature in Russian” nomination and was translated into Kazakh and published with the support of “Chevron” company.

People in Kazakhstan speak fluent Russian only in large cities, and not in all of them. In the West of Kazakhstan — in Aktau, Atyrau — they mainly speak Kazakh, and in the rural areas overall, too. Today, more and more people speak good Kazakh and English, for example, and can hardly speak Russian. Therefore, a bilingual book is, first and foremost, an expansion of children’s reading audience.

How are things with the Kazakh language in general? In Almaty, I heard Russian more often, which, of course, is convenient for me, but on the other hand, it is somewhat sad. How much attention does society pay to the national language?

M.Z.: The situation with the Kazakh language differs depending on the region of Kazakhstan. Now we have more monolingual regions where Kazakh prevails – southern and western parts of the country. At the same time, there are regions where Russian remains the main language of communication – these are the northern regions of Kazakhstan, as well as Almaty and Astana. In general, the situation is changing, especially after February 2022. The events that took place, as I can see, caused an unprecedented wave of patriotism and the search for national identity in Kazakhstan, and this applies not only to ethnic Kazakhs, but also to representatives of all other ethnic groups living here – Russians, Ukrainians, Koreans, Uighurs, Germans, etc. First of all, this can be seen in the attitude to the Kazakh language. Many bilingual people now choose the Kazakh language for communication, many of those who did not know or had a poor command of the Kazakh language before, sign up for language courses, begin to study it on their own. This can be observed everywhere in everyday life. Over the previous 30 years of independence, quite a lot of various state language support programs were launched, but almost all of them stalled and did not bring the expected results. Now this is absolutely a “grassroots initiative”, which is why it should work.

K.R.: I’ve partially answered this question earlier. Now more and more Russian-speaking people in Kazakhstan are learning Kazakh. I hope that one day I will also be able to read books in the Kazakh language. I want to understand the language of my native country.

What about the book market? I dropped into a grocery store the other day — there were many Russian goods. What about the book sector?

K.R.: Unfortunately, it is almost similar. There’s a lot of popular psychology, finance, and business literature being translated into Kazakh. The situation gets worse when it comes to the fiction literature translations. However, as far as I know, Kafka has been translated into Kazakh recently. Though, I think, Joan Rowling’s “Harry Potter” in Kazakh appeared earlier.

Today new Kazakhstani publishers appear, they plan to publish Kazakhstani authors: for example, in children’s literature there is Tentek Publishing, and Zerde Publishing, which was established last summer. Tentek Publishing has already published Tonya Shipulina’s book “The Fly”. Maybe positive changes will happen in Kazakhstani children’s literature as well. Publishing poetry books at the expense of a publisher — is only a dream so far.

M.Z.: Unfortunately, it is very difficult for Kazakhstani publishers to compete with Russian ones because of incomparable distribution and marketing budgets. Large Russian publishers in Kazakhstan can afford much more in distribution, advertising, and other investments than Kazakhstani publishers. That is a big problem for the Kazakhstani book market, because there is a vicious circle: Kazakhstani publishing houses cannot support Kazakhstani authors, authors write less or publish (or try to publish in Russia), and books of Kazakhstani writers do not reach their readers. As a result, it seems like Kazakhstan doesn’t have its own literature, and the easiest way for bookstores is to purchase books from Russian publishing houses, so Kazakhstani publishing houses are left without money and budgets for future publications

— How actively do publishers support authors? Otherwise, do the latter rather have to publish their books at their own expense?

M.Z.: The traditional rules of the book market for fiction do not really work in Kazakhstan, so the support of authors and any publishing projects is mostly done by enthusiasts or with the help of non-standard approaches and solutions —crowdfunding, attracting investors or sponsors, etc. Publishing books at your own expense is also widespread.

 K.R.: Rather at own expense. If we speak of publishing houses and book publishing in Kazakhstan, everything is rather sad. For example, many Russian-speaking children’s writers published their books in Russia until 2022. It is hard to say how events will develop further.

This interview is translated by Almaty Writing Residency 2022’s translators seminar, namely Yulia Gubanova, Gulsaya Mazhenova, Catherine Petrikova, Meirzhan Kourmanov. Alma Review expresses gratitude to the translators!

Vladimir Korkunov is a poet, translator, critic, editor. Born in 1984 in the city of Kimry, Tver region. He graduated from the Moscow State University of Instrument Engineering and Computer Science and the Gorky Literary Institute. Candidate of Philological Sciences. Co-editor of the journals “Context” (2018-2019) and “Paradigm” (2019-2021). Poems and articles were published in many literary magazines. Author of the book of poems “The Last Concert of the Ghost Orchestra” (2021), the book of interviews “The Urge to Speak: 15 interviews with modern poets about life and literature” (2020), etc.

Kseniya Rogozhnikova (Zemskova) — poetess, children’s literature writer. Kseniya graduated from the Maxim Gorky Literature Institute in Moscow. Her works have been published in a number of magazines such as “Dactyl”, “Literratura”, “Angime”, “Apollinaris”, Soloneba art-digest, Polutona, etc. She is an author of three and a co-author of four books. Kseniya also holds a workshop on prose and children’s literature in the Almaty Open School of Literature. She is currently based in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Mikhail Zemskov — prose writer, playwright. Born in Almaty, Mikhail graduated from KazGU (Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics) in 1996, and VGIK (Screenwriting Department) in 2003. Mikhail’s works were published in various magazines, including “Apollinaris”, “October”, “Friendship of Peoples”, etc. He was announced Laureate of the Russian Prize (2005) with a collection of novels and short stories named “Alma-Ata Stories”. He is also a Laureate of the mono-play competition called “The Man” (2007). Mikhail is a founder and leader of the Almaty Open School of Literature and author of four books. Currently lives in Almaty, Kazakhstan.  

“Is that us?” – review on Nygmet Ibadildin’s play “Shakhmardan comes out of the Well”

A review by Almira Ismailova. Translated by Alyona Timofeyeva

The play “Shakhmardan comes out of the well” by Nygmet Ibadildin has sunk into my soul. This is a story about how sorcerers from the Soviet government, led by the Commissar and his faithful dog Karasart, came to plunder the Kazakh aul, while its sorcerers – old Atabek, his disciples Shakhmardan and Shakhmardan’s wife Korlan came out to fight them. The conflict is complicated by the fact that Karasart is a former student of Atabek. The weapons of those from aul – fireballs and optical illusions – are opposed to combat rifles and pistols. The play takes us back to 1928 during the collectivization of the Kazakh village.

Historical background

In 1924, Kazakhstan became the Kazakh SSR. It was not possible to manage nomads in conditions of constant migration of the population. Therefore, in 1928, the Soviet government decided to make the Kazakhs settled and accustomed to farming by organizing sovkhozes – large collective livestock farms. A sharp change in the social system from nomadic cattle breeding to a sedentary lifestyle led to famine and the death of cattle in the 1930s. Excesses on the ground, the desire to fulfill the “settlement plan” and harvesting grain and meat aggravated the situation. By 1932, people were already dying en masse from starvation; those who raised uprisings were mercilessly killed; some managed to migrate to China and Iran. This time in Kazakhstan people call as Asharshylyk (Holodomor). During the Holodomor, the population of the republic decreased by a third.

Only in my personal information bubble over the past few years have materialized three multi-genre stories about the 30s of the last century. A year ago it was a comedy (!) by Temirlan Shagrap about children, brother and sister, who escaped from the village on a camel and went to the city orphanage through the hungry steppe. At the Drama.Kz festival  – the only drama festival in Kazakhstan – I heard the story of Nygmet Ibadildin “Shakhmardan comes out of the well” about the collectivization of the village. And just recently I watched the ethno-horror “Kash” from Aisultan Seitov about the wandering of a father and son in the steppe and the battle with the chthon called hunger. Moreover, in 2017, a play by Olzhas Zhanaidarov called “Jute” about the early 30s of the XX century was staged at the Russian Drama Theater in Almaty.

And how many other projects have passed by. Apparently, a request was brewing, and now it has already formed to pronounce a long-suppressed topic. It seems that Kandy Kantar (economic protests that turned into political ones and led to the deaths of hundreds of people in January 2022) provoked the rejection of silence. And the fierce resistance of Ukraine prompted the post-Soviet states to think about defending the “self”. And Nygmet’s play captures very precisely how this very “self” was etched. At first, it was etched by a radical change in the nomadic way of life.

“Your time to roam is over”, Karasart says in the play. This phrase also hurts more because it comes from as if its own. Karasart was one of Atabek’s students. But that was before. And now he is playing for the Reds, expounding their ideology, completely trampling in himself belonging to “his own” by blood. This phrase can be read both as “your freedom is over” and as “we know what is best for you.” Such slogans in auls led to the fact that yurts were lined up in the streets, and cattle were closed in pens. Neither one nor the other led to anything good. Both cattle and people were dying. Sedentariness was planted among the people who did not understand it, did not know how to survive in these conditions. The very essence of the ethnonym “Kazakh” – a free person – was questioned. Free people remained only in self-designation.

The title of the play refers to the death of the poet and philosopher Shakarim. There are several stories of his death. One of them features a well. His body was thrown there after the murder in October 1931. Abzal Karasartov became the head of the group of the SPD (State Political Directorate – special service for monitoring “socialist legality”), who gave the order to shoot the poet. He was probably the prototype of Karasart from Nygmet’s play. For a very long time, even after Shakarim’s rehabilitation, Abzal Karasartov opposed the publications of the poet’s literary heritage. After Abzal’s death, his brother and grandson did it. They repeatedly threatened local editors that they would write up to Moscow. And many were afraid to publish. The psychology of fear of the owner is the central topic considered by Nygmet.

Shakarim Kudaiberdyuly

This theme worked perfectly in conjunction with the image of a dog in Turkic myths. There is an expression “a dog has a master, and a wolf has a tengri”. According to one interpretation of the translation, the wolf does not obey anyone, only the supreme pagan deity Tengri, and the dog is tamed by man. At the beginning of the second act, Karasart switches to barking and a demon takes possession of him. The commissioner at this moment covers Karasart with a burka (a man’s cape). He, minting words, drives a Soviet conspiracy into Karasart’s head. Karasart is now the demon dog of the revolution. And Karasart is not the only one, the Reds want to make a whole nation submissive dogs. But the mirage in the form of a heavenly strongman gives hope that the heroes will survive.

«..Don’t be afraid, Aksakal, these are not poisoned blankets like in the American United States.

You probably don’t know where it is?

They are already covered with dust in their steppe.


As we remember from a well-known myth, Medea sent a poisoned garment to a rival. But Nygmet recalls a closer story – the history of the relationship between Europeans and native Americans. There is a story that the British military poisoned the blankets of the Indians and brought smallpox to the Indians’ environment. The Red Army soldiers give sweets to women and children. Sweets are not poisoned by anything, but their very appearance already affects like poisoned blankets. The Red Army men put the culture of the nomadic people below their own. They see themselves as educators and missionaries. Here Nygmet sets another frame for reflection – the relationship between colonized and colonizers.

A brief summary from Olzhas Zhanaidarov, the head of festival, on its website: “Postmodern action about the battle of the aul inhabitants with the Red Army.” And indeed, Nygmet’s play fully reflects the traditions of postmodernism: mythology, folk conspiracies, Kazakh aitys (oral song improvisational poetry like a rap battle), rap, Facebook sofa sacks, and some kind of online folklore are intertwined in it.

An attractive feature of the play is its fullness of various sounds, musicality, and rhythmicity. Potential directors can take excellent material to make a full-fledged ethno-opera or aitys out of the play. Witchcraft is stated in the play as a common way of interacting with reality. It is presented as a confrontation between the Soviet and non-Soviet, new and old. But from the very beginning, something in this world is strangely shifting. The commissar dances in dhikr, although dhikr is the practice of Sufis. And the same Commissar, as if appropriating the power obtained from someone else’s knowledge, shoots at the dombra.

“The commissar pulls out a pistol and shoots at Atabek’s dombyra (national string instrument). The dombra splits with a plaintive sound. Atabek stops. He looks at the Commissioner in surprise. Everyone stops at this long sound.”

This scene and this sound refers to Chekhov’s “Cherry Orchard” and the famous sounds of a broken string and the knock of an axe on wood. By analogy, in Nygmet’s play, the sound of a split dombra also symbolizes the death of the old world. At the same time, there is also the sound of a pistol shot. The pistol becomes a symbol of militarism in the play. Dombra versus pistol, art versus weapon. Dombra is splitting. The author tries to convey a bitter thought about the fragility of the steppe civilization. Karasart turns from a dog, a slave into a kind of antihero. 

“There is a song performed by Karasart to the tune of the song “I Shot The Sheriff“,”Karasart includes the essence of the Commissioner. His brains are poisoned by propaganda, he craves war, blood and power. We see how power distorts, how his thoughts get confused in his head.

Shamans-bucks were responsible for the manifestations of magic and communication with spirits among the nomads. Most often, the bucks came to treat mental and physical illnesses or to find out where the horse thieves had stolen cattle. In the play, Atabek acts not so much as a shaman, but as a real specially exaggerated wizard. He throws burning balls and flies. Atabek is a combination of Harry Potter and the characters of Mithun Chakraborty. Atabek, followed by Shahmardan, possesses some deep knowledge. Nygmet slightly reduces the pathos of the “aksakal” value system (a value system implying the unshakable authority of the elder) and at the same time connects viewers with the help of mass culture characters. This combination helps to avoid excessive moralizing.

Shahmardan is the protagonist of the story. He, like Karasart, studied in the city and doubts that their fireballs will be able to resist rifles so much. He respects the state, but he does not intend to sell for pennies. At the same time, Shakhmardan is entangled in typical stereotypes. He believes that Moscow does not know about the lawlessness that Red Army soldiers are doing in villages. The real awakening of Shahmardan begins after the murder of Atabek. Nygmet leaves the murder of Shakhmardan behind the scenes, but we see him in the well, talking to the murdered Atabek. At this moment, the worlds in the play – the dead and the living – are mixed. Shahmardan rises from the dead, engages in battle with Karasart and falls again, but does not die. Shahmardan floats in an endless circle of death, as if doomed to torment Karasart’s liver forever. He is the ghost of the revolution.

But who is she? “But you have to live and die like a human being,” says Korlan to Karasart’s proposal to marry him and start a new life. Korlan, unlike Karasart, adheres to the old way of life and remembers traditions. She must bury her husband, mourn for a year, give as – all these are ritual actions of the traditional way. These traditions are about trusting what has been tested by many generations, what has never failed. These are rituals of creation. They did not lead to famine, they did not destroy. Living and dying is a holistic process. A woman, as a giver of life, knows that by disrupting this process, everything can be destroyed. But it’s too late, the mechanism is running.

“Everyone shies away from the girl, Karasart swings a kamcha (traditional whip) at her, but she turns the cradle over with a laugh and runs away. There is no one in the cradle. Karasart shoots the girl several times, everyone starts shooting at her, gets hit, but she runs on laughing.”

For me, this is the most powerful and truly terrific scene in the play. The appearance of the image of a ghost child comes from ancient times. Many people had a belief in children who could destroy an entire village. Often these were children who, due to lack of food, were killed in infancy (the theme of hunger, which is not shown in the play, but is about to begin in the steppe). The Eskimos called this spirit angyak, the Swedes – utburd. The Eskimos filled the baby’s mouth with snow and carried it away from the dwelling. Utburds are usually children stuffed into a stocking and buried alive. It is also appropriate to recall the German folk tale “Hansel and Gretel” with a similar canvas. In the fairy tale, the father takes the children to the forest to get rid of them.

At the same time, the ghost girl is almost a woman. And female images in Turkic mythology are almost all negative (Albast, Zhalmauyz, Zheztyrnak). The motif of the besik (cradle) as a symbol of life is mixed with all this. The cradle with its device resembles the location of the baby in the womb. Besik seems to be helping the baby to survive the transition from being inside to being outside. Thus, the half-woman who turned over the cradle becomes the embodiment of ancient spirits. The spirits are angry, awakened by a force that knows nothing about them. Karasart, who has forgotten the magic of Atabek, is like an empty cradle. He can’t control spirits, so his bullets are ineffective, as is his magic.

It is worth noting that in the play the author quite clearly marks the boundaries of the conflict. He divides the heroes into supporters and opponents of the revolution, drives the heroes into close roles of good and bad. It is also interesting to consider the teaching and image of Atabek from the point of view of the postulates of Sufism. How, according to this canon, would the development of his two disciples – Karasart and Shakhmardan go? How does Korlan exist as a follower of the doctrine? It would be interesting to look at this period from the perspective of a decolonial choice.

Finally, the Red Army choir sings the final song. And it has the last line “Is that us” (“Мы ли мы”) with a dot at the end. It may be that this is such an ironic adjustment to the now fashionable agenda for the search for self-identity. The play reminds me of such a kurak korpe (a kind of antique blanket sewn from scraps of multicolored fabric). Nygmet has woven an eclectic picture that tells us so subtly about ourselves. Today, the Commissar seems to be winking at us from under the burka with a smirk of the Elbasy (self-title of the first president Nursultan Nazarbayev – “the head of nation”): “Hey there, how are you doing in Zhana Kazakhstan?” (Zhana Kazakhstan is the new political course of President Tokayev, announced after the Bloody January).

Almira Ismailova is a playwright, curator of the festival of modern Kazakh drama “Drama.KZ» 2019/2020. She studied at the Yekaterinburg State Theater Institute, majoring in Literary Creativity (workshop of N. Kolyada). She graduated from the courses of theater and film drama of the Open Literary School of Almaty (OLSHA), the course “Fundamentals of Film Drama” at the Kazakh National Academy named after T. K. Zhurgenov, the laboratory of Modern Drama of Olzhas Zhanaydarov. Long-lister of the drama festival “Nim-2018”. Participant of the Central Asian Laboratory of Screenwriting (CASL), implemented by the UNESCO Cluster Office in Almaty as part of the project “Strengthening the film Industry in Central Asia”). Almira also is a director currently working on her debut documentary “Burning land”. She is a member of the QazDoc documentary filmmakers’ association.

Nygmet Ibadildin was born and lives in Kazakhstan. He studied at the Open Literary School in Almaty (drama and poetry seminars). The script of the author’s cartoon was selected at the Almaty Film Festival. He has published as a journalist and as a researcher in various Kazakhstani publications. Academic articles and chapters have been published in Kazakhstan and abroad. Finalist of the modern drama festival “Drama.KZ»

Dramaturgy in Manshuk Kali’s Short Story “Instead of a Thousand Words”

Review by Alina Gatina. Translated by Alyona Timofeyeva

The story with the inconspicuous title “Instead of a thousand words” is a wonderful example of ultra–short prose written by the method: “author” – “reader-co-author”. It shows there is no shortage of plots because reality is overflowing with them, the only important thing is to choose the right scenery, set the lights and turn on the microphones.

In a noisy pizzeria light falls on a table by the window where a father and son are sitting. Life is happening between them. Everyday life is a sufficient source of drama in literature if the writer uses the possibilities of drama, as Manshuk Kali does. The task of dramaturgy is to expose the conflict.

There is a place for drama here – a pizzeria – and the visitors are teenagers and a young couple in love. They make noise and interfere with the main dialogue. The father still says what he came to tell his son, but the son can isolate himself from his father’s explanations, distracting himself from visitors and uttering things that are normal in a pizzeria.

– I want to tell you how everything happened.

– I’m hungry, <…> can I eat first? I just came from school.


… I don’t drink anymore! I go to work, stay there until night. Sometimes I even forget to eat.

– Can I have dessert? <…>

Another important point that creates the drama is that the author does not provide any backstory – the the reader learns about what happened only from the characters’ words. This method is the best gift to the reader. It will help to complete the unwritten, relying on the written.

“Instead of a Thousand Words” is written in the first person – such a narrative is characterized by relative freedom, however, and here the author does not forget about drama – the main character (the son) does not tell the reader anything about himself – his silence, abstract phrases, and most importantly actions tell more about the relationship with his father than if he explained them directly.

<…> – I looked at the photos the other day. Beautiful photos. And I thought: we are no worse than others. Maybe not better, but not worse as well! By the way, I don’t drink now. Do you think Mom will forgive me?

I shrugged, stubbornly not looking up. He drained the last sip of water from his glass. Then he asked:

— Does she know that you’re with me?

— Yes, – I put down the empty cup and got up. — I have a lot of homework.

— Fine. Tell your mother I don’t drink anymore, okay?

Turning my back to him, I took my backpack off the hanger.

— Okay.

—Wait, – he said, and handed me a box of Raffaello. — Can you give this to her?

The “laconic” author (here: “laconic” hero) is a godsend for the reader and an indicator of prose mastery.

Sometimes there are stories in which the author writes the exposition in detail. The story “Instead of a thousand words” perfectly illustrates why this is not necessary. Reading it leaves a cloying taste of raffaello sweets mixed with pineapple in the mouth. One cannot help but feel bitter about the fact it is so hard to understand each other, and want to think about how everything was, how everything could be, and how everything will be, but above all, joy there are authors who write stories like this.

I recommend reading it!

Manshuk Kali is a graduate of Open Literature School of Almaty (prose seminar), a student of the Moscow playwright Olzhas Zhanaydarov. Finalist of “Drama.KZ 2019” festival. Published in the almanac “Literary Alma-Ata”, in the “Tamyr” and “Druzhba Narodov” literary magazines.

Alina Gatina is a novelist, literary editor. Graduated from the Gorky Literary Institute in Moscow, Department of Prose. Laureate of the First President of Kazakhstan Foundation’s literary prize “Altyn Tobylgy”.

Nabijon Boqiy: “Slaves will Create a Servant Literature”

Dear readers! We would like to introduce you to a wonderful novelist and short story writer from Uzbekistan, Nabijon Boqiy. Born in 1956 in the Baghdad District of Fergana region, he is one of the leading contemporary authors of Uzbekistan.  His novel about the recent hard times of the Uzbek people during the dictatorship is available in English. His two novels have been published in Turkish. Nabijon Boqiy spent months in the KGB archives in search of historic materials for his novels.  His published books include Qatlnoma (A Story of execution, dedicated to the sad fate of the great Uzbek writer Abdulla Qodiriy); Gulzamira; Letters to Chingiz Efendi; and The Will of Anwar Pasha.  Nabijon Boqiy translated works by Robert Louis Stevenson, Chingiz Aitmatov, Mukhtor Shakhanov and Georgiy Pryakhin into Uzbek.  He is the holder of the Shuhrat medal and the winner of the ‘Best Historic Book’ award.   

In the interview below, Uzbek poet A’zam Obid and writer Nabijon Boqiy talk about the current state of creative writing in Uzbekistan, the life of a writer, and what it means to be a writer in this Central Asian country.

A’zam Obid: Hello, brother Nabijon! Thank you so much for agreeing to answer my questions!

It seems to me that a good writer or poet is not only a person who writes a beautiful work of art, but also a person who regularly reacts to events in his/her society on various platforms (for example, on social networks).  A writer must be a defender of human rights, an opponent of an unjust system, a humble person as well as a strong person who lives with conflict. In fact, I am not a person who describes or evaluates poets or writers, dividing them into ‘mediocre’, ‘good’ or ‘great’ artists. A writer or a poet, who is unpopular or shallow, sometimes seems to me to be a very strong person. In general, I would like to ask you how important strength is for a creative person. Who is the real Uzbek writer today? Can you describe him or her?

NABIJON BOQIY: I think now in Uzbekistan the one who describes himself as ‘a true Uzbek writer’ is a hypocrite. One type of writers are those who hang around the presidential administration (Devon) until they beautify their own houses and the cemeteries where they could be buried. The other type (such writers are too many) are those who, even if they could not get to Devon, they would take themselves to the managers from Devon and work with them.  The most interesting thing is that both groups think that they serve the nation, always saying “My people!” and “My country!”  However, their ultimate goal is that they reach the level when the government would feed them and they would be closer to the palace. I told an interesting story about them in my novel called The Diary of Yurtmenboshi. In 2010, I signed a contract with Ozodlik Radio (RFRL), and the main part of the novel was published on its website.  My teacher, famous Uzbek writer Erkin A’zam, who was one of the first readers of that novel said: “This novel of Nabijon brightens the face of Uzbek writers, no matter when he publishes it: during his life or after his death. The person who reads this work, fortunately, will say that representatives of Uzbek literature are not only engaged in praise and that they also wrote the bitter truth!” Writers and poets such as Temur Pulatov, Gulchehra Nurullaeva, Miraziz A’zam, Asqar Haydar, Nurulla Oston, Ibrahim Haqqul, Orozboy Abdurahmanov also liked this novel.

Continue reading “Nabijon Boqiy: “Slaves will Create a Servant Literature””

Independent Existence: Davra Collective Poetry Evening

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 Danish girl: how a journalist from northern Europe wrote a book about Almaty, part 2

In this part Mia shares her experience in Kazakhstan as a foreigner

Let’s talk a little about you. What does it mean for you to be a foreigner in Kazakhstan?

I have never encountered any negativity on being a foreigner. But strange situations sometimes happen. For example, when I’m talking to my son in Danish on the playground, someone will always come up and ask – where are you from? And when you say that you are from Denmark, people suddenly become interested in your whole life – how, from where, why? Sometimes it’s very tiring. But in general, this is a pleasant attention – there are much fewer foreigners in Almaty than, for example, in Astana, so people are curious.

Which part of Kazakh culture is the most pleasant for you?

This is perhaps the main difference – alas! – from my native culture. Everyone here is very hospitable, open, ready to help in any situation. In Denmark, people are closed, you can’t just come up and talk to someone – it takes years to establish close ties. Here you never feel lonely – there is always someone who will offer you a cup of tea. We have a joke in our family about this. My husband is Kazakh, and when we visit his parents, we always pass through dastarkhan (rich table). We call it “Kazakh food torture”. You overeat, but you understand that there is such love behind the desire to feed!

And what part is the most unacceptable?

I don’t like some post-Soviet things, but this applies not only to Kazakhstan. For example, people do not care about their city: they litter, if something is broken, they leave it, because it is not their responsibility. And it saddens me because people have to take care of their home.

Read more: The Danish girl: how a journalist from northern Europe wrote a book about Almaty, part 2

And how did your loved ones react when you said that you were marrying a Kazakh?

No one was surprised. I already have an international family. My sister and mom are married to Turks, and my dad was married to a Kazakhstani woman. Therefore, my half-brother has a mixture of Uzbek, Tatar, Russian and Danish blood – in a word, a typical Almaty (laughs). That’s why no one expected me to marry a Dane. And my friends from Denmark are interested in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, so they were not shocked either – like “KazakhSTAN? Oh my God!”. In this regard, I was very lucky.

Although we are talking in English now, you speak Russian perfectly. What about Kazakh?

I understand many things, but I don’t say them. Grammar is too complicated for me. But I know the most basic words – rakmet (thank you), salemetsiz be? (greeting), something else. I try to use them in everyday life – in the store, for example. But I really want to know more.

Do you speak Danish and Russian at home?

My husband and I communicate in English. But our son speaks Russian and Danish, but I think he understands English quite well. Although we live in Kazakhstan, it is very important for me to speak Danish with my child – after all, it is my native language. While I’m afraid to teach him Russian – cause what if I teach something with a mistake? Therefore, my husband teaches him.

Are Danes very different from Kazakhs?

They are completely different. There are universal values, but in general the difference is very noticeable. If we lived in Denmark as a Danish-Kazakh family, we would need to adjust, just like here. My culture is very individualistic, and here everything is aimed at the family. And a banal example: Denmark was a colonizer, and Kazakhstan was a colony, this also affects. It’s hard to compare.

Thanks for the conversation, Mia! I really hope to see your book on the counter soon.

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

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

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

How did you end up in Kazakhstan?

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

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

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

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

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

How did you start writing?

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

And what are the results?

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

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

Mia Hansen

In a nutshell – what is your Almaty book about?

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

And what path will the book take next?

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

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

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

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

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

Alma Review turns one year!

On November 1, 2021 we launched our beloved blog The Alma Review. Up until then, no one had written about Kazakh literature in English, so we decided to be the first. During the year we reached almost 2,000 readers in nearly 60 countries. We have published essays, critical articles, news, memoirs – in a word, everything that modern literature consists of. Dozens of talented authors, translators and critics gathered under one virtual roof. We constantly receive offers of cooperation from other blogs and authors, and this is a great stimulus. We are insanely glad that the project is alive! Happy birthday, The Alma Review!