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.

Continue reading here.