Interview conducted by Zaure Batayeva
I discovered the writings of the Uzbek writer Hamid Ismailov in translation. After having read Ismailov’s story “The Stone Guest” online, I started looking for his books in the languages in which they were originally written, Russian or Uzbek, but I could only find them in translation. Following in the footsteps of Chingiz Aitmatov, whose novella Jamila was translated and published all over the world, Hamid Ismailov is the first living writer from Central Asia whose works have been translated and published by independent presses in several Asian and European languages.
ZB: You are a writer in exile. James Joyce, a writer you admire, once had his alter ego, Stephen Dedalus, say, that living in exile, for a writer, meant that “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it calls itself my home, my fatherland, or my church” and instead “try to express myself … as freely as I can”. Joyce’s exile was voluntary. Yours was not: in 1992 you were forced into exile by the regime of Islam Karimov. How do you look at your own position as a writer in exile?
HI: As a writer, you need to be able to observe the details of people’s lives, what they say, what they do. When you are exiled, you are deprived of this ability and you miss out on lots of wonderful details. On the other hand, being exiled gives you creative freedom. You are no longer required to play the consensual games that writers are expected to play in their mainland: to write about this or that, to follow the rules of a particular aesthetic. What has been interesting for me, as a person, is that it has opened new horizons, new ways of looking at the world, because you get to observe other people dealing differently with basically similar situations. When you think of the intellectual history of Central Asia, you will find several writers who enriched their experience and widened their horizons by living in exile: Al-Farabi, Avicenna, and more recently, Mustafa Shokay. For me, too, I think, living in exile has partly been a blessing in disguise.
ZB: During all this time, you have been deprived of your main readership in Uzbekistan. I looked for your books in Russian, but I could not find them, so I read them in English instead. How easy or difficult is it nowadays for readers in Uzbekistan, and Central Asia in general, to get hold of your books?
HI: In the age of the internet, the distribution of literature has changed dramatically. Even though state-run censorship still decides which literature is published and which is not, you can still find readers on the internet, anywhere in the world. You know, people are shrewd, they know how to circumvent censorship on the internet. All the writing I do in Russian or Uzbek is on the internet. I have published several of my books on social media and people have reposted and forwarded them, so sometimes these books have gone viral. Despite the censorship, I have been able to find many new and unexpected readers.
ZB: Speaking of Central Asia, do you think that the body of writing that is sometimes called “Central Asian literature” exists? Do the works of poetry and prose fiction that have been written in this region in recent human history have enough in common to be described as such?
HI: Our Central Asian history is a shared history. Our nomadic history has given rise to a wonderful tradition of oral literature, which is also a treasure trove of wisdom and of storytelling techniques. Think of the Manas, one of the longest epic poems in human history, and oral epics such as the Book of Korkut Ata (Dede Korkut) and the Epic of Koroghlu. Our sedentary history, which is also the history of our cities, has given rise to other, more refined forms of poetry: the Ghazals and the Qasidas. So, yes, I think “Central Asian literature” exists, because I’m practicing it. I’m using the storytelling techniques I have encountered in the texts of our shared history. I think our common Central Asian culture is something of which we should be proud and that we should promote.
ZB: You have written a novella that is set near the nuclear testing site of Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan. Its original title in Russian was Wunderkind Yerzhan. In English it has been translated under the title The Dead Lake. What inspired you to write the story? And what led you to change the title in English?
HI: I travelled through Kazakhstan many times in my life, from Tashkent to Moscow or from Tashkent to Novosibirsk, and I picked up many stories along the way. What inspired me to write this novella is a person I once met near Semipalatinsk, who looked like a 10-year-old boy but who was in fact a 27-year-old-man. For 20-odd years I didn’t do anything with it, but one day, something clicked inside of me, and I wrote the story very quickly.
As for the title change in English, this was decided upon by the publisher. In Russian or any Central Asian language, the English title could not have worked because we Central Asians associate the phrase “dead lake” immediately with the tragedy of the Aral Sea. Fortunately or unfortunately, readers in the English-speaking world are not very aware of what happened to the Aral Sea, so the English publisher’s choice did not cause too much confusion.
ZB: The story is almost unbearably sad. The story being a work fiction, you could have brought some happiness into Yerzhan’s life. Why did you decide to make the story as sad as it is?
HI: The story is sad because it tells the story of the people who lived near the nuclear testing site of Semipalatinsk, who were used almost as “guinea pigs” by the Soviets and who were abandoned afterwards. We still don’t know the extent of the genetic changes the people of Semipalatinsk underwent because of the nuclear tests. I don’t know if there was ever even a public inquiry about this.
Kazakh people, I think, still have a nomadic mentality: they are always looking to the future, to new pastures. They don’t want to think about the pastures of the past, because these pastures have been eaten. So maybe Kazakh people don’t want to remember, but I do. That’s why this sad story had to be retold in all its sadness.
ZB: In other interviews you have mentioned the Kazakh writer Rolan Sesenbayev. What do you think of Sesenbayev’s documentary novel The Day the World Collapsed, which is also set near the nuclear testing site in Kazakhstan?
HI: I have known Rolan for many years. Rolan represented Kazakh literature in Moscow, in the Union of Soviet Writers, at the time when I was there, representing Uzbek literature. One of the benefits of the Union of Soviet Writers was that it exposed its representatives to the wider trends in Soviet and world literature. As a result, Rolan was aware of many literary trends and techniques, including the new documentary storytelling technique that he used in this novel to good effect.
ZB: Your novel A Poet and Bin-Laden is written in a very different style than The Dead Lake. It combines the stories of the two main characters, an Uzbek poet named Belgi and an Uzbek terrorist named Tahir Yoldoshev, with the stories of dozens of other characters and with the information coming out of witness accounts and administrative documents. How did you come up with the structure of this novel and why did you give it the subtitle “reality novel”?
HI: Usually fiction is more truthful than nonfiction and I believe that fiction is much more powerful in telling stories than nonfiction. At the heart of the book I put a fictional character (Belgi), but at the same time I wanted to use a journalistic storytelling style, so that it would seem as if the entire novel was based on documents and witness accounts.
The novel succeeded to the extent that the security services of Uzbekistan decided to trace its main character. Once an Uzbek researcher came to London and said, you know, the author of this book made a mistake: the book says that when Belgi first met Tahir, Belgi was accepted as a friend, while, in reality, he was beaten up. So, what happened is that the fictional character I created was traced back by the Uzbek security services. That was my ultimate success: my fiction had become reality.
ZB: In Russian this novel was originally titled The Road to Death is Greater than Death, which sounds more dramatic and philosophical. Why did you change the title in the English translation?
HI: Once again, it was the publisher who decided on the title change. I should add that in English the initial title was Comrade Islam. This was a wonderful title as well, because it brought out the continuity between the tactics of the Bolsheviks and those of the Islamists, while also alluding to Mr. Islam Karimov, whose oppressive rule was one of the leading factors that drove young Uzbeks into the mountains and into Islamist extremism. In the end, the publisher chose a different title that would be more appealing to a Western audience.
ZB: Despite there being so many characters, the book was surprisingly easy to read. Moreover, I think I saw the author Hamid Ismailov reflected in three characters: the unnamed narrator, the poet Belgi and the journalist who carries your name. Do you often insert part of yourself, or part of your life, into your books?
HI: I have been using heteronyms for a long time. In the Soviet Union, but also in the post-Soviet period, there was no tolerance for working in different genres of writing. I was considered a poet and a translator. Each time I wanted to publish a work of nonfiction (history, journalism, philosophy), I had to do so under a different name. The book of which we speak, the documentary novel, was originally also published under a different name, which led me to give my actual name to one of the characters in the book. It’s not a big deal, and not too confusing, I hope.
ZB: Your novel The Railway, set in a fictional town in Soviet-era Uzbekistan, is written in yet another style. It made me laugh so hard, even though many of the events are terrible. It reminded me of the classic Russian comedies by Gogol, Babel and Bulgakov, but also of the Turkic folktales about Hodja Nasreddin. Why did you decide to write about the inhumane events taking place in this town in such a comic style? Was creating a mosaic of characters also part of the comic design?
HI: I don’t think this novel is utterly comic; I think it’s also weeping for the past. As Karl Marx once said, laughter allows us to leave the past behind. This novel looks at my youth, my childhood. Laughable, okay, but also quite sad. This novel offers bitter laughter or sweet tears, I don’t know. In the Uzbek neighbourhood in which I grew up, Mordvins, Chuvash, Gypsies, Jews, Koreans, Tajiks, Kazakhs and Kyrgyz were living together. Different faiths were observing religious holidays together, for example, singing songs together during Ramadan. My childhood was the dreamtime when I felt part of humanity.
ZB: Your novel The Devil’s Dance tells the tragic story of an Uzbek writer, Abdulla Qodiriy, who is betrayed, imprisoned and executed. The novel is carefully crafted; the deliberate messiness of some of the earlier novels is absent here. The Devil’s Dance recalls some of the most tragic elements of the collective experience of the Soviet Union: betrayal, imprisonment, interrogation; but it also pays tribute to the richness of Uzbek history and to the strength of the artist’s imagination. Can you tell us about the genesis of this novel? Did you start out with a specific plan, or did the novel develop as you were writing it?
HI: Ever since I moved to England, I have been thinking about the connections between this country and my part of the world. One of the obvious connections is the so-called Great Game, the confrontation that occurred between the British Empire and the Russian Empire in Central Asia for most of the 19th century. So, for this novel, early on, I decided that it would be set at the time of the Great Game, which would also allow me to write about the Uzbek poet Cho’lpon, who was born at the end of the 19th century and killed in 1938, during one of Stalin’s purges. I love the poetry of Cho’lpon: it is world-class, as good as Osip Mandelstam’s. Then, suddenly, I realized that Abdulla Qodiriy, another iconic Uzbek writer, who was one of Cho’lpon’s best friends, had planned to write something about that period of Central Asian history, too.
After a while, I started writing from the perspective of Qodiriy, about the famous novel that he had wanted to write but of which the manuscript had been burned by Stalin’s military police (NKVD). All that is left of this novel and all that we know about it today is the subject: the story of a slave girl who becomes the wife of three successive khans. When I started recreating Qodiriy’s novel as part of my own novel, I quickly realized that the challenge would be too daunting, so I put the telling of the story entirely into my character’s mind, his imagination, while he is in prison. This way I was able to write and at the same time unwrite Qodiriy’s famous lost novel.
On the other hand, what makes me happy is that in a recent discussion about the novel on a social network someone blamed me for having found Qodiriy’s lost manuscript and for having published it under my own name. In a way, that is the greatest compliment I, as a novelist, could have received.
ZB: In the novel you describe the life of creative women in a 19th-century Central-Asian harem. It is the first time I read a novel telling the story of women at the courts of Central Asia. Sei Shōnagon’s diary and The Tale of Genji are two famous literary sources that have given us a great deal of information about the medieval courts in Japan. Which sources did you use to describe the lives of Nodira and Oyhon at the court of Umar Khan?
HI: Many people don’t know this, but women played an active role in the life of Central Asian courts. My own view is that this active role comes out of our nomadic history: nomadic women were horse riders, equal to men as long as they were on the horse. For the same reason, our Turkic languages don’t distinguish for gender, because for nomads it did not matter whether you were a “he” or a “she” as long as you were on horseback.
There are many historical sources about women, including women poets, at the courts of Central Asia. I consulted them, but I also relied on the stories and poetry that the women of my own family taught me. I was brought up by women. Most of the men in my family were killed during the war (World War II) or had already been killed for their religious beliefs before the war. The women of my family were great storytellers, poets in their own right. I was brought up with the poetry of women poets like Nodira and Uvaysiy, so their words have always been on my mind.
ZB: In the novel’s afterword, the English translator, Donald Rayfield, explains how he, not knowing Uzbek, used the Russian translation but also had to edit this Russian translation, putting back whatever was missing from the Uzbek original. I could not agree more with Rayfield on the subject of Soviet-era translation, which was often denigrating (“Orientalist”) towards the books coming from Central Asia. Have you ever considered re-translating this novel, so that Russian-speaking readers could discover it anew?
HI: I have never translated my own work into any other language. I spent twenty years of my life working as a translator and I know that each language is a different toolbox, a different way of looking at the world. So, I give carte blanche to my translators. I appreciate them so much for their Sisyphus work, trying to bring one world into another world. If they ask me, I’m happy to help them. But even when I’m giving advice, it’s like fostering a child: the parental rights remain with the translators. I don’t want to interfere with their work.
Hamid-aka, thank you for giving us your wonderful books. I hope you will continue to find many new readers.