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Words Without Borders is an inaugural Whiting Literary Magazine Prize winner!
from the January 2018 issue

Writing by Kazakh Women

Kazakhstan is the largest country by landmass to emerge from the breakup of the Soviet Union aside from Russia itself, but it has had an undersized impact on world literature. Its rich oral storytelling tradition has so far gone largely unrecorded outside the Kazakh and Russian languages. When we take into account that the region has had very little experience as an independent state but a centuries-long history of colonialism—Mongolian, Russian, and most recently Soviet—we start to understand how it is that no specifically, identifiably Kazakh body of literature has yet surfaced separate from those overbearing influences. Most of what Kazakhstan can claim has already been attributed to the Russians, or the Ottomans, or the Mongols, or the Persians. 

The writings of the poets and novelists working within the boundaries of Kazakh socialist realism during the Soviet era have also not generated much interest from abroad. The fresh influx of banned books and translated literature during the perestroika and glasnost years could have transformed Kazakh literature, but it did not do so, at least not immediately. Only much more recently has a greater sense of artistic freedom begun to filter into the writings of Kazakh poets and novelists.

This new writing is still difficult to find, especially in English. Here is our attempt to begin that work with excerpts from two short stories (novellas, really) and one work of nonfiction by three contemporary Kazakh writers stepping outside the bounds of socialist realism. Their stories have similar themes but are written in different styles. Together, we hope, they provide an interesting insight into what preoccupies Kazakh women writing today.

Aigul Kemelbayeva’s novella The Nanny is a landmark: the first work of fiction written by a Kazakh woman to break with the conventions of Kazakh socialist realism. The perhaps-autobiographical story of a Kazakh student of Russian literature trying to survive in Moscow in the months following the collapse of the Soviet Union, The Nanny presents a new kind of protagonist: an uncertain, introverted young woman, whose only source of strength is her multicultural patchwork of knowledge, covering Russian literature, Islamic religion, and Kazakh folk culture.

Indebted to its landmark predecessor, Zaure Batayeva’s novel The School presents a few hectic months in the life of another young Kazakh woman trying to survive in a post-Soviet world. Stylistically, however, it is very different from The Nanny: terse and bare, it follows closely on the heels of its narrator. The story also pushes into new territory thematically, touching upon the low status of the Kazakh language among the Russian-speaking elite, the romantic confusions of the glasnost generation, and the corruption pervading the country’s education system.

Zira Naurzbayeva’s The Beskempir reads like a work of fiction, but, as the author assures us, the old women who feature in the story are real. Here, we present the introduction to the work. The rest of the essay consists of vignettes that give readers an unprecedented glimpse into the intergenerational relationships shaping the lives of so many families in Almaty during the late Soviet era (relationships which, the author suggests, are becoming increasingly rare). Each old woman has her own past and personality. Together they represent not just the complex history of women in Soviet Central Asia, but also what happened to those women as they moved from countryside to city, from communism to capitalism, and watched their children and grandchildren do the same.

All three of the authors showcased here are experienced writers who have plenty to tell us about the culture and time that shaped them, both personally and professionally. We hope you enjoy this look at a changing world from their point of view.

Read more from the January 2018 issue
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