International Writing Program Publishes Statement on Internet Shutdown in Kazakhstan

The International Writing Program (IWP) is a global community of writers committed to promoting and celebrating freedom of expression around the world. The IWP shares the concerns of writers in #Kazakhstan regarding the interruptions of internet service, which have accompanied the ongoing protests. The ability to communicate freely fulfils the essential human need to share eye-witness accounts of the events, check on the safety of friends and family, and gain perspective on the events of the day. Online platforms have become indispensable for this, and so we urge the authorities in Kazakhstan to protect all citizens’ access to online services and to promote an online environment that supports #freeexpression.

A Poet Being Tamed by Fire: Ksenia Rogozhnikova’s “Swoosh”

Ксения Рогожникова. Чирк /сборник стихотворений/. Алматы: ОЛША, 2021. 64 pages. ISBN 978-601-09-1509-1.

Review by Oksana Trutneva translated by Nina Murray.

What is fire? Light, heat, passion, sacrifice, a symbol, or irreconcilability—fire accommodates so many meanings. In the hands of Ksenia Rogozhnikova, delicately woven into her poetic texts, the metaphor of the fire contains magnitudes of meanings and interpretations. Swoosh, published this year (2021) is a double-sided performance: we see the poet attempting to domesticate, tame the fire that bursts out of her flow of consciousness, and at the same time we see the fire become line, propel the poet and in the process tame her.

This fire is also life—a life that burns brightly and demands attention. Life that is impartial and shows us the outside world in the uneven light of its flickering flame.

It is no accident that the opening poem of the book whispers about the inability to be aligned with the available version of the world, the poet’s inability to conceal her flame, make it smaller:

you could do half-way
turn the flame down

but not at a run
a stranger—you risk 
burning everything down
the town waits for the snow
rain comes

This playing with fire (pun intended) is not something that only happens inside the poet’s mind—it is brought to bear on it by life itself. In the poem “Winter Walks” swoosh (the onomatopoeic word that in Russian conveys not only the sound of rustling, but also bird-noise and the sound made by a match being struck), the sound of intimacy is also an invitation to feel, to sense things:

sleeve against
another passer-by's sleeve
a blank fired
in winter
I am again
at my post
in the streets

the outmost layer
of clothing
might just spark
oh light me
ignite me ignite me
I mean to stand
close to catch fire

And here again the poet is at odds with the world, and just as she is about to accept the rules of the game, to engage the possibility of doing so is foreclosed:

but he frowns
looks down
my passer-by
he goes by
I won't turn
my matches
are broken

There are no rules. The reader, like the speaker, is at a loss as to how to play this game of life, how to tame this fire.

Perhaps this is the reason Rogozhnikova turns to meditation: to imbue the erratic arrhythmia of life with a measure of contemplative peace.

so goes my meditation
it is both light and deep
i wonder if i might escape 
this nirvana somehow
flee the satori
this lemony prickling of tongue
this inability
to become 
the lip of a volcano 

The poet’s meditation here is a contemplation of self from inside the self. Every sensation of the outside world is returned to the inner realm where the poet, as she observes herself, reaches for something more than the ordinary interpretation of meaning:

the washing machine
in the bathroom
twists the bedding
as if 
someone in there
were having a tryst <...>

in the other room
i sit 
on my meditation pillow
breath in—the man
is decisive strong
breath out—the woman
is wide and soft

they come together
a thousand times 
in an hour
the floor
begins to vibrate

The space of the body and the space outside the body constitute another dyad of meaning in Rogozhnikova’s poetry. We often see the body as it transforms itself, as it might be expected to do, in order to reconcile itself to reality:

do not be alarmed
to see me so flattened
to find i move sideways
you have seen the fish
that live
at monstrous depths

Or here: 

out of a girl
with a firm handshake
i turn into a woman
with a soft one

This body-mediated experience of the self contains a temporal aspect as well: one cannot remain unchanged after one lives so acutely and through so much. The speaker remembers being a child and already feeling

as my tightly wrapped throat
a turtleneck
that was too small

or regret, as in “somewhere—my sea goes on living without me.”

Eventually, the larger space takes in the individual body and

holds me by the hand

i stand
on a steep mountainside
at a long blade of grass
and feel 
hold it firmly
my hand


cold comes in 
as if an iceberg
hung zeppelin-like
over the city

Until this immersion in the larger space becomes almost meditative: 

and a line of light
on the wall
like an icon

Ksenia Rogozhnikova’s poetry is a mandala, a sacral geometry of meanings wherein the outmost circle is life, external and internal; the square inside that circle is the inhabited space that shapes the individual body and absorbs it; and the circle inside the square is time whose flow transforms both the body and the space it inhabits. At the center of this cosmos is the fire that powers it.

This colorful, varied pattern drawn as if in colored sand is delicate and can disappear at any moment, blown away by a single breath of a new meaning. If so, Ksenia Rogozhnikova is not afraid to begin painting anew. The poet keeps in mind Karl Jung’s interpretation of the mandala as a symbol of human perfectibility and seeks to better understand her own self. To comprehend the essence of the fire at the heart of it all that both tames everything around—and becomes tamed.

Ksenia Rogozhnikova (Zemskova) is a poet and a children’s writer. She is a graduate of the Maksim Gorky Higher Literary School in Moscow (class of 2009). Her work has been published in literary journals in Russia and Kazakhstan. She is the winner of the Altyn Kalam 2020 award for the best Children’s Book in Russian. Ksenia is the author of two collections of poetry, as well as a middle-grade novel Let’s Salsa! (Almaty Literary Press, 2018).

Oksana Trutneva, Nina Troks

Oksana Trutneva is a poet, fiction writer, and literary critic. She writes under the name Nina Troks. In 2002, she graduated from the master-class sponsored by Musaget; in 2008 she studied with Tobias Hill and Pascale Petit. Oksana teaches fiction workshops at Almaty’s Open Literary School (OLSHA).

Take up Your Cross and Witness Love

One remembers that saxophone is an instrument of a peculiarly transporting power: many notes it produces fall beyond the range of those recorded by composers. Isn’t this a perfect metaphor for our life? We cannot always ‘read the music’  that god had written for us and adapt the notation to our individual pitch and ability. 

Михаил Земсков. Саксофон Гавриила. Москва: “ЛитРес: Самиздат”, 2020, 195 pages. 

essay translated by Nina Murray

Mikhail Zemskov’s new novel, Angel Gabriel’s Saxophone, became available in July 2021. For this book, the author chose the independent publishing route—a choice, in his case, perfectly justified. Zemskov’s solid reputation, his record of literary awards and publications in respected literary journals and collections mean the reader can feel no qualms about picking up the new novel for a night of reading in a comfortable armchair. 

As a reader I am wary of the expression “read it in one sitting” (or as we say in Russian, “in one breath”). What does this mean? That a given book is so uncomplicated and straightforward that a reader does not feel his/her breath catch even once? Personally, I do not care for overly smooth texts: I want to feel resistance when I read, in style and content. I like texts that make me think, including while I am reading them. 

Angel Gabriel’s Saxophone is written in robust, competent prose. The occasional missteps (an unnecessary repetition, or unclear phrasing) are quickly and smoothly subsumed in the weave of the novel. The author is similarly confident in choosing his theme: Angel Gabriel’s Saxophone, is a novel about selfishness and existential loneliness. It is also about how important it is to emerge from this precious loneliness we all but hold sacred. 

Archangel Gabriel, according to relevant lore, was the chief manager of the unconscious, responsible for dreams, hallucinations and similar phenomena. Gabriel is the angel called upon to interpret visions, omens, and dreams. I asked Mikhail if he had been aware of this when he chose the title for his novel.  As I suspected, Mikhail had not. Coincidences of this kind occur somewhere on the metaphysical plane of existence, independent of the author’s reasoning or plans. The author creates the text, and the text then reveals to us its additional meanings which are unique to every reader. 

“Miracles come easier to those who believe in them. Something like that.” 

We meet the protagonist, Ilya, at a time in his life when he is, as the trendy expression goes, working through some  things  that had happened to him when he was a child and/or in a past life. The idea is that this will help improve his attitude towards life, people, and himself. The answer, however, cannot come from psychiatry—rather, it lies deep in the web of the here and now, and the way people talk about it. And people  in this book are hard at work looking for something or someone they could point to in order to justify and explain what they do—anything in order not to be held accountable. 

One remembers that saxophone is an instrument of a peculiarly transporting power: many notes it produces fall beyond the range of those recorded by composers. Isn’t this a perfect metaphor for our life? We cannot always ‘read the music’  that god had written for us and adapt the notation to our individual pitch and ability. 

The reader empathizes with Ilya. Ilya is a common man: friendly, awkward, average-looking. He lives a common life in an apartment he and his girlfriend are renting together. He drinks beer on weekends; he has a friend, colleagues, neighbors and the hobby of playing video games. You know the guy!

To explain his nightmares, both to himself and to other people, Ilya seeks the help of a hypnotherapist. Under hypnosis, he finds himself in his previous lives. There’s a variety of them. Each is an opportunity to find the solution—that is, at least the hope of Ilya’s girlfriend, whom he believes he loves, and his therapist. 

As Ilya journeys into his past lives throughout the book, the narrative style changes: early on, the therapist’s methods are described in great detail, from the opening greeting between him and the patient, to the process of putting Ilya under hypnosis, and his slow emergence from it. The reader feels as if he/she is, too, coached into a hypnotic trance. What happens there comes to us in short, sketchy fragments. As the story progresses, however, it is the real-life routine that becomes sketchy and what is experienced under hypnosis is narrated with increasing detail. The writing jerks the reader furiously from one vision to another, they flicker, and Ilya’s two (or are there more?) lives, the real one and the one he lives under hypnosis, become utterly entangled. What if, in fact, they are not discrete at all? What if a man does not need help from a therapist to discover god within himself?

The person Ilya experiences himself to be in his past life can be read as a metaphor: everyone is looking for god inside them. We speak to god inside ourselves. We seek and find answers inside. Everyone, to a certain extent, is his/her own god. This is a joke played on us by Him, the original God. The big one. Whenever we turn to Him, we turn to ourselves. The search for God, nowadays, can be a bit hysterical, and it is to Mikhail Zemskov’s credit that he delivers his story in measured, even-keeled, mesmerizing narrative. 

Ilya has no faith in himself and no direction in his life. He has no answers. What he has is games, the woman he loves, his therapist, his friend, and a fling with the underage Maria. I put games first because throughout the book I had the sense Ilya was playing. He does not really comprehend what is happening, and does not understand the consequences his actions might have. He believes he is immortal, believes that he will be resurrected and given another, new life in the game. And so it goes. 

I struggle with the character of Maria, and specifically the author’s choice to have her be a minor.  The plotline that involves her feels rushed and ends with Ilya appearing, deus ex machina-like (there’s god again), to rescue Maria from sex traffickers. Perhaps Maria is meant to mirror Ilya’s own struggles: she is a young woman who has no support, caught in a web of circumstances and unable to break free. In Maria’s case, however, the trap is quite real and desperate, while in Ilya’s—not to dismiss his problems entirely—his challenges are a result of his own mental turpitude. Ilya’s issues, in other words, are relatively easy to address: he needs therapy and some well-dosed Prozac. Why, then, should Maria be a minor? Is it to make the point that even Jesus reincarnated in our world can engage in what in a few country is considered statutory rape? As in, none of us are without sin? (Picture me looking heavenward).

The subject of women, much like the subject of god, has many manifestations in this novel. There is Lena, Ilya’s girlfriend, reliable in a crisis, in love with him, and very convenient (she also has a well-paid job). There’s Maria—a random encounter. She is under age and unusual, a knot of problems, like Ilya himself. At some point, we realize: dear me, Ilya doesn’t need either one of these women to rescue him. He needs to be the rescuer—Maria is not a name chosen at random—in order to save himself. The reader wonders why Lena (and the reader along with her) cares so much about Ilya that she should stick by him, help him, rescue him, and fix him? Lena herself seems to provide the answer: she does not live in the real world either. She is made mystical by the author, and chooses to uphold the mystery: to be the mother of all mothers, burned on a pyre, one who must protect her infant from all danger. Here it is again: Lena refuses to live here and now. She clings to the unexplored powers of her own unconscious, goes along with the therapist (whose ethics the reader is beginning to doubt), and basks in her role. Meanwhile, the cell-phones she sells need more care and attention than these mind games. I appreciate that Mikhail Zemskov writes to lance the abscesses of our society—of the culture that has lost its way and looks for salvation in physical pleasure or using the past (incarnations) to justify the present,  never in its own choices. 

“In the long run, you have nothing to win in this world, because you will die anyway.” 

One way to deal with nightmares—as I learned from my therapist—when you wake up in a panic, terrified and cannot remember where you are, and your heart is racing—is to take note of the objects around you. Name them. Here is a chair, here is the window. Everything where it has always been. The panic retreats and you calm down. 

The first-person narrative in Archangel Gabriel feels similar: the protagonist thinks; he registers the familiar and the new objects, events, people’s appearances. This keeps him calm, at peace with what is happening around him. In this undisturbed, uninterrupted thing-ness, he is safe. Why on earth would he want any answers? 

“Where is your land, Akram? In Kazakhstan, in Chechnya, or here?” I asked. 

“My land is where I stand.”

The only ground is beneath the hero’s feet. From here he must begin and end every journey. The journey will begin and end regardless of whether Ilya will find his answers in his previous lives, or in his dreams, whether he will find god within or without himself. And whether the god he finds is real or another self-deception. Resurrection does not matter. It does not matter whether the forks, the children, the women, the money, the fist-fights and even the music he hears are real or mere playacting at the theater studio where Ilya did not get a speaking part. Once the people there found out that Ilya is Jesus 2.0, by the way, they gave him a part to play. Is it all a game? A game in which we can start again, from zero? There’s no way to know for sure. 

The final part of the book feels like running. In  the beginning we traveled slowly, with time to feel and process things along with the protagonist, to test/taste god, new forks, a new phone, a new girl. The closer we get to the end, the faster the plot moves, until it reaches such speed that the reader worries he/she will not get a chance to understand, to register everything the author had put in. The most important thing, though, is this: as we approach the end, we know we approach the crucifixion. This is not a spoiler: for me, it’s a metaphor. For the novel’s author, it’s a fact. 

Francis Bacon, a British expressionist painter whose work often features the human figure distorted, stretched, or squeezed into a geometric shape on a plain background, once said the crucifixion is “the best subject  for expressing human emotion.”

I do not think a book can have a better ending than a crucifixion. The only thing is, no matter how much we might wish for it, resurrection will never follow. 

Image generated by artificial intelligence

Mikhail Zemskov is a Kazakhstani author of prose and drama. He is the author of four books and many literary magazine publications in Kazakhstan and in other countries. Twice, he was awarded the Russkaya Premia literary award; he is a finalist and winner of several drama contests. An alumnus of the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography, he is a member of the Moscow Writers Union and the Kazakh PEN club. He lives in Almaty, where he regularly organizes various literary events.

Angel Gabriel’s Saxophone was previously reviewed by Yuriy Serebriansky.

The Direction of the Gaze: Aman Rakhmetov on Tigran Tuniyants’ The Edge of Rain

Translated by Nina Murray

The thing is, when you read a really good poet, nothing but images really comes to mind. The images emerge of their own volition because your thoughts, launched off the springboard of each poem, cease being mere thoughts. Some people say, these poems inspire, and these do not. This flight, this swarm of images is inspiration, is it not? 

For me, good poems produce two different experiences. The first is when you read and enter a conversation with every word, every line. You underline, you mark words, you write in the margins. This is awesome. The second is when you read—and find yourself inside a miracle. Then you just put a check-mark at the bottom of this miracle and proceed living a changed person. 

I have seen Tigran Tuniyants live only once in my life, at a lecture at the Almaty Open Literary School. The year was 2019, and his subject was Japanese poetry. He spoke sparsely and concisely, and tipped his chin up every so often. I remembered that mannerism as well as his gaze: piercing, clear, white. He looked at the world the way people without sight do, those who do not care what you look like but do very much care that you listen well, experience things well, contemplate things. Later that day, I looked for Tigran’s poems on the internet. A single, short one was enough to know something important: Tigran Tuniyants is a poet. An incredible, essential poet. His poems come with their own check-marks. 

A kite flies high,
almost out of sight. 
Heaven on a leash!

Finally I got my hands on his collection The Edge of Rain, put out by Musagetes/Мусагет as a run of merely 300 copies. Seen from a distance, Tigran Tuniyants’ book is a cone wherein the base encircles poems in regular meter, and the rest of the shape—Tanka and free verse, squeezed at the tip through the smallest, most exquisite opening, so that the whole book is like a bottom half of an hourglass. A closer reading reveals other, as-yet-unnamed patterns. Nearly every line is informed by the Faustian embrace of opposites. 

the world is taut as 
a droplet
kissed to the rim
a moist globe that comes
from nothing 
and aims nowhere
stretches its delicate neck
a comma of rain
dares not drop
quietly tarries
inside under the dusting
of stars we fall 
of unmade nests

the one-legged heron
of time picks us up

The world is [stretched] taut as a droplet”- what is this?

On one hand, “the world” is huge, heavy, immeasurable, and a droplet is transient, light, momentary. These two opposites are brought into a relationship by the predicate (‘[stretched] taut’), the first in the chain of verbs that links the poem together. Perhaps we are dealing with a poet who is also a philosopher, or a philosopher poet, because every image—the rim of a vessel, a moist ball, a comma of rain, a dusting of stars, the unmade nests—is not just a metaphor but a concept, and all these concepts are linked together by the chain of verbs. The reader hears the rattle of these chains in the music, the soundscape of the poems. The reader begins to share the experience of being manacled that the lyrical speaker attempts to articulate. The reader remembers Prometheus. 

The question is, to what cliffside is the speaker chained? 

Now let’s look at the line from another angle: look at it as a painting, and see, in “the world taut as a droplet,” the outline (albeit cartoonish) of a stork with a baby-bundle in its beak. The last line prompts the association as well. Storks and herons belong to the same family, Ardeidae. Of course, they differ in many important ways, but I’m not an ornithologist—I am a reader. I have come face to face with the poet as painter. All this within the span of a single short poem that I am now rereading—to find the small word ‘we’.

I notice the word occurs nine times over the course of the collection. The symbolism of the number fascinates me. ‘We’ is used sparingly; other pronouns occur much more frequently, ‘you’ in particular. 

“We” appears in the poem “A stroll with our arms linked”. There’s a “we” in when we have found the balance of the curtains. We are a profile pressed against the phone. The metamorphoses of playful lay-bys—where we might not melt when skin elides. We explode into eternity like a potato’s eye. We remain ignorant. We see only the commas. We’ve been trying to be brave since the beginning of time.

The free-verse poems do not include a single ‘we’. Why do I point this out? Because of this manacle business. The lyrical I is not, in fact, chained to anything. The chain this speaker is dragging behind is a token of freedom, a freedom ripped out of rock. 

Back in 2007, Galina Yermoshina wrote about Tigran in the Russian Znamya: “He is just a traveler, a Ulysses of the alphabet and the dictionary. The only thing he knows about his journey is that it is before him. The word sets his route.”

I want to add that in addition to the route, the word defines this poet’s gaze. It’s direction. THis is important. 

Blue trees rustle under the skin. What a stunning, incredible image! Could this be one attempt to look inside oneself? If so, it is nearly unique in this collection, but I could be wrong: this could be  spoken about someone else, someone close to the speaker (the you of which we see so much, much more than of other pronouns). That, however, would be a different story entirely, and I would like to conclude this essay. 

Tigrant Tuniats poetics is the act of directing the gaze. It is both gentle and incisive. 

Because birds fly like double quotes warming up. 

Because the air is flooded.

Because it is not the step that matters but how worn the heel of the breath has become…

Because to molt is human. 

Because crosses on churches are aerials tuned into the channels of grace.

You must not leave a man a riddle. 

Tigran Tuniyants was born in 1979 in Almaty. In 2002, he graduated from the Kazakhstan State Medical University. He is the author of Edge of Rain (2003, currently being prepared for a 2nd edition) and a regular contributor to publications by Musagetes. His work was included in Ulysses Liberated, an anthology of Russophone poetry by writers outside of Russia (2004), and translated into English (In Our Own Words, v. 3, 2001). He writes essays, and reviews books and film. He lives in Almaty.

Tigran Tuniyants

Aman (Amangeldy) Rakhmetov is a poet from Kazakhstan. His poems have been published in literary journals «Новый берег», «Дружба народов», «Плавучий мост», «Крещатик», «Гостиная», etc. “Почти”/”Not Quite” is his first book. He lives in Shymkent.

The First Snow of the Year: The Quiet Revolution of Writing in English as a Kazakhstani

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 How

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-speaking Kazakhstani 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.

The Why

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.

Mikhail Zemskov’s “Angel Gabriel’s Saxophone”

Guest post by Yuriy Serebriansky

Михаил Земсков. Саксофон Гавриила. Москва: “ЛитРес: Самиздат”, 2020, 195 pages. 

The saxophone is an instrument of unfulfilled desires and abandoned dreams, unlike the trumpet which is first and foremost the harbinger of war.

Mikhail Zemskov’s new novel is a clarion call of our entire generation, one that came of age at a time when all around us things seemed to be finished and obsolete. Mikhail Zemskov’s name has been frequent on Russian prize-lists for novels and plays in the last decade: he is the author of “Сектант (Sectarian)”, “Перигей (Peregee)” just to name two. Zemskov is known as an author of intelligent fiction, and this book reads like the next step in Zemskov’s continued exploration of the limits of human psyche, set, this time, against the vivid post-Soviet backdrop.

We, the generation that entered adulthood in the 1990s, spent our teenage years in a quiet and quazi-stable reality. Like us, the characters of Angel Gabriel’s Saxophone, failed to catch the train of modernity when it suddenly left the station because they boarded, for some reason, the car that had been decoupled and left behind. There they still sit, some in better seats than others, watching the world through its windows. As for the novel’s space, “space consist of the hall and ends at the door,” as Brodsky put it. Locations and geographical references are recognizable, but the action happens in a still-unbroken world.

The narrator, Ilya, is a common man of our shared near-present who discovers under hypnosis that he is a reincarnation of Jesus Christ. This reader’s mind immediately summoned “Personal Jesus” by Depeche Mode whose music was an inalienable part of our lives. When the life of Ilya-the-man and Ilya-the-god collide, everyone involved has to face up to the fact that being a god doesn’t give one any power in the material world–and the world today is more material than ever before.

Angel Gabriel’s Saxophone fits into to the corpus of post-Soviet writers’ reflections on the 1990s, beside books by Serhiy Zhadan and German Sadulayev. This novel deserves to be translated and read in English.

Mikhail Zemskov is a Kazakhstani author of prose and drama. He is the author of four books and many literary magazine publications in Kazakhstan and in other countries. Twice, he was awarded the Russkaya Premia literary award; he is a finalist and winner of several drama contests. An alumnus of the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography, he is a member of the Moscow Writers Union and the Kazakh PEN club. He lives in Almaty, where he regularly organizes various literary events.

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

Opportunity: Paul Celan Fellowship for Translators

Academic Year 2022 – 2023

The aim of the Paul Celan Fellowship Program is to overcome deficits and asymmetries in the exchange of ideas and the reception of scholarly literature which result from the division of Europe in the 20th century. Therefore, the program supports translations of canonical texts and contemporary key works in the humanities, social sciences and cultural studies from Eastern to Western, Western to Eastern, or between two Eastern European languages. Special emphasis is put on translations of relevant works written by East European authors and/or by female scholars. A thematic relation to one of the research fields of the IWM is likewise welcomed.

Continue reading “Opportunity: Paul Celan Fellowship for Translators”

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

From November 21 to 25, Almaty hosted a Young Writers Forum organized by the SEIP Foundation (Foundation for Socio-economic and Intellectual programs). The forum participants were young writers from Kazakhstan, Russia, and Kyrgyzstan. However, in the case of these writers, “young” does not at all equal “beginner”. Most of the authors already have publications in thick literary magazines, and some have already published their own books.

This is not the first time Kazakhstan has hosted such events. In 2019 SEIP held the inaugural festival, which, however, only included Kazakhstani and Russian participants. This time the guests of the forum were Russian poets Maxim Amelin and Elena Lapshina, novelist Ilya Kochergin, as well as critic and part-time deputy editor-in-chief of the “Знамя” magazine Natalia Ivanova.

The essence of the project was to establish cultural ties between countries, search for new talents, and promote the ones already known. The festival included separate master classes for prose writers and poets, panel discussions and round tables, as well as creative meetings. At the master classes, participants analyzed each other’s texts together with creative supervisors.

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

Mirgul Kali’s translation «To Hell with Poets» by Baqytgul Sarmekova wins PEN/HEIM, first from Central Asia – Part II

AB: If you don’t mind the question: what do you do in the USA?

MK: I spent many years working as a project controls specialist for engineering companies in the oil and gas sector, but I left the industry several years ago to focus on my translation projects.

AB: What difficulties did you face in translating Bakhytgul’s stories? What words or concepts were difficult to translate into English?

MK: Overall, Baqytgul’s stories were easier to translate than some other prose I worked with. But there definitely were challenges. Most of them were related to humor and ethnolinguistic terms. For example, in “The Black Colt,” there’s a sentence: “Some of the more brazen women in our auyl… would tease [Turar] by pinching his side or brushing against him with their breasts, plump and quivering like intestines filled with sour cream, as they walked by.” Here, to describe the breasts of the women, Baqytgul uses the word “бүйен” (buyen), which is a pouch at the end of a cow’s large intestine that connects it to the small intestine (an English anatomic term would be cecum). In rural areas, Kazakhs clean, salt, and dry buyen in order to store dairy products without the use of refrigeration. Baqytgul told me that the sour cream kept in a buyen has a specific flavor similar to the flavor of blue cheese. I felt it was important to preserve this unusual simile, its visceral, fleshly, even gross aspect of it because I see Baqytgul’s often brash, flawed, plain-spoken female characters as challenging the patriarchal culture that seeks to idealize women while at the same time discriminating against them.

AB: Tell us about your “Turkoslavia” collective  please. When and how did this collective come into being? Which writer are you translating now?

MK: Turkoslavia is a literary translators’ collective that Ena Selimovic, Sabrina Jaszi, and I started in 2020. The three of us have been meeting and workshopping our translations for a year before we decided to make our collaboration “official.” We are friends who enjoy working with each other, but we felt that a collective could force us to get more serious about advancing our literary translation careers as well as help us explore projects that we wouldn’t be able to do on our own. As for what I’m translating now, I’m currently doing final edits to my translation of Mukhtar Magauin’s novel Kokbalaq, which is my first book-length translation project and which for that reason took much longer to finish than I had anticipated. When I have time, I also try to work on “To Hell with Poets”, Baqytgul Sarmekova’s collection of short stories. I’m also very slowly translating “Менің терім көшіп барады” (“My skin is drifting”), a short story by the young writer and playwright Merey Qosyn.  

AB: Which Kazakhstani writers do you read and which ones do you think the world should know?

BS: I try not to miss any the contemporary writers. But we all write to the same extent, in the same type. At the moment I don’t see anyone who could explode and conquer the world. 

AB: What are your plans for the future as a writer?

BS: I always said that I see writing only as a hobby. That is, I did not have a goal or a plan. I did not make any sacrifices to write. Writing has always been easy for me; I have no difficulty putting what I think into words. But I got to analyze about it after this event. Fortunately, I am a happy writer who is loved by God! Because I was able to participate in an international competition without any effort, money or time. So this is a sign for me not to give up writing, to write. I have a lot of ideas in my mind, pictures and stories are always boiling in my mind. I have a fear that if I can’t write what I think and feel, I will be miserable. When the thoughts are fully ripe, they appear on paper. But I decided not to leave the writing.

AB: What are your future plans as a translator?

MK: I have lots of plans and aspirations, but I translate very slowly, so I’m not sure how many of those I’ll be really able to accomplish. But, after I finish Kokbalaq and To Hell with Poets, I’m hoping to translate Didar Amantai’s moody, enigmatic short stories and novels, especially “Тотықұс түсті көбелек.” A selection of Amantai’s work was translated into English by Zaure Batayeva and published in 2015. I’m also interested in translating more of Magauin’s works; he is one of my favorite authors and I think his writing deserves to be translated into many more languages. I would love to work on Zhusipbek Aimauytov’s modernist masterpiece Aqbilek, but I don’t think I’m ready for it yet, so I’ll have to revisit this idea in a few more years when I hopefully have more experience. And of course, I will always be seeking, translating, and promoting the works of Kazakh women writers.

AB: We appreciate the participation in the interview and wish Mirgul and Baqytgul creative success, a pleasant collaboration on the translation of the entire storybook with the further publication and many victories and prizes! 

Mirgul Kali is a Kazakh-born translator based in the U.S. Her translations of short fiction by Kazakh writers have been published in Tupelo Quarterly, Electric Literature, Exchanges, The Massachusetts Review, and elsewhere. The recipient of the 2018 ALTA Emerging Translator Mentorship and a 2022 PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant, she is currently pursuing an MFA degree in Literary Translation at the University of Iowa.

Baqytgul Sarmekova was born in 1989 in Atyrau in western Kazakhstan and works there as a lawyer. In 2014 she wrote her first story “Раушангүл жылаған түн” (“The Night the Rose Wept”), which became popular and later she became interested in prose. In 2016 she won the first place in the prose category of the XX International Festival “Shabyt”. In 2019 she had published a collection of stories  “Күн батқан кездегі оқиға” (“An Incident in the Twilight”) by publishing house «Agatai». In 2020 her collection of stories “Кейіпкер” (“To Hell with Poets”) has been published by publishing house «Kalamger». Winner of the scholarship named after the writer R. Otarbayev. She is married and has a daughter. 

Mirgul Kali’s translation «To Hell with Poets» by Baqytgul Sarmekova wins PEN/HEIM, first from Central Asia – Part I

©  by PEN America

Mirgul Kali, a native of Kazakhstan, translated three works from the Kazakhstani writer Baqytgul Sarmekova’s recent collection of stories: “The Black Colt”, “To Hell with Poets”, and “Moniсa”. For these translations into English, Mirgul Kali was awarded a grant of $3,700 from the PEN/Heim fund. The grant is intended to support the completion of the short story collection’s translation.

We interviewed the translator and the writer about this milestone and how they met each other, what their expectations were, and what plans they have for the future. 

Aisulu Beken: Congratulations again on winning a PEN/Heim grant! And thank you for speaking with The Alma Review today. When and how did you find the stories of Baqytgul?

Mirgul Kali: Whenever I can, I try to follow literary news in Kazakhstan and read short fiction published on literary websites like Әдебиет порталы, Қаламгер, Қазақ әдебиеті. I first learned about Baqytgul from the Төр book club meeting announcement at the Әдебиет порталы in 2018. This Astana-based book club was planning to read and discuss two of her stories, “Итгершілік” and “Қарагер тай.” When I first read “Қарагер тай” (“The Black Colt”), I felt that this was not simply a story about an old man growing fond of a young horse; there was something else going on here. I reread it several times until I finally noticed how the narrative pace slows down and almost shifts in time when the colt is described; the image of the horse suddenly acquires this dreamy, mythical quality. And a horse is, of course, a symbol of the Kazakh nomadic past. I think this story, like many of Baqytgul’s stories, highlights the irretrievable loss of the traditional Kazakh way of life with all the good and bad things associated with it.

AB: As a young Kazakh woman, I found this story very evocative and poignant. To me, it seemed to be more about Zharbagul, a female character. Zharbagul is thirty years old, and her marriage prospects are near hopeless. Her distant relatives make a match for her with an older, gray-haired man. This suitor, in keeping with the Kazakh tradition of paying for one’s bride, gives Zharbagul’s relatives the black colt as kalym. Compared to the traditional kalym of several heads of cattle, the colt is a very modest gift indeed. When the marriage plans fall through, the groom’s brother comes to take the colt back. Negotiations between the two families become heated. The reader never learns whether Zharbagul wanted to marry that man at all, nor how she feels about the wedding falling through. Baqytgul’s impartial prose puts the fact that the colt is of much greater concern than a woman’s feelings front-and-center. At the end, the reader wonders, who was traded for what?

 AB: Why did you trust Mirgul to translate your stories?

Baqytgul Sarmekova: When my book “Кейіпкер” (“To Hell with Poets”)  was published, Mirgul called from the USA again. I sent her the book just to read. After reading the book, Mirgul offered to translate my book and apply for a translation grant from PEN America. I was not sure if the book would win the grant, because it seemed inconceivable that something I had written for pleasure, without a purpose, would win an international competition. I have participated in many competitions in our country, but have never won any prizes! I used to tell myself that my writing was just not up to a standard, that I probably was not ready for a prize. However, Mirgul was very confident in herself and her choice. I even asked Mirgul, “If you do not win a translation grant, your work will be wasted, how could I ever repay you?” I didn’t understand English, so I didn’t know at what level the translation would be released, and I also did not know how Mirgul translated. But when we analyzed the work, I felt that Mirgul had a different instinct: she noticed the subtleties that I had neglected, looked into the background. Then I saw that she could feel the mood and soul of my stories.

AB: What gave you confidence about your chances at the PEN/Heim Literary grant?

MK: I actually wasn’t sure if my submission would be among the winners. I think that non-mainstream literary prizes and independent publishers in the U.S. tend to favor works that lean toward experimental, rather than realist prose which is prevalent in Kazakhstan. But I believed that Baqytgul’s work was important and original. One, she explores a crucial theme of the transformation of the Kazakh society during the early years of independence. The transition from the traditional patriarchal, community-centered, rural, agrarian society to an early capitalist, individualist, urban, service-economy-based society in Kazakhstan in many ways resembles the early twentieth-century modernism era in the West.  In Kazakhstan, however, this transition has taken place in the era of globalization and accelerated technological advancement, and while it continues to affect the lives and psyche of many people, this momentous shift has largely gone unnoticed. Two, Baqytgul’s writing is incisive and unapologetic; she is not afraid to challenge stereotypes about how Central Asian women should write and what they should write about, and I hope this means that we’ll see more exciting and audacious works from women writing in Kazakh language.

AB: Reading Baqytgul’s work often made me wonder if she had somehow read my mind—so direct and unblinking it is. That’s how I felt while reading her story “To Hell with Poets.”  The young female protagonist wants to  become a popular poet quickly. The dream, to her, is worth the cost of starting a relationship with a man from a literary society who promises to recommend her poems to an editor. The literary magazine does publish the poems: with her name and bio, but with their content completely altered. So she looks at the overweight, sweaty man lying next to her in a dirty apartment with a broken chandelier, and tells herself, “To hell with poets.” Baqytgul’s unflinching prose makes the story that might seem hackneyed incisive and brave instead. She is not afraid to talk about unseemly things or to offend. Baqytgul writes in beautiful literary Kazakh, but with her very own prickly attitude. Her works make you admire her.  

AB: While Mirgul was optimistic about winning a grant, what hope did you have, and what does this important event mean to you now?

BS: Yes, Mirgul was very optimistic! She said that she had been wanting to take part in the competition for many years, but she could not find a worthy work. By describing the lives of ordinary people, I did not realize that I was describing the epoch in which I lived and the broader society. However, the English translation of the works was highly praised by the jury. This event should have been life-changing news not only for me, but also for Kazakh literature. But I did not notice any excitement in our society. I think our people still do not understand the importance and weight of the prize.

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