A Fantastical Ride: A Review of “Kazakhstani Fairy Tales” by Yuri Serebriansky

Guest post by Adrian Boskovic

People often say fairy tales are for kids. They say such stories are unbelievable, ridiculous, or even silly. Personally, I think this sentiment misses the bigger picture. To a large extent, fairy tales can speak to the human soul. Dreams, aspirations, character, and values across countless different cultures can be drawn from silly little tales to grow into something meaningful. From the whimsical, to the tragic, to the bittersweet, I somehow always find that fairy tales are what stay with me the longest. The stranger a story, the more I’m allowed to tap into the depths of my imagination, and the more that image stays with me for years to come.

Yuriy Serebriansky’s Kazakhstani Fairy Tales, published in 2017 with translations in both Kazakh and Russian, offers a contemporary look into Kazakhstan – its cities (especially Almaty), its history, people, and landscape all viewed through a delightfully whimsical lens. Readers, both old and young, will chuckle at Serebriansky’s playful collection of short, clever tales, and perhaps be enthralled by how he carefully and creatively weaves this heartfelt tapestry. Some of these stories are modern, and others inspired by folklore or historical figures. The first story, which Serebriansky chose to open his collection, depicts the famously eccentric Soviet painter Sergey Kalmykov riding atop a giant turtle through the streets of Alma-Ata in late March. Hence, the title “Ехал на черепахе”, which literally translates to “Was riding a turtle” in English. The image is absurd, but amusing, and in Serebriansky’s version of the city this occurrence is certainly possible (albeit uncommon). By drawing from the absurd, Serebriansky is able to pull his readers into a playful conversation with a quirky historical figure in a historical setting in an altogether creative way, which I find is an effective method to introduce Almaty to someone who may not be familiar with Kazakhstan.

“Ехал на черепахе” is far from the only story in Serebriansky’s collection, however, as it includes at least 12 different stories, each told in unique settings and time periods, and carefully composed illustrations to accompany each. These tales are, for the most part, short and sweet. I enjoy reading about the ironic forgetfulness of the “Король-изобретатель” (“Inventor King”), or the peculiar backstory of Lake Balkhash in “Балхаш”, or, in my personal favorite story, the origins of the flag of Kazakhstan in “Золотой орёл” (“Golden Eagle”). Some of the stories, like “Пастухи-близнецы” (“Twin shepherds”), explore the Kazakh nomadic lifestyle of centuries past, with the herding of sheep and Serebriansky’s unique spin on the origins of yurts. Similarly, the story “Яблоки” (“Apples”) paints an amusing picture of the giant apples that existed in ancient times, drawing from the importance of apples in Kazakhstan, which is often regarded as the birthplace of apples across the world. Not all these stories are based in fact; for example, “Замок Кок-Тобе” (“Castle Kok-Tobe”) clearly draws from the imagery of European knights instead of Kazakh nomads, and thus it can be said this story is historically inaccurate. However, within the realm of fairy tales, it makes perfect sense for knights to appear in this story, which I believe only adds to the fantastical nature of Serebriansky’s writing.

Serebriansky’s fairy tales, though often lighthearted, are not always so, and on occasion he uses his whimsical settings to explore more serious topics. In his telling of “Пагода” (“Pagoda”), Serebriansky seeks to teach a moral lesson to his readers about existentialism, legacy, and greed, as well as the potential consequences of abandoning tradition. The character Vacharavat, struggling with the realization of his own mortality, is faced with the choice to accept his fate and live as one with the land, or to defy his elder to transform his people into a nation to be remembered throughout history. This tale is quite a bit longer than the others, and by its conclusion the reader may be left with more questions than answers. Another story, “На других планетах всегда веселей” (“It’s always happier on other planets”), is somewhat less philosophical, but thought-provoking all the same. It transports the reader into the setting of a toyshop, where a kindly salesman comforts a crying girl by telling her the story of a toy robot. This story is heartwarming, with a message about finding home in an unfamiliar place. It’s a theme that highlights Kazakhstan as a multi-ethnic country, where people of many different origins and backgrounds have been welcomed despite linguistic barriers. As a whole, each of Serebriansky’s stories has something interesting to say, including the more lighthearted ones, and in very little time these tales convey important themes that can stay with the reader long after reading them.

So, what do I think of Kazakhstani Fairy Tales by Yuriy Serebriansky? Personally, I think it is well worth a read. The English translation I read is likely quite a bit different from the Kazakh-Russian in which the work was originally published, but at the end of the day, I still found this collection to be delightful, fantastical, and thought-provoking. So set off on your journey and go where the turtle takes you! I’m sure it won’t disappoint.

Yuriy Serebriansky is a Kazakhstani author of Polish origin who writes prose, poetry and translates. He teaches at OLSA and works as an editor for Kazakhstani Polish diaspora magazine “Ałmatyński Kurier Polonijny” and Russian literary magazine “Literratura” (before 2023). His works have been translated into many languages and published in a number of different magazines. Yuriy has been awarded the prize “Russkaya Premia” twice and his book Kazakhstani Fairy Tales was named the best bilingual book for young in 2017.  

Adrian Boskovic is an American student from Sammamish, WA, who currently studies at Carleton College. In spring of 2023, he participated in an exchange program at Al-Farabi Kazakh National University (KazNU) in Almaty, Kazakhstan, where he studied Russian language, literature, and cultures across Central Asia.

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 (www.daktil.kz), where one can publish in Kazakh and Russian, there is also the trilingual Angime (https://www.angime.com/), whose editors try to do translations of texts into English as well. There is also the Alma Review project (https://thealmareview.wordpress.com/), 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 bookmate.com 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.  

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. 

Soul Music: Bakytgul Salykhova Reviews “Neighbor” by Retbek Magaz

I have been  looking for a good story to review for a while, but  all stories seem inappropriate. I asked a friend to suggest  some good pieces and received about ten links. I randomly clicked one. It was a short story by Retbek Magaz “Neighbor”. I started reading and liked it from the very beginning, even though  the storyline is not deep and does not have complicated relationships or interweaving destinies. The story relays the true feelings of a person who creates an image of an enemy in her mind despite the fact that the other person has not done anything bad and is not even aware of such hatred.

Retbek Magaz

The main characters are Aidar (young man, student, actor), a woman and a man (married couple). The author did not give them any names and simply uses words like a woman (әйел) and a man (еркек). The story immediately brings us up to date: It’s been a year since Aidar moved into his own apartment on the top of a six-story building which he bought with his parents’ help. He lives alone, his neighbors on both sides have not yet settled down. Therefore, his only neighbors are a married couple who live on the fifth floor.

Even before Aidar, a thin curly-headed young man, moved into his apartment, a woman hated him for no reason. She did not like that a single young man, a student, and also an actor would live on the top floor of the building. When she found out that he bought an apartment without any help from the state (a mortgage or a loan), she detested him even more. 

One day that woman had a wonderful dream. Before falling asleep she overheard a song of her youth. The music was coming from the top floor. In her dream she was young again, a first-year student at a university, she was running along the embankment, and a young man with flowers was running after her. And a sound of a well-known song followed them:

“Feelings are like beautiful white rain

Which recently ended in Almaty…”

The song brought back in her memory her days of youth and love, and she woke up in a good mood. But then she noticed that the neighbor upstairs flooded her. She made a scene and her hatred doubled. 

Another of her dreams was about her grandfather and his yellow “Zhiguli” car that he used to drive when she was little. She woke up feeling exhausted and unwell, but walked to the kitchen to check if it was flooded again, as if she wanted to see once again that they’d been flooded. But there were no signs of a catastrophe.

After this dream she saw Aidar, who was returning from a store. The woman stuck her head out of the car and yelled,  “Hey actor, I hope you will not flood us again before we return.” 

She is an ordinary lonely housewife (although she has a husband) who spends all day doing housework and talking on the phone. She considers a young neighbor from upstairs an enemy and uses any chance to quarrel with him as proof of him being bad. And life gives her what she wants. She gets a flood and a ruined ceiling, but also a ruined mood. But her life also changed with this young man. The sound of dombra, and songs from her youth, excited her soul and brought nice memories.

This story reminds us of the power of music: a soul sticks to its roots and never forgets a melody of childhood.

This short story warmed my soul and rekindled my trust that everything happens for good as long as you remember music that excites your soul.

Retbek Magaz is a poet and writer. He was born in 1989 in the Altai region of China. Now he lives in Almaty. He graduated from Abai Kazakh National Pedagogical University. He is a teacher at the ” Higher education preparation” department of Al Farabi Kazakh National University. His poems and stories have been published in many republican newspapers and magazines and online: kitap.kz, adebiportal.kz etc.

Bakytgul Salykhova – PhD, educator, translator (English – Kazakh/Russian). At the beginning worked as a Kazakh language teacher, also in different local and international educational organizations. She has experience working on a children’s TV channel “Balapan”, preparing educational programs for children, creating scripts and editing cartoons, films and science programs for children. Published Kazakh language Textbooks for 1-4 Grade. She produced podcasts “1001 kitap”, “Ata-ana sagaty” (video and audio version). She is one of the TED Kazakh Translators.

Almaty Writing Residency 2022 is coming!

A Writers’ Residency is a new format not only for Kazakhstan, but also for the whole Central Asia.

Children’s writers from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan can apply here from July 1 to August 30. The terms of the competition are indicated on the website, and the program of events will be published later. Not only contestants, but also drop-in listeners will be able to take part in the residence. Some events will be held in an open format in the American Space Almaty.

The inaugural residency took place last fall in Almaty and became a great catalyst for Kazakh literature. The two worlds of Kazakh-language and Russian-language literature finally found common ground. The residency was in three languages, which finally allowed the participants to discuss issues without barriers.

Master instructors came from overseas: poet, essayist, and the head of the International Writing Program Christopher Merrill, as well as poet and translator Nina Murray. Together with them, a piece of our culture flew abroad. Just a month after the end of the residency, we launched The Alma Review, a blog about Kazakh literature in English. There have also been shifts on a local scale: the online magazine “Dactyl”, previously published exclusively in Russian, has become bilingual – a Kazakh branch has appeared. In a word, the pilot residence was a success, and we decided to repeat the success.

The Almaty Writing Residency 2022 will be held in the southern capital of Kazakhstan from October 23 to 29. The theme of the residency will be “Multiculturalism in literature for children and adolescents/Children’s literature in the era of change”. The Almaty Writing Residency is a joint international project of the Open Literary School of Almaty named after Olga Markova and the International Writing Program of the University of Iowa. The residence will include a mixed format of events. Participants live together for a week (a ticket to Almaty and accommodation are covered by the program), write and discuss texts, hold panel discussions, and attend master classes. The residency is held simultaneously in Russian, Kazakh and English. This year, the host will be Kelly Dwyer, the author of several books for children and the host of writing seminars.

“In order to talk about multiculturalism in literature for children and adolescents, we decided to invite an American author who is an expert in writing on the topics of multiculturalism, multiethnicity and diversity, with experience teaching creative writing and publications. We asked the IWP to recommend us a partner author, then received several candidates from Christopher Merrill, studied their resumes and experience, and settled on Kelly Dwyer (http://www.kellydwyerauthor.com ), – shares the director of the residence, writer Yuri Serebryansky. – The work of the seminar with Kelly will, as last year, be based on the discussion of the essays of the participants. We will pre-announce the topics to choose from. They are all in the outline of the residency theme. Kelly is also preparing her own program for the participants.”

The main purpose of the writer’s residency is to establish an intercultural dialogue and discuss topical literary issues. It is also an opportunity to show the public that modern literature exists in Kazakhstan and it is much more interesting and deeper than it seems. Not only venerable, but also novice authors are invited to participate in the residency, so it is also a springboard for new names. The organizers have also planned a meeting with Kazakhstani publishing houses that produce children’s literature. There will also be creative meetings with last year’s guests – Christopher Merrill and Nina Murray. In addition, Nina will simultaneously conduct a seminar for translators, the purpose of which is to translate Kazakh literature into English.

«Parallel» by Alisher Rakhat: The world is an illusion and a will

Алишер Рахат. Параллель /роман/. Алматы: 2022. 174 pages. ISBN 978-601-06-8162-0. 

Review by Ainur Akhmetova, translated by Aisulu Beken

There is an aspiration among modern Kazakhstani writers, especially young authors, to acquaint their readers with the world’s philosophical and psychological concepts in the context of artistic creation. One of the ways to integrate into the world’s system of thinking is to explain to the reader the prevailing theories through literature. With this in mind, I am not promoting the view that the Kazakh reader must also submit to Western theories. The important thing is that the reader should have the opportunity to choose the themes explored in Kazakh literature.

In this sense, Alisher Rakhat’s recently published novel The Parallel interprets the irrational postulates of the stream of consciousness, the unconscious mind (Freud) and Schopenhauer’s “The world as will and representation”. There is a reader who supports and opposes such knowledge and theories that have revolutionized world consciousness. Every recipient should be able to find the work he wants in the literary marketplace. In our traditional understanding, the author of a work of fiction is a competent person who dominates the mind of the reader. In other words, the author’s opinion was, in many cases, accepted by the reader as absolutely correct. This is especially true of the analytical and receptive influence of classical literature. And in order to critically evaluate novels such as The Parallel, one must be well versed in voluntarism and irrational currents in world philosophy. If we are not aware of this, we will limit ourselves.

From the day I heard the news that the novel would be published, I made no secret of the fact that I expected Alisher to do a good job. I hoped and believed that this prediction would come true. My faith didn’t lie. I’ve never read such a work in Kazakh literature. By that I don’t mean that Alisher is the best author there is. The Parallel is a good novel about love, a work adapted to the real literary market. The author writes on a timely and useful topic for the reader, and his book sells well. We see it do well on social media. It does not fall into the category of mass literature. From either side it is a good quality work. Personally, I liked that Alisher brought the ideas of the aforementioned people to Kazakh literature. And it doesn’t matter if these ideas contradict my personal views. It allows other readers, especially young people, to learn to identify themselves. Theories that support human freedom cannot be considered completely unnecessary or necessary. As a reader, I also get what I need from concepts that support humanity. On the other hand, this novel is about love. There are few novels on the theme of love in contemporary Kazakh literature, and a society tired of corruption, an unjust system, and making money needs a work about love.

Love is the driving force that moves a person’s mental world; a person of any age longs for true love. A reader who has never had true love can get a special impression by copying the feelings of Shokan and Aya from the novel. Reading a work of fiction gradually affects the reader’s emotions and consciousness, permanently moving into his/her inner world, where he/she lives for a time or a lifetime. That is, the reader’s consciousness is captured by the author’s idea. The reader lives the thoughts of Alisher Rakhat, not his own. In the novel “The Parallel,” Shokan is also seen as a man with no choice or playing the role of someone else, or as a “product” of his mother, friends or his environment in general. But it is impossible to free a person from the captivity of a false, learned inner world. Otherwise, Shokan would not have walked away from Aya, the world of mind, emotion and harmony, to the world of Mira, the captive of sexual feelings.

In the novel, the author develops the long-standing philosophical idea that man’s will and energy completely control and govern his mind and life, turning the usual traditional notions and practices of Kazakh society into a storyline. Especially noteworthy are the existentialist views of the main character, Shokan, or the author, as he seeks to find the meaning of life. I liked the character’s view of life, understanding and appreciation. Every moment of life is important. It is true that people bury wonderful moments like raindrops, sounds of music, birds chirping with money, thoughts of work, or the utopia of “perfect” happiness. 

One of Alisher’s peculiarities is that he tries not to write simple sentences without information. Sentences that carry the value of thought are like the branches of a tree that can’t lift its head out of the snow. I liked that the author emphasizes the importance of thought in small parts of the text. It shows responsibility to the reader and his product. It even means that he is responsible for his steps in life. However, the author still has work to do with the text. In some parts of the novel, the phrases, especially the misused plural forms, look like a crooked brick house. 

The theory of the unconscious mind has been known in science since the time of S. Freud. At one time the scientist tried to treat unconscious fears, diseases and secret thoughts of his patients with the help of «free conversation». In this novel, the main character’s thoughts about his ex-girlfriend, consciously buried in his subconscious, reappear during a motorcycle accident. After that moment, he begins to torment himself. When the human brain gets hit hard, the thought process must stop and start working again. Then unconscious thoughts come to life. We know this usually from movies. 

It is difficult to write, especially the first sentences of a work of fiction. You can see in the first few pages that his pen treads slowly. That’s not to say he suffered much, but the author was focused on the task at hand so that the novel would immediately captivate the reader. There is also a misused phrase in the conversational style. The main character tells us that at first he could not work for a construction company. To explain why, he begins with the words «істей алмағанда қалай…» (“What if I can’t do it?”). Instead of correcting the speech used by young people, he tried to make it natural and left it as it is. However, these phrases should not be written in the same way. It is a misuse. Any publisher who pays attention to quality will return a book for correction if the author does not use concepts, words, and phrases in a foreign language, such as Turkish or English, in the prescribed form. But there are few such phrases in the novel.

There are both optimistic and pessimistic views of people. Because man is not a creator, but a nature (or essence), there is much that he does not know and has not yet mastered. While his faults and ignorance sometimes alienate him from some environment, sometimes he can find no other way but to learn from others. This is a pattern. So anyone who reads the novel recognizes himself, sees himself, and probably tries to change some principles. Perhaps the next reader will not accept the idea of voluntarism. The novel encourages everyone to take a candle and look into their inner world. In this moment, a person can clearly see the cause of his unhappiness, which he could not find or understand for years. 

In the novel, Shokan says: “As a boy among real men, I was afraid of showing Aya my poverty in front of such people. The problem was not Aya, but that I did not imagine a happy and peaceful life, like Arsilan and Ziya’s, like Diaz and Janiya’s. My “sickness” of not being able to create a generally happy atmosphere. “How hard it was to feel uncomfortable so that no one could see the poverty in my soul palace.” It requires no interpretation.

According to the philosophical understanding of the novel, the most powerful force that changes the real world in which life takes place is in the mental world of man. The stability, order and beauty of the human mental world is reflected in the fact that the eyes of the second main character Aya are sometimes brown and sometimes green (called “zhasyl zhanar” (“green sparkle of eyes”) in the novel. Aya’s green eyes are a reflection of the infinite power and energy of the human body. The author likens the great energy in man to a giant or demon. This giant demon always sits in Aya’s eyes. He sees the beautiful harmony of Aya’s inner world with the external environment, the ability to see the beauty of real space through eyes that turn green instead of brown. That is, the will and power of man is a giant demon, controlling his life, beyond the control of his mind and intellect. The author explains Schopenhauer’s philosophy of the world as will and representation. Basically, in Kazakh cognition the word combinations “black eye”, “sheep’s eye” and “blue eye” are used in relation to the eye. It is known that the author does not clarify the issue of national identity here, but since it is written in Kazakh, could he have used the words “beautiful eyes” or “sheep’s eyes” instead of “green eyes”.

The green eyes and the giant demon that dwells there are the girl’s source of energy, and Nur’s existence is a mystical space and a mysterious concept created by the author. “I feel relieved to enter the green eyes, to pray, to receive relief, to confess my guilt to Nur” (p. 150). Aya’s green eyes are what Shokan fell in love with, purified his soul with love, and explained to him who he was. 

In the novel, through Shokan’s gaze, when the girl and the young man, that is, Shokan and Aya enter the radiant world, enveloped by feelings of love in the inn, they come out unreliably. The protagonist Shokan tells us that when he felt the girl’s true love, immense power and energy, he met a giant beside her and entered the radiant world. Despite this description, we readers still cannot enter that world.

The depth of the author’s thought can be seen in the fact that when Aya is lucky to meet her ex-boyfriend again, Shokan forgives her then, that is, he gives freedom to her. In the novel there is the concept that people who want to be together, even if their bodies are separated from other people, their souls, values and inner world will continue to coexist with them in an infinite world. This vision is close to the system of idealistic thinking. Such a fantasy is a mystical vision, far removed from humanity, whose nature can never fully understand the reason for the world and whose thinking is always limited.

The author was deeply concerned with human freedom, and the novel describes other additional themes in a simple way. The use of metaphor is weak. All poetic efforts are directed toward clarifying the notion that a person capable of truly loving without reason will live forever in unity with his lover. Widespread among peoples, probably more in Kazakh society, that is, pushing his desires to the last stage and the direction and desire of his family, surroundings and friends – reflects the unhappy life of a man who is married, working and learning a profession. The author explains the philosophy that the world is ruled by human effort and relates it to the unhappiness of man in a familiar society. The author boldly denounces the false life of those who live someone else’s life rather than their own. An element of metaprose is also present, meaning that the author embodies his creative process in the novel in real life. The moment in the novel when Shokan opens his laptop and writes a novel or short story clearly makes that in real life the author also devotes himself to writing, and that his soul finds blessing only at the expense of his pen .
Another concept the writer tries to convey through the novel is that only a person who is able to find and know himself in life can live a real life. A man who does not know who he is and does not know his true self does not fully understand the meaning of love. The protagonist of the novel eventually fails in his role in life and is left with Mira without love. According to the author, one can only be happy in eternal peace with true love. In conclusion, I recommend reading Alisher’s novel Parallel. I hope that readers will like the author’s views on the world and man.

Dr. Ainur Akhmetova is senior researcher at Mukhtar Auezov Institute of Literature and Art. She is the author of collective monographs “Kazakh Literature Abroad” (2014), “Modern Kazakh Literature: Names and Stories” (2017) and “National Literature and Intellectual Potential of the Country (Prose in the Age of Independence)” (2017). Ainur is the principal investigator of the research projects “Mysticism in Kazakh Prose” (2020-2022), “Contemporary Literary Studies and Cognitive Paradigm” (2021-2023). Her research articles have been published in the journal “Bilig” and other publications. She is the leader of the state grant research project “Central Asian Literature: Postcolonial Aesthetics and Literary Connections” (2022-2024).

Alisher Rakhat is a dramatist and the author of the novels “Makhabbatym – constant” (2019) and “Parallel” (2022). He graduated from the Kazakh National Academy of Arts named after T. Zhurgenov with a degree in film and television dramaturgy. His creative works have been published extensively in magazines such as Literratura, Qazaq Adebieti, Adebiet portaly, Madeniet portaly, Adyrna zhurnaly, Zhas Alash gazeti and Qalamger portaly. His drama “Happy Birthday, Mom” was short-listed for the “Drama.Kz” Contemporary Drama Festival in 2018, and in 2021 it was staged in the contemporary art space ÓzgeEpic by the Start Drama Theater Lab. One of the founders of the creative association “Burshaq”. Winner of the literary contest “Altyn tobylgy” in the category “Best Drama of the Year” (2021). Participant of “Theatre Youth Forum ” held in Tashkent in 2021. Also that year, the monodrama “Don’t freeze, my hot heart”, written based on lines from Mukagali Makataev’s diary, was staged at ÓzgeEpic space.

Sergei Maslov’s “Space  Nomads”: A Russian Man’s Utopia can’t Escape Racism

This April and May, Aspan Gallery  in Almaty hosted an exhibition dedicated to Sergei Maslov. Maslov was born in Samara, Russian Federation, in the early 1950s and died in 2002, “suddenly” as described in the biography included with of The Space Nomads (“Звездные Кочевники”), his only and unfinished novel. The 92-page work tells of intergalactic adventures of a number of Kazakhstani artists. Like a lot of sci-fi works, The Space Nomads serves as a commentary on the nature of the time, and, I argue, the nature of current Kazakhstan also.

But Who is Sergei Maslov?

Not just born in Russia, Maslov is also an ethnic Russian. He studied at a university in Kazakhstan, when the country was still a part of the Soviet Union. Maslov is now considered one of the “founders of contemporary art in Kazakhstan”. His style is described as unique because of the “mixture of various media forms—painting, performance, installation, video, and text,” to quote his biography again. Maslov was a peer of artists like Sergey Kalmykov, whose works inspired the controversial theme of the first Kazakhstani Pavilion in Biennale in 2022, and Elena Vorobyova, who wrote the preface to Maslov’s book under a male alias (Lenya, short for Leonid) Vorobyov) and who, under the same alias, is a character in the book. The personal relationship formed with these and other people has clearly inspired a good portion of the book which is perhaps why it is important to consider what this relationship could mean to us now, in the present.

Maslov staged his suicide in 2002, after which he stopped pursuing art and withdrew from public view. The “suicide” took place after fictional correspondence with Whitney Houston, in which she and Maslov repeatedly confess love and sexual interest in each other, and both express dissatisfaction and anger towards Houston’s husband. The entire series of fake letters were on display at the art exhibition, without any comment regarding their authenticity. 

Most of the art that was exhibited featured black people in different places and circumstances, most commonly different realities with animals of mismatched sizes (giant fishes or very small cats) and deserts. All the women in the works (and most characters are women) are depicted either completely naked, in poses that expose their private parts, or wearing elaborate jewelry.

But since I am a literary and not a visual art critic, this article focuses on the merit (or the absence of thereof) of The Space Nomads. I borrowed my copy of the book from a friend, but anyone who came to the opening of the exhibition could get one for free. The printer, Art Depo Studio (2021), lists the print-run of 300  copies, meaning that 299 more are out there, in the possession of their rightful owners.

The Plot, the Characters, the Violence

Not unique to a sci-fi book written by a white male author, the protagonist is Maslov himself. It is implied that in the alternate universe of The Space Nomads he is also an artist and a writer, but most importantly, he is a space traveler. At the beginning of the book, he takes off from an unspecified planet  and finds himself in a bar on a foreign planet. After having a drink, he briefly ruminates on the pathetic state of the other customers in the said bar. Eventually, he pays a prostitute for sex service. The prostitute is described as a creature most closely resembling an earthly lizard, but she can certainly speak Russian. While this author’s  mind can and does invent entirely new ecosystems and living beings, it is  yet unable to conceive of a world where colonization and the grip of a forced language are not in place.

As Maslov is having sex with the prostitute he wonders out loud about the nature of the male-female dichotomy. His thoughts are interrupted by the prostitute announcing:

“You are a real man, but I am not a real woman. I am an artist of planetary importance, Sergei Kalmykov, I just had a genetic operation.”

At this point, an African man (Maslov doesn’t refrain from using the N-word) comes in and shoots up the bar. Having escaped the bar, Maslov meets a woman named Natasha. She convinces him to travel across the universe with her to look for her father who disappeared while searching for intergalactic treasure. Maslov agrees. On the spaceship, both get drank and eventually have sex. Natasha’s insides are described as “squid-like” which made me uncomfortably wonder if this description was an allusion to hentai. The book doesn’t provide enough content to judge, but frankly, as an Asian woman, I don’t really want to know.

Maslov convinces Natasha that they need a team to accomplish their task. For that, they travel to a different planet (again) and recruit other Kazakhstani authors. This team includes Vorobyova, who wrote the introduction to the book,  alongside her husband. This becomes an issue almost immediately since Maslov’s protagonist’s next idea is to find every member of the crew a female sexual partner. He gets briefly enraged about the homosexuality of two of the crew members (here, again, he doesn’t refrain from using the F-slur) but eventually abandons the issue. Everyone travels to a different planet.

There a reader is introduced to a number of women, each briefly described. Some of them are (or at least are intended to appear) American but most are either Russian or Kazakh. Notably, one of the American girls, Jennifer, is Black and  is described as having a special talent in rap and modern dance.

Having taken the women onto the ship, the men decide how to divide them amongst themselves. Aside from the gay couple, every man gets to make his pick. Then the crew travels on, again, drinking through most of the way and occasionally having graphic but confusing sex.

Having arrived on the new planet where Natasha’s father was last located, the crew leaves the ship. While they are gone the womenestablish a feminist resistance movement they call “The Shining Virgins”. When the men come back, “The Shining Virgins” attempt to seduce and then poison them. To do this, they get the men and themselves high on an unspecified drug. As a result of this, Jennifer has sex with a man who wasn’t initially assigned to her. Another female character shoots Jennifer dead, removes her body, and takes her place on the man’s erect penis instead. (As I am writing this I’m realizing that The Space Nomads doesn’t really come off as a kind of book an actual sexually active person would write). The party goes on and everybody comes to the unspoken conclusion that the resistance didn’t work out. Maslov’s stand-in and another male character drift off to talking about the superiority of the Russian nation and eventually everybody falls asleep.

The book cuts off when a few days later the characters explore a cave and discover their magical (mostly telekinetic) abilities there.

The Starry Nomads in the  Literary Discourse about Race

Given the outright racist nature of Maslov’s writing and visual art, the biggest question I want to address in  this article is why do we, Kazakhstan, a predominantly Asian country, still put Maslov on a pedestal?

If the writing in his novel is an indication of his style (even if the final draft researchers came across was in reality a rough draft), then clearly kazakhstani literature did not lose a genius inMaslov’s pretend-suicide. Putting the plot aside for the moment (which we shouldn’t do—this book is a fever dream in the worst possible way), this is simply not a good book. The description of events is simultaneously packed and poor: things just happen one after another without a clear indication of transition; the surroundings of the various planets are incomplete and far from specific. None of the characters seem distinct from each other, and their only real difference lies in the labels Maslov generously applies both to his friends and his slaves. The dialogue is unrealistic and most of the verbal interactions between characters do not bring anything new to the plot. The book tries really hard to present itself as satire, but it is unclear what exactly it satirizes and why. It’s only clear that Maslov had some sort of semi-friendly fight with his peer artists, which really just makes The Space Nomads a diss-track in book form. And the last time I checked, this wasn’t a real genre.

I can think of two explanations for Kazakhstan’s desire to settle for racists.

First, in a post-Soviet society, only a very limited number of people can do a very limited number of activities that earn the label of “real art”. A lot of it is hypocritical and counterintuitive. A man, for example, can talk about sex and relationships since thesehelp shape who he is, while if a woman chooses to explore the same topics she is seen as “just wanting to talk about her life.” A white person can combine various art forms, present them in flamboyant colors, and have the result received as “innovative” and, again, to quote the introduction to the book, “unique”. A person of color, especially an Asian person, doing the same thing is seen as savage-like and unprofessional. Maslov, for example, takes advantage of that by depicting black people as objects, an interesting “accessory” to the painting. It is perceived as acceptable but if it was done the other way around (a black artist showcasing white people lewd, inactive, often faceless) it would likely cause outrage.

Second, the white-dominated art community does not recognize racism as an issue in the first place. Not shockingly perhaps, stepping over non-white individuals in the art world (including Kazakhstani literary society) has always been perceived as “just how things are”. Decolonial activists are actively challenging this view online and offline, so things are slowly changing.  The backlash against the Kalmykov-inspired exhibition is good evidence of that. Both of these issues are slowly getting recognized in Kazakhstan’s literary and art worlds and are getting addressed little by little. I personally dream of the day when a man can write something like The Space Nomads and face nothing but rejection and hopefully even a bit of shame—but not in the bizarre kinky way Maslov describes.

Both Truth and Not: Stories by Valeria Krutova 

“Valeria Krutova writes about life that is always changing, a melting pot of ideas and people and places. “

by Ronan Quinn

Both Truth and Not is a collection of stories by Valeria Krutova set in a place that goes for the most part unmentioned and involving a series of women. The stories follow the loves and misfortunes of the characters as they react to other  people and, sometimes, they repel each other. It is a subtle collection of short stories in the way that it does not set out to instruct and to teach, but in a quiet way leaves us at the end that little bit more informed and in a better place about human relationships and the understanding of them. 

The main theme of the collection is the personal relationships or accidental and unusual encounters between people. Chance meetings happen through dating sites or on a beach. The male and female protagonists may talk for a while and then they go their separate ways, never to see one another again. 

The collection opens with a story of love and relationships, a short story of a man and a woman who have met through a dating site. Having got acquainted with the woman through the online site, the man makes three appointments to meet her but does not actually meet her on any of the occasions: He merely goes to the appointed place at the appointed time and looks at her from across the bar or the cafe. Later he makes his excuses for not having turned up. The man and the woman engage in an on-off relationship that soon peters out on the woman’s side. What was the nature of the relationship that existed, basically, online? Why did it never emerge from the virtual sphere? These are the aspects of romance the story ponders. 

Read more: Both Truth and Not: Stories by Valeria Krutova 

Both Truth and Not undertakes an examination of the nature of love and how it affects the characters in the collection. In one of the stories, the protagonist, a woman, is a very attentive housekeeper and cooks meals for her husband, with whom she is in love, only for the husband to be abusive and violent towards her in return. She justifies this attitude in her own way, citing the old Russian maxim that he hits me therefore he loves me.     

There is very little sense of place and no firm anchor to any town or city in the story collection. The stories could be taking place anywhere in the world and there is very little of Kazakhstan to be seen in the compilation. The references to the country of Kazakhstan amount to one mention of chocolate from the country and a cameo by a teacher of Kazakh. Perhaps this is a deliberate device used by the author so that the compilation can appeal to a wider, more international audience of Russian speakers.  

Another look at the nature of relationships in the modern world is the story that spotlights a wife who is having an affair, while her husband, aware of this fact, still loves her and wants to be with her. He is confronted by a young woman in a nightclub who is looking to hook up with him, but he cannot fail to talk about his wife all the time. Love perseveres despite all the obstacles and despite the fragility of human nature.  

Valeria Krutova writes about life that is always changing, a melting pot of ideas and people and places.  There is a feeling of a lack of permanency throughout the collection, a sense of transience: people do not stop for long enough to have meaningful interactions with each other. It is a modern world in a constant flux, where the characters flit into each other’s existence and then out again as quickly; they do not take the time to get to know each other and to have valuable, meaningful relations. 

Ronan Quinn is a writer, poet and translator based in Dublin, Ireland. He has a long background in journalism in Ireland, including national newspapers and business magazines. He has translated stories and poetry from Russian to English for authors based in Uzbekistan, Israel, Russia and the United States amongst other places and is a contributing poet to publications in Ireland and the United States.

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