Davit Gabunia's cinematic debut novel, Falling Apart, from which this excerpt comes, recalls Rear Window in its dark exploration of voyeurism, and broke ground it its treatment of a male sexual liaison. Gabunia found fame aged twenty-two as the Georgian translator of Harry Potter, and later Shakespeare and Ibsen.
The people in the photo look like blue and black blotches. I can’t pick out Tina. Just last night she was lying in bed, the door to the bedroom wardrobe open, the wardrobe out of which she’d taken her clothes and packed them up. If last night she’d woken up and said, Zura, where are you going? Zura, stop, if the floor had creaked and woken her up and she’d looked at me with astonishment in her eyes and said, Why aren’t you asleep, Zura, what are you doing with that camera, I wouldn’t have said anything, I’d have stayed where I was, but no, Tina was sleeping so deeply, as she always did, just like it used to be when the children were little and would cry all night and she wouldn’t wake up once. So? Am I complaining? Blaming her for not waking up in the middle of the night? For forcing me to get up and put the children back to sleep? No, no. But if she’d woken up last night, I’d have told her, I’d have said to her, Something’s happened, Tina, you won’t believe it, and she’d have said to me, What on earth? Let’s call the police right now! But no, she didn’t wake up, and if she had maybe she wouldn’t even have said anything, just shaken her head and then laid it back on the pillow and gone back to sleep, and I would’ve carried on, picking my way carefully down the stairs so that none of the neighbors would hear as I walked out the front of our block. Everyone was asleep, everyone— there wasn’t a single light on in any of the windows. What would have happened if someone had looked out of their window and called out to me, Hey, Zura, what are you doing? Huh? What am I doing? Damn it! These fucking motion sensor lights—when you don’t need any light, when you want it to be dark, they work perfectly, when you want to make sure that no one sees you before you reach that other block, before you go up to that floor, to where you know exactly what awaits you but still don’t expect to find the door left open. He’s run off like a madman, he might already be driving away in his car, all he’ll want to do is get as far away from here as possible, but where can he turn? He can run from this business but he can’t hide.
So this is what the house is like, with a smell of something lingering. A sterile smell. The entrance. Four pairs of shoes and a light jacket. Bills strewn across the floor. If payment is not received by the 30th of this month we will . . . On the right, a bathroom, a little sink in front of the washing machine. Inside, dirty laundry, arranged and folded, one razor, shaving foam, lotion, toothpaste, one toothbrush, one of everything—one towel too, a big, blue one—and tiles on the wall, totally white except for a band of blue at waist height. I’ve never seen any of this before, you can’t see it from my building. I don’t know what I’d want to take photos of it for, but never mind. There isn’t much stuff here, as if he hadn’t lived here long and didn’t have the time to accumulate many things, the kind of things that you’re either reluctant or simply too lazy to throw away, which then pile up, gathering dust. What if he were to call out now from that room, Who’s there? What’re you doing? What if he thinks I’m him, that he’s come back to apologize? What if he gets up? But no, it’s so quiet, he must be dead. How does he air out this bathroom—just one little ventilator, not even a window, it must really steam up when he has a shower. There are towel marks on the mirror where he wiped the condensation away. A few strands of hair in the razor. Has he shaved today? Did he even have a beard? Maybe he used to shave, I’ll have to look at the photos and see if he’s got a beard in any of them—now he’s lying dead and clean-shaven in the other room. They say that people’s beards, hair, and nails keep on growing after death. But that takes time—he’s only just died. His body lying on the white rug. His corpse. His body. So much blood, but it’s all stayed on the carpet, which is thick and absorbs the blood, it’s soaked with it. I’ve got to make sure that he’s really dead. Oh, come on—he’s not breathing, and if he’s not breathing, that means he’s dead, that’s it, but still. Apparently, the name for the carotid artery comes from the Greek word for sleep. What’s sleep got to do with it? And here’s where you feel for a pulse, there’ll be one if he’s alive. I can’t feel one. Maybe he is breathing and I can’t see it; but his belly isn’t moving, neither’s his chest. No, no pulse, he’s dead. So why hasn’t the blood stopped? How much is there left to come? How many liters of blood does a person have? What if it gets on the floor, too? What if it seeps through the floor and stains the downstairs neighbors’ ceiling? He’s warm. He’s definitely not breathing, but he still looks alive. I wonder if there’s a mirror somewhere, a pocket mirror, I can put it over his mouth and if it steams up it means he’s alive . . . . Oh, forget the mirror, he’s got no pulse, no pulse equals dead. Bits of broken vase. Bookshelves. Practically empty. Just a few books, old ones. His won’t be one of them. No television, I knew that already. Bed a mess—not bed, armchair. A fold-out armchair, messy but not dirty. The blood didn’t go that far. Why isn’t it stopping, isn’t he dead? I press my fingers to his neck a bit harder, I press down and suddenly there it is—a pulse. I’m not imagining it, am I? No, it’s definitely beating, I can feel it. What if he asks me to help him, what do I do? Call an ambulance? Yeah, because if I call now it’ll definitely get here in time, right, hah, God bless our bloody ambulances. Yeah, they’ll come, they’ll do some tests, they’ll start filling in forms and asking me who I am and what I’m doing here and then they’ll call the police. They’ll say the body bears the marks of violence and they need to report it. I mean, some marks; all those head wounds and the fragments of vase strewn over the floor, you don’t need to be a genius to work out that someone smashed it over his head, I’ll get confused and make a run for it and they’ll run after me, Hey, stop, where are you going, and the whole neighborhood will wake up, including Tina, there will be such a commotion and so many people gather round that even Tina will wake up and come out onto the balcony and see me, see the police shouting after me, and rush down into the courtyard. No, if I don’t call, if I just wait a bit, he’ll lose all his blood and I won’t get caught up in this. If I’d been somewhere else tonight, if I’d been asleep in bed next to Tina and not seen anything, he’d still have died and it would have nothing to do with me, why should I call, why should I do anything at all? How many more liters of blood can there be left, how much more does he have to lose before he dies? Does he have to bleed it all out to the last drop? Or let’s say he’s only got a little bit left, would that be enough to kill him? What if he starts convulsing? What if he dies and I don’t realize? How long before he goes cold? I haven’t been in the kitchen yet, I haven’t seen what it’s like inside. Too many dirty cups to even fit in the sink, I wonder how long they’ve been piling up. Strange light, yellow, warm. Warm . . . Maybe there’s still time to call an ambulance. No, I know what I’m doing, I know what I’m doing, though I hope no one asks me now because I won’t be able to answer, but I do know what I’m doing, it’s a different sort of knowing, no need to say it out loud. Right, dish detergent and sponge in the corner of the sink. It’s so hot. How do you cool it down? Aha, that’s it, that’s it, and the liquid’s frothing up, and now I’ll wash up all the cups in case there are any traces on them, fingerprints or whatever. The water’s splashing onto my T-shirt, soapy water, but time’s ticking and meanwhile he’s losing blood and it’s nothing to do with me whatsoever. I put the cups upside down to dry and hang on, have I got my fingerprints on them? I should’ve thought about that before. Gloves. Why didn’t I think of that. I’ve still got time to kill, I’ll do them again. Such small gloves, my hands are too big for them. I wash each of the cups again, rinse them, that’ll do, and put them back on the drying rack. Tiled floor, easy to clean. No, not the floor yet, table first; maybe they sat there drinking coffee together and he touched the table and left behind his fingerprints? Table first, then floor. I don’t know what kind of traces there might be on the floor, but anyway, I’ve got time, I’m not in a hurry, I’ll get it all done by dawn.
I can only hear my own voice in this silence, I say, Am I speaking out loud? No, I’m hearing my voice in my head. The floor above is silent. The apartments on either side are silent. Everyone’s sleeping, everyone’s asleep and no one can hear a thing. Good thing I found these gloves, chlorine can burn your hands. The bathroom. Who knows, maybe they took a bath together in the tub. He will have gone to the bathroom, at least, he must have left his fingerprints behind, so everything needs to be scrubbed, with the brush, with chlorine. Do fingerprints stay on curtains? Will they search that hard? If Tina could see me now. I’ve never cleaned my own house like this. But Tina can’t see me, I hope, she’s still asleep while I’m here scouring the white tiles and this blue line. What’s left? That room, the main bedroom? Good thing this place isn’t any bigger. I’ve been here two hours. What if he comes back? Bursts in out of nowhere like a madman? He might’ve called an ambulance, maybe even the police, but if he hasn’t come back by now he won’t come back later. I’ll have to throw away the sheets, he’ll definitely have left traces on them. Ah, I’ll shove them into this bin liner and throw them in the trash, the garbage truck will come in the morning and take it away and they’re not going to look in the dump, are they?
There’s not long till dawn, and the garbage truck comes at seven o’clock, no one will ever be able to find them. Look how he’s lying there, he nearly takes up the whole room. There’s no more blood. It’s stopped. I put down the bag holding the sheets and look at him. I’ll take a picture and go, I can’t let anyone see it, I can’t let anyone find out about it, but still, those photos can stay, I’ll put them on my computer and that’ll be fine. What a beautiful shot. He’s never been so beautiful. I wonder if he’s still as warm. When do corpses start to go cold? If I had called an ambulance they probably wouldn’t have come in time anyway, I’ll just pretend I wasn’t here, I didn’t see any of what happened, I was asleep next to Tina. Besides, it’s so beautiful. I’ll get some great photos out of this, really good. A couple of close-ups and that’s it, I’m out of here. What’s that smell? Doesn’t smell like chlorine. Rust, or iron, or something like that. I’ll get the best shots if I kneel down and zoom into his face, that’s the best way. Oh, damn it, I’ve knelt in the blood. I’m not bothered, he’s dead after all, why should I care, I mean why should I be disgusted, he’s lying there not moving and he’ll never move again, and it’s just blood, just a normal fluid, I’ll wipe it off with some water and it’ll come out fine. So beautiful. I’ve never been scared of the dead, and I’m not scared now. Why should I be scared? It wasn’t me who killed him. He’d still be dead even if I hadn’t been here. Good lighting here, should make for some great pictures.
© Davit Gabunia. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 Adham Smart. All rights reserved.
Davit Gabunia will be in conversation with writer and journalist Mark Gevisser as part of the online festival Georgia’s Fantastic Tavern: Where Europe Meets Asia. The free event, in association with Maya Jaggi and Writers’ House of Georgia, will be livestreamed on Sunday, February 28, 2021, and available to watch afterward.
Tamta Melashvili's 2015 novel, Eastwards, from which this excerpt comes, is the story of a young woman, Irina, in present-day Georgia, who is simultaneously suffering from depression, a vanished lover, and a taboo medical condition, vaginismus. She is researching Elene Dariani, a mystical poet believed to have had a secret affair with the famous Georgian poet Paolo Iashvili. Cofounder in 1915 of the Blue Horn Symbolists, Iashvili committed suicide in 1937 during Stalin’s Great Purge, when many Georgian writers were executed. In this extract––which references other famous Georgian poets such as Titsian Tabidze and Galaktion Tabidze––Irina is beginning to imagine that Stalin’s secret police chief Lavrenti Beria (who, like Stalin, was Georgian) was implicated in the poets’ mythic love affair.
She picked up the phone. First she glanced at her watch and then she made the call, thinking, It’s early, but he’ll be awake. Old men wake up early.
Revaz, sir, Mr. Rezo, good morning, it’s Irina.
Irina? Which Irina? Rezo must have been in a bad mood.
Irina. About Elene Dariani.
Oh, Irina! Irina Gasviani, is it? Irina Gasviani. Something’s bothering you, my dear Irina?
I’d like to see you again, Mr. Rezo.
Well, I’ll be. I don’t suppose you rang to ask how I am?
Irina couldn’t think of an answer.
What’s happened, girl, why don’t you tell me, Rezo softened. You really are a shy girl. Do you want to come round?
Yes, I want you to talk to me about Beria. I’ll only come today, I won’t bother you again.
You can bother me all you like. Go ahead. What am I for? Hang on, about Beria? You were interested in Dariani, in Paolo, in poetry, in “Beads of Coral,” isn’t that what you asked me to talk about? Why do you want to know about Beria now?
Irina was silent.
All right, come on over. What would you know about Beria? How could you know about Beria? Your generation only knows gypsy actresses on TV. And on the computer. Come on over.
Rezo put down the phone.
Irina went back to her laptop, which she’d left open. She opened Google and entered in Georgian: Lavrenti Beria.
She went through the list.
Lavrenti Beria’s Sex Crematorium
Lavrenti Beria’s Ghost and Tbilisi Buildings full of Secrets
Lavrenti Beria’s Secret
Lavrenti Beria’s Secret Diaries
Lavrenti Beria––the Bloodthirsty Tyrant
Lavrenti Beria and Women
Lavrenti Beria and His Women
Lavrenti Beria’s Love and Revenge
Lavrenti Beria––what Secrets did his Lovers take to their Graves?
Lavrenti Beria and the Case of the Treacherous Wives
Lavrenti Beria and the Actress Who Was Shot
Lavrenti Beria’s Revenge
Lavrenti Beria’s Fateful Speech
Irina felt a burning sensation between her legs. She switched off her laptop and rose heavily to her feet.
My blood pressure's high, there must be something wrong with me, said Rezo. What did you want us to talk about? Hang on, did you see them? The girls?
What girls? Irina couldn’t understand.
Iza and Liana.
Yes, I did.
Liana’s husband died.
Oh my God, what are you telling me, girl? Her husband was a young man. How come I never heard that her husband had died? I’ll telephone her later. I’ll offer my condolences. Poor woman. What did he die of? He was a young man.
Oh my God, said Rezo. Poor man. And Iza? Have you seen Iza?
Yes, I have.
You two haven’t quarreled, have you?
You can’t be in the mood for a talk today. Anyway, what brings you here? What did you say? What are we going to talk about?
Lavrenti Pavlovich Beria?
Was it Pavlovich? Yes, it was, Pavlovich. You want me to talk to you about Pavel’s lad? That snake with the glasses? That bastard? You don’t know, I suppose. If you can’t say something good about the dead, say nothing at all! Rezo was in a teasing mood. Can you say anything good about Beria?
Why can’t you?
Because Beria was a bastard.
What do you mean?
You can take it as you like: literally or metaphorically.
Shall I start recording?
Hang on, girl. Hang on for a bit. Get up: you can see a book on the top shelf. History of the Georgian Communist Party. On the right, girl, on the right, the top shelf. History of the Georgian Communist Party.
Irina sensed that she was being observed. Rezo was eyeing her up.
You had a very beautiful mother, didn’t you? What was her name?
Lia, said Irina.
And you had a handsome father, too; but your father was crazy, crazy and out of his mind, one of those Civic Warriors.
I’ve found it, said Irina with relief.
Open it to the first page, said Rezo. What do you see?
I see Stalin. Irina turned back to face Rezo.
Now the next page, what do you see?
A photo that’s been blacked out, said Irina. It’s covered in ink, who is it?
That was Lavrenti Pavlovich Beria, a real child-eating monster! Can you see it?
Where does this man get these words from?
Now see what year the book was published in.
1949. Who did this?
Who blotted it out?
The whole of Georgia did, Rezo got up from his chair, the whole of Georgia did that. One day you’re in the heavens, the next you’re six feet under. Well. You are dirt and you get it thrown over you. This is not the ink on the photo, but the dirt. He died and he had dirt thrown over him. He died and they blotted him out, they burned him, they annihilated him. They poured ink over him. His name became taboo, taboo, taboo, do you get it? A taboo. After his death the pictures of him that were hanging everywhere were taken down and torn up, and they erased every place where his names, first name and last, were written. He’d killed enemies of the people and then became an enemy of the people himself. That’s life, isn’t it?! Eh? He exterminated half of Georgia. His troika tribunals. You know what a troika is, don’t you?
Yes, I read about it somewhere.
The troika was the Holy Trinity of its time, Rezo chuckled. You’re not a churchgoer are you, girl? Don’t be angry with me.
Well, just look at you! Good girl! You and I are the only non-churchgoers in all of Georgia. Long live Irina and me! Don’t tell anyone, or they’ll cut our heads off.
Irina gave him a conspiratorial smile.
Yes. Anyway, he died, how many years ago did they kill that man? Fifty? More—sixty! It was sixty years ago and not a single decent monograph has been written about him in this Georgia of yours, the Virgin Mary’s own country. Everyone avoids the subject. Everyone. They either won’t or they can’t write about it!
Rezo examined Irina once more.
What are you looking at me for, I’m a literary critic.
In short, nothing’s been written here. Here, unlike there. Rezo shook his head. Over there, in Great Russia, a lot’s been written. A lot, but it’s rubbish. Ideological rubbish. Even after the Soviet era, even now. All these ideologues have built up an Everest of lies, of their own lies!
Yes indeed, they have. What did you come here for? What interested you?
Was it possible, Irina couldn’t find the right words, was it possible that there was some connection between Beria and Elene Bakradze, also known as Elene Dariani . . .
I wouldn’t know now. At the time you could say that every woman was on Beria’s antenna, Rezo let his hand drop between his legs, people said he could hear the whispering coming from anybody’s love nest, you know?! He had both of your Elene’s husbands shot. What can you make of it? She was a beautiful woman, but was she? I wouldn’t know, to judge by those pictures she was an ordinary woman. There were a million like her walking about in Tbilisi, even more in Kutaisi. But look here, in that picture where she’s smoking a cigarette, and she’s wearing trousers, the one feminists tote about, you know that picture? She looks all right in that picture, you know it, don’t you? You can see that she had her own kind of charm. A photograph can’t capture it. That charm doesn’t show up in a photo. You can see she had something. Something that made the men go mad for her. Paolo. Her husbands. Who knows who else. Paolo was quite a womanizer, did you know that?
They both fell silent.
I’ve remembered a funny story about Beria, should I tell it to you? Rezo looked with one eye at Irina.
Well then, once Beria took his lover to Sokhumi. The one he had at the time. She was a nice woman, good-looking, a real beauty, an actress. Apparently, one day, this woman goes into the sea to bathe. She swims, splashes about, and suddenly her dentures fall out and she loses them in the wretched water. Hee-hee-hee, Rezo tested his own dentures with his tongue, this actress apparently had dentures, false teeth. She searches and searches, the poor girl dives but can’t find the dentures and goes back to the hotel, devastated. She sits there more dead than alive, waiting for Beria; the woman seems to be afraid that Pavel’s lad will shoot her when he finds out she has no teeth. She sits there more dead than alive and Beria, apparently, comes in and she falls at his feet: “Forgive me, forgive me,” and Pavlovich breaks out laughing. He laughs and laughs, so much that he almost chokes with laughter.
Did he shoot her?
No, no. He didn’t. But he dropped her. What's the use of a toothless woman? The story didn’t make you laugh, girl?
Well . . . no.
You must be in a sour mood today, I did say, smile, girl, laugh, girl! You’re a good-looking girl and there’s no light in you. Laugh! Shed a ray of light on your looks. Put on a short skirt, put a flower in your hand, cross the street, and stop the traffic! Spring is coming! Make eyes happy, hearts happy!
Irina tensed up.
Fine, fine, Rezo waved his hand. Anyway, what were we talking about? Oh yes, Pavel’s lad, yes. What do you know so far? All the women remember him very well. What goes through a woman’s mind? “While she’s running about without a husband, a woman’s a woman. A woman’s a woman and she’ll find balm for herself,” I wonder who wrote that poem . . .
Clever you, clever girl! Rezo was pleased. You don’t write poetry by any chance?
Why not? Every good girl used to write poetry in my day.
I wouldn’t know, I don’t.
But you do like poetry, don’t you?
Yes, I do.
Very good! Fantastic, my dear lady. Well, what was I saying? A wife has a good memory, so does a mistress. Beria had not just mistresses, but a whole harem. He had harems, did you know that?
A harem, what else?
A-a-ah, said Irina.
Your generation doesn’t know Russian anymore, does it?
Do you know what a haramkhana is?
Well, he had a harem. A haramkhana. Every conceivable kind of woman was in it: blondes, brunettes, redheads . . . And these women remembered him favorably, by the way. Casual adventuresses, his mistresses, don’t remember him well. Those women scribbled various things later, books. They wanted to get rich at Beria’s expense, but they couldn’t benefit, who would believe them, nobody! His wife, though, did love him, by the way, did you know that? And she was a good woman, beautiful. Nina. Gegechkori. Yes, she loved him. Can you be in love with a monster? You can, you see. Women love monsters. He had another mistress, a girl, younger than you, almost a second wife. She too loved him. And that Nina kept on loving him. They couldn’t get her to say a single bad thing, so she died, saying only good things about her husband. Those were different times, do you understand? Do you have a boyfriend?
Why not, girl? Is reading poetry all you want, then? And that Elene Dariani?
Well, what can I tell you, said Rezo. If you’re a man with that amount of power, every woman is yours. Anyone you lay a hand on, they’re all yours.
Rezo fell silent for a short while.
True, Pavel’s lad wiped out half of Georgia, but people tend to forget that he also built the entire country. Beria was a builder. He really was! “Our orchards and meadows are blossoming, the sky is the color of emeralds, o builder of Georgia, may you live long, Beria!” He made Tbilisi look like a city. Now, you and I both use the drainage that he installed. He constructed the circus, he built the football stadium. Not just the circus and drainage, but the Soviet Union’s atomic bomb wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for him, did you know that? And that’s not to mention intelligence and counterintelligence. Beria was a genius. They didn’t give him a moment, they had him shot. All of state power fell into the clutches of that dimwit Khrushchev! Khrushchev killed Beria, and how? Treacherously. One more Georgian had got stuck in the Russians' throat and they couldn’t shut him up! Rezo leaned forwards, the Chinese stole Beria’s plan for developing socialism, otherwise can you imagine what a country we would be living in? Not in a wretched hole like we are now! My God, Rezo suddenly put his hand on his heart, I get tired very quickly these days. My medicine’s right there next to you, pass it to me.
Yes, that one; water? Don’t I need water, girl?
Irina went out to the kitchen. Something was stinking in there.
He’s on his own, poor wretch. He’s an old man.
She held her breath.
Bless you, said Rezo. He sipped at the water. I get tired very quickly, you see.
I’ll go, said Irina. Thank you very much for everything.
It’s nothing, dear girl. Rezo had put his hand to his heart again. Come and see me now and again. Let’s talk, let’s recite poems, Irina. After all, I live alone. “That day white snow and loneliness fell. I opened the door, white snow burst in. I closed the door, loneliness moved in.” Who said that, then?!
Good for you! Congratulations, girl! You’re a star!
Thanks a lot, for everything, Irina got to her feet, take care.
Fine, fine, Irinola, said Rezo, as he moved heavily from his chair to his bed. Shut the door, then I’ll lock up.
I’ll shut it, take care, said Irina.
Frankly, this country could really use someone like Beria right now, wouldn’t go amiss! Rezo shouted from the room.
She quickly closed the door behind her and hurried down the hallway.
© Tamta Melashvili . By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 Patrick Donald Rayfield. All rights reserved.
Tamta Melashvili will speak about her novel Eastwards in the online event Medea's Daughters: Georgia's pioneering women in the arts, as part of the festival Georgia’s Fantastic Tavern: Where Europe Meets Asia. The free event, in association with Maya Jaggi, Writers’ House of Georgia and the British Library, will be livestreamed on Saturday, February 27, 2021 at 15:15—16:35 GMT. Bookers will be sent a link giving access and can watch at any time for 48 hours after the start time.
Lasha Bugadze's A Small Country, which won the Saba, IliaUni, and Writers’ House Litera prizes in Georgia––all for novel of the year in 2018––is based on the real scandal surrounding the publication of the author's 2001 short story “The First Russian.” The story outraged some MPs and clergy with its satirical allusions to the wedding night of Georgia’s revered medieval Queen Tamar, whose first husband was a Russian prince. The author found himself censured in parliament and threatened with excommunication.
I remember the man sitting at an oak table took two pieces of paper from a drawer and addressed me with a smile:
“Here,” he put his finger on the paper on his left, “is an intention to excommunicate you from the Georgian Orthodox Church. If you don’t apologize to the Georgian people and the Church, the Synod will be obliged to make it public, which would set in motion the excommunication. It says that you deny the living God, as well as the rules of Mother Church, that you mock the feelings of true believers, that you insult the belief of Orthodox people, the Host of Saints, and the memory of our ancestors who were canonized. While in this one,” he pointed at the paper on his right, “the Synod refers to you as a prodigal son who was exonerated by the people and Mother Church.”
“But only if we have a public apology,” the Archimandrite sitting in the dark corner of the room reminded us. “Otherwise, it’s going to be an anathema.”
“Are you serious?” someone sitting behind me asked. “People are worried . . . ”
A prodigal son.
The man looking at the papers smiled at me occasionally. I was wondering if he had a nervous tic or was just embarrassed by what he had to say.
I was too tired and confused to joke in return or reply politely.
“You have to apologize publicly,” the man, quite unperturbed, repeated with an ironic smile.
Ever since I was born my parents tried their best to encourage me, praising me because for twenty-three years I truly deserved to be praised. And now, suddenly, these strangers told them that I really didn’t deserve their praise and, if I refused to behave, I would become their prodigal son or something even worse.
People get killed for less nowadays . . .
That’s what they told Dad. And where? Next to the Patriarch’s resting room where, ideally, they had to talk about virtue, at least out of sheer decorum.
“It’s your fault," the Patriarch later told Dad, “you failed to raise your son properly.”
And all the while, to my parents, even to Dad deeply insulted by the Patriarch’s words, I truly was a clever, good-natured, genuinely decent and gifted twenty-three-year-old––an exceptional son already known to many as a wonder kid, a writer from a small country, only ten years older than Independent Georgia, who, by all standards, had done nothing to be reprimanded.
My parents’ son wasn’t branded by the 1990s: he didn’t roam the streets with other teenagers thirsty for blood. He either wrote or drew or talked, and according to Grandma, he could do the latter at the age of eight months. He was a skilled caricature artist and could imitate any person regardless of their age or gender, sang arias from classical operas, and was a bit chubby in his early years, which added to his charm. His dad, if he had a chance, or rather had he allowed himself, would have enumerated his son’s admirable traits, saying, for instance, that at the age of eleven, Your Holiness, he staged Goethe’s Faust with the girls of the neighborhood. Girls because nobody else was willing. Faust, no less, at the age of eleven! It was in our yard where he played Mephistopheles, the devil, Your Holiness––I’m so sorry I mentioned the devil so close to you––and he played a chubby and lovable Mephistopheles because he himself was lovable even when playing the devil, particularly when singing serenades to Faust’s sweetheart. Incidentally, there is a video recorded in June 1989 showing the eleven-year-old child reciting Goethe in his mother’s yard. Indeed, Your Holiness, this son of divorced parents was brought up with constant care, the center of attention of both grandmothers! They raised him and would never teach him to be disrespectful or indecent, contrary to your comment, which was rather hasty I believe. So, please excuse me, but we’re dealing with a very special child. I had brought along a cameraman because I guessed something out of the ordinary was about to take place. Yes, it is really extraordinary when an eleven-year-old stages a play about the agreement between God and the devil with the help only of little girls from his neighborhood, when he recites the entire thing for everybody to hear, wearing tails his aunt made for him and warning us of the importance of saving our souls. Is that poor parenting?
He’s been going to anti-Soviet rallies, the grandmothers could have said, especially the more sensitive and emotional one who could easily have retorted to the high-ranking clerics, my grandson has always been an exceptionally well-organized and highly moral boy. Others could break their toys in a day or two, some would immediately gut a giraffe or a teddy bear, while my grandson staged tetralogies with those giraffes and bears. You couldn’t get them in the empty shops of the time, so our acquaintances brought them from other Socialist countries. If other kids misbehaved, putting their poor parents in a difficult position, leaving them wondering how to occupy them, our boy entertained himself: he would place a board on his knees and draw amazing caricatures! You’d have been amazed had you observed him in the process. Mostly, he drew politicians, used to start at the heels and complete the picture in a matter of seconds. They were so skillful that they baffled even experienced artists. Once he stunned his German teacher who terrified the entire school. Apparently, she was trying to explain something quite awkwardly to the kids when our boy mentioned Siegfried, his favorite character, among others who the teacher had hardly heard about. When he was little, before he got a bit chubby, his dad used to have him on his shoulders while drawing, and they listened to Wagner. The vinyl was a bit scratched from use but still quite loud, a little too much for me in fact. The boy was literally raised on his dad’s shoulders! They hardly ever spent time apart! Before he started reading, we used to read books to him, but later we couldn’t tear him away from them. Unlike other kids, who counted the pages they’d read to earn some playtime, it was his choice. If at the age of nine he asked for a puppy, at eleven he bought Mozart’s flute concerto with my pension. He was intellectual but not reticent or closed or melancholic. Quite the opposite, he was open, with a good sense of humor, and rather entertaining. I remember when we had visitors for family celebrations, the boy would amuse them with impressions––speaking like drug-numbed Brezhnev or Shevardnadze, the latter considered a traitor at the time. His paternal side understood him better because we immediately sensed he was artistic. However, his mum failed to see it and decided he had to join a skiing club, then rugby, and then water polo to help him grow manlier. The boy absolutely refused to accept a rather rough informality from his coaches, because impolite and offensive behavior was unacceptable to my boy. And if anyone thinks he wanted to insult someone, they’d be gravely mistaken because in his twenty-three years the boy hasn’t offended anybody. It’s just not fair!
Who knows what other things they would want to say to those who kept us locked in a room with yellowing wallpaper, in the building belonging to the Tbilisi Patriarchate, where they were trying to threaten me with excommunication or labelling me a prodigal son.
Sadly, that day no one heard the evidence of my virtue, Grandma’s voice muffled by the soft cushions of the Patriarchate.
Everyone’s favorite word was sin.
By the end of the 1980s, I was still genuinely innocent.
Mum made several attempts to make me active but all was in vain. Skiing and rugby held no interest for me, while I preferred attending the meeting of the National Freedom Party of our class, or watching TV enlivened by Gorbachev’s Perestroika till midnight. That’s why she reverted to a strange, sporty-religious experiment quite typical of the period: she sent me on a three-day event called Saint Nino’s Way, where my aunt, fourteen years older than me, was supposed to look after me.
According to the new tradition initiated by the Patriarch under the proclaimed changes, people––or rather potential new churchgoers––had to take the same road that Saint Nino took in the fourth century when she walked from Paravani Lake to Mtskheta, the capital at the time.
I decided to sing an aria in an empty classroom of the local school that had been turned into a temporary camp by the marchers. On the one hand, I wanted to feel more at home by singing and I also wanted to overcome my fear of strangers. However, a ruddy, unshaven, and round-cheeked novice monk immediately pointed out that the place was not suitable for entertainment. He opened the door, looked at me with his bloodshot eyes, and told me in a voice both quivering and croaky that meant he either hadn’t slept or hadn’t spoken for a long time:
“You can’t sing here. People are praying.”
The young man had dark circles under his eyes and looked like someone who could easily turn nasty if you contradicted him. He was the kind of stranger I didn’t want to be around: calm at a glance but aggressive, someone who could make me lose my peace of mind.
Needless to say, I stopped at once.
And I was absolutely alone and quite vulnerable. I didn’t stay in the classroom and stepped into the long hall with backpacks strewn everywhere. With their shoes off, people exhausted or seeking inner peace were spread out along the walls.
There were huts around the school. Women were sitting along the fences, looking at the priest squatting near the rusty football pole. They had smiles of embarrassment on their faces, and the priest’s haughty tone seemed to insist that they were simple, provincial women.
“How many abortions have you had? Have you lost count? Twenty, forty?”
I already knew the meaning of the word, so I stopped nearby.
“What’s so funny? I’m serious!”
It was still the Soviet Union and the women didn’t know a priest could ask such questions.
They weren’t yet scared of their god, so were rather ironic about it all, covering their toothless or gold-toothed mouths with their callused hands, chuckling at the ridiculous priest.
The priest was a madman in their opinion.
But he only smiled. He was aware that he was talking to uneducated village women, to the Soviet mob in a remote province, in a Meskhi village. And all the while the priest was one of the elite––that’s how he viewed himself, especially in comparison to them.
“You think that an abortion isn’t a crime? Marx and Engels won’t help you. Which of you have had a church wedding? If you only went through a civil marriage, you can’t be considered your husband’s lawful wife. Did you know? Do you think I’m inventing it? Do you have a husband?” he asks one of them.
The woman laughed, waving him away:
“Leave me alone, for God’s sake.”
"Do you have one or not?”
"She does!” others replied. “And two sons too.”
"What about a church wedding? If you haven’t, then it means you’ve sinned and that’s for sure. I can perform the ceremony if you wish.” The women didn’t answer.
It was the second time I listened to a discussion about sexual issues since I had arrived: first it was my classmate who told me he hadn’t done anything of that nature for a whole month and now the priest was telling the village women they were sinners because they had babies without a church blessing. I was a little confused not being clear who was making fun of whom––the women of the priest or the other way round.
“See that?" he looked in my direction hoping to find a bigger audience, but discovering only me, he smiled. “How can one enlighten these people?” Then he turned to them again, “Do you at least believe in God?"
His question remained suspended in the air.
Along the way the priests baptized people in the river Mtkvari. Nearing Borjomi, our group argued with a convinced pagan and one of the stronger deacons even tried to push him into the water. The pagan turned out to be a physicist resting near Borjomi with his wife and baby. Stubbornly, and a little stupidly, he claimed that if he ever admitted the existence of God, it would be an ancient Georgian deity. He was dead serious, saying that accepting Dali and reintroducing her cult would be a bigger step toward recovering ourselves and reestablishing the Georgian nation than any Orthodox belief:
“Nationalism is waking up, so our religion must also be national. That’s what our country needs!"
The pagan had thick-rimmed glasses, the type every middle-income Soviet physicist wore at the end of the 1980s, and a rather shabby white shirt with a vest pathetically protruding from underneath. His young wife, holding a two- or three-year-old toddler, stood by his side, fearfully listening to her husband’s scandalous and highly charged patriotic declarations. Very soon she realized he could be badly beaten up there and then.
“How can Georgia stand out from other nations in today’s world? With our language only? The script? Its traditions?" the pagan asked the deacon. “It’s not enough. We Georgians must have our own pantheon, just like we used to. We might have Orthodoxy, but why shouldn’t we also have Dali’s Temple? What’s wrong with the Armazi or Zadeni cults?"
The pagan was surely playing a dangerous game: he mentioned the Armazi cult to those who, for a whole month, had followed the road of the person responsible for destroying that cult.
“He’s possessed,” someone said.
“Those were idols! Do you want Georgians to pray to Satan and discard their true belief?" the deacon yelled at him.
“They can pray to whatever or whoever they wish. Religion should be a matter of choice. Some will go to church, others to Armazi temple. It can be extremely interesting for the world. They’ll say that an old nation has an ancient belief, strange, but fascinating."
“Isn’t Christianity old enough?” the deacon persisted.
“Leave him, he’s possessed,” others told him.
"We’ve been Christians since the fourth century, or rather you’ve been," the pagan seemed intent on annoying the deacon. Then he turned to his wife, “Let me talk to these people. Please go home, put the baby to bed, will you?" And then went back to the argument: “How many years did foreigners think we were Russians? Nearly two centuries. Even today some don’t know we’re a completely different nation, so unlike each other! A different language, script, and culture, so why can’t our religions be different too? Why do we need to be either Orthodox or Catholic when we’ve got our Amirani?"
“I’m going to hit him,” a man standing next to the deacon whispered. The physicist’s wife grabbed his arm and dragged him away, just in time, to their shabby cottage. And because the toddler began to cry, the deacon decided not to pursue him, though his intention was to baptize the pagan to crown their heated dispute.
The pagan physicist proved to be the only exception because everyone else was baptized: those we met along the road, those at home, some brought by their family members, mainly children and grandchildren of those who hadn’t been baptized in Soviet times. Our robust deacon often said that in the past parents insisted on baptizing their children, but now it was the other way around.
© Lasha Bugadze. By arrangement with Sulakauri Publishing. Translation © 2020 Maya Kiasashvili. All rights reserved.
Lasha Bugadze and Georgian novelist Beka Adamashvili will be in conversation with Claire Armitstead, the Guardian’s Associate Editor, Culture, in a talk entitled "Levity and the Limits of Satire in the New Georgia," as part of the online festival Georgia’s Fantastic Tavern: Where Europe Meets Asia. The free event, in association with Maya Jaggi and Writers’ House of Georgia, will be livestreamed on Friday, February 26, 2021, and available to watch afterward.
In her quarterly column, Maya Jaggi, our Critic at Large, provides a brief history of Georgian letters, whose influences look east and west. Jaggi has curated Georgia’s Fantastic Tavern: Where Europe Meets Asia, an online festival of Georgian writers inspired by the café culture of Georgia’s first democratic republic of 1918–21, taking place online from February 25 to 28.
In a little park with soaring fir trees behind the old parliament in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia in the southern Caucasus mountains, two translators are monumentalized in bronze. The mustachioed Oliver Wardrop, British high commissioner there a century ago, translated A Book of Wisdom and Lies by Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani, an ambassador, fabulist, translator, and lexicographer, who met Louis XIV and Pope Clement on his European travels.
The bronze companion hugging a book to her breast is Wardrop’s sister Marjory, whose work included Georgian Folk Tales and Ilia Chavchavadze’s nineteenth-century Romantic poem, The Hermit. But she is most famous for her prose version of Shota Rustaveli’s The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, the national epic from Georgia’s medieval golden age, about an Arabian monarch who abdicates in favor of his daughter, and a melancholy knight in love with an Indian princess. Rustaveli’s chivalric masterpiece, penned during the courtly reign of a powerful queen they called King Tamar, refashioned Persian sources into a Georgian epic that looked both east and west, marrying Platonism with Sufism.
Marjory Scott Wardrop was still perfecting The Man in the Leopard’s Skin (her first draft of 1898) when she died in 1909. Posthumously published by her brother, her English prose stood its ground for more than a century until the American poet Lyn Coffin made the first verse translation in 2015—the year her forerunner’s statue was erected. The Knight in the Panther Skin astonishingly matches the twelfth-century original, with some 1,660 rhyming quatrains of sixteen-syllable lines, written in the Persian shairi form.
Geography has been destiny for Georgia and its literature, according to Zurab Karumidze, a prominent novelist and historian of jazz in Tbilisi. The country, he told me from a city under COVID curfews, has “always looked both ways.” A mountainous crossroads on the Silk Road, at the edge of empires, it was fought over and carved up for centuries, numbering Arabs, Mongols, and Ottoman Turks among its invaders. When Orbeliani wrote his eighteenth-century fables, eastern Georgia was an autonomous region of Persia. The Wardrops arrived after the country had been annexed by the Russian empire in 1801.
Yet Georgia, a small nation with fewer than five million people today, retained its own non-Indo-European language and ancient thirty-three-letter alphabet. Its oldest surviving literature dates from the fifth century, along with early Christian churches, while the wine-making culture reflected in its literature is as old as eight thousand years. Colchis, on its Black Sea coast, is the mythological home of Medea and the Golden Fleece. “Our influences are Middle Eastern, European, and Caucasian,” Karumidze said, “Georgians had to be very good translators, historically, to translate themselves to others, and others to one another—and to translate between East and West. This condition of translation was very important to the country. Starting from ancient Greece, Iran, and Biblical landscape, everything was mixed here.”
Centuries of invasion translate into cultural richness. Georgian, with loan words from Sanskrit, Greek, Persian, Arabic, Turkish, and Russian, is laden with synonyms—a protean tool for writers. Nino Haratischvili, who lives in Berlin and writes in both Georgian and German, said at the Frankfurt Book Fair where Georgia was Guest Country of Honor in 2018: “Georgia has been fighting for the identity it has claimed since antiquity and defended against all occupiers throughout the centuries. Many forget that identity is not something ossified . . . and that the richness of Georgian culture grew out of being permeable and perhaps brave, taking in foreign ideas and mixing them with its own in its search for novelties.”
Karumidze, Haratischvili, and poet-translator Coffin are among the speakers in Georgia’s Fantastic Tavern: Where Europe Meets Asia, an online festival of Georgian writers with a touch of food and song, streaming for a global English-language audience from February 25–28, 2021. As the festival’s artistic director, I curated the four-day program for Writers’ House of Georgia in Tbilisi, a city I first visited in 2014. Georgia’s Fantastic Tavern is in partnership with the British Library in London and Words Without Borders—which, starting today, is publishing four newly translated extracts from novels by festival authors who have made waves or won awards in Georgia. There are four days of online events, two of them ticketed and streamed by the British Library and Writers’ House in Tbilisi. All eleven talks will also available to watch afterwards. The digital tavern is a pandemic-era sequel to Where Europe Meets Asia: Georgia25, a weeklong London festival that I curated in 2016 for the Georgian National Book Center.
Georgia’s Fantastic Tavern takes its inspiration from the doomed cafe culture of another golden age of Georgian literature, whose end was tragic. A century ago, Tbilisi—known as Tiflis before 1936—was a “Paris of the East.” After the Russian revolutions of 1917, Georgia declared independence from the collapsing Tsarist empire. During its short-lived first democratic republic of 1918-21, Tbilisi became a haven for intellectuals fleeing the Russian civil wars—including Doctor Zhivago author Boris Pasternak. These exiles were welcomed by Georgian artists and writers such as the Blue Horn Symbolists, whose poet founders included Paolo Iashvili, Titsian Tabidze, and his cousin Galaktion Tabidze.
This cosmopolitan, polyglot avant-garde gathered in artists’ cafés such as the Fantastic Tavern, Argonauts’ Boat, Kimerioni, and Peacock’s Tail. The cafe walls became the blank canvas for Russian and Georgian artists returned from Paris and St. Petersburg, such as Lado Gudiashvili, whose painting for Kimerioni, Stepko’s Tavern, became the banner for this year’s festival. I had sought out this rare vestige of European modernist cafe culture on a visit to Tbilisi four years ago. The Rustaveli National Theater opened its closed basement for me, revealing the century-old wall painting on the stairs—recently restored—as well as work by another famous Georgian modernist, Davit Kakabadze, planting the seed that would later become this festival.
When the Bolsheviks invaded Georgia in February 1921, the Red Army not only crushed the democratic republic after only 1,028 days, but swept away its modernist avant-garde and the cafe culture that nurtured it. Georgia’s Fantastic Tavern begins on the centenary of Tbilisi’s occupation, February 25. Writers’ House contains portraits of the many writers who were executed in successive waves of Stalinist purges over the next two decades. Others committed suicide in an atmosphere of intolerable pressure to denounce colleagues, as socialist realism became the only acceptable form of art.
The seventy years of Soviet rule left a sense of rupture with this republic—a broken thread that many in today’s Georgia seek to repair. Haratischvili’s The Eighth Life: For Brilke (tr. Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin), a multi-generational saga of the “Red century” written in German that won the 2018 Bertolt Brecht prize, alludes to the Blue Horn poets and uses lines of theirs as epigraphs. The novelist and playwright Dato Turashvili set his latest play on a train from Tbilisi to the Black sea in February 1921. Republic of Georgia (tr. Madonna Tkhelidze), which had a staged reading by the Voyage Theater Company at New York Public Library in 2019, takes place as the Red Army enters Tbilisi and members of the republican government flee into exile in France.
Aka Morchiladze revolutionized post-Soviet literature with his 1992 novel.
If Georgia’s modernist moment of the 1910s and '20s was interrupted by Soviet invasion, postmodernism was forged during Soviet collapse in the 1990s. Aka Morchiladze, the pen name of Gio Akhvlediani, revolutionized post-Soviet fiction with his fragmented debut novel Journey to Karabakh (1992, tr. Elizabeth Heighway), in which a privileged youth from Tbilisi looking for drugs strays into the Nagorno-Karabakh war. The 1990s, Akhvlediani recalled from Tbilisi, were a “terrible time of civil war, paramilitaries—many guns from that time we still have—and the beginning of a new literature.” An earlier generation of novelists, such as Konstantine Gamsakhurdia, seemed stilted. “No one speaks like that. It wasn’t natural. I had this feeling, I have to use the language of the street guys and the youth. People loved it.” Yet, even thirty years into independence, he feels Georgia remains post-Soviet in outlook: “Everything’s about punishment and betrayal. It’s a Stalinist thing. We’re all traitors who must be punished. It’s still in our vocabulary. People don’t understand they’re speaking the language of Stalin’s time, which their parents reused.” While he drew on the Russian classics he grew up reading alongside Hemingway and Jack London, “after the 2008 war, young people abandoned Russian culture. The war finished it totally.”
Tamta Melashvili’s debut novel, Counting Out (excerpted in WWB in 2014), about teenage girls’ experience in an unnamed war, was written in the wake of that five-day August war with Russia. Speaking from Tbilisi, she recalled that time of “total fear and despair, with planes flying over, and explosions from the nearby town being bombed.” Although her second novel, Eastwards, is also set in present-day Georgia, it looks back to the poets of the First Republic. “We had only three years of independence,” she said, “but I’m totally in love with that precious period. We had social democracy, a parliament with women’s representation [and five women MPs]. I like to imagine what might have happened if we weren’t invaded by the Soviet Union. How could the country have developed?”
The protagonist of Eastwards, Irina, is researching Elene Dariani-Bakradze, a mystical poet believed to have had a secret affair with the Blue Horn poet Paolo Iashvili. There is speculation that she may have authored fourteen erotic poems attributed to him. “Feminists prefer this version against the literary establishment,” Melashvili said. “I started to play with these two versions. Irina tries to reach the true story of Paolo and Elena but rebuilds a new myth. I wanted to show how Georgians can’t get out of the constant cycle of reimagining myths and legends and not writing true history.” Georgians, she added, “still live in very turbulent times. There are no resources. We cling to the mythic past. Otherwise we’re not strong enough to navigate the present.”
Soviet history remains intractably painful. “The purges of the 1930s, no one likes to talk about them,” she said. “All fathers are related to the purges as survivors or perpetrators. Most of us prefer to keep a distance from this past.” But Stalinism shattered Georgia’s literature. “Most good writers were shot. Or the men were shot, and the women were marginalized, redirected towards children’s literature. Some even quit. From the '40s to the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were almost no women writing, except one or two in the '80s. They became lost souls in Georgian literary history.”
“Georgians still live in very turbulent times,” says writer Tamta Melashvili. “There are no resources. We cling to the mythic past. Otherwise we’re not strong enough to navigate the present.”
Playwright and novelist Davit Gabunia, who found fame aged twenty-two as the Georgian translator of Harry Potter (and later Shakespeare and Ibsen), explores a different kind of violence. His cinematic debut novel, Falling Apart, recalls Rear Window in its dark exploration of voyeurism, and broke ground it its treatment of a male sexual liaison. “Everyone neglects men,” he said from Tbilisi. “The problem is men. I write mostly about troubled masculinities. My novel is ‘pulp,’ written as a quasi-thriller crime story, but I try to put these ideas in accessible form. Everything is wrong with the main character because he has false ideas of masculinity.”
Tracing change in independent Georgia, Gabunia said: “In 2005 when I wrote my first short stories, I wouldn’t have dared to come out. I wrote naive gay stories under a pen name, and no one wanted to publish them in case of a backlash. Then for three years I never wrote a word. It’s not less dangerous now for LGBT people but, certainly in literary circles, things have changed. There’s a huge difference between then and 2017, when my novel came out.” He attributes the slowness of change, which drove him to abandon activism to write for theater, to Georgia’s instability. “We’re still very poor, underpaid in wild capitalism. A big change in mentality comes after years of stable and normalized life. Since we regained independence in 1991, there have not been five consecutive years without something happening—unrest, conflict with a breakaway region, civil war, economic collapse, extreme poverty. It continues now. We’re a society in constant unrest, where religion is very powerful. When there’s no rational prospect, people choose the medieval darkness of the Church.”
If, for Karumidze, a strong post-Soviet thread is that Georgian writers “had to reread and deconstruct their history,” they also “make fun of it. Before, Georgian history was sacred, mythologized. Most kings are saints of the Georgian Church, and so are the ninth-century fathers of nationalism. You’re not supposed to be sarcastic about them.”
Some writers have tested the limits of this humor. Cartoonist and writer Lasha Bugadze’s plays include Putin’s Mum and The President will Come to See You. His novel The Literature Express (tr. Maya Kiasashvili) pokes fun at Georgia’s EU aspirations, and opens with the 2008 war as tanks advance towards Tbilisi. His latest novel, A Small Country, fictionalizes the real scandal over his satirical short story “The First Russian” which explored the relationship between Georgia and Russia though the medieval Queen Tamar’s wedding night. “We don’t speak about our history,” Bugadze told me from Tbilisi. “Georgia needs to reflect on its history, and the relationship with Russia. People are afraid to speak of it. That’s why I had problems. I wrote about Queen Tamar’s first husband—people didn’t know he was a Russian. She’s a holy saint, a legend, so how can you talk about her private life?” He paused. “I understand why they’re afraid: it’s like trauma. Everything of pride in Georgia is in the past. Our historical heroes are part of our identity, so don’t speak about our kings, or Stalin. We had a funny story about Medea by Euripedes, a Greek, but a Georgian woman would never kill her child!”
Bugadze was threatened with excommunication, and personally reprimanded by the head of Georgia’s Orthodox Church (“He wags his finger, and says, ‘Why did you write this?’ Like the Inquisition”). “The Patriarch became Archbishop in 1977, the year I was born. He is the greatest Georgian politician,” Bugadze said. “The Church and the government have a very strange relationship. They’re very close together. Who is the main boss in Georgia? The prime minister or the Patriarch or the oligarch?”
While the novel reflects Georgia’s relationship with Russia from the late 1980s, “now the relationship is very different because Putin has a dream to recreate the Soviet Union. We have Russian soldiers and army bases in the middle of Georgia, in South Ossetia, only forty kilometers from Tbilisi. The border moves, like ‘moving Berlin Walls,’ we call them. It’s psychologically and emotionally very difficult. We’re very afraid but we’re living with this.” In Soviet times, he added, “there was great humor, with metaphorical language, and everybody understood that it was because of censorship. Now we’ve become very serious and literal, and more angry about everything—I write blogs at Radio Liberty. Historically, it’s really dangerous to live near Putin’s Russia.” On the recent flare-up over Nagorno-Karabakh to which Russian peacekeepers were sent, he said, “It’s an old empire. These are contradictions Russia can manipulate. It’s existential. Every day we think, what will they do?”
Bugadze, like Melashvili, points up stark generational conflicts within Georgia. “Young people are very liberal and free. It’s a battle between grandfathers and grandsons, not fathers and sons, and what is our way in the future: the West or nostalgia for the Soviet Union? They don’t see it as nostalgia but as the ‘real Georgia,’ because we’ve ‘lost our identity.’ But I can’t speak about the Soviet Union without the tragedy.”
WWB’s first excerpt from the festival is from The Southern Mammoth, a novel by Archil Kikodze, an actor, writer, filmmaker, photographer, birdwatcher, and eco-guide. Its main character is Tbilisi, the city where he was born and which became a war zone in his youth in the 1990s, with refugees filling its hotels. “My father was a professional rescuer who carried refugees on his back through the mountains,” he said from the city. “My generation came back from wars they lost, with weapons and complexes. There were semi-official gangs, everybody carrying weapons and shooting in the street. Big, heavy violence.” Tbilisi is the “only city I know very well and know too well to love. When I walk, I know tragic stories about each district and quarter, each yard. We’re very social people. We know things you don’t need to know about each other—stories, gossip. It’s support but it’s also heavy baggage.”
Actor, writer, filmmaker, and photographer Archil Kikodze, who was still a youth in the post-Soviet Tblisi of the 1990s.
The narrator’s father “was a shadow businessman in the Soviet period of stagnation in the '70s and '80s, when corruption was blossoming and Georgia was like a Riviera for Russia. His mother is a Georgian nationalist, so that can’t work.” Kikodze’s interest is not in “good guys conquered by bad guys. The collaborator is more interesting for me as a character because he’s coming from the same society with the same values. We had too, too many collaborators. We still have them.”
This novel also has a flashback to the First Republic. “Till now there’s no historical evaluation of the things that have happened to us,” Kikodze said. “All new governments come to power playing with our past and our ethnic conflicts. But literature tries harder to evaluate what happened. Official history is blind, so it’s an alternative. Personal stories are always a treasure for me, I collect not news stories but what’s behind them—people crushed in all those changes and bad times.”
For Gabunia, Georgian is an “incredible blessing and a curse: it’s a wonderfully rich language with a long literary tradition—we still have those texts—but we’re doomed to have a small audience.” The humble aim of Georgia’s Fantastic Tavern is to widen this pool, while introducing more English-speaking readers to a literature, and a culture, they will not want to miss.
© 2021 Maya Jaggi. All rights reserved.
Georgia’s Fantastic Tavern: Where Europe Meets Asia, an online festival of Georgian writers inspired by the cafe culture of Georgia’s first democratic republic of 1918-21, is presented by artistic director Maya Jaggi and Writers’ House of Georgia, in partnership with The British Library and Words Without Borders. It is streaming for a global English-language audience on 25-28 February 2021 and available to watch afterwards.
Archil Kikodze's The Southern Mammoth, originally published in Georgian in 2017, takes place in a single day in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, as a filmmaker leaves his apartment to make way for a friend with a date, to wander freely through his city and his memories.
Armed with long poles, the policemen are busy at the Ortachala 1 hydro station. It seems they are the only ones on this sunny wintry morning who have something to do. They push as hard as they can, nearly succeed in moving the corpse. They aren’t trying to get the body out of the water. They just want to push it hard enough to budge it. We stare at the scene with gaping mouths. We don’t understand what’s going on. Only later, Tazo, loyal to his ways, finds out the story behind the scene we witnessed. But that morning, on our way from visiting prostitutes, we were dumbly watching the policemen’s futile efforts. We had spent the night in a house that was lost in the old quarter of Kharpukhi and now, looking at the curdled waters at the hydro station, we would have given anything to erase our memories, to forget all we’d seen . . . Asking around in the winding, narrow streets of Kharpukhi, we eventually find the brothel in the most inappropriate house and knock on the glass gallery, referring to an acquaintance of Tazo’s. Stepping in from the dark street, we momentarily freeze in the hall, long enough for our eyes to adjust to the light. The surrounding is a sight indeed . . . Dents on the ceiling and walls left by different caliber bullets, blunt stares from the corners, cast by eyes that don’t like anyone . . . As if we are characters in a Western who have just blundered into the worst town in the world. “They don’t like strangers, do they.” God bless the scriptwriters of the old movie dialogues. “They like no one.” It’s obvious that we won’t find love here. On the balcony, a generator roars offbeat . . . We aren’t looking for trouble, we are unarmed . . . Tazo is fiddling with his hat, the one he never goes without. Under his warm coat he has his only sweater he has been wearing for the last ten years. It’s a shapeless blue one, knitted from thick wool, with a diagonal red strip in front . . . He squints at the light bulb, then smiles at the surroundings for no apparent reason. He just can’t help it—his smile is always kind of inappropriate. Now it’s clear to everyone that we aren’t going to shoot or threaten anyone with a gun, and suddenly it becomes interesting. Are you brothers? A speck of interest appears in their lethargic eyes . . . No, we’re not . . . We aren’t going to hit them, either, during sex or later, when we get sober and are overcome by the urge to puke—not so much on account of them, but on account of ourselves. What’s more, Tazo might have enough strength to smile at them in the morning . . . Then we’ll leave . . . Go down the cobbled slope without talking to each other, in silence, cross the deserted square without a single car, won’t even notice the valiant Petre Bagrationi brandishing his sword, in the same way we never pay attention to other mounted historical heroes across the city. We’ll get on the Ortachala dike and share the only cigarette. We don’t have enough to buy the ones with filters, but will get some without filters later on, as soon as little kiosks in our respective blocks open. But it’s a long walk to the familiar grounds . . . In the meantime, we want to cast the first and final glance at the city from this vantage point . . . But why final? It was final for me, but surely Tazo came back. Otherwise he wouldn’t have found out about the corpse . . .
The stagnant Mtkvari with grassy banks and gulls . . . The Isani policemen, ever so hungry for petty bribes, are trying to push the corpse. With the long poles, they are shoving it to the right, swearing and getting into each other’s way. The dead man is floating on his back. He is wearing a pale jacket, the hue of the river, and a pair of jeans, just like us. Hard to say if he was killed or has committed suicide, but it doesn’t matter for the policemen anyway. Very soon Tazo will discover that it’s a common thing, that the Ortachala hydro station is a haven for Tbilisi corpses: those who jump of their own accord or are thrown into the river sooner or later gather at the dike. Down the Mtkvari, in Samgori, the policemen have lots of long rods and poles prepared for the same purpose. “You’ve got to act fast in this city”—depends on who is smarter and adroit in shoving the dead bodies to the other side. In Samgori and in Isani the policemen work with gusto to prove who is smarter. But that winter morning, Isani was definitely faster, which means Samgori got a fresh homicide case, or possibly a suicide . . .
Next to me, Tazo shivers. He might be thinking the same. The water’s too cold . . . Suddenly, he starts talking about his dream. "Don’t tell me you were able to sleep last night." He did and dreamt he was swimming in a vast stretch of water. He swims with strong, well-calculated strokes, heading for the horizon. He’s got quite a distance to cover, so he saves his energy. The horizon seems too distant, practically unreachable for even such an expert swimmer as Tazo, but he persists, quite stubbornly. He doesn’t really know why he is swimming or where to, but he feels there is something extremely important waiting for him ahead, or something vital is going to happen to him. Indeed, something appears against the dull horizon, pushing Tazo to keep going. He is exhausted but hasn’t lost faith in his own strength, not for a second. He is sure he will reach the end. His aim nears, consequently gets larger. It’s an inscription. Tazo can’t read it yet but he can clearly see that it is mounted on a huge metal construction, something similar to the old Soviet structures erected in the most improbable places, carrying the message “Forward to the bright future!” Or the enormous Hollywood sign on Mount Lee. Tazo waves his hand in a vague gesture to describe the inscription that he nears after swimming tirelessly in the vast sea and now he can discern it. Apparently, that was his target . . . The word “cunt” covers the entire horizon like a verdict and Tazo writes in the air with his hand, this time the letters are easily recognizable. There is no sea around us but I readily visualized the word written by Tazo's hand hanging over our city, somewhere above the dammed-up river and the old quarters across it. Insane, isn’t it? We stare at each other. He drags at what’s left of my cigarette, shrugs his shoulders as if saying it’s not his fault he dreamed such a weird dream. He fights back laughter. He flicks the butt into the river and we even hear a brief hiss as it hits the water and then we burst into laughter. We just can’t stop. The Isani policemen, who have nearly managed to shove the body into the Samgori jurisdiction, stop and look at us, trying to guess if we have found their efforts comical. Oh, no, not at all! Whatever you’re doing this morning, no doubt it’s for the good of our city and the whole country. We laugh our heads off. They give up on us, having their own problems. Still laughing, we leave the dike. We’ve got to walk all the way to our homes and the kiosks where we can get cigarettes without filters on credit . . .
I open my eyes. The ice cubes haven’t melted in the glass yet. I must have nodded off. The computer screen shows the same picture: somewhere in the Near East, Nelly is patting a cat. I look at my watch. Nearly nine. My visitor will be here any minute now. He hasn’t been for years. Mum’s funeral doesn’t count. It was more out of duty, personal and social. But he called yesterday and somehow, awkwardly, with lots of pauses, finally said what he wanted to say. Even across the distance I felt he was afraid of being laughed at. Something that never occurred to me. I listened and agreed, as if it were an honor.
But nine in the morning is too early. Is it a date he’s got or a hangover breakfast?
My doorbell rings. Couldn’t wait till nine. I go to open it, but halfway down the hall I suddenly think he mustn’t see Nelly. I go back to the computer and close the picture, then the whole album. The doorbell rings again—this time more persistently and a bit impatiently. My daughter hasn’t appeared in the chat for some time. It must be late there and most probably she’s asleep. I leave the chat room, order the computer to go to sleep, and head for the front door.
I hardly have time to look at him. Tazo doesn’t so much step over the threshold—he jumps over it as if he’s looking for shelter from the rain. He moves inside, into the depths of the flat as if it were a sanctuary. His insistent calling hasn’t been insolent at all—he was seeking asylum. He drops heavily into an armchair by my sofa and scrutinizes the bookshelves as if it’s his first time at my place.
“Were you asleep?”
“I nodded off. Was looking at the computer and dozed off. Actually, I woke up quite early . . . ”
He takes a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and lights one. His manner hasn’t changed: he smokes with the greed of a teenager, a novice, with long drags—one, two, three and the fag’s burned to the butt.
I also take my cigarette from the table and light it. He watches me impatiently. I can’t enjoy mine, crush it out and get to my feet.
“Tazo, come with me, will you?”
We go into the bedroom. Zoia, my cleaner, hasn’t been in. Usually, it’s Zoia who changes my bedclothes. Come on, help me!
I had stripped away my own bedclothes earlier, before I dozed off at the computer. We are funny to watch. I shouldn’t be thinking about it, but what we do has the makings of a movie . . . Two men over forty are awkwardly changing bedclothes with dead serious faces, stuffing pillows into pillowcases. Do you want a thinner blanket? I don’t think we’ll be cold, it’s quite warm already . . . I don’t believe even for a moment that Tazo doesn’t appreciate the cinematographic value of the absurd scene. I can’t help thinking that now, just like in the old times, we are going to look at each other and guess we’re thinking the same. Then we’ll have a good laugh . . . But no—Tazo hasn’t glanced at me even once. We’ve been working in silence. We’re tired, but here you are, the bed’s ready . . .
I remember something. I go into the sitting room, open a sideboard, take out a half-empty bottle of brandy and two glasses.
“A glass or two has a great effect on me . . . In this case . . . you know what I mean, don’t you?” I’m angry with myself because I realize I’m carefully choosing my words when talking to Tazo.
He eyes the bottle, as if he doesn’t see it, as if he doesn’t understand what I’m saying. “Are you going out in that tracksuit?”
Tazo isn’t rude or impudent, and can never be such. He is just impatient to get me out. He is nervous and, I sense, he finds the whole situation highly embarrassing. I smile. “I’ll change in a second and I’ll be gone.”
In the bedroom I change quickly, like a soldier. I usually don’t need long. I shove my tracksuit into the wardrobe. I’ll change into the jogging shoes in the hall. I might need to walk quite a lot. Cigarettes, keys, phone in the pocket. What else?
In the sitting-room Tazo is looking at a photo behind the bookcase glass. Bent low, he seems to be trying to remember something.
The photo is black and white, I believe taken by his dad and developed in their bathroom under the magic red light. It has been behind that glass since the times when we didn’t need to stoop to see it. The National Museum yard, the two of us standing in front of the skeleton of a prehistoric elephant. I’m wearing a jumper knitted by Mum. Both groomed and in our Sunday best. Probably ten at the time. In the background the elephant in a huge glass box hardly fits into the frame. But its front legs, tusks, and part of its forehead are clearly visible. I even remember what the inscription was on the box. Here it is, if you don’t believe me:
Archidoskodon Meridionalis—the southern mammoth, found in Taribana Valley.
Tazo slips his hand behind the glass and takes out the photo, bringing it closer to his eyes. He squints and I think his eyesight is getting poorer. Might already need reading glasses.
“I always imagined Taribana Valley to be a mysterious place, with mammoths roaming freely. But the other day I was at an exhibition and there was this photo—a bare field with a single tree. It was a strangely beautiful place. It said Taribana Valley. I wanted to buy the photo but it had already sold.”
“I’ve been to the valley,” Tazo replaces the photo. “My office sent me to insure the harvest. Someone’s wheat. Nothing special about the place . . . ”
Tazo has been to Taribana Valley. He insured someone’s wheat crop. Time for me to go. Here, take the keys. Just in case . . . When you’re ready, call me and I’ll come back. If you don’t wait for me, leave them on the sideboard in the hall and shut the door . . .
He nods and sees me to the front door. I put my jogging shoes on. And go down the stairs with the thud of a man who’s got nothing to hide. Let the adulterers sneak around furtively! I look up to wave him goodbye but he’s already closed the door. Fine with me . . .
Before stepping out into the street, I look at myself in Mediko’s mirror. I haven’t shaved but that’s all right. Money, phone, keys . . . Nothing left behind, no need to go back. Mediko’s mirror tells me that besides a shave I’m in sore need of a haircut. I might get one if I plan my day properly. I smile—what planning am I talking about if I’ve got nothing to do? But even if I have to, I know all too well I won’t do it. I don’t even recall a time when I woke up or left home so early in the morning. Getting cigarettes and mineral water doesn’t count. I mean leaving home properly, purposefully. I look at myself in Mediko’s mirror once again, then one, two . . . two and a half, three and I’m in the street.
The entrance is strewn with cigarette butts.
At nighttime our entrance becomes a refuge for young couples. The door doesn’t lock. I know other similar entrances along the street with similarly broken locks, but ours is particularly popular. I believe it’s the mirror that is largely responsible for it . . . They can sit on the steps and see their reflections at the same time. The mirror is witness to their caresses and the proof that they have each other. They might even be sizing each other up. Mediko’s mirror has the shape of a vertically upturned enormous eye. The human eye isn’t a perfect instrument. At close quarters, it can easily lose focus, so you start seeing the dear eyes in patches, or a blur of the necklace around the dear neck. At that point you can furtively glance at the mirror to steal a different angle and who knows, the mirror can show you something that will make you smile . . .
The problem is they throw cigarette butts into the vestibule.
I step into the sunshine. I cross the street and look at my house from the opposite sidewalk. No one is watching me from the windows. The curtains aren’t moving. But is my flat really suitable for a first date? Tazo was so nervous I’m absolutely sure it’s the first. He’s got a job and salary, insures someone’s harvest in Taribana Valley. He could easily afford a hotel room but still opted for my place. Preferred my humble digs to an alienating, impersonal king-size hotel bed, to relaxing on it, watching a French movie. After all these years he preferred a homelike atmosphere . . . Apart from the photo behind the glass panel, what else is he going to find that will seem familiar to him? Books? I have several books on the floor by the bed. I wonder if he’s going to have a look at them. Will he get interested in what I’m reading? What else . . . A couple of paintings by Tengiz Mirzashvili on the walls, hanging there as a sign that mine, just like Tazo’s house, is part of a city within another city that the artist has left in abundance as selfless gifts . . . Maybe the woman Tazo’s waiting for is from the artist’s city too. Loneliness is unbearable in both cities, isn’t it? She is soon going to walk into my flat and look around timidly . . . What else will meet her eyes? Another huge photo of a city, or rather of a settlement . . . It’s Mom, leaning on a walking stick in the ditch that took years to dig in that archaeological site. She’s looking determinedly into the lens, refusing to accept that she had spent decades digging the monument that hadn’t yielded anything valuable . . . Also, a poster of my film, which I had no courage to ask Tazo to see, nor have I asked if he’s seen it. What else? Innumerable snapshots of my daughter stuck to the fridge with magnets. I forgot to tell Tazo to look inside, but if he does, he’ll find plenty of snacks suitable for a single man . . . On the other hand, he came with a plastic bag, which he stuffed between the armchair and the sofa. Apparently, he’s brought something himself . . .
Mediko comes out of our entrance and waves to me. I wave back from across the street. A casual meeting of neighbors in the morning. But she’s going to work while I’ve got no idea where I’m heading. "Is everything all right?"
“Yes. I’m out for a walk.”
“Your face says something’s up.”
“Not really. I just woke up very early and thought I’d have a walk.”
“Fancy walking in this direction?” She points toward Republic Square.
I shake my head and suddenly I feel the urge to shout that Tazo’s in my flat.
“Can we have a lock installed on the front door? Look at the mess.”
Smiling, Mediko turns back.
“By we you mean me, right?”
I chuckle and raise my hand in a goodbye gesture. I walk in the opposite direction, toward the Blue Monastery. From there I can walk straight into Vere Park and smoke a cigarette in peace and quiet.
© Archil Kikodze. By arrangement with Sulakauri Publishing. Translation © 2021 Maya Kiasashvili. All rights reserved.
Archil Kikodze will be in conversation with author and journalist Wendell Steavenson as part of the online festival Georgia’s Fantastic Tavern: Where Europe Meets Asia. The free event, in association with Maya Jaggi and Writers’ House of Georgia, will be livestreamed on Sunday, February 28, 2021, and available to watch afterwards.
Young, formally inventive, and digital by nature—these are only some of the characteristics of Russophone literature today. Here, we present Russophone writers born in 1985 or later who work in shorter genres, from minimalistic flash fiction and protest poetry to visual performance. This issue is not a collection of “Russian literature” because many of its contributors are not ethnically Russian, and many are not Russian nationals. What they have in common is their use of the Russian language (among others). Literary scholar Naomi Caffee first proposed the term “Russophonia” to describe the fact that authors writing in Russian come from a range of non-Russian backgrounds, including Indigenous communities in post-Soviet countries and émigré communities around the world. The predominance of women writers in this issue is indicative of a trend within these communities: much exciting Russophone literature today is not produced by men. The resulting cohort of writers contradicts a traditional image that associates Russian literature, especially in English translation, with long novels written by men who are racialized as white and ethnically Russian.
While the novel remains an important genre for Russophone literature, shorter works exemplify the most innovative aspects of this scene today. Poems and short stories allow artists to react, in real time, to current developments: in Russian, it’s not uncommon to see new work by major poets emerge online within hours after a news item breaks. These writings spark immediate conversations that change broader public discourse through rapid-fire literary texts rather than typical online commentary. Literary activism based on various forms of identity is central to the past and present of the post-Soviet sphere, and today’s multifaceted media environment has allowed a range of writers to gain a platform faster than ever before. Our own selection of writing pinpoints three of the many issues that preoccupy Russian society and Russophone communities around the world.
The first is the war in Eastern Ukraine, a story that has all but disappeared from Anglophone front-page news but remains a reality and a factor dividing not just countries, but also families and friends (see the acclaimed 2017 collection Words for War). The second concerns gender and the polemics surrounding feminism, which are fundamentally different from the debates going on in the United States and parts of Western Europe. The relation between art and activism has been particularly topical since the notorious case against Pussy Riot, members of which were imprisoned for a performance in Moscow’s Christ the Savior cathedral in 2012. So many young Russophone writers are involved in political activism that one recent movement––a push to free three sisters in Moscow’s Armenian diaspora when they were first charged with murder for killing their severely abusive father––was led by a number of feminist poets and supported by Armenian Russophone writers.
Both the current war and questions of gender relate to a third, distinct issue that also weaves through these pieces: a particular kind of post-Soviet non-belonging. Born in a country that no longer exists, into systems of racial, ethnic, or sexual identity that were marginalized even when it did, many young writers narrate not a search for home but a confrontation with the fact that they will never have one. Those confrontations unite would-be homes as different from one another as Kazakhstan, Tatarstan, and Dagestan. They also stretch to adopted homes, from Boston to Berlin: successive waves of emigration from Russia and the Soviet Union have resulted in large Russian-speaking diasporas in the United States, Western Europe, and Israel. Movements like these have made multilingual communities a norm in post-Soviet literature, from the Cheburashka Collective (US) and the now-defunct queer Central Asian collective STAB (Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan) to journals like Cardinal Points/Storony Sveta (New York, US) or Dvoyetochiye/Nekudatayim (Jerusalem, Israel). Dinara Rasuleva, whose poetry appears in this issue, is a leading figure in the Russophone literary scene in Berlin; Olga Breininger has lived in five different countries, both by choice and otherwise.
To find new Russian literature in these highly disparate circumstances, it’s not enough just to scour books and print journals. Whereas most prominent journals in the US do not accept submissions that have previously been posted on social media, initial self-publication on Telegram, Facebook, VKontakte, and other platforms is often considered an advantage for Russophone writers. These forums allow readers, including other cutting-edge writers, to offer public feedback or translations that subsequently become part of the formal publication process. Self-publication online isn’t considered an impediment to being published in print, and copyright as a concept is much less venerated. This circumstance does more than allow previously unpublished poetry to appear directly on social media feeds: it enables high-profile competitions to upload all their finalists’ entries to the Cloud. It has long prompted literary organizations to give their events a mass audience via YouTube and other video channels on a scale that Anglophone organizations only reached during the COVID-19 pandemic. The speed of new developments is dizzying, often leaving the Russian literary establishment in the dust. Aesthetically mainstream corporate publishers have given way among leading young writers to a vibrant coalition of experimental, opposition-oriented online journals and to self-publishing forums that allow authors outside the opposition scene to work in formats they control. While book publishers in the US continue to enjoy their status as power brokers, even where prominent younger writers are concerned, similar Russophone publishers often find themselves establishing imprints dedicated to young or experimental writers in an effort to catch up to the dominant online circuit of emerging work.
To readers and editors––and to those who translate or commission translations – this new Russophone literary world offers both opportunities and challenges. The logistics of the book trade, budget constraints, and clogged publishing schedules no longer prevent direct contact between writers and readers. A greater number of texts reach a greater number of readers almost as soon as they are written. Writers use digital media to curate their own audiences: rather than facing institutionalized editorial oversight backed by large organizations, they grapple with a more diffuse network of power hierarchies, including generational divides on questions of identity and representation. In doing so, they are able to actively promote their work and engage with readers directly, including those who might react negatively. Control over the general trajectory of a given text is lost on the internet even as writers choose the social circles to which they speak first.
The reader, in turn, needs commitment to keep abreast of new developments and to follow the trajectory of individual writers. As translators, we have known our respective authors and followed their day-by-day trajectories for some time. Translating digitally active Russophone writers is fundamentally a collaboration, and that collaborative process is different from working with traditional texts precisely because both writers and translators are accustomed to immediate communication and online publication. Some authors offer a constant flow of new ideas to their translators via online chats; others change their text while the translator is still mulling over an original version published on Facebook. Public online communication, both professional and personal, is such a strong norm in Russophone literature today that the conflicts behind literary texts can circulate even faster than the texts themselves, presenting further challenges for writers and translators alike. For example, during 2020, even some of this community’s most activist participants responded to questions of racism in Russia and the U.S. with such callousness or lack of awareness that their colleagues interceded, facing backlash from expletives to threats. Translating texts that have recently been written, performed, or shared on social media requires a relationship of trust that can survive the rocky political and interpersonal waters of a literary scene that is even more “extremely online” than its U.S.-based counterpart.
For this reason, our selection is a collaborative project from inception to editing. More than a dozen translators came together to support this effort, working from seven time zones, between California and Ulyanovsk, to collate contemporary texts that honor some of the diversity within Russophone literature today.
Thanks to translator Carol Apollonio, readers may already be familiar with Alisa Ganieva’s novels. Here, the prominent writer and activist takes on a different genre: short-form regional noir, though it is set in a region that genre does not typically include. As a man named Kebedov drives through rural Dagestan (a predominantly Muslim republic in Russia’s Northern Caucasus Mountains), he finds himself inside a kind of real-life trolley problem whose resolution rests on a single theological conversation with a stranger. It’s inside their dialogue, and not in a complex plot, that Ganieva hangs the suspense of the narrative: in her hands, every word changes what the future can be, or whether it can even exist. Through those modulations, the story plays with the meaning of suspense itself, making it nothing less than a device for exploring the assumptions people hold about one another. “Munkar and Nakir” was initially published in a general interest Dagestani magazine, reflecting the importance that publications outside Moscow and St. Petersburg hold for the leading voices in Russophone literature.
Ksenia Zheludova––a media producer from St. Petersburg––publishes her new poetry as part of her feed on the popular Russian social media platform VKontakte. This translation of "An Age-Old Female Pastime,” “You Bring Him Some Tenderness in Your Narrow Palms,” and “Sometimes I Simply Know” aims to reproduce the effect of scrolling through short poems on the website. Zheludova’s poems seek new ways of expressing complex emotions. Her bold, often surprising, and sometimes painfully tender assertions assume an irrefutable logic: poetry establishes connections in places the tools of everyday reason cannot reach. Zheludova’s seemingly conversational tone masks the fact that her poems are tightly wrought artworks. Poems inspired by the war in Eastern Ukraine, and the 2019 wave of repressions against demonstrators in Moscow, place her in a long tradition of lyric poets who shifted away from purely personal themes in reaction to current events.
“Letter to Ukraine,” the title of Arkadii-Dragomoshchenko-Prize laureate Danyil Zadorozhnyi’s poem, could be just another text about the same war. As a bilingual Ukrainian who has spent time in Moscow, Zadorozhnyi illustrates the tragedy of the continuing hostilities between Russia and Ukraine with their tightly enmeshed history and peoples. But the poem is more than that. Zadorozhnyi has created a tapestry of different planes that flow from each other, driven by chains of linguistic associations that work effectively in translation and are prone to sudden changes of direction. In this context, the war is inextricably entwined with everything else, part of everything else––childhood memories, trauma, history, and politics. The subject of this poem is language itself as much as any of the topics it narrates––and this feature highlights its relation to the work of Dragomoshchenko, one of the most significant Russian poets of the late twentieth century, who is known to American readers through his long collaboration with Lyn Hejinian.
Moscow-based Xenia Emelyanova’s poetry is run through with the theme of motherhood. Her experience as a mother grants the lyric persona insight into the sanctity of every moment in life, including seemingly insignificant ones. And “sanctity” is the correct term here, as Emelyanova’s world includes the spiritual dimension as a matter of fact. The lyric heroine’s wisdom, born out of this first-hand knowledge of life’s fragility and the inalienable value of every human being, lends her voice a quiet authority in “Destined from Birth.” Visceral and rap-like in English as well as in the original, the crescendo that leads to the final “stop the war” is underscored in Russian by a play on the shared etymology between the words for “birth,” “humankind,” “kin,” and “nation.”
Alla Gorbunova’s Stories from Ings and Oughts are ultra-short works of flash fiction. The author, who is rooted in a long tradition of St. Petersburg tales, seems to describe a recognizable stereotype of twenty-first century Russia: befuddled cops and pedantic functionaries, the selfish rich and idle poor, everybody spouting off or creeping on the internet. Yet part of the joy of these stories is how in the space of a sentence “Russia” becomes a stranger, almost plausible yet ingeniously invented place. Each piece hinges on one idea, often linguistic in nature, and develops it like a story line: we find a logical puzzle, an absurd tale in the manner of fantastic realism, and a sublime prose poem about the sky on fire. Some stories appear to build up to a surprising final resolution, but their endings reliably refer us back to the precise words of the text itself as the thing that deserves our attention. This is a feature more common to poetry than prose, and indeed Gorbunova is mostly a poet. The pieces translated here, ranging in style from dry mock-journalism to lyric poetry-in-prose, are testimony to this training.
On multiple fronts, Olga Breininger’s There Was No Adderall in the Soviet Union is a middle finger to the conventions of literary genre. The novella itself is semi-autobiographical but borders on science fiction, a chimera of past and future. The excerpt translated here is part of that narrative, but it has no narration: it’s a fictional manifesto spoken aloud in the first and second person. The speaker––like Breininger, an Oxford-educated Harvard Ph.D. student from Kazakhstan with Volga German roots—has broken into a G20 summit to tell world leaders not why they are destroying the world but why she is doing so (though this speech does read like a distant relative of one written by Greta Thunberg five years later). Her words stagger dangerously from hyper-academic declarations of asymmetric warfare to notes of personal pain, demanding with tongue in cheek that readers reexamine what globalization really means.
When the Berlin-based Russian TV channel OstWest filmed Dinara Rasuleva performing “About Time to Smile at Homeless People,” they ran the subtitles along the bottom in one continuous line, forcing viewers to catch their breath alongside the leading slam poet of today’s Russophone emigration. This translation attempts to refashion the rapid beat of Rasuleva’s ode to national non-identity (she herself is from Kazan, a city that plays a potentially unmatched symbolic role in the Russian colonization of predominantly Muslim areas). As she tries on various stereotypes from Russia to the US, her tone is casual, even flippant, as though she’s just a bitterly apt observer of her generation’s everyday condition. Before long, though, Rasuleva’s words crack to reveal chronic pain of all kinds. She reaches for the masks of nationality like she’s reaching for a home or a cure with the knowledge that the very idea is a farce.
While these translations convey the thematic range of Russophone literature today as well as some of its multimedia forms, it is much harder to translate the enormous network of granular connections and conversations by which all of these texts have come to be. The interview between writer-editors Galina Rymbu and Ilya Danishevsky offers a glimpse into those aesthetic, political, and logistical nuts and bolts. Their discussion manages to describe at least six of Danishevsky’s high-profile literary projects. It also asks what independent presses mean to a culture built on samizdat, what the aestheticization of violence really accomplishes, and what happens when poetry, journalism, and social interactions all take the form of a “feed.”
This is an editorially curated selection, and yet it reflects a breadth of individual decisions: each translator proposed an author they were already working with. The result is a vibrant cross-section of texts that represents the way contemporary Russophone writing bridges numerous kinds of borders. However, this issue also reflects the constraints of translating a scene that is rapidly growing. It takes longer for Anglophone journals to reach publication than for new writers to become widely established in Russian, and so this issue does not include the very youngest cohort of Russophone writers (for example, a prominent group of decolonial feminist poets in their teens and early twenties). We hope the dynamic selection presented here will inspire you to keep an eye out for new writing in translation from Russian during the years to come.
We express our deepest thanks to Fiona Bell and Marian Schwartz for their assistance in preparing this issue.
© 2021 by Hilah Kohen and Josephine von Zitzewitz. All rights reserved.
Driving to a prayer reading to commemorate the death of a relative, a man’s path takes an unexpected turn in this gripping short story by Alisa Ganieva.
The road climbed gradually up the mountain. After the excruciating evening traffic around Levashinsky, driving was fast and easy. The sorrel-scented night air rushed through the cracked window. Kebedov had already turned off the highway onto a crunching gravel road and kept glancing at the glowing face of his watch. About forty minutes up the hill, beyond the spur, the lights of the village would come into view.
Should have left earlier, he thought.
But there’d been no getting away earlier. The entire day had been eaten up by a confrontation with the thugs from the mosque. These thugs ganged up on the local people, demanding they hand over their houses and land to the insatiable mufti. The mufti’s excavator rumbled through town destroying fences and verdant front yards, and these meatheads acted as his henchmen. They descended on peoples’ homes roaring “Allahu akbar” and tearing down the walls around them with their bare hands. For months, Kebedov had been making complaints but could get no justice against the mosque gang. Then, that morning, two of the mufti’s guys had burst onto his porch, knocking over a plant stand, breaking his wife’s potted ficus tree, and threatening over and over to “pound his ass.” His agitated wife, on a heavy dose of Propranolol, had emerged from their bedroom, yelling and cursing at them.
Kebedov frowned at the memory as, wheels skidding slightly, he turned onto a windy mountain pass that swam in his headlights. He couldn’t forget the scowling faces of his uninvited guests. He sensed that he wouldn’t be able to endure any more such attacks. That, in the end, he’d surrender both his land and the shop he was building to the implacable mufti. The mufti himself hid from the people in the depths of a brick mansion and in specially dug underground passageways, leaving his zealous young army to tame the remaining intractable few. These pious brutes smashed the limbs and ribs of anyone who stood up to them, as well as any cell phones or security cameras that captured their raids.
Kebedov suddenly felt guilty about his wife and her ficus. That tree was meant for their daughter. Ficus trees were supposed to help with conception, and his wife had been hoping for a grandson. They and their daughter had tried everything: leaving the area under the bed unswept, drinking rose quartz-infused water, observing the cycles of the moon, running to a faith healer for bear’s placenta. She’d been married four years and still no child. Though they’d gotten lucky with their son-in-law. He had a steady job, ran a workshop—a mechanic and clocksmith. The other day, Kebedov had asked him, “How come the hands of a clock always move one way, to the right, and not to the left?”
“I could make you one that goes in reverse,” his son-in-law had suggested, full of enthusiasm.
“No, just tell me: Why do they always go to the right?”
“It’s because of sundials. Because the sun casts a shadow that moves like this, and like this—clockwise.” He demonstrated the shadow’s movement with his fingers. And there you had it.
Kebedov had heard that, once upon a time, if a slave stepped on his master’s shadow he’d be executed on the spot. And also that if you wanted to beat someone in an argument, you should step on the neck of his shadow. Kebedov had thought of this with the mosque thugs and had even looked around for their shadows—but to no avail. They’d had none, like they’d withered up and died.
The car shook as it went around the bend. The switchbacks should be ending soon. Another half hour and the village would come into view. Kebedov was on his way to a prayer reading for the death of an elderly aunt, the sister of his deceased father. This aunt was born feeble-minded and lived her whole life a virgin, laying away knick-knacks for her dowry. Relatives had given the cheerful, naive old woman colorful plastic watches for children, which she’d worn all at once on both wrists, expecting suitors to arrive at any minute. Before her death, she’d suddenly become manic and unsettled. She’d run out into the courtyard saying that matchmakers were coming for her; a few days later, she’d gone out early in her best headscarf, sat down to wait on a wooden bench by the gate, and quietly died. Now her relatives insisted that, had she not worn all those watches, she would have lived longer. Clocks, it’s said, reduce one’s lifespan. Kebedov had meant to take part in the ceremony yesterday, the day of his aunt’s death, but hadn’t made it—things had gotten too hectic.
The switchbacks ended. A stone cliff hulked to the right of the road. As a precaution after recent landslides, it had been secured with steel cable so that loose rocks wouldn’t fall into the road. Kebedov stepped on the brake and advanced at a crawling pace. He should call the village to tell them he’d be there soon.
“Hello? Hello?” he shouted into the phone. His voice sounded strange, like somebody else’s, in the nocturnal wilderness.
“Hello!” came his sister’s familiar voice, then immediately broke off. He tried to call back but couldn’t get through—no signal.
“Oh well, I’ll get to an open area soon,” Kebedov thought, and pressed on the gas. Some indistinguishable nighttime creatures darted across the road ahead of him, then vanished in the darkness. A fox? Kebedov was startled and managed to brake in time. He had a random thought: Islam doesn’t prohibit eating fox meat. But, why was that? he wondered. Maybe because foxes don’t hunt with their fangs. With that type of animal—
But the thought was interrupted by a deafening boom, like thunder rolling in from afar. In a single deadly second, a portion of the cliff, which had slowly been loosening itself from the steel cables, fell and crushed the hood of Kebedov’s ill-fated car. A piece of metal rebar pierced his stomach. He cried out, and a little blood bubbled from his lips. Then he descended into yawning darkness.
It was noisy. A terrible noise that seemed to shred his eardrums. The rock had flown at Kebedov for an absurdly long time—what seemed like forever. Then, he had dropped down somewhere but resurfaced immediately into this unbearable scraping. One of his eyes was stuck shut by dust and dried blood, and he couldn’t unstick it. With the other, he just barely made out the sheen of his still-burning headlights on the pile of rocks that had fallen from above. A savage pain awoke stealthily deep inside him and began to toss about. He squinted at his wrist, which was jammed against the steering wheel. The glowing face of his watch, which appeared to have swollen to three times its normal size and drunkenly changed shape, said three in the morning. It hadn’t yet been midnight when he’d called his sister.
A scorching heat burned in Kebedov’s stomach and the drilling in his ears persisted. He tried to look down, but the soiled airbag was wedged against his chin. He moved his hands. The left one didn’t respond at all and the right one crawled jerkily, stiffly along the passenger seat, across the rocks that covered it. His half-numb fingers groped for his phone. A hospital? The closest one was an hour away. Maybe they could send a helicopter. Straining terribly, he unlocked his phone and, though at first his bloody fingers couldn’t find it, pressed the speed dial button for his sister.
There was no signal. Emergency calling should work, he thought, but it was becoming increasingly difficult to move his fingers. It was as though an enormous hammer had hit the crown of his head. The headlights grew stronger, swelling outward, and his stomach burned more than ever. Kebedov saw a glowing orb swimming in the darkness and flashes of light in the wobbly space around him. Images crowded his head. His deceased aunt, shining a mirror, sending splinters of sunlight darting about. His wife with a candle in her hands, young again, in a chintz robe, long-since discarded. Childhood and the country vegetable garden at night, dotted with huge fireflies. He’d heard on TV that the females flash their lights, imitating the pattern of another type of firefly, in order to attract unsuspecting males and then gobble them up—fluorescence. Humans had it, too. But a thousand times weaker than the eye could see.
The glowing spot drew closer, blinding Kebedov’s one good eye. “Who’s there?” he tried to ask, but only managed a squawk.
“Some mess you’re in, brother,” the spot of light said, clucking its tongue.
“He-elp,” Kebedov wheezed, summoning all his strength.
The spot shapeshifted and became a stranger. This man looked on in disbelief at the car’s shredded interior, casting a flashlight around and whispering an unintelligible prayer.
“My pho-one!” Kebedov wheezed, a little louder, fortified by hope. “Call! Over there! Reception! On the mountain—”
“It’s here, your ahir zaman—judgement day—yes. Va nauzubilliah . . .” the stranger continued his lamentation. Kebedov didn’t recognize him. Green skull-cap. Boyish face, stubble. A glass bottle in his left hand, water splashing in it. Water. He was thirsty. But just then the stranger drained the bottle, looked behind him, and, with a swing of his arm, threw it onto the road. The bottle shattered loudly against some unseen rock.
“For God’s sake,” Kebedov exhaled, the pain erupting slowly within him, “call someone. The hospital.”
The stranger seemed finally to understand. He got his phone out and began poking around on it.
“Up there! Recep-tion,” Kebedov said, staring dumbly into the darkness with his one watery eye. He remembered that if you went up past the fallen rocks—five or ten minutes on foot, tops—you’d reach an open field. There’d be a signal. Ten minutes, plus an hour for the ambulance to arrive. And there should be a paramedic in the village who’d help get him through. Just go up the hill and call. It was so close.
“I see, brother. You wanna be saved, right?” he heard the stranger say, through the noise gripping his head. “Want me to call the doctors?”
Whoever this stranger was, he was in no hurry and seemed to want to torment him. I think he actually took a picture of me, Kebedov thought, angrily.
“I feel sorry for you, brother, I do. You’re twisted up here, like a worm, and you think someone’s gonna save you,” the stranger said, smirking. “In the words of the prophet, sallalahu vallahi assalam, ‘The death which you flee will surely meet you. And afterward you will be returned to Allah Almighty, the knower of the Invisible and the Visible.’ It’s like they say: 'Think often of Death, who devours all pleasures—’”
“Ca-all,” Kebedov said, nearly choking on his own bitter-tasting blood and beginning to despair.
“Driving here, did you know you’d die today? That a rock would fall on you? A rock! Can’t you see it’s a sign? The prophet’s Ansaris—”
“I’m a-live,” Kebedov wheezed. “Call! Please, ca-all!”
He thought that he’d wake up at that point. That his arms and legs had fallen asleep. Maybe he had the flu. And now he was trapped in this nightmare. But he needed to do his best to wake up. His struggles with the mufti—no, if he could just wake up. But how? He’d cover his nose and mouth and try not to breathe. If he didn’t suffocate, then it must be a dream. Or he could look in the mirror. See how his reflection behaved. If it changed shape from second to second, then he was definitely asleep.
His watch! It should look peculiar. Show one hundred and two o’clock and eighty-two minutes. A star shape instead of a circle. People dancing. But, alas. His watch read three o’clock on the dot and looked the same as ever. Except that its outline quivered, as though it were lying at the bottom of a well and Kebedov was looking at it from above.
“You’re gonna see two angels now, all right? Munkar and Nakir. And they’ll ask you: ‘What do you know about the Prophet, salallahu vallahi assalam.’ And you say, ‘I know nothing.’”
“I’ll say, ‘bismil-lahirahma-nirahim…laila-ha-illa…lah Muhammad…rasulullah.’ Ca-all, for God’s sake! You’re Dage-stani, aren’t you?”
“You believe this guy?” the stranger said, flashing his teeth. “Says anything—just so I’ll return him to his sinful life. Thinks only of doctors. Not the Prophet, salallahu vallahi assalam—only himself.”
“The pro-ph . . .” Kebedov began, holding out his cellphone to the stranger imploringly. The stranger accepted it primly with two fingers, got a handkerchief from his pocket and began to meticulously wipe it clean of blood and dirt.
“My sis-ter . . .” Kebedov wheezed. “Ca-all! Are you . . . from here?”
“No, I’m no local,” the stranger said, shaking his head. “Well fine, fine. You’re a wacko, you know. I’ll call. But don’t think the angels won’t see through all this. They’re watching right now. You’re a faker, that’s what. Reciting the Shahada and thinking about the hospital. About carnal pleasures. Your wife and possessions, right? You think the angels don’t know? Think they’ll keep widening your grave until judgment day? That it’ll be nice and bright there? No! They’ll know you’re a rat. And they’ll command the earth: ‘Come together!’ and it’ll draw up, crushing your ribs. And you’ll writhe there until Allah, creator of all things, resurrects you.”
“Yes—” Kebedov began submissively, hoping the stranger would finally go call, but was too weak to finish. Through his clouded eye, he watched as the stranger dissolved into the darkness, and the wandering beam of his flashlight carried on, past the landslide, where reception and salvation lay. This man was clearly out of his mind. He wasn’t right. Perhaps a shepherd from a neighboring area. I am the gate for the sheep. And now, to wait.
Kebedov’s mouth was burning from dryness and thirst. His right arm was no longer responsive and he was overcome by weakness. He became agitated and his hopes were stifled by black, asphyxiating panic. Would the stranger return? Would he call? Would they arrive in time? And what lay within Kebedov, in that frightful mess of flesh? His land: His wife would never be able to hold the mufti off on her own. They’d take the shop. Would she ever have any grandchildren? At home, hidden in his nightstand, were photos from a co-worker’s birthday party. Bad photos—with some women they’d met at the seaside. His wife would find the photos and get the wrong idea. And just yesterday he’d paid a bribe at the office so that his nephew could get a job there. They might back-pedal now, deny it, claim they’d never received it to exact more.
The beaming flashlight danced back along the side of the road. Was time so condensed? Had the stranger already called and come back? He wished he’d kept track. Kebedov should have been delighted, but just then he became acutely aware of his shoulder blades. They cramped sharply and the pain, which until now had wavered timidly deep within him, grew and thrust itself violently and unceremoniously into his body, drilling him to bits. Kebedov gasped inaudibly, moaned, and, for a second, felt an almost joyful buoyancy before falling back into darkness. This time, forever.
The stranger approached and shined his flashlight into the car. Seeing that Kebedov’s soul had left his body, he shuddered, spat on the ground, and began to recite the Yasin. When he’d finished, he stood for a moment, then walked away. He’d already gotten rid of the dead man’s SIM card. The smartphone was nice—expensive. He planned to keep it as a talisman. To remember the night when Allah had shown him divine retribution. A sign. A true, irredeemable sinner. For who else would God crush with a fallen rock?
The stranger disappeared, and the beam of his flashlight drifted off with him. On the road in his car, beneath a pile of fallen rocks, Kebedov rested. Alarmed when he didn’t show up, a party of his relatives had already left the village in search of him. His wristwatch kept ticking. And in the bushes, a little fox rustled playfully.
© Alisa Ganieva. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Sabrina Jaszi. All rights reserved.
Questions of national and cultural belonging are at the heart of this poem by Danyil Zadorozhnyi.
Video: Danyil Zadorozhnyi reads "Letter to Ukraine" in the original Russian.
well, what are you anyway—waves?
or maybe particles—
this ain’t atoms, baby, piercing the air like pins,
freeing space from former
it’s poplar fuzz somewhere near granny’s place outside
of moscow, mosquito-bitten legs, genderless constellations like distant relations
who live past the city limits, skin ripped off an unpracticed hand
by the handle of a rusted ax, like the border between the word leave
and the concept of returning, like gps coordinates as far from home
as a cough is deep in the chest [where’s it from? where’s it going? what for?] and
runs, swings, stashes, orthodox singing by the cemetery
with the headstone shaped like a rocket, a stray dog sticking by your side and
beautiful black jeeps are parked in front of the church, bumper stickers proclaiming for rus!
on their rear windows; children
playing on the outskirts, children pitting life against death
like different kinds of insects, hiding in the bushes, made dangerous
by their desires
or their innocence, the eye of a kitten filling with pus,
the eye of the runt of the litter, the surface
of a crystalline lake
ripples like some special kind of matter, shifting into energy
in the milk-drenched pupils of the old man holding a fishing pole on the bank
—there’s no fish, but you’re allowed to drown
anything in there except yourself;
honey, chicory, a little wholesome food in the fresh air, solitude—gin, cognac—with granny,
family stories told again and again
to one another with other tears; may nights—
still cold—spent with fragmented news about the malaysian
boeing shot down four years ago in the sky above ukraine
[thoughtful people that we are, we’ll give due consideration
to the bellingcat reports, but won’t change our minds]—day
of sentsov’s hunger strike, news stories
about the brotherland; the informational field
is burnt, lifeless: the novoe velichie affair, tortured prisoners, journalists
killed in the central african republic and the world cup
as an illusion of world community—international domestic violence
and there’s nowhere to run to
if you’re the weaker state: what am i doing here is a question not of place
but form of existence
the same old pain
the process of alienation in this country
unfurls just the same, you’re just on the other side
of what alienates you back home. that’s just because you’re an emigrant
the people who live here reply, but what does migration have to do with it
if i’m telling them about something i’ve felt all my life
not just since i got here? the feelings of immigrant workers
from the nearby republics
can be encountered
pretty much anywhere
especially at home but
at times even inside yourself
from my other grandmother—the post-gender society
inside me—[whose death that winter
that almost never was was what was called a revolution, but the more i learn
and talk to people about what we mean by nation, patriotism, revolution,
the more i can understand them but the less i understand
what they’re talking about, the same word from another person’s lips is another word entirely,
to be understood and studied
again from the start; all this before or after, removing her body from the crimean peninsula
to bury it in ukraine’s tenth-largest cemetery, carrying her away from annexation—if she saw
all of this, she couldn’t have endured it, and inheriting her cat,
losing her apartment], and washing away the difference between her deceased and living
girlfriends, meeting for the nth time with those
who cannot remember me; the shirt i wear
of granny, and they call me by her name
[like her mother—in the last few months before she died, she talked
to all her former husbands, girlfriends, relatives,
children and grandchildren without getting out of bed and i answered her while i did my
homework beside her hoarsely breathing body, yes, good, sure, dear, trying to guess
who to answer her
who she’s thinking about
who she sees
so long as so many dead people and strangers
that i almost forget who i should remain
after the funeral is over; i hope i didn’t mix anything up
and there’s no other me besides me left over inside me]
and one of her girlfriends had a son that works at the fsb right there on petrovka
and his daughter
desperately wants to meet me, promising to visit after finals
who’s been hearing nonsense since she was a teenager about
i’m a journalist
and a poet
and i’ve still never been to the part of europe
the european union—
and that i arrived as suddenly
as birds returning unexpectedly in spring, forgetting
no more, you remember them, you herald
the thaw [ah, what a shame,
not this time] [i can’t wait for her father to finally think it might be time to meet me
and read my work but nothing will come of it, nobody here
in the final analysis
really cares, there’s no ideology here:
you see the antics those young ladies got up to at the final match? he asks, looking at his plate
they were trying to make a point . . . it was rather dull, of course . . . but on the whole i’m for it,
and we don’t see each other again]
about [ahem ahem]
how i’m a grown man now
and smoking is bad for you
and it’s about time i got married
and how’s that tattoo going to look when i’m old
[what if my grandchildren see it?
or my doctor asks about it?]
and [in]dependence is freedom
and that last one makes me shiver,
nothing to say about abstractions: individual rights and public security
and the relationship between those things
and the desire-production of power in russia
leaving one country
crossing the border
going out, going into another
mixing up directions, sides, light and twilight
trans[lat/it]ing from kiev to kyiv
[ i ] remain the same breach in my own understanding
of what i should do as a person who asks questions
and a person who writes, i hope, like a
and despite the fact that you’re my favorite
chordate [though sometimes i want to classify you as
beast independent from me,
an amusing critter in the hands of gods from the primate family hominidae
i tenderly nip the scruff of your neck
but still don’t understand:
well, what are you anyway—waves?
or maybe particles—
it’s not important; all that matters is you’re light.
A version of this poem appeared on the website of the Arkadii Dragomoshchenko Prize, a major award for young poets that Zadorozhnyi won in 2019. © Danyil Zadorozhnyi. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler and Reilly Costigan-Humes. All rights reserved.
Translator’s note: This is the final chapter of a semi-autobiographical but speculative novella. The protagonist is the only subject of an extremely high-profile research project: a celebrity professor of the “experimental humanities” has apparently attempted to transform her into an Ubermensch by harnessing her traumatic experiences as an immigrant and émigré.
The ninth and final chapter, which seems poised to take place a year later and in which I break into the G20 summit to deliver an untranslatable speech—though it is uncertain whether the individual in question is me or somebody else.
I won’t take up much of your time, I promise; it’s just that in this break between your discussions of the Ukrainian question, the Syrian question, the Caucasian question, and other major global issues, I’d like to command your attention for a moment and explain something—or, if you like, warn you about something. We all know that the era of deadlocked superpowers is over, so as you search for a new collective enemy to center your geopolitics, allow me to explain that your new enemy is me, and your new weapon of mass destruction is also me.
Don’t misunderstand me. When I say “me,” I mean “us”; that is, those whom others dismiss as “fitting raw material for a globalized context,” whose eyes burn with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and for whom Adderall or Ritalin is no object. Those who will speak to you in your language because they know five or seven or maybe even ten. Those who are so accustomed to wandering the globe that they would be perfectly comfortable setting up camp in a nondescript hotel to continue destroying the world you’ve built with your usual enemies—all while you still haven’t figured out how to fight us, and we can fight you by all possible means. Since we’ve been forged in the fire of globalization, we know all means are fair and we’re in this only for ourselves. Most importantly, we do not care. Right wing or left, West or East—all feel equally close and equally alien, and when you call us traitors to the Motherland, it doesn’t upset or offend us in the least. It’s the simple truth: you took what you call your Motherland from us and gave us nothing in return. So while nation-states fight over things of no interest to us, our interest is in empires of another kind, empires where nobody will ever accuse us of being rootless cosmopolitans.
Of course, I’m speaking from my own perspective and in my own language—the language I heard around me as a child. I am an export from my now-nonexistent global superpower—the only thing I feel indebted to, and I vow to repay my debt. I am the same sort of export as a Kalashnikov rifle or our great suicidal writers. Honestly, my product description is basically a combination of the two. However, I present myself on the global market as an intellect and sell myself as a brain, an object of desire on both sides of the Atlantic, and this hides my greatest potential and driving impetus: an insatiable desire for destruction, for myself and people like me to burn down everything not dear to us—that is, everything.
We’ve been prescribed the ecstasy of a brilliant position in life. But in reality, we’re the joker in the world’s deck, the outcasts of the globe. We have sublimated our energy into developing our intellect and willpower, our ability to go without sleep for days as we complete insurmountable tasks, our ability to smile at someone when we really want to punch them in the face, our capacity to keep going no matter what, teeth clenched, because winning is the only outcome that counts. Of course, I could go on and on, but you get the point, don’t you? These are the people who pose a threat to you. We are not like the generations that came before us, who complained about everything and did nothing. We are the sharp-fanged children of globalization. What do you say to that?
Oh no, don’t go thinking we’re planning a great conspiracy or a nuclear war. We don’t need any of that. There won't be a war; you’ll let us in yourselves. Just look at me: I’m smart, I’m wicked, and I’m charming, but in such a strictly controlled way, you could never think I’m not serious enough. And if you can somehow resist all that, then you’ll have no defense against the imprint of orphanhood and neglect on my face (and on my soul, of course, but you won’t see that because you don’t think I have one, or the ability to feel pain, happiness, despair, or love — as if!). That’s because no matter how much you may try to deny it, this imprint causes me infinite, unbearable pain that’s impossible to overcome, that drives me out of my mind and only dissolves when I destroy. And you know it’s your fault. Yours, Mr. President; yours, Madam Chancellor. And yours, my dear Prime Minister. And yours, too, of course, thank you for reminding me. I’m your orphan. We’re your mistake. And if you don’t know how many times a little girl has to cry uncontrollably on an airplane to keep a feeling of loss and separation from fading, to keep it from becoming a normalized, whimpering pain haunting the young woman who’s writing all this now—well, that’s not my problem; that’s your strategic error.
I was born and raised in a country where, once, there was no light and no hot water for two winters in a row, where people set their teapots to boil over bonfires and slept in their winter coats. And once, I watched a fourteen-year-old Russian muzhik (I wanted to say “boy,” but oh, no) beat another half to death with a crowbar over a pack of cigarettes. And then it fell to my lot to emigrate, and on the third day, while examining the ceiling of barrack number six from the top bunk of a steel bed and listening to Dante and Shakespeare decompose beyond the barbed wire of this camp for ethnically German refugees from Kazakhstan and all kinds of other New European rabble, I decided that all of you can go to hell. Because I won’t be a fifth-class citizen in a second-class era just because you said I would, and I’m not about to wait and see how many years it takes you to convince me. I’ll refute each emigration with another, and then another, and then I’ll turn that endless loss into a metaphor because tropes make a deeper impression on the soul than words do, that much I know—words and tropes are my profession. I’ll keep moving forever, never pausing for long in the snobby, cushioned atmosphere of Oxford, or the doll’s house that is Bamberg, or the fresh, cruel air of Grozny because now every parting strengthens my resolve and makes me an even more dangerous soldier for my division. And now I must thank America for the fact that, in this country, nobody sees me as alien because here, native and alien are the same thing. But I must warn you sincerely that even that is temporary, and dangerous, because I won’t be staying here or anywhere else. None of us will.
I apologize for distracting you from your efforts to solve these very important global problems. I just thought it would be worthwhile to point out the one problem you haven’t even thought of yet. Maybe I want you to destroy us before we raise our head; maybe five or ten years from now, it’ll be too late. Maybe I want us to lose because then we’ll all have a home, we’ll all have peace. Maybe I’m tired of accepting that pain is normal, that there is no pain. And yes, of course, I apologize for my tone. In the twentieth century, people had to scream about drugs and sex to be heard. We have our own words and our own threats, but we still have to borrow our intonation from Oxford professors and Bret Easton Ellis and perhaps even Pavlik Morozov (sorry, too soon) to force anyone to tear themselves away from the illusion of democracy, freedom of speech, and all that nonsense.
Do you have anything to say for yourselves?
From В Советском Союзе не было аддерола. Originally published in Druzhba Narodov in 2016. Subsequently published in 2017 by AST, edited by Elena Shubina. © Olga Breininger. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Hilah Kohen. All rights reserved.
Dinara Rasuleva questions received notions of home and national identity in this poem about her relationship to Russia.
Video: This video was created by the Russian-language, Berlin-based TV channel OstWest for a series called "Living Poets Society," which featured contemporary Russophone poets living in Germany. Used with permission from OstWest.
Listen to Dinara Rasuleva read "About Time to Smile at Homeless People" in the original Russian.
bike gears snatching a pant leg into their grip,
i don’t fall because i’m audacious like america,
because i’m as agile as youtube aerobics,
it’s just a shame about the pants, just a shame the pants ripped.
they offered me twice the work with no raise, and i took it
because i’m like russia—despairing, submissive,
because i’m as devil-may-care as great britain
and my tatar veins flow with suffering and pain,
every morning, i leak out and freeze, everything hurts,
even a miserable medieval serf would be shocked,
but i have to wake and walk and live life, ghostly as slovenia,
even food couldn’t ease this anemia.
yesterday, i went out to eat, and the people on the street asked me something inaudible,
i don’t smile at them because i’m rapacious like russia,
and you’d think after so long we’d all understand,
but i know some people who still love the motherland.
and i love her too, i had the volga there,
my cat’s scattered ashes, and they say there’s no better tvorog anywhere.
home is where the tvorog is, they say
but i don’t eat tvorog, so i’m down to stay away.
A Russian pop star’s strange encounter with an airport cleaning lady, cars falling from the sky, and a world-ending fire––three very short stories from Alla Gorbunova find the fantastical in the everyday.
Video: Alla Gorbunova reads "Oy Oy Oy" in the original Russian.
Oy Oy Oy
There’s a man lying down in a grave somewhere
With the same tattoos as me.
In the bathroom of the Krasnoyarsk airport, pop starlet Amanda, passing through on her tour, glanced accidentally at the cleaning schedule and froze: the cleaning woman’s signature corresponded precisely to her own, Amanda’s, signature. Every crook, every curl—it was all identical, as though Amanda herself had signed there. Amanda couldn’t understand how such a thing was possible, and that very same day she hired a private investigator to find out every detail about this cleaning woman. The following morning, the investigator told Amanda that the cleaner’s name was Lyudmila Pashkevich; she was forty-four years old, uneducated, lived in workers’ housing in the Sovetsky neighborhood of Krasnoyarsk, and there was nothing special about her. Plus, on top of all that, she had a harelip. Amanda the starlet just about calmed down, but then the investigator produced copies of all of the cleaning woman’s official documents, including a job application she had written out by hand, and to her horror Amanda saw that Lyudmilla Pashkevich’s handwriting was precisely the same as her own. All of which made Amanda somewhat uneasy. Like a thorn in her heel, this cleaning woman tormented her. After all, she had been doing just fine, recording songs, visiting her cosmetologist and tanning salon, dating her boyfriend, and knowing no woe—and now there was Pashkevich.
Amanda tried to put the woman out of her mind—No, no, I have nothing in common with her, what’s a signature, what’s someone’s handwriting. Just a coincidence. It happens—she told herself. Her concert went well, though she did not perform her newest song. No one in the world had heard it yet; Amanda had written it only recently and intended to return to Moscow and record it in the studio. It went like this: “I love you and you love me / we’re together finally / you’re my joy / oy oy oy.” Amanda was going to dedicate the song to her boyfriend.
Waiting for her return flight after the concert, Amanda decided to go into the airport bathroom. You don’t scare me, Pashkevich, she thought, though at the idea of the bathroom her heart began to beat strangely. I know everything about you, you’re a poor lonely woman with no education and a harelip. The bathroom was sunk into a glimmering twilight, and when Amanda entered, all the noise of the airport faded. In the bathroom, a woman with a harelip was washing the floor, stooped over as she dragged a rag across the tiles, and she was singing “oy oy oy!” to the tune of Amanda’s song. “What’s that you’re singing?” Amanda mumbled. “Oy oy oy!” sang the woman, almost viciously, then looked up at Amanda with cloudy gray eyes: “It’s a song, see” —and went on scrubbing the floor.
Amanda flew to Moscow. Life lost its colors for her: recording, performing, trips, clubs, boyfriend, cosmetologist, tanning salon, shopping, whatever else she had loved—all of it turned out to be a trick, a lie, because somewhere in eastern Siberia there lived a woman with a harelip and Amanda’s handwriting, her signature, her song. Amanda’s entire life was ruined, poisoned, revealed to be a hoax, someone’s cruel joke. One day, Amanda threw herself out of a window, nobody knew why. At her funeral there was a woman with a harelip no one recognized. She stood there for a while, then went away.
* * *
Act of Nature
N was walking down the street one day when, at the intersection of Leninsky Boulevard and Zina Portnova Street, he saw something strange in the sky. At first he thought it was a plane preparing to land; Pulkovo Airport was nearby. But then he looked more carefully, and it wasn’t a plane at all, but a car flying through the sky, pretty high up there, really small, but you could see that it was a car. N spat on the street and decided it was a plane anyway.
Next evening, N was walking down the street again, got to the intersection of Leninsky and Zina Portnova, and again saw something strange in the sky. He saw––you guessed it––a car. As was his custom, N spat and decided it was a plane anyway. He walked a little farther on Leninsky, toward the Semya supermarket. But then he heard a peculiar sound, turned around, and saw a car falling from the sky to the ground. And crashing. All the other cars on the street began honking; the drivers jumped out, pointing up at the sky. Shitshow, thought N, and kept going.
He stopped by the Semya supermarket, came out with a little sack, and slowly headed back. But now the intersection was full of cops, ambulances, rescue vehicles. Traffic had completely stopped, people were running down the sidewalks in a panic, watching the sky. Meanwhile in the sky, cars were appearing one after the other, emerging from the sky’s dark void to the southwest, tracing an arc, and plummeting. Some of them crashed, turning into piles of metal, others for some reason landed very neatly, as though on airbags, and drove off. But they couldn’t drive very far, because the cops and rescue services stopped them.
N went up to a cop on the sidewalk and asked him what was going on. “What we have here,” the cop said, “are cars falling from the sky, creating a public disturbance.” “But why,” said N, “aren’t they all crashing?” “Cause not yet established,” said the cop. Meanwhile, two other cops bring over a young man who had been in a car that just made a smooth landing from sky to pavement. “This,” they report, “is so-and-so, twenty-nine years old, his Volkswagen just landed, this is the license plate.” “What were you doing in the sky, for what purpose did you land here?” asks the senior cop. “I was just coming back from Tallinn,” said the young man, “I spent the weekend there, so I’m driving down the highway, it’s dark all around, then I look and see that all the other cars have disappeared somewhere and I’m driving in the sky, so I drove like that for a little while, and then I started going lower and lower, and then I landed here. And this is a real dumpster fire, and you should let me get home to my mom.” All the other survivors said about the same thing. That evening, more than fifty cars fell out of the sky, and eleven of them made it.
N went home, feeling a little off on account of all this, but that was okay: he boiled up some dumplings, drank a little vodka, 200 grams, calmed down, and went online to see what people were saying about it all. On various internet forums, people were arguing: some were writing things about UFOs, some about devils, others about a special new technology for making flying cars. Other people were saying it was a false flag operation planned by special forces. At which point, N registered for a forum and wrote: it was an act of nature.
* * *
Strings and strands of hair catch fire, eyes and eyelashes catch fire, it happened this morning, this afternoon, tonight. The fabric of the sky has turned from crimson to crocus—not fabric but Flemish lace, linen yarn stitched up into the air by golden-haired Godelieve in the old city of Bruges. There’s a movie about two killers in that town, eternally medieval, with its stone towers and spires, wooden bridges, chiming clock, town hall, museums, and breweries. And all of this is burning.
It’s different here. Petersburg autumn, sunset kindled over the Admiralty Shipyard, or the early dawn of two celestial bodies at once—the moon and the sun. They’re both in the sky at this hour: the moon pours out its pale green, pre-dusk. Over the fields around Pulkovo Airport planes descend slowly, blinking their lights, and a young man and woman have driven into those fields, turned off-road, parked, taken a blow-up bed and bottle of wine out of the trunk. Meanwhile the sun is already rising, spilling forth the dawn, and the world stands bemused by these two luminaries, as though they aren’t supposed to be there together, as though they’re a divorced couple.
The dissolving dawn dissolves distance, scatters its rays like a spawning fish, and the world steams in them, weightless. The city in the distance steams, the planes in the sky are steaming, the buildings of the observatory in the tall grass, and maybe some butterflies that haven’t yet frozen. More than anything else, I love that smell—smoke carried on the wind, coal smoke, in which you recognize a mixture of every other smell: the scraped knees of childhood, pain and desire, patchouli and oak moss, wormwood and citrus, sand and asphalt, automobile resin, benzine, cut grass and coffee, wine and vanilla. An aching, unrelenting, irretrievable smell, the smell of everything—the smell of the world ending in the fire.
… As in disaster films, they’ll step out of their cars, they’ll leave them behind in the traffic jams on major and minor avenues; maybe, following film logic, they’ll begin to dance. They’ll dance embraced by tongues of flame, they’ll spin like dervishes and lash the air with whips of fire. I’ve been told about a woman from Kyiv who was never interested in doing anything, not since she was a child—not reading, not playing with toys, not thinking, not speaking, not spending time with other people—only spinning like a top around her own axis, like a Sufi. So she spun and spun, and then she learned to spin with torches, and she left Kyiv and went to Goa and now she spins there. Kyiv burns, and Goa also burns. Millions of fiery dervishes with burning torches spin around their own axes.
Children run out of the schoolhouse onto the terrace, this is cooler than summer vacation, little whirls of electricity dance by their sides. Each gesture leaves a fiery trace in the air. How slow to ignite are time, space, motion, and matter. Teenagers climb up to the roofs to watch the glow of the world. Old man Indyukov, sick with tuberculosis, lisping and mean, goes out on his balcony too, to spit at the world one last time. The gob comes out precise, crimson with a black center-wormhole––tobacco and blood––like a poppy flower.
The planes above Pulkovo are on fire, the moon burns, and so does the nearby Gulf of Finland, as though oil had been spilled into it, virgin soil burns, the president burns in the Kremlin. Food—that’s fire, baby, water—that’s fire, baby—a Black man with dreads on the Nevsky Prospect sings and drums. Earth is fire. Air is fire. On Liteyny Prospect costumed Indian princesses with bare bellies sing and dance, and Sufis in the desert of Palace Square recite poems about the exultation of the atoms. Cell membranes turn to blistering plasma, cytoplasm turns to flame. LCD displays melt in the running heat.
On fire are conjunction, disjunction, implication, the sacrifice of meaning in poetry, the incitements of language, the body, and music. All mirrors break, all images are holy. The waterfalls of worlds are born and burn in the chaotic fluctuations of the foam of the universe. From now on there will be no more strong and weak, master and slave, beauty and beast, division of being in reason, word and thing, form and content, thought and sign, holy hierarchy, enlightened monarchy, liberal democracy, or whatever else. Only the waterfalls of the burning worlds, the cleansing flame, ekpyrosis.
From Ings & Oughts. © Alla Gorbunova. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Elina Alter. All rights reserved.
Personal and interior worlds bleed into everyday experiences in these three short poems by Ksenia Zheludova.
Listen to Ksenia Zheludova read "an age-old female pastime" in the original Russian.
an age-old female pastime: bringing home in one’s hem
gossip, scents, fiction, tenderness, children.
walk in a long skirt in the darkness and the void
and you’ll begin to recount the hard lot of women:
nothing to bring except the shadow, scorched into the wall,
except the letter curled to ash in its cover.
and so you walk in the dark up to your knees in death,
up to your ankles in war.
Listen to Ksenia Zheludova read "you bring him some tenderness" in the original Russian.
you bring him some tenderness in your narrow palms,
cupped to form a fragile, trusting hollow;
he lightly slaps your proffered hands away and snickers;
no, of course it doesn’t hurt, oh please, this couldn’t possibly hurt;
tenderness shatters to smithereens.
one single habit, just one, you need more than air:
learn to stand, or walk slowly, do not run headlong,
so that later nothing stings in the way scraped knees or elbows sting,
so that later you don’t suffer from a sticky, loose-lipped memory,
or burn with shame, shooting glances as you run.
the most horrible things, remember this, are incremental,
in the everyday, are discussed over a late lunch,
worm their way into the course of events unnoticed;
so—no, you won’t be able to scream or sob
upon seeing that name in a chronicle of our times.
this is how a much-loved book—or a book half-read—
is left behind on a rain-sodden bench in a park;
this is how earrings are lost while you kiss;
this is how a bracelet considered a talisman, a good-luck charm
one day finds another wrist:
ever so slightly big on you, but for that other hand, a perfect fit.
Listen to Ksenia Zheludova read "sometimes I simply know" in the original Russian.
sometimes I simply know:
all of us have a hive inside
full of monotonous, measured humming
and the scent of wildflower honey.
I ended up with a wasp nest,
overgrown with rusty ribs,
all the wasps cold and dead.
the last one fled down my throat
and is still alive only
because there it stayed:
© Ksenia Zheludova. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Josephine von Zitzewitz. Photos © Ksenia Zheludova. All rights reserved.
Translator’s note: As the Russian-Ukrainian war was launched in 2014, Xenia Emelyanova posted this recording of herself reciting this poem to the Facebook page of an antiwar activist. It was an act of great personal bravery.
Destined from birth.
What’s destined from birth?
That when they took you from your mother mucus-covered, dove-colored,
somewhere up there, in the heavenly spheres, it’s already known
where you’ll lay your head forever.
And while the blood still pulses in your soft fontanele,
you’ve already become that person
destined from birth.
What the hell’s destined?
What does birth mean?
It’s your ancestors, all their sins, their genes, their souls,
blood and sweat,
it’s your people.
It’s our faces in the church crowd, Lord,
It’s us, Your flesh and blood, from a single root,
in a single language praying to You: woe,
woe so terrible there’s nothing worse,
even we can’t bear it, submissive though we are.
Evil, black-hearted, blind,
death’s begun to whistle again.
Our own “Hailstorms” and “Hurricanes” fired on our people,
hair standing on end from the news.
How many children, Lord, have we buried this winter,
how many will we bury still?
Help us find our strength, lift up our heads,
throw off the devil’s yoke.
Enough of their butchery, enough baring our backs for their brand!
Give us the will to act, we’re up to our knees,
up to the seventh generation in blood—we’ve already redeemed our guilt.
It’s time to shake off death and impotence,
stop the slaughter, stop the war.
© Xenia Emelyanova. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Katherine E. Young. All rights reserved.
Poet and translator Galina Rymbu speaks with the editor Ilya Danishevsky about the place of poetry, mass media, and literary texts in today’s Russia.
Ilya Danishevsky, a writer whose work blurs the boundary between poetry and prose, is also one of the best-known (and youngest) literary editors in Russia. He had his own alternative publishing project, Anhedonia, at the leading publishing house AST from 2015 to 2019. In addition, he is the literary editor of the general-interest magazine Snob and curates the literary program at Moscow’s Voznesensky Center.
Danishevsky’s first novel, Nezhnost’ k mertvym (Tenderness for the Dead), was published in 2014 by the radical publishing house Opustoshitel (The Ravager). The book is a fable about how violent life would be if it were a video game, exploring how the violence and the endless, pointless restarts would affect our humanity; the implication being, of course, that our actual lives are indeed affected by violence and endless, pointless returns-to-zero.
His second book, Mannelig v tsepyakh (Mannelig in Chains), was published by Poryadok slov (Word Order) in 2018. A hybrid of prose and free verse, it is part memoir, part psychoanalysis session, part confession, and part journey narrative (the poetic chapters call back to the Odyssey: “The Lotus-Eaters,” “The Laestrygonians,” “Circe,” etc.). A recurring question in the book is how we live with violence, both that which we commit and that which we suffer. Ukrainian and German translations are forthcoming in 2021.
In a 2019 interview for Russia’s Year of Literature program, Galina Rymbu spoke with Danishevsky about the place of mass media and literary texts today, the “impromptu reader,” poetic modes of diagnosing reality, and poetic languages that create a “parallel social media feed.”
Rymbu’s questions were translated by Helena Kernan, who has translated Rymbu’s poetry for Ugly Duckling Presse, Modern Poetry in Translation, and the F-Letter anthology of contemporary Russian feminist verse; Danishevsky’s responses were translated by Anne O. Fisher. Fisher and co-translator Alex Karsavin are bringing Danishevsky’s book Mannelig in Chains into English with support from the University of Exeter’s RusTrans project (read more here).
* * *
Rymbu: In one of your previous interviews, you said that “in Russia, two different cultures continue to co-exist: the official and the unofficial. The former hides the latter from the reader, which means that the majority of the most interesting work out there is not widely read. (This is also because it doesn’t fit easily into publishing formats.)” Does this mean that you are trying to reinvent those formats specifically for unofficial culture?
Danishevsky: Is this a question about popularizing unofficial culture? If it is, then I don’t want to do exactly that, or rather I don’t see that as my mission. At some point, unofficial culture is bound to become our only culture (although it already is, essentially), but at the same time, there’s a certain charm in being constantly reminded of unofficial culture, isn’t there? A certain charm in the way that, every time, you can rehearse that same problem of whether I—or you, or the next person—want to restore that culture’s prescribed status; and I’m not convinced it’s a good idea to solve this problem so definitively, to zero out that charm.
Rymbu: Anhedonia [saw] itself as a project dedicated to researching institutions of violence and oppression in contemporary Russia. How do you personally carry out research on violence without aestheticizing it?
Danishevsky: The boundaries are porous, probably. To be honest, I like the nightmares and painful memories of psychotherapy: retelling something, communicating it to the world, is always partially aestheticizing it, as you choose your metaphors or describe the colors and stage set of your painful experience. But at some point, the process of elaborating the details also destroys fear. Yes, I like scary stories for their capacity to develop your resistance. There’s hardly a text out there that’s (subjectively) scarier than anything in our past, anything we can see out on the street.
Rymbu: Part of your publishing work [in Anhedonia revolved] around contemporary Russian political journalism. Why is it important to collect this journalism in book-length format and tell stories about the work of different media sources? After all, we see these texts every day . . .
Danishevsky: We don’t see them, we see the way they replace each other, the way they dissolve into the depths of our social media feed. Many media outlets repost their important stories again after a certain amount of time has passed. Publishing journalism collections is a way of prolonging the resonance of certain words. Publishing books of poetry is similar: I see poems every day in my feed, but the only way to read them properly is in a slowed-down state.
Rymbu: You coordinate the literary section of Snob. What goals are you pursuing there? How effective can a literary text be when it is embedded in online media?
Danishevsky: The same ones I am pursuing when I work with books. We don’t know how the literature of the past will be read in the future, whether we’ll be studying physical books or traces in the internet; by then, possibly (probably), there won’t be any difference.
Snob provides an impromptu reader for texts like these. I don’t think anything’s going to happen to the actual text itself, it’s just that when you publish something in, let’s say, [the online poetry journal] Polutona, you pretty much don’t think you might encounter the kind of reader who is repulsed by the basic foundations of your poetics, although surely Polutona does have this kind of reader.
Rymbu: Which projects and authors are important to you as a writer in terms of your own literary dialogue?
Danishevsky: It’s obvious that what Dmitry Volchek––[the creator of Mitin zhurnal (Mitin’s Magazine), which started as a samizdat magazine in 1985 and has continued to publish new, alternative voices to this day, and the Kolonna (Column) publishing house, which merged with Mitin zhurnal in 2002 to publish books of cultural critique from all over the world)]––is doing is important to me. At some point, it was a very long time ago now, I read Gabrielle Wittkop’s Chaque jour est un arbe qui tombe, and then I reread Chaque jour est un arbe qui tombe, and although that text was hardly intended to be a diagnostic tool, it answered a couple of very big questions I’d had since I was little: there is only fucking and god, the rest is redundant.
Vozdukh [Air, an alternative poetry journal founded by Dmitry Kuzmin in 2006 that was one of the first venues for LGBTQ poets] is important to me, but in a strange way: I don’t think I’ve ever actually read it cover to cover, and I’m more interested in reading the reviews than the poems. But one time, when I did go ahead and try to read it straight through, beginning to end, I kept finding myself coming up against either boredom or a failure to understand. And that barrier, between boredom and a failure to understand, is one I always felt to be a dialogue. We are usually closed off in our own tight little clusters where we read things and argue about the most trivial differences of opinion; I don’t know any other journal that so manifestly confronts the reader’s little world with reality. Reality (unfortunately?) is varied.
Rymbu: Anhedonia has published poetry collections by Maria Stepanova and Oksana Vasyakina. Collections by Konstantin Bogomolov and Lev Oborin are being prepared for publication. Elena Fanailova is also gathering material for her book. Why did you decide to publish poetry?*
Danishevsky: It seems to me—perhaps naively—that poetry has the ability to examine things in a maximally authentic way. This could be because it must continually reinvent itself and its language. Also because it seeks less to operate than to diagnose. These texts do not set themselves the task of immediately transforming reality; even the most politicized speech simply observes and discusses what it saw. What’s very important to me, in addition to the spiritual projects of poetry (which include resisting the world at every turn), is that its testimony be nonviolent.
And take, for instance, a discussion of love, a discussion in which it’s impossible to use dishonest words. After all, in nonfiction, we definitely don’t talk about love as living matter, or if we do, then we do it the way we do in prose: we talk about the external barriers that either serve as antimatter or simply intrude into it. In poetry, language about love is capable of expressing the very matter it describes.
Rymbu: In general, what makes a poetry collection viable for publication with a big commercial publishing house?
Danishevsky: And what makes a poetry collection viable for publication at a little niche publishing house?
Rymbu: How do you see the institution of contemporary literature? It’s clear that over the past few years, everything has changed. And you are involved in curatorial projects as well as publishing; you run the literary program at the Voznesensky Center and recently helped organize a reading in support of the Khachaturyan sisters [three young women charged with murder for killing their serially abusive father]. What do you identify as the aims of contemporary literature when it comes to a nonliterary audience? Is your project about popularizing contemporary literature?
Danishevsky: The reading in support of the Khachaturyan sisters was not held to promote the poetry that was read there. It was an attempt to give words materiality and weight. It was about being responsible for your words, it wasn’t about constructing poetic hierarchies; anyone who wanted to could perform. There was no literary curation there; there couldn’t have been any literary curation there.
The purpose of the Voznesensky Center is to tell a (hi)story in the language of multiple media, and when we’re talking about literature, it’s more likely to be the (hi)stories of authors than the (hi)stories of texts. We talk frequently about how authors are inseparable from their texts. And although I as a reader am capable of keeping them separate, I as a curator see the authors’ responsibility to their texts. To a large extent, this isn’t the story of good and bad texts, it’s the story of what conditions texts might be created under today; with what urgency, in reaction to what; and how texts differ from other everyday practices.
For me, whether a poetic discourse is contemporary is determined not only by the conversation going on inside that discourse about current political and social problems, but also by the extent to which it overcomes linguistic and formal inertia.
Rymbu: To what extent do you think contemporary Russian poetry has been successful in overcoming this inertia? And can you name some poetic practices that are important for you in this sense?
Danishevsky: They’re poetic practices that, despite the ambient informational and political noise, have found a language that is able to interrupt the notifications, able to break up the homogeneity of your newsfeed-as-worldview and create a parallel, alternative one. Anna Glazova, Lida Yusupova, and Lolita Agamalova are all doing this in completely different, individual ways.
Rymbu: This year, you were tasked with nominating poets for the Arkady Dragomoshchenko Prize [an annual award organized by the publishing house and cultural platform Poryadok slov]. Last season, you were shortlisted for the same prize. How do you feel about literary prizes in general? Are they necessary today?
Danishevsky: In many ways, I feel they’re a compulsory part of the profession. Refusing to participate, however, also comes across as an excessively radical gesture, one that doesn’t reflect my actual attitude. I understand what it means to be in the position of a nominator, but at the same time, I don’t really understand what it means to be in the position of a finalist. It doesn’t add anything to my words. But this is most likely my own failure to understand the significance of the distribution of power in the literary field (also, there’s never been a time when an award decision changed my mind about other people’s texts). Apparently, the open call that was introduced by the award management this year is solving this problem and transforming the award into a way of finding something new, not a way of reinforcing verticalization (I say this because I want to believe it, but I don’t believe it’s quite there yet).
Rymbu: You have written volumes of both poetry (Mannelig in Chains) and prose (the novel Fondness for the Dead) that have earned you a place on the shortlist of several literary prizes. To what extent do you personally feel integrated into the contemporary literary community?
Danishevsky: I don’t know whether that context actually exists. We probably exist in the same Facebook cluster where we like identical kittens and dogs, sign identical petitions, and, on the whole, experience the same strong emotions. I never felt that this was a community, or that I was part of this community, but at the same time, nobody else I spoke with about this ever felt that they were part of this community either. It seems that today this sense of “community” is to some degree an optical bug created by social media feeds.
It’s the same as how you called Mannelig a poetic work. For me, it’s not.
*The implication of Rymbu’s question is why did Danishevsky decide to include poetry among the works of journalism and cultural criticism he selected for Anhedonia? In what way was poetry able to contribute to Anhedonia’s project? Since, after all, this is an unusual combination for a single small imprint, to publish Zizek along with prominent Russian journalists along with poetry. But the uniting factor is the examination of institutions that promote or allow violence and oppression.
In mentioning the names, Rymbu is highlighting the contrast between the schools of poetry Danishevsky chose for Anhedonia. Award-winning poet and fiction writer Maria Stepanova (b. 1973) is an established literary voice, while Oksana Vasyakina (b. 1989) is a new feminist activist poetess. Konstantin Bogomolov (b. 1975) is a major mainstream (some would say conservative) theater director from whom one might not expect a book of poems, while Lev Oborin (b. 1987) is an actively oppositional poet and critic. Elena Fanailova (b. 1962) is a major Russian poet. For accuracy’s sake, it should be noted that the last book in Danishevsky’s Anhedonia series was published in February 2019, and this inverview was published in June 2019; Bogomolov’s and Oborin’s books both ended up coming out with a different imprint in AST, while AST did not publish Fanailova’s book.
First published in GodLiterature.RF. © 2019 by Galina Rymbu. By arrangement with the author. Translations © 2021 by Anne O. Fisher and Helena Kernan. All rights reserved.
The ongoing collaboration between Sibhatu and Naffis-Sahely confirms my belief that the connection between poet and translator is a lifetime commitment, to grow and write and think together.
Last year, I was asked by an American editor to submit a selection of my poems for an anthology of contemporary Arabic poetry. “Self-translations are not allowed,” came her disclaimer, predicated on the assumption that a poet is effectively monolingual, and reinforcing a modern understanding of translation, and by extension other cultural practices, to be neutral and objective. “We think self-translation poses a threat to the art of translation,” she added. As I come close to completing a decade in American exile, I have accumulated many examples of how monolingualism enacts the violent politics of the publishing industry and its literary apparatus––“self-translations are not permitted,” publishers and magazines declare on their submission pages with no effort to embrace the multilingual possibilities of a contemporary American literature. It pushed me to embark on a search for “poet-translators,” whose practice does not separate writing from translation and who often don’t even deploy the term “self-translation,” as they have come to realize that the author and the translator are inseparable.
Now at this distance, having understood the racist nature of monolingualism in the literary context, I find myself in the company of a nation of multilingual poets and translators––from Western pre-modernists like Goethe and Pessoa and Rilke to the émigré writers of modern and contemporary literatures. One would think that our literary conceptions and visions would adapt in light of mass displacement being the new norm–that publishing practices, whether editorial or translation-based, would work on expanding what is a national literature, or do without it altogether. However, the gatekeepers continue to guard the rusting gates, while the poet-translators make their attempts to jump in through the windows.
Ribka Sibhatu and André Naffis-Sahely are two such versatile literary artists. Sibhatu is an Eritrean poet and activist who writes in Italian, Tigrinya, Amharic, and French. She has been fighting Isaias Afwerki’s dictatorship at home, writing poems that imagine diaspora as the hands of a nation, and reclaiming refugee literature from its ghettoization to create a promise for a new literature. For Sibhatu, the refugee is the so-called “renaissance man” who has crossed landscapes, lived multiple lives, shed tongues, and acquired new ones. With such ethos, Sibhatu writes each of her poems, against linearity, against frontiers, and against amnesia.
The way Naffis-Sahely kick-started his translation work with Sibhatu helped orient him to use translation as a way of trespassing the arbitrary boundaries of national literatures.Tweet
It is no coincidence that Naffis-Sahely found Sibhatu’s poems, becoming the first to introduce her work to English readers. He grew up in Abu Dhabi with an Iranian father and Italian mother before his family was exiled from the emirate, but his maternal country was not any welcoming either, facing him with xenophobia. When encountering Sibhatu’s work, Naffis-Sahely discovered himself as a literary translator––seeing the possibility of another Italy, narrated and inhabited by the strangers within. In 2011, Andre was asked to translate Sibhatu’s poems for an Italian documentary film. Twenty titles later, Naffis-Sahely has now finally been able to publish his English translation of Sibhatu’s work.
Reading Aulò! Aulò! Aulò! (ኣውሎ! ኣውሎ! ኣውሎ!) released this year by the Poetry Translation Center in London, I felt jealous of this perfect poet-translator pairing. They both talk about how their friendship over the past decade has been built around the multilingual poems contained in this collection, which Sibhatu sometimes translated into Italian, before Naffis-Sahely presents them in his English productions. Their ongoing collaboration confirms my belief that the connection between poet and translator is a lifetime commitment, to grow and write and think together. The translator worked on these poems over years of their friendship, embracing the multilingual capacity of Sibhatu’s work, rather than viewing it as an obstacle. This is reflected in the chronology of the book, its multiple themes, as well as in the variety of styles and themes. In this sense, translation plays an active role in servicing the vision of the refugee poet who is not afraid to live and move between two worlds. When looking at the titles Naffis-Sahely translated from Italian and French over the past decade, we see pre-modern and modern European names, as well as contemporary writers from Morocco, Algeria, Eritrea, and Cameroon. The way Naffis-Sahely kick-started his translation work with Sibhatu helped orient him to use translation as a way of trespassing the arbitrary boundaries of national literatures.
Sibhatu is not only a multilingual poet, she also insists on an “archaic” usage of the Tigrinya alphabet, which is uncommon among Eritrean writers. She explains in an interview with another exiled Eritrean writer, Abraham T. Zere, that she did not study Ge’ez script and taught herself Tigrinya as she was learning Amharic in school. Sibhatu never seems concerned about the linguistic accessibility of her work or having to mediate and negotiate with the reader. She explains to Zere that without the archaic alphabet, their connection to their ancestors (their canon, stories, songs, powers) will be lost.
The ancestral question is at the center of Sibhatu’s work, in her choice of language, genre, and form. She examines it at different points and in varied directions, sometimes as the exiled writer dreaming of a lost egalitarian society (“the sycamores”, as she calls it), as the diasporic daughter out of touch with her language and history, or as the comrade in grief for those imprisoned and killed. In her gorgeous poem “How African Spirits were Born,” she writes a fable that subverts the classic story of two feuding brothers dividing their kingdom to instead become a story of origins, or rather epistemological origins, when the kings split the world into two halves: the material and the metaphysical. As such, Sibhatu hints from afar––from her distant modern place––at this rupture caused by greed and oppression, which have cost humans their wholeness, their connection to the past, and their ancestral companions.
Similarly, in “The Exact Number of Stars,” Sibhatu writes another fable about a king who orders his village men to murder their fathers. A call that frighteningly resembles the postcolonial proposal to break away from the past for the promise of progress. However, one man in the village decides to hide his father, which then saves the entire village. With every impossible test given to them by the king, the hidden father saves the village from the king’s punishment with his wisdom. The fable-poem here too becomes another testament to the power of memory, without which survival is impossible.
In “African Grandmothers,” Sibhatu writes about a girl called Sara who is burdened by her alienation as a girl born in disapora, her lack of tools and means: “She spends all her time/ at home and school reading/ or asking how the earth was made.” She is the wanderer born into a strange world, she cuddles with the cats and dogs, admires the distant moon, “seeing that god/ won’t answer/ her questions, Sara/ wants me to give her/ the names and/ the surnames/ of our African grandmothers/whom Darwin declined/ to mention in his book.” This powerful poem, about the daughter and her exiled mother, contemplates the possibility of diaspora as lineage, and the loneliness and the difficulty of such a prospect, especially at the heart of Darwin’s land.
The poem’s vulnerability is striking. I haven’t encountered such text that captures, on such an intimate level, the question of exile and diaspora. It is moving how Sibhatu is able to leave her place to look at the world, in its full foreignness, with a girl’s eyes, before reconnecting a daughter and mother with their grandmothers in the face of a world that has long diminished their existence. Sibhatu allows us to see the diasporic daughter making something out of her incompleteness, her lacking, her unanswered questions.
But she is never entirely romantic or sentimental in her treatment of these microrelations. In “Virginity,” she writes in a journalistic yet humorous style about an important man who wanted to marry her after finding out that his bride was not a virgin and abandoning her. Sibhatu opens the poem with the line “For a bride, her virginity is just as important as her eyes, if not more so” and goes on to play on this connection between sight and virginity. This poem celebrates a heroic act, inherently feminist, in which the poet foresees that she must compromise either her honor, and by extension her family’s, or her own freedom and well-being. Knowing that her father might set her up for an arranged marriage, she lies to the man and says she is not a virgin either. Sibhatu writes: “Children greatly fear the might of their parents’ curses.” Thus, the poem takes away the romance of family, repositioning the individual woman at the center of her survival, while still capturing the fragility of the loved ones who might betray her.
With poems such as “Virginity” or “My Abebà,” about Sibhatu’s friend who died in the prison under dictatorship in Eritera, “Prison Cells,” or even her most famous poem “Lampedusa,” which captures the moment when more than five hundred migrants, many of whom were Eritrean, drowned off the shore of the island of Lampedusa, I am reminded of the poem “The Idea of Ancestry” by Etheridge Knight. In Knight’s vision, which unfolds as the speaker lays in his prison bed, the ancestors are already impossible to memorialize, and in light of this rupture in lineage, they are realized as a fiction rooted in intimacy, in the cousins who share the same name, some far away, some close and alive, and others who have gone missing and unmentioned. It is an idea, and therefore, the pursuit of a lifetime, something that Sibhatu is well aware of and goes to explore, at home and in diaspora, and sometimes in the bleak places in between.
“Lampedusa” shows us the kind of multiplicity that Sibhatu possesses as a refugee writer. Across her poems, she builds on ancient fables, evokes biblical cries, and sometimes plays the old role of the poet as a public mourner. In one interview, Sibhatu admits how she used to believe in the separation between these “political” stories or issues and art, but while in exile, she has learned otherwise––that the label of “refugee writing” is meant to introduce her as an “exotic survivor” (to borrow from James Baldwin), and to reduce her story to a matter of one crossing journey, with no past or future.
The truth is that the refugee today is the new traveler, the new clandestine, the new flâneuse, and her story goes beyond death and survival; it is one of human triumph, to recreate the self, to hold a multitude, to speak in one’s mother tongue, or in “stepdaughters”, as Sibhatu describes her five languages. In “Lampedusa,” the poet uses the true story of a woman who drowned while giving birth to masterfully merge the events of death and birth, the ululations of the boat companions fly in celebration and commemoration––it is that human wholeness which was long lost when the two brothers split our world into halves.
This month, WWB took a look back at some of the important writing on race and racism to be found in the magazine's archives. In the wake of 2020's racist violence, and subsequent organizing by the Black Lives Matter movement and others to combat white supremacy, literary magazines and publishers everywhere have, to differing degrees, made efforts to publish more Black writers. But as some Black writers and editors have pointed out, it is equally as important that we evaluate the assumptions and practices behind these initiatives.
US-based translator Aaron Robertson, Mozambique-based publisher Sandra Tamele, and Haiti-based writer Évelyne Trouillot write on the meaningful changes we need to better publish Black writers from around the world in the twenty-first century.
|Publishers Need More Black Translator Friends
by Aaron Robertson
|Developing a Publishing Infrastructure in Mozambique
by Sandra Tamele
|Respecting the Diversity of Creativity
by Évelyne Trouillot, translated by Paul Curtis Daw
Institutional transformation often begins at the grassroots, argues translator and editor Aaron Robertson as he considers a roadmap for bringing Black writers and translators into an industry in which they are statistically underrepresented.
Over the last year and a half, since the publication of my first translated book, I’ve felt it necessary to preface my conversations with aspiring translators by telling them that I know less than they think. This isn’t necessarily a disadvantage and may be helpful in the end. I’ve lately been thinking of C.L.R. James, the Trinidadian Pan-Africanist whose belief in the creativity of “plain” people working democratically outside of capitalist enterprises has soothed me. There are obstacles translators must face before the international sections of bookstores reflect the world more equitably. Institutional transformation often begins at the grassroots, though, so I’d like to consider what some of this ground level work may look like in the near future.
I’m glad that my formal introduction to the publishing industry wasn’t mediated through an agent. My first translation project, Igiaba Scego’s novel Beyond Babylon, wasn’t commissioned by a publisher. I started it independently in college, with no prospect of publication. I had no profile as a translator and, at the time, few translator friends. By the time I finished a draft of the book in early 2017, my most meaningful internships had been at a newspaper and an arts nonprofit, not with a press or an agency.
Though most of the work of translator outreach and relationship-building should fall on publishers, this is almost never the case.Tweet
This meant I had to solve a riddle: how do I turn my adoration for Scego’s novel into something English readers can find in bookstores? It helped that I had institutional support and knowledge of resources: supportive Italian and creative writing departments at school, a well-known translation teacher, and awareness of the PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants, which enabled an independent publisher to learn about my project after I received one of the grants in 2018.
These were the ingredients for a good, if unlikely, human-interest story, not a roadmap for bringing translators of color into an industry in which they are statistically negligible. Most young translators of color who I’ve spoken with want to bring the work of authors from underrepresented groups into English. There is an untapped reservoir of translators who want to call Black, Asian, Indigenous, and other voices to wider attention but who lack the insider knowledge or contacts to know that this is possible or understand how to navigate an often-unfriendly industry.
The onus to publish Black voices from around the world is ultimately on the publishers themselves. During last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, however, it became clear that this will only ever be half of the struggle for recognition, if that. Though most of the work of translator outreach and relationship-building should fall on publishers, this is almost never the case. The hustle comes from those who are tired of needing to do most of the work. But we do it.
What I would like to see for Black translators is akin to what Kundiman has done for Asian American writers; what CantoMundo has done for Latinx poets; what Cave Canem has done for African American poets; what the publicity company Jack Jones Literary Arts has done for women of color; and what the Writers of Color network has done for freelancers of color. These initiatives have provided mentorship and networking opportunities, as well as clear paths into publishing and media careers. They also provide spaces for affirmation. Media attention on blockbuster titles by authors of color can lead you to believe that the front end of the industry is less white than it actually is.
Publishers, many of which are predisposed to view book translation projects as financially risky, prefer to go with translators they know. I would like to suggest that more publishers consider expanding their circles. Publishers need more Black translator friends, maybe even a sizable group of them. That starts with knowing where to look, then going there often. I opened this essay asserting that my naivete may be virtuous, and I present the fruits of my innocence here. These are various goals for a Black translators collective that some of my peers and I have been discussing:
- A collective of experienced and emerging translators who are committed to supporting the professional development of Black translators at every stage of their careers and promoting literature from various Black diasporas should be organized. The mentorship element would be the most important component of the collective. I was once a high schooler interested in languages and literature, but I had no conception of literary translation as a hobby or career, nor a sense of how my interests might have been applied. I envision, for example, a collective that actively reaches out to high schools with language programs in majority Black cities, language departments and creative writing programs at HBCUs, and other places where generating interest in literary translation would be viable.
- The collective should manage a digital hub or website that allows Black translators to workshop and promote one another’s work; provides a directory of Black translators; and suggests paths to publication (literary magazines, anthologies, etc.) that will allow translators to gain credits, drawing on the resources of the collective’s more experienced translators. This is not a “Black translators” subsection of LinkedIn Groups, but something worthy of a tailored online presence.
- The collective should identify presses, publications, and organizations that have strong records of featuring diverse voices and hiring translators of color, and those that don’t, similar to what the VIDA Count has done for women writers. What could mutually beneficial relationships with these places look like? Which publishers released statements supporting Black Lives Matter during the 2020 protests, and did their institutional practices change in the aftermath? The kind of collective I’m proposing must distinguish between allies who compensate well and volunteer their time, and those that only pay lip service to equity.
If publishers read this, I hope they will reach out before I do. The latter half of 2020 saw a number of publishers increase employee salaries, make headline-worthy senior-level hires, and commit to publishing more work by writers of color. These were positive developments, but I did not notice major stories about how these shifts can benefit the work that translators do. There is a place for artists in the Movement for Black Lives, which has never been exclusively about conditions in the United States. It has global ambitions. Just as we call for the end of state violence against Nigerians, we might also ask what has been written in Hausa, Kanuri, and Fula but not yet seen?
© Aaron Robertson. All rights reserved.
Drawing on examples from the US and Haiti, author Évelyne Trouillot considers how Anglophone publishers can better represent the complex and diverse contexts from which Black authors around the world are published in translation.
In 1979, Octavia Butler’s widely read novel Kindred, was published in the United States. The novel tells of a young African-American woman living in California in 1976 who travels back and forth through time. Toggling between 1976 and the years preceding the Civil War, she gives us a fresh look at the brutal racism of the American South. It’s a landmark novel that defies categorization and provides a complex and deeply moving historical account, drawing connections between past and present and stimulating reflection on, among other things, our notions of race, family, and identity. Nevertheless, it was not until 2000—twenty-one years later—that Kindred was translated and released in France by Éditions Dapper as Liens de sang (Bloodlines).
This is just one example of the way books of exceptional merit can be lost between one continent and another, one country and another, one language and another. Fortunately, since the appearance of her first work in 1971, the novels of this outstanding African-American novelist have been translated into more than ten languages. As a Haitian author who writes in French and Creole, my own experience with translation has been much more episodic.
It would be naive to speak of editorial decisions without taking into account power relationships and established patterns of prejudice that undergird the publishing industry, like any other. For in fact the question of which texts are to be translated refers us back to the more general question of the initial selection criteria. Even among books published originally in English, authors of color are in the minority. According to an article published by the New York Times in December 2020, although American publishers have shown more diversity in their editorial decisions during the most recent years, white authors still dominate to a striking extent.1 While non-Hispanic whites constituted 60 percent of the US population in 2018, writers from that segment accounted for 89 percent of published books within the sample considered by the article’s authors. The publishers’ choices reflect ideological and aesthetic leanings, which are informed by racist attitudes that predominate in the society. Texts requiring translation undergo a similar selection process, but other aspects must be considered, in particular the intervening power relationships between the countries involved and their respective languages.
Sadly, it’s easy for publishers to fall into the trap of publishing texts that spread hastily formed impressions of a country and its people and unquestioningly recirculate damaging stereotypes.Tweet
Some Anglophone publishers have no interest in offering their readers texts that present a view of the diversity and complexity of the world. For those sincerely interested, on what basis do they choose the books to be translated? Do those publishers have access to books produced outside of a handful of great Western metropolises? Or do they consider only books originally published in places like Paris, Milan, or Madrid?
The hierarchy of nations affects the selection of books to a degree that should not be overlooked. Currently, at least in the case of Haiti, publishers generally choose from the corpus of books by Haitian authors published outside the country, specifically in France or Canada. In no way do I minimize the value of books published beyond Haiti, but I would simply like to underscore the limits of such an approach. Indeed, we can ask ourselves a number of questions. Do the choices of Anglophone editors reflect my country’s literary trends, given that those choices fall almost entirely within the range of Haitian works published elsewhere? To what extent are the literary dynamics present in a book’s country of origin taken into account by Anglophone editors? Typically, such an editor characterizes the translated work as a representative specimen of the country of origin’s literature, when in fact the editor sometimes has no inkling of the literary landscape in question. By way of example, I cite the case of the writer, poet, and playwright Frankétienne, who was long ignored by Anglophone publishers. He was translated into English for the first time in 2003, more than thirty years after his first publication.
After the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, a number of Haitian books were translated. The catastrophe drew the eyes of the literary world toward Haiti and its writers. Translations, publications, and conference invitations multiplied. The tragedy automatically became an “added value” for Haitian literary production. Very often, publishers’ choices follow in that manner the wave orchestrated by the media after a disaster or a memorable event involving a given country. After the quake, the leading French publishing houses seemed determined to rush works by Haitian authors into publication. Sadly, it’s easy for publishers to fall into the trap of publishing texts that spread hastily formed impressions of a country and its people and unquestioningly recirculate damaging stereotypes. In that regard, books that abound in superficial references to vodou and pile up images of violence and deprivation seem to attract some editors, conveniently reinforcing their narrow perception of the Haitian reality.
It takes a conscious commitment to diversify the array of translated books and to include non-Anglophone Black authors without trying to confine them to pigeonholes. Publishers that prioritize the literary quality of non-Anglophone Black authors more readily avoid the pitfall of creating “special” collections of their works. There’s a great risk that collections so labeled will lead readers to perceive a pecking order, to the detriment of Black authors, as with Gallimard’s famous “Collection Noire,” whose series title pertains not to a type of book but to the countries of origin or the color of the authors’ skin. Despite the fact that this collection has introduced a number of Francophone authors from certain regions of the world to a larger readership, we should still reflect upon the perception that such a segregation engenders.
The translator represents another important element. Their approach to otherness, their command of the target language, their capacity to continually deepen their knowledge of the language and culture of the country of origin: all these are, in fact, fundamental to the translator’s ability to render the nuances of the text. In leaving an imprint on the work, the translator is to some degree involved in the reception of the translated text. The translator’s collaboration with the author affects this process, as well. Obviously, such teamwork is not always attainable, but it facilitates a sensitive and vigilant translation, even though the target language edition remains a rewriting of the initial text.
As a Black, non-Anglophone Haitian woman writer, I write about my personal world in my own languages (Creole and French) in order to move toward other people. With no concern for what a prospective Anglophone editor might think of my texts. Furthermore, the published book no longer belongs to me, and translated, my hold on it loosens even further. And my writings, stemming from my lived experience and my aesthetic and social vision for a more beautiful and just world, are presented to readers who are not always acquainted with my reality. It’s the same for other writers who, like me, are translated into English or other languages. Our words become conduits, bridges, walkways that transport meaning. It is to be hoped that these writings reach new readers in their full integrity and without distortion in a form conducive to candid and fruitful encounters. Respecting the diverse roots of creativity.
© Évelyne Trouillot. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Paul Curtis Daw. All rights reserved.
1. Richard Jean So and Gus Wezerek, “Just How White Is the Book Industry?” New York Times, December 11, 2020.↩
Sandra Tamele, publisher of Mozambique-based Editora Trinta Nove Zero, argues that better publishing Black writers from around the world begins with increased support, locally and globally, for Africa-based literary projects.
It’s amazing how simple events can trigger a turning point in one’s journey. Mine was a few years ago when, while listening to the radio at work, I came across a podcast about Ann Morgan, a British author who went on a quest to find and read books from around the world when she came to the realization that she was a “literary xenophobe.” I was moved when I heard her name my country, Mozambique, and that when she asked for tips on who and what she should be reading from here, she was recommended Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa’s novel Ualalapi. It had been translated by an underground press based in the UK and she had managed to read and review it even if it was still unpublished in the UK at the time.
This made me rethink my reading choices and look critically at my growing book collection. Conversely, my bookshelf clearly showed that I was a “literary xenophile,” with only a couple of books by Mozambican authors and, to be honest, Ualalapi was not one of them.
I felt ashamed and sad. And made a commitment to follow and attend as many book launches as I could manage, and to get familiar with the young generation of writers based in Maputo and their work.
What a delightful experience this was. It was a journey of discovering my heritage and the history and traditions of Mozambique through fiction. Starting with Adelino Timóteo’s novel The Eight Husbands of Madam Luiza Michaela Da Cruz, a startling contrast from the predominantly matrilineal central region of the country to Paulina Chiziane’s Niketche, a tale of polygamy from the patriarchal south, and the history of Achivanjila, the slave that became a queen and abolished slavery in Tete province, to Khosa’s Ualalapi, set in the empire of Ngungunhane, who conquered and enslaved his own. The national literary scene is booming with the establishment of new indie publishers, managed by young, Black writers who enrich and add diversity to it with their resolve to depart from magic realism and “traditional” African stories, and to write and publish contemporary fiction and poetry. Every time I returned home from readings with a handful of new books, I read voraciously.
Being a nationalist at heart and fortunate enough to be reasonably fluent in English and Italian, it was only a matter of time before I started attempting to translate these books.
During this time, I read an article in The Linguist, the magazine of the Chartered Institute of Linguists, on the need for and acceptability of bilingual translation, which gave me a boost to attempt translating prose and to three collections of poetry: Helder Faife’s DEsIGNS, quickly followed by Mbate Pedro’s Voids and Rogério Manjate’s Scar Incarnate.
Bilingual translation is still a controversial issue––particularly when translating poetry and trying to remain true to its structure, rhythm, and form––but one that cannot be easily dismissed, especially coming from a country that is a Portuguese-speaking island surrounded by an English-speaking community with which it seeks to integrate, at least in theory. In reality there is no circulation or cross-distribution of books and literature within the region in particular, nor overseas to the UK and US.
I had high hopes when a selection of poems from the aforementioned three projects were featured in WWB's April 2019 issue and later pitched to a few publishers from South Africa, the US, and the UK. But I was told by the publishers I pitched that poetry was a hard sell, that they had a different editorial line, and at the time were not looking for debut voices from Mozambique.
One year later I founded Editora Trinta Zero Nove (Editora 30.09), the first publishing house dedicated to literature in translation in Mozambique. Its mission is to give stories a voice, and I mean literally, because in addition to publishing in print, Editora 30.09 is committed to publishing audiobooks as a way of democratizing reading and inviting the participation of the forty-nine percent of Mozambique's population that is illiterate, mostly women and girls. Editora 30.09 tries to publish authors and narratives that are representative, relevant, inclusive, and inspiring for its readers. Thus, in our first two catalogues we published six debut Black female novelists from the Southern African Development Community, one deaf, mixed-race poet from the UK, and eight female novelists from China, France, Italy, and Ivory Coast. The catalog’s relevance cannot be overstated in a country where a handful of bookshops offer mostly outdated, overpriced international bestsellers or big-name authors.
Literary translation is still underrated in Mozambique and most writers, who paradoxically draw inspiration from authors they read in translation, do not share my view that translation can be a tool to find and perfect one’s voice and writing, and that it has a huge potential to impact and diversify the literary tradition, as well as to bring gender equality to publishing. In Mozambique, women are underrepresented in print and male publishers tend to be biased toward publishing men, claiming that female voices lack quality, substance, and creativity. I try to counteract this by publishing feminist voices that might inspire a new generation of female writers and translators through creative writing and through translation workshops as part of the annual literary translation competition I’ve organized since 2015. In early February 2020, Editora 30.09 issued a call for submissions aimed at young Mozambican female writers we intend to publish in Portuguese and translate into the most representative Bantu languages: Macua, Sena, and Changana. During a meeting with a South African agent at the Sharjah Book Fair last November, I came to the realization that the vision I bring to publishing may be narrow in its own way, but it’s aimed at correcting longstanding inequities. I believe that I only stopped staring blankly at her catalog when she shifted from pitching works by blue-eyed blondes who comprised ninety percent of her choices to narratives of Black women that I’m looking forward to publishing in 2021–22.
Running a start-up publisher in Mozambique is challenging, particularly because sales are low due to a nonexistent distribution network and too few bookshops, all located in the capital city; these often demand that local books are provided on consignment and then fail to pay the publishers when they do sell. Most of the fifty-three public libraries in the country are underfunded and in a state of disrepair. Books and reading for pleasure are not a high priority for the government, and during the pandemic financial support was granted only to musicians and other performing artists, not writers.
The work of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 and the urgency of publishing more Black authors reverberated in Mozambique. Local social activists concerned about the plight of entire Black communities displaced by acts of terrorism perpetrated in Cabo Delgado, in the northern region of the country, are getting more vocal and their protests are gaining momentum and demanding the government to shift their stance from denial into an urgent, strong response. Despite not being a minority, Black literary voices are not mainstream and struggle to gain notoriety for a number of reasons. Some are related to colonial history, but also to a sense of division rooted in tribalism, or the notion that there are several degrees of Blackness. Mozambicans use a multitude of words to differentiate people’s skin tones, hair texture, and facial features. I remember an incident when a mixed-race friend of mine was very upset because I called her mulata instead of mista because, she explained, she was born to a white mom, not a white dad. And it’s not rare to hear Black Mozambicans using the word “Black" to mean a darker-skinned individual. Many argue that, other than racism, we should be addressing colorism––a belief that one’s status and prospects in life are better the fairer one’s complexion is.
In early 2020, after signing an agreement between Editora 30.09 and the African Books Collective, a platform that has been promoting African literature to readers in the UK and the US for over thirty years through their network of over eighty online and brick-and-mortar bookstores worldwide, I was hoping that Mozambican authors would see more clearly that they no longer needed to rely on US-based publishers to make their works universally available.
This universality also begins with making literature mainstream within our borders. For decades, established Mozambican publishers opted for print runs of as little as 50 to 200 copies due to high printing costs, of books in Portuguese, which, I recently found to my dismay, is spoken by under twelve percent of the country’s population of 29 million. This realization also resulted in Editora 30.09 shifting its focus to publishing minimum print runs of one thousand copies in three predominant regional languages—Macua in the North, Sena in central Mozambique, and Changana in the South—to make books more affordable and available to more, but still far from the optimal, number of readers. Editora 30.09 aims to publish twelve new titles per year and its catalog of poetry, novels, short fiction, and nonfiction is known for featuring mostly debuts in translation, including one Mozambican female poet. So far, due to budgetary constraints, nine titles have been published. But Editora 30.09 is exploring new ways to reach readers and in September launched a weekly short-story series published in both audio and print and available digitally on its website on a subscription for as little as 20 MZN (equivalent to US$ 0.25) payable via popular micro e-wallet facilities.
But building a readership and earning the trust and buy-in of both debut and established writers is proving difficult. So difficult that even with Editora 30.09 being shortlisted for the London Book Fair’s 2020 International Excellence Awards, its role as a Frankfurter Buchmesse Invitation Program publisher, and our two-year presence at the Sharjah Book Fair, the local literary community is still to grasp the extent of this opportunity to showcase Mozambican literature abroad. Instead of being flooded with publishable manuscripts from authors who have found their voice, Editora 30.09 is still receiving odd messages from aspiring writers seeking an outlet for their still-immature work. A weak education system and policies, with millions of youths graduating from high school with poor text comprehension skills, may be at the root of this issue. In an effort to respond to this, in early 2020 Editora 30.09 partnered with the Portuguese Cultural Center to organize a series of creative writing and literary translation workshops aimed at young writers, but the initiative was postponed due to the pandemic. There is a handful of creative writing initiatives and literary prizes to promote the emergence of new voices but often the submissions and manuscripts fall short of the target set by the organizers or else seasoned writers come away with the awards.
Unfortunately there are no governmental policies in place to support the book industry in Mozambique. In late 2019 a group of young independent publishers met in an attempt to establish Rede de Editoras Independentes (REI, as in the Portuguese word for king) de Mozambique to voice their concerns and start to build the support infrastructure required for our initiatives to thrive.
I recently moved from the city center to a small fishermen community on the banks of the Komati River and feel that venturing into publishing is like swimming upstream, every day a quest for support and buy-in from governmental cultural bodies, fellow translators, readers and even the Mozambican writers I’ve translated myself to date. I worry we’re missing our opportunity to showcase Mozambican literature abroad.
© Sandra Tamele. All rights reserved.
Our annual January archive issue this year comes at a moment of urgency: in two weeks, the US’s first Black vice president, Kamala Harris, will be sworn in, after four years of divisive politics in which racism figured heavily. Less than a year after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor led to renewed Black Lives Matter protests and a reckoning across American society, literary publishers—including this magazine—are seeking to address the deficit of Black writers published each year.
The magnitude of the hole is clear, but data that might inform solutions is scattered and, sometimes, nonexistent—another indication, perhaps, of just how steep the climb out will be. A few quick examples, though, can be quite illustrative: in the New York Times “Globetrotting” list for 2020, only twelve of 224 titles listed there are from Africa; nine are in translation, but almost all of those are from French, and of the four writers from sub-Saharan Africa, only one identifies as Black. While the Times list may not make any pretense of comprehensiveness, this one is nonetheless revealing of US publishing’s priorities. Last month, Richard Jean So and Gus Wezerek wrote of their efforts to quantify the number of Black writers published in the US between 1950 and 2018, finding that ninety-five percent of English-language books published in the period were authored by white writers. It’s tempting to guess at what data would have looked like if they had drilled down to translated work. Literary agent Marie Dutton Brown, interviewed for the Times piece, remarks that “Black life and Black culture are rediscovered every ten to fifteen years.” Imagine the impact on Black writing in translation.
Part of the problem stems from larger issues within our industry: corporate (or corporate-minded) publishers looking for the next Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, wittingly or unwittingly narrowing from the get-go what Black writing ought to read like. In an article published last year in the Times Literary Supplement, Colin Grant details some of the problems that have plagued Anglophone literary publishing when it comes to publishing Black writers: differing literary standards for works by white writers and Black writers, and a rush to publish more Black writers that betrays greater concern with avoiding mention alongside the #publishingsowhite hashtag than with developing the careers of Black writers (or as one of our columnists later this month will argue, Black translators). Complicating the scenario further, the barriers faced by Black writers hoping to have their work internationalized can begin before translation is even a consideration, as scholar and activist Franciane Conceição Silva writes in her essay (translated by Bruna Dantas Lobato) for this magazine in 2018.
This is not, of course, to overlook the good work being done—and being done well before we finally began the current reckoning with our shortcomings—by some independent publishers.
There is, as the title of this essay suggests, a secondary problem when it comes to Black literature in translation, which pertains to expectations placed on writers of color, as translator and scholar Corine Tachtiris notes in her recent interview with Project Plume. “Anti-racist translation should actively disrupt racism, whether that’s discursive racism, structural, economic, linguistic racism, and so on. That might be by translating into a racialized English that challenges the White mainstream norm, or by selecting texts that undermine racist stereotypes of other cultures, especially racist formulations that are meant to come off as positive.”
As the writers in our opinion series publishing later this month note, there are solutions where there’s will. PEN Translation Prize finalist Aaron Robertson proposes new ways in which publishers might work to support Black writers and translators, and also charts a path for translators of color to organize. Sandra Tamele, a WWB contributor and founder of Maputo-based Editora Trinta Zero Nove, discusses why she founded a press in Mozambique with the aim of publishing writers there in English translation. Writing of the translation history of Octavia Butler and of her own work, Évelyne Trouillot advocates not only for the more frequent publication of Black writers in translation but also a change in the way this is done.
At Words Without Borders, we have begun to evaluate our own myopia when it’s come to better publishing and promoting Black writers. The danger of the single narrative, a double risk when publishing writers who are Black and write in a language other than English, is pervasive, and we’ll be working with outside advisors to assess and help guide our efforts. As we work to address our own shortcomings through sustainable, structural initiatives aimed at lasting change, we are taking inspiration in the work of Black writers in our archive whose work is testament to the multiplicity of Black life as it confronts structural racism (and its effects) throughout the globe.
In making our selection for this issue, we wished to highlight writing that confronted the various guises and modi operandi of racism. What those active in the struggle for change understand is that it's not just the institutions that buttress racism that must be dismantled but the ideas underpinning them. The essays, stories, and poems this month shed light on the corners where these ideas lurk, which, as we discover in the work of Igiaba Scego and Ricardo Aleixo, pervade the quotidian if only we bother to look. But the Black experience, as activists have urged this year, should not be reduced only to misfortune and struggle. Failure to acknowledge Black joy (also an act of resistance) is but another form of undercutting anti-racist work. Naomi Jackson reminds us of some of the forms this can take in her paean to pan-Africanism via Salvador, Brazil. While selections of any sort fail to adequately capture the whole picture, the writers here harness the strength of literature as, by its very attention to nuance, a form of resistance.
The first of those is Ricardo Aleixo, who combines text and performance in work that explores poetry as both visual and social expression. In this issue, we’re revisiting Dan Hanrahan’s translations of three poems by Aleixo, adding a video performance by Aleixo of his poem “My Man”—a repudiation of the impositions made upon Black identity—especially for this issue.
Like Aleixo’s, the work of Lima Barreto confronts racism head-on. As critic Felipe Botelho Corrêa notes in this 2018 essay, Barreto, a late contemporary of Machado de Assis, expertly diagnosed the disconnect between the realities faced by most of Brazilian society and the European-inspired forms of Brazilian literature at the turn of the century. Taking the opposite tack in “Black Teeth and Blue Hair,” his 1922 short story published in English translation for the first time in our December 2018 issue, Barreto warns that “ignorance is a kind of blindness.” Barreto embraced literature as a means to social change and a clamor for racial justice. When the story’s narrator is mugged, he loses more than his pocket money. Barreto’s is a tale that provokes readers to distrust initial impressions.
Igiaba Scego, meanwhile, in an essay for our April 2016 issue, looks at the persistence of Mussolini-era racism in the form of a popular song. Scego’s essay foreshadowed the proliferation of texts in the US throughout 2020 that reckoned with the surreptitious pervasiveness of racist attitudes in popular childhood songs. “But do people who sing it really know what it means?” Scego asks in her examination of Renato Micheli’s "Faccetta nera."
If the work of other writers in this issue center race and racial consciousness, Germano Almeida’s “A Form of African Identity” traces the deleterious effects of colonialism in impeding solidarities between Cabo Verdeans and other African nations while also writing against the monolithic Africa of the Western imagination. “We led our lives in the serene assurance of being Cabo Verdeans, with the harmless contributing circumstance of also being Portuguese, when this tranquility was abruptly overturned in the 1960s and 70s by the shattering revelation that Cabo Verde was also Africa, in the deepest sense,” Almeida writes. Almeida uses his pen to draw the contours of an identity that allows Cabo Verdeans both their idiosyncrasies and their kinship to other African nations.
Johannes Anyuru, meanwhile, meditates on race, history, and Islam, in Sweden and across Europe, on a journey to the Alhambra. This route begins, perhaps unexpectedly, on the Stockholm metro, where, Anyuru writes, “when my eyes landed on the guy talking about vacuuming a mosque I couldn’t stop staring. It was like he came from a planet that still had meaning.” Tracing his own conversion to Islam, Anyuru later reflects, “If I speak of peace now [ . . . ] I speak of preserving difference. I am not talking about peace because I want to bring harmony to the conflict that has made me who I am, but because I want to preserve the person I am.” Anyuru’s assertion reminds us: despite calls to the contrary, calls to achieve anti-racist through the elision of difference in fact achieve the opposite.
Magali Nirina Marson’s “Abandoning Myself,” in which a young victim relates the neglect, poverty, and abuse of a life for which she was never destined, reveals the nefarious dalliance between racism, colonialism, and misogyny. The choices left the Malagasy narrator, and her mother, after her French father returns to France, are an indictment of a society.
In “Coloureds,” graphic artists the Trantraal Brothers set their sights on the pipeline fueling persistent social ills. Caught in a milieu of addiction and domestic abuse, children in one township in South Africa find themselves facing poverty, hunger, evangelism, and life-or-death decisions. Availing themselves of the unflinching honesty that is inherent to children, the Trantraal Brothers look at the ways in which the family and social spheres conspire to perpetuate inequality.
Colonialism and Christianity in Nigeria are at the heart of Akinwumi Isola’s story about religious and linguistic identity, targeting the social structures of racism from another vantage point. Selected by 1986 Nobel winner Wole Soyinka for WWB’s The World through the Eyes of Writers anthology, Isola’s “The Grammar of Easter (You Don’t Say That in English),” takes raucous aim at the hapless evangelizing of a white man whose mission is upended as he spends the bulk of his time attempting to remedy the grammatical confusion he’s wrought in course of his proselytizing.
Impatiently recounting his own “bullshit story,” the Ivorian narrator of an excerpt from Ahmadou Kourouma’s Allah Is Not Obliged, armed with the Petit Robert and a slew of other French-language dictionaries, sketches the contours of his “fucked-up life” with cheeky defiance. In this romp through French and pidgin idioms, the narrator zeroes in on the cultural assumptions—often nonsensical to other cultures and, occasionally, even in their original contexts—that underlie our everyday speech and, thus, our attitudes. The pathway leading to “the easy money working as a civil servant in some fucked-up, crooked republic” is closed off to our narrator, whose only form of redress is a foul-mouthed elucidation of the structures keeping him in his place.
In a 2016 essay, New York-based writer Naomi Jackson, author of The Star Side of Bird Hill, takes us along her own intellectual and cultural journey from the Caribbean to West Africa to South Africa, and eventually to Brazil—itself the country, as Jackson notes, with the second-largest Black population in the world after Nigeria. “Given my love for Black people and fascination with our stories, Brazil’s paramount importance in the historical trans-Atlantic slave trade and its contemporary role as a cultural and economic leader on the world stage, it was inevitable that my travels would lead me there,” Jackson writes. From her time in the city of Salvador, she returns more certain than ever of the need for an “evolving dialogue that broadens definitions of global Blackness.”
We hope this issue might serve as both a reminder and a beginning: a reminder of this evolving dialogue's plurality, and one we must acknowledge; the work has only begun.
© 2020 by Eric M. B. Becker. All rights reserved.
There is a legend about a Persian traveler who comes to an Afghan village in search of a good poet. First, he visits the shopkeeper who tells him he is a poet but that the farmer is a better one; then the farmer sends the visitor to the tailor, assuring him that he is really the best poet in the village. And on it goes. Poetry, memoir, fables, proverbs, and stories sit at the heart of Afghanistan, a nation founded by a poet, Ahmad Shah Abdali (also known as Ahmad Shah Durrani), and the birthplace of Rumi.
In modern Afghanistan, years of chronic instability and internal displacement have created a challenging environment for writers of all kinds. Twenty different flags have flown over the country since the beginning of the twentieth century. Changes in rulers, monarchs, emirs, and presidents, as well as revolution, Soviet invasion, and Taliban rule, have led to clashing political ideologies and the imposition of widespread restrictions not only on everyday life but on freedom of speech and expression, particularly for women.
Although there are twenty-two publishers in Kabul alone, Afghanistan has minimal infrastructure for local literary translators and editors, and there is little translation of literary work between language communities and ethnic groups. The majority of Afghan writers who have appeared in English translation are men; most live outside the country, as do the few Afghan women who have carved out lives as writers elsewhere.
What about those writers who cannot leave home, whose imaginative worlds draw on the immediate experience of their day-to-day life? In post-Taliban Afghanistan, the literacy rate of women is still disproportionately low and those who want to write struggle to find support. Yet many of these women sense that it is here, in Afghanistan, with all its insecurity and political volatility, that ideas and themes can flourish. A nation’s upheaval cannot be understood without women's perspectives.
Over the past few years, various one-off projects have encouraged these writers, and some women have featured in anthologies of contemporary writing from Afghanistan. However, it is hard to establish initiatives in what is still a challenging working environment. As a result, the voices of emerging women writers stay unheard.
The four writers featured here come via Untold, a UK-based development program offering writers in areas of conflict and postconflict a space in which to speak for themselves. Untold’s current project, Write Afghanistan, was prompted by a conversation with scriptwriters on Afghanistan’s long-running radio soap opera New Home, New Life. One or two had self-published stories on social media, under pseudonyms for safety’s sake, and only in Dari.
So last year, with support from the British Council, Untold put out a countrywide open call asking for short pieces of fiction from women. We were told to expect about thirty submissions. In fact, more than one hundred and twenty women writers from across Afghanistan sent in stories written in both Dari and Pashto. The stories were sent from internet cafes or home computers; some were written by hand. They explored subjects from the domestic sphere to women’s social and political rights, employing narrative techniques including reportage, folk tales, fables, and allegory. And most were clearly inspired by personal experience.
The bulk of the writers lived in metropolitan areas, including three of those featured here, but a significant number came from more remote, volatile provinces. Some women had never shared their work beyond their households. Maryam Mahjube was inspired by the open call to write two new stories, but it was her sister who actually sent them in, because the author felt she was too inexperienced for her work to be taken seriously. She had had no experience of editing or sharing her work, had never before even rewritten anything, and had not been able to attend any of the rare writers' meetings in the capital.
A team of readers from the Afghan literary community in the UK and Untold’s project manager, Will Forrester, drew up a longlist of twenty writers selected for their strong, original voices and stories with the potential to be developed for a local and a global readership. Budget restrictions meant selecting just ten from this list, in order to work with the writers one on one. Of those ten, four have been selected to appear here. An experienced editor in Sri Lanka, Sunila Galappatti, and Dari and Pashto translators in the UK worked with each writer on her story via WhatsApp; sensitivity to the writer’s safety was of paramount concern.
All four writers mentioned the difficulty of finding the peace and space required to concentrate on writing. Finding the space to write is but one challenge; the war-scarred country feels permanently on edge, locked down long before the pandemic. This atmosphere is conveyed in Sharifa Pasun’s "The Decision," and Maryam Mahjube’s "Turn This Air Conditioner On, Sir," where just leaving the house can be a matter of life or death.
Freshta Ghani had to flee across the border to Tajikistan recently after the radio station where she worked was threatened by the Taliban. She’s been using a pen name since she first began writing secretly at school. Her story, “Daughter Number Eight,” translated from Pashto, reflects her family’s traditional values and the devastating costs of expectations not met. Batool Heydari addresses another tradition in her tale of a man presumed martyred who returns to a painful domestic surprise.
Even in Kabul, opportunities for women to connect with other writers, and to discuss and, eventually, publish work, remain limited. One of Untold’s aims is to help establish a local support framework for women writers and build the capacity of local fiction editors and translators. Write Afghanistan’s remote editorial process continues with the support of the Bagri Foundation. Meanwhile, Batool Heydari now leads a weekly WhatsApp session for the ten writers to share ideas and challenge each other to develop their work.
Maryam Mahjube says she has found a sense of belonging from writing that has eased her isolation. “Among all this, we still carry on with our lives, we pass our days, we read, we dance, we buy books, we write poetry, we write stories, we see friends and family. Stories are like a mirror we hold up to ourselves.”
© 2020 by Lucy Hannah. All rights reserved.
Tragedy strikes a newsroom in Kabul as a journalist scrambles for safety in Sharifa Pasun’s short story set during the Soviet-Afghan War.
She opened the wardrobe, took out her skirt and suit jacket, and shut the doors. After getting dressed, she looked at herself in the three-piece mirror, brushed her hair, and looked again. She admired herself, she thought she looked really good. Her long hair touched her shoulders, shining as the afternoon sun caught it through the window.
There was a pen on the dressing table, which she put in her handbag. She looked at her watch, it was five in the afternoon. Hearing the car horn, she opened the window and looked down from her second floor apartment. The gray car was waiting near the stairs of the building. The driver looked up and, on seeing her, stopped pressing the horn. Sanga slung her handbag over her shoulder quickly and left the room. She called to her mother from the corridor: “Mom, I am going now, bye! The car is waiting for me outside.”
Her mother rushed into the corridor. Her sleeves were rolled up, with a knife in her hand and tears in her eyes from the onion she had been cutting.
Sanga turned back and begged her mother: “Mom, please look after Ghamai, I don’t want him to hear us, he is busy riding his bike on the balcony.”
She left and quickly went down the stairs. Her mother watched, praying for her safety until the minute Sanga got in the car and shut the door.
Sanga reached the National Radio and TV headquarters, where she worked in the evenings. During the day, she was a student at Kabul University.
She went straight to the makeup room on the left side of the building, at the end of the corridor on the first floor. The makeup lady, Maryam, was in the room. She was tall, with curly hair she had dyed brown. Her glasses were pushed to the top of her head and their string hung down behind her neck. She was standing at the middle mirror, busy removing curlers from another newsreader’s hair.
Sanga stood in front of the sink and washed her face with warm water, then, looking in the mirror, dried it with a paper napkin. Maryam asked the seven o’clock newsreader, whose hair she was doing: “Should I do your makeup or do you want to put it on yourself?”
She answered: “You will be busy with Sanga’s hair now, there isn’t much time left, I will do my own makeup.”
Sanga sat down beside the seven o’clock newsreader and Maryam stood over her. She touched Sanga’s soft hair, looked at her clothes, and said: “It is good you are wearing modest clothes.”
Sanga didn’t like this comment. She wanted to say that she always wore suitable and modest clothes. At this moment, they heard a loud explosion from a nearby rocket. They all got very scared and their eyes opened wide in shock. The seven o’clock newsreader could barely speak. She whispered: “Sounds like it landed very close.”
Maryam, the makeup lady, said: “God save us, I hope it is not a continuous attack.”
Sanga looked at Maryam and said: “If you finish my makeup and hair quickly you will be able to go home soon. I will be here until eight thirty or nine o’clock.”
It was 1985. The opposition was busy fighting the Afghan army, firing rockets and targeting government buildings and institutions. People used to call them blind rockets because only one in a hundred would hit the target.
Sanga’s heart was beating hard and fast. She hadn’t kissed her two-year-old son goodbye, because when she did, Ghamai would cry and insist on going with her. She couldn’t take him to work, so she usually left the house without letting him know.
Maryam said angrily: “What kind of country is this? They can’t let us live peacefully––how can we work and live in this kind of situation?”
It was twenty past six in the evening now. The telephone rang; it was a telephone on a wire, as they all were in offices at that time. Maryam picked up and, after listening, told the seven o’clock news reader to go to the newsroom. She said: “They say the news is very important and there is a lot of it. You need to go now.”
Then, too, radio and TV were important institutions. This newsroom produced news about the leader, his cabinet ministers, and their work, as well as the victories of the army, which was fighting the opposition. At the end of the broadcast, there was some international news too. At that time, there was only one TV channel across the county that broadcast live news in Kabul city.
The newsreader quickly took her pen out of her handbag, looked at herself in the mirror again, put on another layer of red lip liner, and left in a hurry. As she closed the door, another rocket struck. The makeup lady was panicking: “This is definitely a continuous attack; more rockets will land.”
Sanga was worried that Maryam might leave without finishing her makeup. The female newsreaders would always have their hair and makeup done before appearing on TV. Maryam took the metal comb, separated Sanga’s hair in small parts, and curled them all up. She plugged in the hair-drying hood while Sanga sat calmly underneath it, the warm breeze blowing through her hair.
The seven o’clock newsreader opened the door of the makeup room and came in to take her handbag. She had finished her work and a car was waiting to take her home. Maryam quickly said: “I want to go with you. We live in the same direction.
Sanga was left alone. She looked out of the makeup room window and it was dark now. She didn’t like being alone. She left the makeup room and went to the newsroom. At the top, there was the editor’s desk. He usually stayed beyond his eight-hour shift. This was an important office and everyone––from the editor to reporters, producers, and even the helping staff––had overtime pay.
As Sanga entered the newsroom, she greeted her colleagues and went straight to sit behind the long desk right in the middle of the room. One of her colleagues told her that not all her notes were ready but some copies were, so she could read through those. Sanga got busy, marking the script as she practiced reading. At that moment, there was another whistling sound followed by a huge explosion. This time the rocket had hit the technology building, newly built, just behind the National Radio & TV building. The explosion was so powerful that it broke the windows of the newsroom.
It was the end of autumn but the weather was cold; a sharp breeze blew into the newsroom. Someone opened the door and said in a worried voice: “All of you go to the lower floor. It is possible that more rockets will strike! Hurry, we all need to go downstairs now.”
Everyone started panicking and left their chairs, most of the staff took their pens and papers with them and started leaving the newsroom. Sanga left her notes on the table, she was very scared. One person came close to her and whispered in her ear: “Don’t get scared, everything will be fine.”
Sanga responded: “I have seen many rockets, they land every day. I am not scared of rockets, I am scared of God.”
Sanga had no sooner finished her sentence than another rocket landed, striking the front of the nearby admin building. If you looked down from the newsroom window you could see the building’s rooftop. A piece of shrapnel hit the chair where Sanga was sitting a few seconds ago. She had only just reached the door of the newsroom.
Everyone had left by now. Sanga went quickly to the corridor, took a deep breath, and ran down the stairs, nearly falling. It was now five minutes to eight o’clock. Sanga had to go to the live studio.
Before entering the studio, she took her shoes off and wore the special sandals which were kept in a metal cupboard. The people in charge of the studios didn’t want anyone bringing in dust that could harm the machines. Sanga had left her notes behind in the newsroom and was empty-handed. She went inside the studio, feeling the warmth of the studio lights as she sat down. The editor brought news copies and gave them to Sanga. It was time for the eight o’clock news. As Sanga was taking up the copies, she saw her face on the monitor in front of her and heard the signature tune of the news show going live. After that, she started reading the news bulletin, finishing it all on time. The studios were soundproof; no sound from explosions could enter from outside.
Sanga waited in front of the Radio & TV building in her makeup and styled hair. Other staff were also leaving the building in groups, there were big and small cars waiting to take them home. Everyone looked worried, many workers were lowering their heads as they walked toward the cars, as if walking that way would save them from the rockets.
One of the drivers told Sanga to get in the car quickly. Sanga got in and the driver sped toward the 3rd Macrorayan, those residential blocks built by the Russians in the 1950s and 60s. Before the car had reached the first roundabout, a rocket landed in front of those blocks. Sanga could hear the screams of men, women, and children. There was panic and chaos around her; her heart started beating fast. She decided that if this time she reached home safely, she would quit the presenting job.
She had decided to quit a few times before but whenever she thought it through, she would decide that a life without working would be hard. That thought seemed as bad as death to her.
Before they reached the second roundabout, another rocket landed near them. It went past the car and landed on the edge of the roundabout. The driver and Sanga both ducked. Scared and panicking, the driver nearly lost control of the car. After a stopping briefly, he started driving again.
Now the car had entered her part of the Macrorayan area. Along the way, they could hear the wounded people screaming and calling for help, but there was no one who could run out to help them.
Sanga finally reached her home. It was nine o’clock at night now, she went quickly up to her apartment and knocked forcefully on the door, but it wasn’t locked. Her mother had been standing behind the door for some time, waiting for her return. As she opened the door for Sanga, her eyes welled with tears, which she tried not to let flow.
Sanga went into her room, followed by her mother. She went close to Ghamai’s bed; he was fast asleep. She kissed him gently, touched his hair, and then sat on her bed, taking a deep breath. Her mother now had a smile on her face. Sanga asked her: “Mother, was Ghamai scared by the rockets?”
“No, he was sleeping, he didn’t even move in his bed,” she said.
“I was worried that a rocket might have landed near our block.”
As her mother listened carefully, Sanga told her that wherever she went today the rockets followed her: “I saw it with my own eyes. I had just got up off that chair and hadn’t even reached the newsroom door when the rocket landed and its shrapnel hit that same chair. It was just a matter of a few seconds. I got up and, when I looked back, the chair was all broken and destroyed.”
Her mother screamed with fear.
Sanga’s mother couldn’t stop crying anymore. Her voice echoing all over the room, she went up to her daughter, hugged her and then kissed her. Sanga felt calm in her arms. Her mother wiped her tears with the edge of her scarf. She went out of the room and, after a few seconds, brought back a glass of lemon juice. As Sanga drank the juice, she felt as if she was regaining her energy. Her mother left the room, telling her to rest.
It was eleven o’clock, the dogs could be heard barking far away, the roads were busy with ambulances. The rockets couldn’t be heard anymore. Sanga knew that the opposition had run out of rockets. She felt that they must be tired like her. She was thinking that they would be sleeping now and getting ready to launch fresh attacks tomorrow, but no one knew where the next attack would be and when it would happen.
Sanga held her head tightly between her hands. Her mind was full of news, loud explosions, and ambulance sirens. She pulled the duvet over Ghamai so he wouldn’t get cold.
She opened the wardrobe next to her bed and looked at her clothes––it seemed as though she was choosing her outfit. She took some clothes out and hung them on the door. She closed the curtains so the room couldn’t be seen from outside. She turned on the TV and a song by Mahwash was on. Before it ended the power went out.
Sanga got up and drew back the curtains. Moonlight brightened the room. She switched off the TV and lay down on her bed, but she couldn’t sleep. Ghamai’s beautiful face was shining in the moonlight, he looked like an angel child when it is asleep.
I saw Sanga the next day. She got out of the gray car in front of the National Radio & TV headquarters. She was wearing a khaki jacket with a black skirt, carrying a few books and her handbag. She adjusted her handbag on her shoulder, took her sunglasses off, and placed them on her head. Before entering the building, she looked around at the damage from the day before. She observed the scene carefully and calmly, and then went inside.
“The Decision” © 2020 by Sharifa Pasun. Translation © 2020 by Zarghuna Kargar. Developed with Untold, a development program for writers in conflict and postconflict areas, supported by the British Council and the Bagri Foundation. All rights reserved.
Presumed dead, a man returns from war to find that his wife and daughter have moved on with their lives in this short story by Batool Heydari.
He called, but nobody answered. He tried the number again and again. He then kept calling the whole day, but all he could hear was the sound of the phone ringing. He could not remember the last time she stayed out of the house for this long. He speculated. Maybe Khurshid is ill. Maybe something has caused her to stop her answering the phone.
Someone finally answered at around nine in the evening. He could not breathe when he heard her say “hello.”
When he was a student in Kabul, and engaged to Alia, he would call her and wait silently for her to initiate the conversation. He had wanted to hear her heartbeat. He would repeat this routine, call but never speak first. Alia had learnt this, and so instead of saying “hello,” she would giggle and ask, “Suleiman, is that you?”
The woman on the phone did not giggle. She asked tauntingly if he had stomach cramps that were stopping him from talking. Tears dried in his eyes. He could not remember Alia answering so harshly.
He remembered that they had a regular ghost caller for some time. They would call, but then keep silent. Suleiman swore at them on a few occasions, but it had proven futile and he failed to break the silence. Alia was of the opinion that no profanity must ever be spoken, even if the caller called a hundred times and uttered nothing.
This time, she had not cursed. She had said “Do you have stomach cramps?” When the call disconnected, he redialled the number. His hands were not shaking this time. He was pressing the numbers hard.
The woman on the phone said “hello” loudly. After taking a deep breath, he asked,
“Is Alia there?”
He realised that the woman could not have been Alia. She stretched the word hello, said it loudly, and Alia never did either.
He sighed in relief when the woman said,
“No, you have dialled the wrong number.”
But as soon as he put the phone down, he asked himself if this could be true. No––there was no way he had dialled the wrong number. He felt confident in this. He rang again and, this time, spoke with the woman articulately. He introduced himself as a distant relation of Alia’s who had come from one of the provinces to speak with her about something important.
When the woman felt comfortable, and decided it was not a nuisance call, she explained that they had bought the house from a family three years earlier. He asked the name of the family and the woman replied:
“Akbari. Zargham Akbari.”
Leaving no doubt, she confirmed further,
She could not have known that the caller at the other end of the phone was about to faint. She continued talking to “Alia’s distant relative,” explaining that she did not know exactly where the family lived, but that she knew that they lived in Chawk-e Gul-ha, a posh neighborhood.
Suleiman swallowed his saliva and asked the woman if she was certain that Engineer Akbari’s wife’s name was Alia. The woman confirmed, laughing, and mentioned Alia’s older daughter, Khurshid.
“A wonderful girl,” she said. “I wanted her to be my daughter-in-law, but fate disagreed. She was going to university, and my son did not want a wife who went to university.”
Suleiman started to sweat profusely when he heard the woman sigh and say, “What has the world come to? The daughters of the martyred are going to university...”
He could not understand. He asked, with difficulty, “The martyr’s daughter? What martyr?”
The woman, who was enjoying having found someone to speak to, continued, “What kind of family member are you if you are unaware of this, dear brother?” she said.
He tried to find an explanation, but the woman interrupted before he needed to: “I don’t know much. Her neighbors said that she is a martyr’s daughter. That her mother lost her husband and, two years later, married one of her husband’s comrades, an architect. God has now graced her with another child. When we bought the house, she had just given birth. A beautiful boy called Suleiman.”
He could not breathe. He murmured, “Suleiman.” Then he disconnected the call.
Flabbergasted, he stared at the photo in his hand. He could not believe that his wife had remarried. That little Khurshid was a university student. That he was thought to have been martyred. That his friend, Zargham, was now Alia’s husband. That they named their son after him. He felt a pain in his throat and pressed his lips together.
The next day, he got out of bed and opened the window. It had been six years since he was captured. He picked up the water jug and drank from it directly. Water spilling on his chest as he gulped. He poured the remainder on his head before going back to bed. He wished he had held his tongue back then—that he had never spoken to Zargham about his wife, never described her to him. He ran his fingers through his greying hair. He was pleased he hadn’t visited the house yet––all the neighbours would have recognized him. He closed his eyes, a lump in his throat. He then stood and stared at the phone. He dialled the number again and the same screeching woman answered.
“Why did you hang up, brother?” she asked. Without waiting for an answer, she continued, “I called Ms Sabri, one of the Akbaris’ old neighbors, to tell her that their relative had called. She didn’t know where exactly they were living. Just that they live in Chawk Gulha, as I told you. But she did say that Alia goes to the martyrs’ graveyard, the unnamed martyrs’ graveyard on the hill, on Fridays.”
“An old lady used to live with them. Do you know what happened—” The woman interrupted: “Are you talking about Bi Bi Jaan? She was ill when I was their neighbour. She could not speak. The neighbours used to say she had suffered a stroke when she learnt of her son’s martyrdom. The poor lady passed away a year later.”
The woman hung up once she was done talking. Suleiman leaned on an object near him and started crying loudly.
It was morning when he opened his eyes.
On Thursday he went to the city for a walk. He went to all the places he had visited with Alia and Khurshid. To relive the good old memories, he sat where they had sat as a family.
In the evening, he went to have his beard shaved. He felt ticklish when the barber ran clippers over the twisted hair on his neck. He remembered Alia telling him after their engagement that she did not want him to shave his beard, because a woman’s beauty lies in her long hair and a man’s beauty and masculinity lies in his beard and mustache. He saw a sparkle in Alia’s eyes when he grew a beard for the first time. She would compliment him, telling him that the beard suited him and that he looked like an angel.
He remembered Alia painting. She was working on a painting of angels in those days; they were all men with long hair. His reminders to Alia that there are also female angels fell on deaf ears. When the painting was complete, she wrapped it and gave it to him as a gift.
Suleiman’s beard was now shaven. All that was left was his mustache. He touched it. When the barber asked repeatedly if he should shave the mustache too, Suleiman looked up and asked, “Do you think a mustache suits me?” The barber removed the cape, tapped him on his back and said, “A man without a mustache is not a real man.” Suleiman laughed, and got up from the chair to look at the mirror. He could not recognize himself.
He left early the next morning for the cemetery. The security office was closed. A few hours had passed. He was now lying under a willow tree with his small bag under his head, gazing at the branches hanging down. He had searched widely to find this tree.
And now he had no choice but to look for the unnamed martyrs’ graveyard himself. Despite searching extensively, he could not find his name, and so he waited for the office to open.
When the attendant arrived, Suleiman gave him the name and surname. The attendant said that they had wanted to allocate this Suleiman a plot for burial in the martyrs’ area, but that his daughter had refused, insisting that he be listed as missing. So he had no headstone. “She comes here every Friday––alone or with her mother. They come here first and then they visit the graves of other martyrs. She comes to my office, too. She asks if anyone has inquired about her father. She always asks this question. There is no shortage of families who are anxious about the news of their missing loved ones, so, for their comfort, we give them the bones of something, dressed as the remains of a soldier who has been missing for years.”
Suleiman’s hands were cold, and he was breathless. He closed his eyes and thanked the man, before leaving to find his own grave, or perhaps himself. A cold breeze swept between the thick willow leaves. He found his way back to its hanging branches.
He sat there, hugging his legs close to his chest, with his chin resting on his kneecaps. The sun had risen to remove the morning shadows over the graves. The smell of rain, the smoke from the burning wild rue seed, and the occasional sound of prayer engulfed the air. People were slowly gathering around him. He remembered the day they had brought Khurshid home from the hospital. Bi Bi Jaan had looked dejected when she learned it was a baby girl. Suleiman, however, was overjoyed. He pressed her to his chest and asked Alia what she had named her. Alia just shook her head. He then kissed the baby girl on the face and said, “I will give her a name myself. She will be her father’s Khurshid, her father’s sun.”
When Khurshid grew up, they would read poems so loudly that Alia would be forced to tell them off. They would hold hands and walk around the pool surrounded by vases in the garden. “Khurshid Khanum, rise and shine. Say hello to your dad, Khurshid Khanum,” Suleiman would sing.
He stood still where he was standing. He felt his heartbeat slow down. He could not believe his eyes. It was her––Alia, Suleiman’s own Alia. He could not swallow. He kept blinking in disbelief. Then, he collected himself. “You finally came,” he thought. It was Alia, accompanied by a girl her size, wearing a headscarf and smiling. She was walking shoulder-to-shoulder with Alia. “It is them. It must be them, Alia and her father’s Khurshid Khanum,” he said to himself.
He hid behind the tree trunk, holding the bag to his face to avoid being recognized. “She has grown into a lady,” he told himself.
Khurshid took something out of her bag––a packet of dates. Her hair was visible under her green headscarf. She was offering the votive dates to the passersby. She bore an uncanny resemblance to Alia. She reminded him of her mother when they had first met.
Khurshid stopped suddenly as if someone had called her name. A man and a small boy were approaching her. Alia took the little boy from the man’s arms. Zargham had grown older, into a man, as he would say. His hair had turned gray.
Suleiman was heartbroken and panting. Alia followed the man. Khurshid left, too. Suleiman felt as if he was disintegrating. He fell to the ground. He buried his face in the soft soil under the willow tree and cried loudly. He filled his fists with soil and screamed. He wanted to stop breathing there and then. He wanted his heart to stop pumping blood through his veins. A flood of tears was washing his eyes, rolling down his clean-shaven, wrinkled face. He knelt, lifted his head, and hit it against the ground, over and over. He could not lose them.
His knees were wet from his tears. Alia had left. Zargham and the little boy were gone. Someone who looked like Alia seemed to be walking toward the attendant’s office. The wind was blowing her skirt. How fast she was walking. It must be Khurshid. She must have a question for the attendant––the same old question.
Suleiman stood right there. He picked up his bag, clenched his fists, and headed toward the attendant’s room. His steps were slow and his legs shaky. He felt as if he was dragging them behind him. Khurshid was standing. The man in the office was on the phone. Khurshid had not yet asked the question. Suleiman was still standing there, wondering whether he could lose her or not. Tears had washed his entire face. He could not lose Khurshid, and did not want to. He walked fast and steadily now, edging closer to the girl. He was right behind her, breathing slowly. The attendant ended his call and looked up. The girl asked the attendant, “Excuse me, uncle, has anyone come to ask about my father’s grave?” As he began to answer the girl, his gaze remained fixed on Suleiman.
“Khurshid Khanum, Rise and Shine” © 2020 by Batool Heydari. Translation © 2020 by Parwana Fayyaz. Developed with Untold, a development program for writers in conflict and postconflict areas, supported by the British Council and the Bagri Foundation. All rights reserved.
A young man makes his way to work in Kabul, preoccupied with the thought of his own death, in this story by Maryam Mahjube.
Sir, please turn the air conditioner on.
If he says this out loud, everyone around him will scold him. Or they will ridicule him about how cold the weather is at this time of year, happy that space is tight in the car and they have to sit close to one another. As the number of vehicles grows and traffic gets worse, his sweat increases and a warmth spreads from behind his neck and over his whole body. When a bigger truck, full of bricks, stops beside their car, his body clenches. If that truck is full of gas and petrol, he grips the handle on the roof tighter and turns his face to the person sitting next to him, but without any smile that might at least offset his fear, his anger, and his distress. So no one will fight or make a scene, so they will not ask what they have done wrong to deserve such a look. He pretends that he wants to look at the shops or vehicles on their side. As he warms up, his cologne permeates the packed space inside the car and mixes with the smells of smoke and petrol and dust.
There is no escaping from this crowdedness. When he looks beyond the window to his left, there is a loaded trailer. To his right, there is a person sitting, and another person after that. When he looks past them, through the window, the vehicles are also full of people and are moving slowly, slowly, one after another. Beyond them, there are grocery stores whose insides are full of rice and oil and whose outsides are surrounded by crates of yellow and red apples, pomegranates, and oranges. Their color spreading warmth. The smoke of kebabs slowly wafts upwards from a restaurant and disperses. On the floor above it is a café. Its sign darkened by the smoke.
Slowly the Silo comes into view. The Silo building is so tall that it covers the silhouette of the mountains.
There are two things no one has seen—the Silo painted any other color than yellow and white and the daily arrival or departure of its bread-makers. Although Hamed has been taking this route for the past eighteen years, he has never met or seen a single person who works there. Upset by this, he breathes deeply. The pavement is full of people. People with flesh and skin and veins and blood. People full of joy and sadness and wishes and God.
Oof, people—bags full of blood with green veins and black hair. And the eyes that are black and white, green and white, a few blue and white. People full of sorrow and depression. And with the hearts that are blackened by the world. And hearts full of hope and joy from a few pieces of paper and thanking God that life is still good.
Outside the vehicle, steam comes out of the mouths of men and young children selling souvenirs in the streets. Thanks to the cold weather, it is as if everyone in the city is smoking a cigarette. This is the crowd who might at this moment or a few moments later explode with Hamed. With their veins full of blood and their skulls full of brains and nerves, they might disappear. Then he remembers the piece of cheese he left in the fridge for tomorrow morning.
Will it stay there until tomorrow morning and forevermore? Tomorrow morning will not come. Tomorrow morning—when I would have eaten that piece of cheese with sweet tea—will never come.
For these twenty-eight days he has gone to the office and come back. In two days, he will get his pay. Two days from today. Hamed speculates. For no reason at all, in utter stupidity and ignorance, on this road, inside this vehicle, his veins full of blood, would have been torn apart. In two days’ time, his pay will be transferred to the bank.
He checks one pocket, then the other, but there is no handkerchief. He puts his hand inside the pocket of his jacket and then pulls out a light turquoise colored handkerchief––on one corner of which a pear is embroidered in pink––and cleans the sweat from his forehead and neck. The handkerchief smells of cologne, the one he bought for three thousand Afghanis from Gulbahar Centre. Its bottle is really small but still full of cologne, like the people who are full of blood and wishes. It is too much—it isn’t only the thought of death and being unexpectedly broken into pieces. What if, after this, his son becomes a gum seller or an addict, or if his daughter has to beg in this country, where …
Oh God, I seek refuge in you, but all these orphans and beggars haven’t fallen from the sky. They have been left behind. Left behind by people—half of whose blood seeped into the ground in the street while water washed the other half away—buried, unwashed, as martyrs in the most crowded graveyard.
The sky is blue and clear and there is a gentle breeze. It is one of those days when the winter sun is gorgeous, and you don’t want to even think of death. The alley near the school is crowded for a winter’s day. Little and big girls, with their white chadors and colored jackets that cover half the blackness of their shirts, crowd around the man selling candy floss. Those who had eaten it first had pink colored lips and tongues. The memory of childhood turns to water in people’s hearts, just like that sweet pink cotton wool in their mouths. Mothers take the hands of their small boys and pull them into the school. The car now stops at the school lane. As the north wind blows onto Hamed’s body and dries his sweat, his phone rings:
“Hello Hamed, are you OK?”
“Hello yes, I got here fine!”
“There’s been an explosion on Pul-e Charkhi Road. I called to check on you. Thankfully, you have got there.”
“Pul-e Charkhi was not on my way, but thanks.”
He says goodbye and goes into the school, his secretary Kaka Kheir Mamad runs toward him:
“Good morning, Mr. Headmaster. Come, someone has been bothering me. He has been waiting for you since early morning. Mr. Headmaster, these girls want to transfer to another school. Their father has brought papers.”
Hamed doesn’t consider it necessary to ask: “Are they not content with their studies or teacher?”
Hamed knows that in government schools, one doesn’t ask these kinds of questions. It is completely against pride and honour in these hallowed places. It is only the private schools which put themselves at the feet of their students. He himself understands that no one makes their journey to school longer because of the quality of their studies. It’s possible that their father, like others from this area, has migrated to another place.
He looks at the document. Yes! Rabia Balkhi––so they have moved to Karteh-e Seh or Karteh-e Char. He is now curious whether they got the house with a mortgage or if they rented. He can’t imagine that these girls’ father, with his shabby appearance, bought a house.
Kaka Kheir Mamad brings tea and chocolate from the day before, which one of the students had brought as his graduation sweet. Hamed recalls that its wrapper was red and inside was chocolate mixed with nuts. It is now lunch time. The smell of fried onions rushes in with every opening and closing of the door of his office. A sense of hunger makes Hamed’s mouth watery and at last he asks his secretary, “Kaka Kheir Mamad, what are we having for lunch?” And Kaka Kheir Mamad answers: “What do the poor have for lunch, Mr. Headmaster, potato curry.” Headmaster Hamed approves the transfer documents and hands it back to Kaka Kheir Mamad. When Kaka Kheir Mamad goes away, he is alone. It was during his tea break that suddenly he felt crowded and restless again. Today his heart and mind won’t rest on anything. The tea doesn’t taste the same as normal. Why? It is as if demons are chasing him and even though now they are hidden from him, Hamed can sense them. As he remembers his sister’s call, fear runs through his heart and body––why did his sister call him so randomly and ask how he was when she knew that the explosion wasn’t on his route? Her asking how he was gives him a bad feeling. What if today, on the way back, he gets caught up in a suicide attack and that is the last time that his sister heard his voice? Don’t let it be that his sister has sensed that his death will come soon. He feels intensely low and his whole being is tangled up like a knot. He swallows, takes a deep breath. If he was a smoker, he would definitely smoke a cigarette.
He prays to God for strength, as he gets up from behind the table, and walks himself to the yard. The sun is high in the sky, warm and gentle. Hamed sits on a bench. The air is fresh and worth breathing. He moves bits of gravel around with his feet and doesn’t notice at all that he is playing with the little stones. Yes, his heart and his whole attention are on the other side of the city, with the people who died today. Who are they to him and had they known that they would die today?
Had someone informed them:
Hello, this morning at eight twenty-three you will die and afterwards explained that next to you is a vehicle full of explosives, we still don’t know what kind of explosives but we know it will explode––it will suddenly burst into flames and you will be consumed by the flames. The people would have said if it will catch fire, let it catch fire, we will die anyway, your information is not that useful. It would have been better if you had said today the weather will be cloudy or whether it would rain or not at eight twenty-three. Death is certain and we are not afraid of it, but we do fear that our children will be orphans.
Hamed raises his head and looks around him at the dry, leafless trees and the empty courtyard of the school. It is a space he has seen over and over again for many years, but it has never seen him so remorseful. He gets up and looks at his watch, it shows it is ten past two in the afternoon. Every day, he goes home from school at two thirty, so why does he want to go now? What game is he caught in? Who wants to ensnare him? Or is it a mysterious good force prompting him to leave at this hour? Should he go or not? Afterwards, they will say:
Hamed left school at two thirty every day, on the day he died he left at ten past two, damn it!
“Turn This Air Conditioner On, Sir” © 2020 by Maryam Mahjube. Translation © 2020 by Parwana Fayyaz. Developed with Untold, a development program for writers in conflict and postconflict areas, supported by the British Council and the Bagri Foundation. All rights reserved.
Societal expectations weigh down on a mother returning from the hospital after having her eighth daughter in this story by Freshta Ghani.
It is past early afternoon. The evening call to prayer is still to come. I am hungry, but I am fasting. My legs are weak, my hands are shaking. There is a kind of silence in the kitchen, but the sound of the pressure cooker, which has just started, is breaking it, getting louder and more powerful. The pressure cooker has increased my fear too. I look at the clock: seventeen minutes past five in the evening. I turn the heat down under the meat. There is a big bunch of spinach waiting to be cleaned, cut, and cooked for the guests. The kitchen is very messy, and it is making me feel suffocated. I open the bunch of spinach, clean it leaf by leaf, and use the big knife to start cutting it up. Sometimes, it is easy to take all my anger out on the vegetables, cutting them up vigorously. This is what I do. I haven’t even finished cutting up the spinach before I start worrying about the rice; I have to soak some now so that it cooks better later.
Goodness me. I can’t work properly today. I don’t know the best way to do all this. I’m panicking a lot. My heart is pounding uncontrollably. I can’t even leave the pot full of rice. I have to get dinner ready quickly. I can smell the meat—it smells cooked enough. Oh, I so feel like eating it. When the fast breaks I will definitely be eating some meat. May God accept my fast and bless me with a son this time. What else would I ask for? Oh, and it’s so good that I cooked the okra and eggplant last night. This makes my life easier now. Two dishes are ready. They will just need warming up later.
I can hear loud voices from the next room. My mother-in-law and sisters-in-law are laughing and talking loudly. What are they talking about? I wonder. God knows where Sharifa and Nazanin are. God, I am now eight months pregnant and I haven’t gone for a single check-up. I feel that this one might be a son, but I am scared that something might happen to me. I hear a very sweet voice. Who might this person be? Oh, it is my third daughter, Basmeena. She has got the salad plates ready for me. Oh, I love her tiny hands. She melts my heart with these little things she does to help me.
Cooking the spinach and meat is easy and quick. I finish making both. But how will I manage lifting the pot of rice on my own? I am feeling a bit helpless, tired. Last time, when auntie Makai was here, she saw me lifting a bucket full of water and told me off. This pot is even bigger.
The mullah has now called for the evening prayer. Maybe someone will come out of that room and help me with this pot of rice. Until then, I will break my fast. I haven’t finished my first bite when my eldest sister-in-law comes in and says: “Well done, you! The guests haven’t even arrived yet and you have started licking the pot like a hungry cat!”
My first bite is now stuck in my throat. It won’t go down, due to my fear. I move the plate away—I don’t feel like eating after this. I am standing quietly, saying nothing, though I have a lot to say. My mother always says not to be rude to my in-laws. She says you have to just endure everything. OK. My sister-in-law leaves the kitchen and my tears start flowing again like a river.
I wash a big pot and put it on the stove. I increase the heat. My life is like the boiling water in this pot, the happiness evaporating from it like the steam. My rice is soft now. I look out the window, but there is no one who can help me to lift it down. OK then. I will just lift it. Nothing is going to happen to me.
As I lift it, I feel a sharp pain in my back. The water has started flowing between my legs. With difficulty I sieve the rice, add oil and spices, put the pot back on low heat on the stove. My legs have slowly started losing their strength and the pain in my back and stomach is increasing. I feel like screaming. I slide to the floor, in too much pain to carry on with my chores. Now the kitchen door opens, and my youngest brother-in-law, Hashmat, asks: “Is the food ready? The guests have arrived.”
As he enters the kitchen he sees me. I can hear him saying, “Sister-in-law, what has happened?” He splashes water over my face, looks at me carefully, and then runs out of the kitchen. A few seconds later, my mother-in-law and eldest sister-in-law are standing over my head.
My mother in-law says: “You are a drama queen. A fake. If you couldn’t cook then you should have asked us to. If you die, what will I tell our relatives and the village?” My vision blurs. Hashmat gets angry with his mother and sisters, but I can’t hear what they are saying. I feel like I might die. The last thing I remember is the black of the car seats.
Today is my third day in the hospital. I am breathing in the smells around me. One of my hands is connected to the drip. A white sheet is coving my body. A nurse comes in and tells off the women—those women in labor whose babies haven’t yet arrived. If the women scream in pain, the nurses tell them off. There is pain in each woman’s eyes. One is beside me, breastfeeding her newborn baby. I look at the baby and remember my own. I call the nurse and ask, “Where is my baby?”
The nurse, who is wearing pink lipstick, stands over my head. She takes out my file, looks at me very carefully, and leaves without saying anything. After half an hour she is back, and I ask her the same question again.
“Your baby is weak and is in an incubator,” she says. “The doctors will tell you.”
I quickly ask her: “Is it a boy or a girl?”
The nurse thinks for a second, then says: “I don’t know. When the doctor comes, ask her.”
My heart is beating fast. I really hope that this time I have given birth to a boy. God must have listened to my prayers this time, but, if it is a girl, what will I do? My life will be hell. My heart beats faster and harder. I wish that my wish comes true. I really want a boy this time. God help me, if this baby is a boy I will distribute something good among the poor in your name. I will fast and visit shrines in your name.
I ask the lady beside me what the time is. It is eleven, and I still haven’t seen my baby. There is no sign of the doctor. I look at my hand. It is all bruised. How could this have happened? Maybe, in the last three days when I have been unwell, I have had many injections.
An older man and an older woman have entered the room. Maybe they are hospital workers. Oh, no. They are not hospital staff. They have brought food to the woman next to me. There is noise from all the women, but she is screaming the loudest. She is eating at my brain.
The doctor has entered the room. She is very angry about the man—is saying, in a loud voice, “Haven’t I told you not to let male visitors in here? Don’t you understand?” The doctor is fuming. Her face is turning red with anger, and I am not sure how to ask her about my baby. I haven’t even started talking when she leaves the room. Now she starts shouting at the woman who let the visitors in.
Oh, what should I do? There is a smell of kebab in the room, and I am so hungry. Two more hospital workers have entered and they are distributing plates of rice, beans, and a banana to all the patients. The woman beside me leans in and gives me a bite. I tell her that I don’t want it, but she insists. I am hungry, but nothing is going to go down my throat. If this time I haven’t given birth to a son, my life will be turned to poison. I am thinking deeply. I put the dishes to one side and fall asleep.
I wake to the cry of a baby. In the room, there is one baby that is particularly unsettled. The lady has two kids—a one-year-old, maybe one and a half, and a newborn. It is the older baby that is crying. I tell her that she should have left the older one at home, and she says that they brought him yesterday because he was even more unsettled when apart from her. I smile at her, and tell her, “God bless him.”
The day has passed into night. I know nothing about my baby. I am not allowed to go anywhere apart from the bathroom. The doctors are telling me I should be resting, but how can a mother rest when she’s separated from her baby? What kind of justice is this?
In the morning, a young doctor enters the room. She looks very fresh. She is wearing a light blue scarf—she looks good. “Is the baby better today?” I ask her. “How is it? Is it a son or a daughter? The nurse says my baby is weak and is being kept in an incubator?”
The doctor looks at me very carefully and says, “Thank your God that your baby is alive. The baby was so weak that we thought it wouldn’t keep breathing. What did you do that it came to this?”
I answered: “Doctor, my auntie said I should fast while pregnant. That maybe then I would give birth to a boy.”
She is angry. “You fast and then the blame goes to the doctors? We are blamed for mothers who die giving birth. How can these kinds of women stay alive? Who fasts during pregnancy?” She leaves the room. My heart is exploding: they need to tell me if I have a son or a daughter.
A few seconds pass before a nurse comes in and announces that those mothers whose babies are in incubators will have them by the evening. My hands and legs start shaking. I ask the woman beside me for the time every few minutes. I am eager to see my baby. I am so, so anxious to see my baby.
It is mealtime again. I don’t feel like eating. The lady next to me says, “Eat something. You will be breastfeeding your baby, you need your energy.” I force myself to eat a few bites before the older lady comes in to collect the plates.
The day passes with us women chatting to each other. I didn’t sleep at all last night. It is my fifth day here. Finally, the doctors bring the baby to me and say I can leave. My eldest brother-in-law and his wife have come. They ask me to go with them, and I ask them quickly, “Is my baby a boy or not?”
They are all looking down. No one says anything. I lose hope.
I take my baby and look under the blanket. My baby is a girl.
I start slowly walking out of the hospital with my in-laws. My heart is beating faster. My body is shaking. I don’t know if it is the fear, or if it is cold outside. I look at my daughter and say to myself: “What would have happened if you were a boy? I hope I die before we get home.”
As we arrive, I hear singing and music. At first, I think the neighbors are getting their son married. No—the sound is coming from our house. Oh, good, I think. My brother-in-law is getting married. This will be a good distraction, and perhaps they won’t tell me off for giving birth to another girl.
As I enter the yard, my youngest daughter runs toward me. Her face is unwashed, I hug her close to my chest, then clean her nose with the edge of my scarf. I asked her, “Marwa, what is happening at home?”
She is talking in her sweet young voice: “I don’t know, Mama. But everyone is wearing beautiful clothes. Look at my new yellow dress.” I am anxious to learn what is happening.
When I enter the room, the women greet me by tossing the traditional chocolates and other sweets over my head. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe they will welcome me like this knowing that I have given birth to a girl. Everyone is congratulating me. I have started to smile, for the first time in a while. I am saying thank you. I haven’t finished greeting everyone when one woman, standing on my left, says: “This is the first time I have seen a woman who is happy that her husband is taking a second wife.”
It feels like someone has poured boiling water over me. My legs feel weak, my throat is full of pain, and my eyes have dried out. I sit down in the middle of the room and let my baby girl slip from my hands. A woman who is sitting near me catches her quickly. The baby’s cry is eating my brain. I hate to hear it. I don’t even want to see my baby. I am silent, but my mood is changing.
There is a lot of noise from the women. A few of them have gathered around me. I am still in my own world. Maiwand enters the room, and I run toward him and spit in his face. He slaps me hard across mine. I fall down on the floor, and he leaves the room.
Nargis’s auntie tells her daughter, Palwasha, to give me a glass of warm milk, since I have just given birth. She helps me get up with great difficulty. The kitchen is a mess, and there are dishes everywhere. Palwasha puts a pot of milk on the stove, but then leaves in a hurry, the sound of music and singing coming from the next room. It is making its way right into my brain. I get angrier and angrier.
The milk is getting hot and foaming up.
I pour the full pot of boiling milk over my head. I fall to the floor. I am burning from head to toe.
A few women come into the kitchen. One of them runs toward me, lifts me up, and says with a sigh: “Poor woman. Her husband has married another woman.”
Another woman, who has a big voice, says: “Poor woman. Her luck is bad. This is her eighth baby, and it’s another girl.”
“Daughter Number Eight” © 2020 by Freshta Ghani. Translation © 2020 by Zarghuna Kargar. Developed with Untold, a development program for writers in conflict and postconflict areas, supported by the British Council and the Bagri Foundation. All rights reserved.
Why is it so hard to find the work of Sudanese women in English translation? Yes, there is Leila Aboulela, who writes in English, but if asked about other female Sudanese writers, one would probably struggle to name them. Some might reason that there just aren’t many Sudanese women writing. This assumption has led to anthologies and online publications focused on Sudanese literature in which female-authored works make up less than thirty percent of their contents; more general anthologies include even fewer writers. This issue seeks to counter such assumptions.
The short story form has long been celebrated in Sudan, and yes, single stories by female authors, as well as a few entire collections, have made it into English. But where are the novels written by Sudanese women? Tayyeb Salih, Amir Tag Elsir, and Hammour Ziada are all feted authors of novels in their original Arabic and translated English versions. But when I spoke with journalists, academics, and friends, they were all hard pressed to find a novel by a Sudanese woman translated into English.
Zeinab Belail, one of Sudan’s preeminent writers, has been publishing literary works for over thirty years. Why have we never come across her work in English till today? Of the five writers featured in this issue, Rania Mamoun is the only one to have appeared in translation before. Is there some sort of double marginalization at play? Perhaps, for not only are they women, but also Sudanese, caught in a limbo at times of not being Arab nor African enough.
Rather than focusing primarily on who has made it into English, I felt it more pressing to investigate what is happening in the Sudanese publishing arena within the context of the greater Arab literary sphere. The conclusion? If one reads Arabic, yet can’t “see” the works of female Sudanese authors, can’t celebrate their works and engage with their powerful writing, it’s not because they aren’t there.
So what do we know about the world of Sudanese novels in Arabic? Nabil Ghali’s study ”A Bibliography of the Sudanese Novel” investigates the state of novels published in Arabic in Sudan from 1948 to 2015. This study finds that in this period, 476 novels were published, 314 of them between 2000 and 2015. Of those 476 novels, only forty-nine, by thirty-five writers, were authored by women. Compare this to, say, Amir Tag Elsir, who has published nineteen novels and is still writing. Furthermore, the years of 2014 and 2015 saw eleven novels authored by women published, nearly equaling the output of female authors in the fifty years between 1948 and 2000, which saw no more than fifteen women’s novels making it to market in Sudan. Enough number crunching; here is the takeaway: from 1948 to 2015, only ten percent of the novels published in Sudan were written by women. Ten percent.
Not all hope is lost, though. A more recent study analyzing the Arabophone Sudanese novels published in Sudan and outside of it, carried out by Dr. Atef Al Haj Saeed, states despite the December uprising being at the forefront of the population’s concerns, 2019 was a record year for the novel in Sudan, with twenty-eight published. An additional twenty novels were published outside Sudan (the lion’s share in Egypt), bringing the total to forty-eight. Of these, nine, or twenty percent, were written by women. And of these nine novels, over fifty percent were published outside of Sudan in countries such as Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Authors in this issue, some of whom still reside in Sudan, are among those who sought to publish their works outside of the country.
Amna al-Fadl, Ann El Safi, Rania Mamoun, Sara Al-Jack, and Zeinab Belail are all established writers with short story collections, poetry collections, and novels to their name. I interviewed them to hear the challenges they have faced getting published in Arabic, and the trickle-down effect this has on their work making it into translation. When Belail, lauded for her extensive body of work, showed an editor her first novel, Al-Aktiyar (The Choice, 1984), he responded, “This is too much . . . coming from a woman.” More than three decades into her career, Zeinab recounted, “writing about sex or religion is still forbidden for women. There are red lines that as a female writer you’re not even meant to approach. To do so brands you a heretic, a rogue, someone who has no appreciation for literature.” Compare this to Amir Tag Elsir’s novel Ebola ’76, which opens with a sexual encounter.
"There is a patriarchal mentality that prevails throughout Sudanese society, and an extremely high sensitivity toward what female authors are writing about, especially when it seemingly contradicts societal values,” shares Ann El Safi. Living outside of Sudan, El Safi recollects that, upon returning to Sudan to discuss her novel Falak al-Ghawaya (Orbit of Temptation, 2014), she was met with heavy criticism and even threatened. Her novel portrays an empowered female character who takes her life into her own hands, having her own affair after suspecting her husband’s infidelity. One critic even went so far as to demand she rewrite the book. You may argue that women’s writing is censored to some degree in all Arab countries, but when comparing these cases to those of female writers publishing in Lebanon or even the UAE, for instance—where Libyan Najwa Bin Shatwan’s latest novel, The Horse’s Hair, retells the sacrosanct story of creation and pummels the patriarchal customs of her country—the brick wall that Sudanese women writers are facing is that much higher, thicker, seemingly impenetrable. Bin Shatwan shared that getting her novel published in the UAE did raise some eyebrows in the industry there but wasn’t impossible thanks to the stalwart support of her male editor.
For those ten percent of Sudanese women who manage to break through and get their novels published, what happens next? “Literary critics tend to be males who prefer to celebrate male authors,” Belail declares. “No matter how distinguished a woman’s writing may be, works by women are rarely reviewed. Male critics simply do not appreciate the courage it takes for women to write in our society.” Courage, and determination. It goes without saying that if women’s works are repeatedly neglected, pushed aside whether in print or on radio or television, then Sudanese readers—let alone other Arab ones—are less likely to know about these books and pick them up.
The ripple effect is that editors in the English-speaking world (and undoubtedly in other language ecosystems as well) want to see translated reviews, numbers of books sold, and other evidence to show how the book did in its home country. If a Sudanese female author is unsupported by her own literary ecosystem, it is unlikely that her work will make it into any other language. A case in point is that between 2015 and 2017 alone, there were at least five novels by male Sudanese authors translated into English whereas to date there appears to not have been a single female-authored Sudanese novel translated into English and published. By contrast, in 2020, to cite one Arabophone example, there have already been three novels by Palestinian women translated into English published by both American and British houses.
Aside from issues that affect both male and female Sudanese authors—lack of marketing support, poor distribution of books, weak editing standards in houses, nonexistent financial support from governmental bodies, a dearth of training for publishers—what many of these writers are hoping for, at the very least, is summarized by Sara Al-Jack: “Sudanese women writers need to be seen as separate entities from their female characters so that we aren’t prosecuted for our characters’ actions and decisions.”
What may not be seen by Western audiences as provocative or controversial can be deemed as such by Sudanese society. In Amna al-Fadl’s novel Some of What Happened Between Us (translated by Katherine Van de Vate) the protagonist, Basma, is a journalist and activist based in Sudan. Starved for love, the protagonist embarks upon a passionate extramarital affair with a psychologist she meets at a workshop in a prison. Far from a mere romance, though, al-Fadl’s work is an indictment of the treatment of women in Sudan in which early marriage, genital mutilation, and domestic abuse feature. (As you may have suspected, it was published outside of Sudan.) The novel juxtaposes the modern and the traditional, moving through different times and places to tell Basma’s story in a deeply evocative yet economical style. Al-Fadl is a poet, and writes in lyrical language of great beauty, particularly when she is portraying her characters’ thoughts and emotions, as seen in the excerpt here, “Basma’s Dream.”
In “The Birth of the Spirit,” from The Mites by Sara Al-Jack, the Nile is more than an element in the setting; it is a central character, perhaps the central character. The river plays a pivotal role in the story, as it does in the history of Sudan, which Al-Jack is intent on retelling through a different lens in her work. It is Al-Jack’s inspired and imaginative reconstruction of such stories, and how she positions the Nile in the heart of the narrative of creation, that drew the translator Yasmine Zohdi to the particular scene presented in this issue, which effectively conveys the essence of this ambitious work.
Ann El Safi’s novel Like Spirit resists easy categorization. Its twenty-two vignettes weave in and out of a number of narrative threads, which meet and part in ways evocative of the shape of the long braid that forms one of its recurring physical motifs. The novel plays with ideas of reincarnation and doppelgängers, and explores themes of war, injustice, wasted potential, unrequited love, and the complex, interchangeably nourishing and destructive, relationship between humans and nature. ”Freedom of Flight,” the excerpt featured here, translated by Nariman Youssef, introduces the perspective of an unexpected character.
“Al-Nar Street,” from Zeinab Belail’s The Cactus (translated by Nesrin Amin), opens in a slum on the outskirts of the “Illuminated City.” The residents of the slum are migrants who settled there when the city shut them out by means of physical boundaries. A failed uprising leads to their expulsion from their already squalid homes, and they embark on a fantastic journey with the determination to rebuild their lives, aided by nothing less than demons and genies. The fantastic and supernatural thus blend and contrast with the stark realism of the life of the marginalized people. Belail explained that the novel is an ode to the Sudanese people, whose harsh conditions, much like those of cactus plants, only increase their resilience and fortitude.
Also exploring a marginalized section of Sudanese society is Rania Mamoun’s Son of the Sun (translated by Nesrin Amin), which takes place in Mamoun’s hometown of Wad Madani. Set up as two parallel narrative lines that converge toward the end, it follows two protagonists: the melancholy morgue-worker Karam, who lives withdrawn from society, and the uninhibited, sanguine Jamal, one of the so-called “shammasa,” the homeless “sons of the sun.” The novel traces the repeated and futile attempts of the shammasa to emerge from their hopeless situation, only to be brutally pushed back by society. Their world is contrasted to that of Karam, himself living on the margins of society, who feels more at ease dealing with the corpses in the morgue. In the excerpt here, “At the Coffee Shop,” Jamal observes a mundane morning turn suddenly violent.
As you dive into these poignant excerpts, savor the literature for its creativity, experimentation, and musicality … but just as important, remember what it took for these voices to reach you.
* * *
All interviews were conducted by email in Arabic and have been translated into English. Special thanks to Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin for providing contact details for some of the authors and to Hamid Al Nazir for guiding me to available data on publishing in Sudan.
© 2020 by Sawad Hussain. All rights reserved.
A routine day turns suddenly violent in this excerpt from Rania Mamoun’s novel Son of the Sun.
Listen to Rania Mamoun read "At the Coffee Shop" in the original Arabic.
The frenzied football fan banged on the table with a force that knocked the tea over. One glass shattered as it hit the ground. He shot up, angrily screaming at the man addressing him. He kicked the plastic chair; it fell over with its legs pointing to the sky. I looked at the shattered glass and, for a moment, couldn’t hear his angry voice anymore. Is our boss going to make me pay up for this glass? He told us a hundred times not to break any glasses. You break it, you buy it. Of course, he’ll say it’s my fault, that I should have cleared the table sooner . . .
I looked over and saw the enraged fan had slashed the other’s throat with a piece of broken glass. While I was brooding, he had bent over, picked up a shard of glass, and slit the throat of the man he was speaking to, sliced the artery right open! In that moment, one man lost his life. Oh God! Like that—just like that! In a blink of an eye, a man’s dead!
I was horrified. Looking over at Ibrahuma, I saw that he was too. I’d never seen anyone die in front of me before. Blood gushed from the man’s neck, it splattered on the customers’ clothes and on the killer, who had a frozen look in his eyes. People gathered around shouting: “Take him to the hospital!” “Save him!” “Help me pick him up!” “Call an ambulance!” “What have you done, man?” “Where’s the ambulance?” “Somebody call an ambulance!” “It’s all right, man, compose yourself, compose yourself.” “Shut up, he can’t hear you.” “Is he dead?” “No, no, he’s not dead.” “He’s dead you idiot, look, look, his eyes have lost their shine.” “Oh my God.”
The crowd grew. In minutes, a crowd of people gathered, each one of them eager to see the victim, to see how well they knew him. Everyone claimed they knew that the murderer would kill somebody someday. He was hot-tempered, red-hot, like burning coal, a fanatical supporter of his team, which happened to be losing that day.
Salem, our boss, roused us from our state of shock and confusion at what had happened. He yelled at us to bring in the cups, tables, and chairs.
“They’re going to attack the coffee shop next. Hurry up!”
We quickly started collecting cups and trays. This guy only cares about his money, even when someone had just been murdered right before his eyes. We passed through the crowd, trembling, moving cautiously and nervously, grabbing cups and bumping into each other. We picked up the fallen chairs and brought them into the restaurant, at times grabbing the same one and carrying it in together. We took all we could carry back into the coffee shop, then ran back out to bring in the tables. It wasn’t easy. Shorter people were standing on top of them so they wouldn’t miss out. We struggled, as there wasn’t much space for us to move the tables or lift them over our shoulders. The whole place was jam-packed, making what we had to do almost impossible.
Even after the ambulance had left with the body inside, and after the police had arrested the murderer and prepared a field sketch, the place was still teeming with people. Salem was agitated, screaming at Ibrahuma and me, barking out one order after another, leaving us tense and confused about what to do next. After some rushed hauling we were able to save many of the tables, if not all.
Some people sat at the remaining tables and started retelling the events over and over to those who kept coming in, and whoever heard the story passed it on. Everyone was talking, you couldn’t tell who was listening to whom! This one was telling the story, that one was analyzing it, someone else was sharing his observations, while another guy was reminded of a similar story he had heard or witnessed. The conversations drifted—soon enough they forgot all about the murderer and his victim. They started talking about violence, about how people have forgotten how to talk to one another, how they have become irritable and short-tempered and unable to handle criticism.
One of them, a slender man with a good head of hair and four different color pens sticking out of the pocket of his shabby white shirt, jumped on top of a rusty metal table and began talking to the crowd from his improvised pulpit:
“People, everything that’s happened here is the government’s fault! Yes, this government hasn’t left us a mattress to sleep on, it has made our lives intolerable, our work intolerable, we’re constantly tired and irritated, worn out as an old shoe! Brothers, if this government was just, our lives wouldn’t have been so miserable, we wouldn’t be killing one another, robbing one another and . . .”
This man must be high on something, I thought.
One of the people standing around shouted at him: “How is the government responsible?” Others answered back, their blood boiling: “What do you mean, how is the government’s responsible? If this killer had been content and carefree, if he wasn’t hungry, he wouldn’t have done what he did.” Another responded: “He committed this crime because he’s an angry and hot-tempered man. He’s nothing but a sore loser!” Another one butted in to say that it’s not the government’s fault but that the football players are to blame, playing like they’re drunk, unable to run or control the ball or score a goal.
Bragging, the man on the table said: “You see, it’s like I said, it’s all the government’s fault. If the government had taken an interest in sports these players would have been like the Brazilians. Even when they beat you, you come out happy because you’ve enjoyed the match. The score doesn’t matter.”
Another man hopped on the same table and said to him: “Hey man, what’s your beef with the government? It’s the coaches’ fault, they’re not doing their job properly and only care about their paycheck at the end of the month!”
“No, it’s not the coaches’ fault, it’s the government, the government, guys! You want to kill the elephant, you don’t stab its shadow! You’re cowards, scurrying off like mice to hide in your holes and leaving those running the government to walk all over this country like it’s their private property.”
“Who you calling coward? Who you calling mouse? Watch your tongue, man.”
“Cowards and mice, you’re all cowards, you’re all wimps! A cowardly people, cowards, cow—”
The words caught in his throat as he took a punch to the temple. A vicious brawl broke out between the two of them, right there, on the table. It collapsed under their weight and both men tumbled to the ground.
Hands shot out from all sides trying to separate them, and voices intermingled:
“Guys, calm down.”
“A difference of opinion shouldn’t come to this—cool it, guys!”
We looked on with great interest and excitement, eager to pick up anything that fell on the ground: a wallet, a pack of cigarettes, a pouch of snuff, or anything else that might be in their pockets and which we could use. Ibrahuma and I stood side by side, now at some distance from the coffee shop, watching, on the lookout for whatever this chaos would gift us. It might just be our lucky day.
From Ibn al-Shams. © Rania Mamoun. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Nesrin Amin. All rights reserved.