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Unexpectedly Delicious Fruit: Hamid Ismailov on Uzbek Literature

Late in 2013 I was excited to learn of Restless Books, a new electronic-only publisher of world literature with a special emphasis on work in translation. I was familiar with Hamid Ismailov from his work as a translator—we had paneled together at 2012’s Poetry Parnassus in London—but I hadn’t had the opportunity to read his own fiction until Restless Books’ publication of The Underground ($9.99), the story of a half-African, half-Siberian child growing up in the fast-changing Moscow of the 1980s. Ismailov and I corresponded by email, he on his phone somewhere between London and Budapest, me at molossus HQ in Los Angeles. —DS

The-Underground-cover_1536x2048-iBooks copyThe Underground features an unusual protagonist: a half-African, half-Siberian child in 1980s Moscow. Who is Mbobo, and how did his character occur to you?

The process of finalising the character of Mbobo was a lengthy one and one which lasted a couple of decades. It was akin to a flower bud slowly turning and fully blossoming into a rose.

During the 1980s I have spent nearly ten years living with my family in Moscow. It was both a sweet and bitter time of our lives. On the one hand we lived at the very centre of the Soviet cultural, literary and political life, but on the other hand, as we were the so-called “natsmens”—ethnic minorities, we faced lots of difficulties in trying to root into the daily life of Muscovites. Just one example from that time—my daughter, who was of the same age as Mbobo, had consecutively attended four different schools in her first form, because we were constantly moving from place to place, unable to find a permanent job or permanent accommodation.

Yet we loved Moscow and didn’t want to return to Uzbekistan. Because of our nomadic and unsettled life in Moscow we got the chance to live in various areas of the city and explore an increasing number of underground lines and metro stations. At some point I realised that nearly every station of Moscow underground bore some traces of our life: to one I would bring my daughter to sing in a choir, the other one was where we came when my wife was hospitalised, I had read my poetry at yet other… Every station meant something to me and was somehow linked to my existence. During those years I wanted to write a book of poems called The Underground featuring names of each station as the poems’ titles. But somehow, it just never happened.

In winter of 2005 I was in Moscow once again and on one snowy sleepless night at our flat, where nothing ever changed, although the life of the country outside was being turned upside down, that old idea came back to my mind so compellingly that upon returning to London I began to frantically write about our Moscow life throughout these underground stations. I wrote some 50 pages, but the tone of that piece so reminded me of another novella of mine that I ceased writing in despair. Then it occurred to me that I ought to rewrite it from my daughter’s perspective—so innocent was our experience. But again something didn’t add up. It was too straightforward. I find that very often fiction is the only way to describe the reality of things: it’s more real than a straightforward account.

So something clicked in my mind telling me I should take the ultimate Russian muscovite literary figure—Pushkin, who was partly of Ethiopian origin, and give him the voice of my daughter, of my wife, of myself and of our Moscow life. So Mbobo, the ultimate answer, was born.

As an established translator yourself—and as a fluent speaker of English, what is it like to be translated? How did the process work for The Underground?

My decision to stop translating was a conscious act of despair and failure. I spent quite a lot of my time comparing the systems used in different languages and understood that it’s impossible to translate ABC as ABC. Take for instance Uzbek, which is an agglutinative language with the strict syntax of Subject-Object-Verb. So in Uzbek, the verb comes at the very end of the sentence and until the sentence is fully uttered you don’t know whether it’s a question or a call, or a wish, or an order… You are unaware of the tense, case, modality and so on. You can’t have a Big Bang at the beginning; you save the Big Bang for the very end. The same goes for Persian. Compare it with, let’s say, English, where you can put a verb immediately after the subject, or even before it.

These differences cause lots of mishaps in translations. I explain the chronic failure to render the unimaginable beauty of Hafez’s verses into European languages by that very fact. So I gave up on translation and to this day I try not to interfere with the work of my translators. I’m like a tennis wall: if they need my participation they hit the ball and I return it—no more than that.

You haven’t lived in Uzbekistan for over thirty years. Is there an Uzbeki diaspora writing community? What is happening in contemporary Uzbeki writing today?

Luckily, because of my work for the BBC Central Asian service I’m in a daily contact with the world of Uzbek news, culture and literature. Then everything including the Uzbek literature has moved into a web space. I’m also lucky that my BBC Uzbek colleagues are mostly men of writing—poets, screenwriters, essayists and not just any ordinary ones, but leaders in their respective fields.

As for the current situation with Uzbek literature, I must say that Uzbekistan is one of the most closed countries, where freedom of speech, though acknowledged on the paper, equals a subversive activity in real life. Many poets and writers are imprisoned because of their writing. Therefore what appears on the surface is a conformist, sometimes heavily coded literature. On the other hand émigré literature is getting increasingly stronger and I’m sure that in Uzbekistan there are many talented writers who write as they say “into the drawer,” in expectation of better days.

I must also say that even with my Uzbek hat on, I don’t confine myself just to the Uzbeks in Central Asia.  For instance my novella The Dead Lake which is coming out in Britain next February is a work about Kazakhstan and Kazakhs coping with daily life next to the ominous Soviet nuclear site in Semipalatinsk. Central Asia is a crossroads of different cultures and civilizations and I don’t want to deprive myself of that richness.

Do you consider your work to be more in conversation with contemporary Uzbeki literature or with a wider literary community?

It depends on the different types of my writing. When I write in Uzbek it’s mostly a conversation, dialogue or discussion with the wider Uzbek community. When I say “wider”  I mean not just the contemporaries but our literary ancestors and possibly our descendants too. I’m working in the space of the Uzbek language, Uzbek literature, culture and history. But obviously it’s not isolated from the rest of the world. My last Uzbek novel, The Dance of Devils, is a novel about the life of a great Uzbek writer Abdulla Qadyri. In 1937, Qadyri was going to write a novel, which he said was going to make his readers stop reading his previous iconic novels Days Bygone and Scorpion from the Altar, so beautiful would it have been. The novel would have told of a certain maid, who became a wife of three Khans—a kind of Uzbek Helen of Troy. He told everyone: “I will sit down this winter and finish this novel—I have done my preparatory work, it remains only to be written. Then people will stop reading my previous books.” He began writing this novel, but on December 31, 1937 he was arrested. All manuscripts were confiscated and later burnt. Not a single word was left of the novel. On October 4, 1938, Qadyri was executed by firing squad, along with Chulpan, Fitrat and many other prominent figures of Uzbek culture…

This novel is about that particular period; when Qadyri, an arrested writer, is in prison and obsessed with his novel which reflects both his prison life and his literature. The Dance of Devils is about this unwritten novel, which unfolds in the mind of the writer. Qadyri once said that when he was busy writing a novel nothing else could distract him, as if his very own work possessed him.

The novel takes place in a prison environment where people who are imprisoned alongside him are not only the participants but are also co-authors of his novel. It’s not just a novel about the greatest of Uzbek writers, but also a novel which recreates his unwritten work. And as such it’s placed at the very core of Uzbek-ness.

But right now I’m considering writing an Uzbek novel without a single Uzbek character in it.

What’s the relationship between Uzbeki and Russian literature, historically? What about for you personally? Who do you admire? Who do you hate?

I have a theory that any literature becomes fruitful after some grafting. The same goes for Uzbek literature. It is its cross-pollination with the Persian literature that produced a period of blossoming during the medieval times; the next time of flourishing came at the end of the 19th century when Uzbek literature met its Russian counterpart.

I have a history-based fatherly feeling towards the Russians because they are mostly children of the Great Steppe. Nearly all the famous Russian literary names—like Chaadaev, Aksakov, Turgenev, Nabokov—are of Turkic origin. So it is with their literature. The first old-Russian literary work—A Word about the Igor’s Regiment—was apparently written by a son of the steppe.

But at the same time I have a son-like love of the great Russian literature of modern times. I was brought up with it, I live inside it, I consider myself a part of it.

What I do not hate but feel uneasy about is the modern day Russian literary establishment, those who are running the publishing industry, who are sitting in on the boards of literary magazines, on the juries of literary awards… The majority of these institutions were formed during the Soviet times when the ultimate feature of good quality literature lay in its overcomplicated, heavily coded character: not saying what you mean, but alluding to it using entire systems of hints and guesses. Unfortunately for modern Russian literature, they have maintained the same criteria to this day. So in order to be recognised in Russian literature you have to satisfy this outdated criterion. It skews modern Russian writing towards the over-symbolic, extremely conceptual, often made-up, which therefore is not widely read in the West.

But as I said in the beginning I’m sure that the cross-fertilisation of both Uzbek and Russian modern writing with world literature will bring about some unexpectedly delicious fruits.

In one of their manifestos, the Russian Futurists spoke out against the “still-creeping old fogies of Russian literature like white-marbled Pushkin dancing the tango.” In terms of the book itself, I wonder if the latest generation of publishers, many of them working online, are doing the same thing: challenging the old fogies, broadening literature’s reach, and expanding the form of the book. With The Underground‘s publication by Restless Book, an electronic-only publisher, I wonder if you see yourself as part of that physical revolution. Of course I’m also interested in how you might be expanding “Russian literature” in your writing, too!

Some 15 years ago we hardly used the internet, even at the BBC. Now it is omnipresent and ubiquitous. I’m answering your questions on my smartphone while flying from Budapest to London. The internet gave me the tools to be heard from any place in this “furious and beautiful world.” Though The Underground, like all my literary work, is written with a fountain-pen (I find that writing with pen allows the thoughts to flow incessantly, whereas typing each letter is a discrete act.), I’m amazed by the dynamism and drive of Restless Books to bring The Underground to life.

Someone said that all of our lives we are writing just one book—the book of our life. Now with linking, inter-linking, hyper-linking it’s much easier to create this Book of Books, and I’m thinking of one where my Uzbekness won’t impede my Russianness, and the latter will enrich my Frenchness, Persianness, and Britishness, or, in short, my worldliness…

January 2014

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