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from the September 2018 issue

Exporting Georgian Literature

When representatives from Georgian publishing houses first visited the Frankfurt Book Fair at the end of the 1990s, they could only dream that in 2018, some twenty years later, Georgia would enjoy the status of guest of honor. Nevertheless, to our surprise and delight, the dream has become reality, and now, as if seeing the light at the end of a long tunnel, Georgian writers and publishers find themselves face to face with the most important project in their history, the main event of which is only days away. This light will guide Georgian culture to the heart of Europe, showing it the way as it takes those all-important first steps toward calmer waters after centuries of stormy seas.

The sense of expectation that surrounds the presentation to be made by the country chosen as guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair resembles the buildup to a great sporting event, and this year, our German colleagues have informed us, fairgoers are particularly excited. Everyone is keen to know the reasons behind the (some might say risky) decision by the organizers of the fair to give Georgia a platform alongside such heavy hitters as the Netherlands, France, Norway, and Canada.

Georgia will be the Guest Country at next month’s Frankfurt Book Fair. How will a country that remains almost completely undiscovered by the outside world cope with such a huge international project? Even more important, what does Georgian literature look like today? What did it look like in the past? And who are the Georgian writers worth reading, listening to, and maybe even meeting?

Perhaps one of the main reasons that Georgian literature, in spite of its long history, has never been widely read beyond its homeland is the unique three-script Georgian writing system, which was added to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2016. Georgian is written and spoken by only around three and a half million people in Georgia itself and fewer than one million emigrants. For the rest of the world, the language is almost completely inaccessible. From time immemorial, Georgians have regarded their language as a vital asset worth preserving at all cost, as was proven in 1978, during the Soviet period, when people came out onto the streets in huge numbers to protest the decision by the Soviet government to make Russian the official language of Georgia. They eventually forced the authorities to back down. However, such a unique asset comes at a price, and if Georgian literature is to achieve widespread popularity in the international arena, it is essential to support translation work with meaningful investment and promotion. 

For Georgian writers, the Iron Curtain and the seventy-year Soviet regime proved to be almost insuperable obstacles in their quest for freedom from literary boundaries. During that period, it was essentially impossible to have translations and original writing published outside the Soviet sphere, and even within that sphere, publishing was always tightly controlled by the regime. Nevertheless, there were a few exceptions, such as the twelfth-century epic poem The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, that rare book that could not be hemmed in even by the almighty Iron Curtain, such was its genius. Considered not only the most important work in Georgian literary history but also a masterpiece of world literature, it has been translated into around sixty languages.  

In the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, foundations were laid for the construction of an independent publishing sector (until then, only state publishers had existed), and slowly this new industry arose from the ashes of the USSR while simultaneously establishing and developing business relationships with publishers across the world. Over the last twenty-five years, the publishing and literary worlds of Georgia have come a long way, maneuvering past many roadblocks on the path to development. Now the baton has been passed to a new generation of caretakers, young people with modern outlooks who are working hard to integrate fifteen centuries of Georgian literature to promote it to foreign publishers. 

Georgian writers have always had a powerful influence on the nation’s consciousness, and this is as true now as it was in the past. They are present whenever civil society battles injustice, and they continue to support efforts to consolidate democratic values in Georgia. Writers also played an important role in the period immediately following independence: during those difficult years, as the country struggled to reappraise its values and free itself from the influence of Soviet ideology, there were times when certain authors were shunned by the authorities and ordinary citizens, when their freely written words and freely formed opinions fell on deaf ears. And yet young writers—and here it is particularly important to underline the role played by women writers—went on talking and writing loudly and stubbornly as they strove to break down taboos. It is of course impossible, in the space of only two decades or so, for the country to free itself entirely of the Soviet mentality and ideology that wormed its way into people’s consciousness so destructively for seventy years, and traces of that ideology still appear from time to time in both society and the political arena. That is why you will often see Georgian writers alongside NGOs and ordinary citizens at demonstrations and on TV screens and social media. In public debates, politicians have found writers to be some of their toughest and most feared adversaries. You may also have spotted a group of Georgian writers and publishers at our national stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair last year, holding up banners that read, “We are writers and publishers from Georgia. We have voices. We have power!”, “Stop Russia!”, and “Russia is an occupier!” to protest Russia’s occupation of the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and Samachablo and its ongoing policy of “creeping occupation.”

With all this in mind, it is only to be expected that the most difficult and challenging topics arising out of the process of transformation from Soviet Georgia back to independent Georgia should still be fully present in contemporary Georgian literature. Indeed, what we find in Georgian literature today are works that represent an original and unique synthesis of largely European values and national traditions. In a country whose first novel and earliest surviving text tells of the martyrdom of Queen Shushanik, and where the twelfth-century ruler Tamar was so powerful she was given the title King, it is no surprise to find fiction dealing with feminist themes and questions of gender equality. Meanwhile, in a country where even today you can find a Georgian Orthodox church, a synagogue, a mosque, and an Armenian Apostolic church standing side by side in the capital, Tbilisi (a city noted for its historical tolerance of difference), and which has been invaded over the centuries by nearly all the major powers—the Arabs, the Mongols, the Seljuk Turks, the Ottomans, the Byzantines, and the Russians—it is equally unsurprising to find fiction about tolerance, war, and the importance of peace. At the same time, our writers have not forgotten to write about everyday life in Georgia, and you will of course also find in modern Georgian literature love stories, made all the sweeter by the times of hardship.

When we were choosing the authors to be featured in this edition of Words Without Borders, our main criteria were to show how original and varied contemporary Georgian literature is and to present a balanced selection of writing in terms of gender, age, and genre. For me personally, it was especially important to offer our overseas readers some interesting works of poetry alongside prose fiction, which tends to be the most popular genre independent of geography. After all, Georgia is often referred to as the Land of Poets! We have also taken this opportunity to present an excerpt from a work of Georgian nonfiction.

Thus, you will have the fascinating (I hope!) experience of becoming acquainted with the work of Naira Gelashvili and Teona Dolenjashvili, two female fiction writers from different generations, as well as with a piece of fiction by another important young writer from the youngest generation, Beka Kurkhuli. As for poetry, you will find works by two of Georgia’s most distinguished modern-day poets, Irakli Kakabadze and Lela Samniashvili. Finally, the fascinating Gela Charkviani has been chosen to represent the field of nonfiction.

Naira Gelashvili, born in 1947, is one of the most brilliant writers in contemporary Georgian literature. She is also an expert on German culture, a well-known literary critic, and a social activist. She quickly found a wide audience for her nonconformist writing at the very earliest stages of her career, and though she often received unwanted attention from the Soviet authorities as a result, she never stopped working, producing novels, short stories, essays, poetry, and children’s fiction and winning various literary prizes in the process. In 1994, Gelashvili founded the nongovernmental organization Caucasian House, which to this day strives for peaceful coexistence among the multicultural, multifaith peoples of the Caucasus. In recent years, several of her works have been translated into German, bringing her a significant readership in Germany. Here, we present an extract titled "Little Dipper" from her short novel, The Ambri, the Umbri, and the Arab, one of the most unusual love stories in the whole of Georgian literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, although it should be noted that the romance is merely the foundation on which Gelashvili builds an expansive universe. It is also worth noting that mythology—in both the cultural-traditional and the philosophical sense of the word—plays an important role in Gelashvili’s work, and the text we have chosen is no exception.

Teona Dolenjashvili, born in 1977, is one of the best Georgian writers to break onto the scene in recent years. She published her first book, the short story collection January River, in 2005 and since then has been awarded important literary prizes on several occasions. Her short stories have been translated into several languages and published in various overseas anthologies, and in 2008, her novel Memphis came out in Italian. Her story “Meskhi vs. Meskhi” was chosen from her latest short story collection, Personal Christ, published in Georgia earlier in 2018. The story deals with a topic that has been widely discussed in Georgia in recent years: surrogacy. In 2014, a draft law imposing legally binding age limits of forty-one and forty-six for women and men respectively on IVF treatment was introduced into the Georgian parliament. The proposed legislation was met with an uproar in society, and thankfully its progress through parliament is currently stalled. “Meskhi vs. Meskhi” shows again how sharply attuned contemporary Georgian women writers are to the issues of the day and how powerfully they react to them. In addition to her literary achievements, Teona Dolenjashvili is actively involved in public life. At present, she is working on a project to build a modern seaport that meets international standards in the town of Anaklia, which lies on the border with the ancient Georgian region of Abkhazia, now of course occupied by Russia. 

Beka Kurkhuli, born in 1974, is from the same generation as Teona Dolenjashvili but made his first appearance on the literary scene much earlier, in 1991. He worked as a reporter for several years during the wars that engulfed the Caucasus following the collapse of the Soviet Union, filing reports not only from the conflict zones—Abkhazia, Samachablo, and the Pankisi Gorge—created in Georgia by the wars against Russian forces but also from other regions of the Caucasus, such as Ingushetia and Azerbaijan, in addition to Afghanistan. Almost all of Kurkhuli’s books have won literary prizes. Here we present an excerpt from one of his most popular short stories, “The Killer,” from the collection The City in Snow, which was translated into Italian in 2018. “The Killer” deals with Georgia’s recent past, giving the author an opportunity to mold his professional experience as a war reporter into artistic form. The story depicts the lives of Georgian soldiers and partisans in Abkhazia during and after the Russo-Georgian war and describes the terrible effects of the war on ordinary Georgians and Abkhazians, who until then had been connected for generations by family ties, friendships, and shared territory.

Kurkhuli won the important Littera Prize in 2018 for his short story collection Skandara and Other Short Stories; Lela Samniashvili took the poetry prize for her latest collection, Thirty-Seven. Samniashvili is one of the most well-known and distinguished poets in Georgia. Her poetry is characterized by rigor and precision, while her poetic voice possesses a highly original sonority. She was born in 1977, and in 2007 received a master’s degree in philosophy from the University of Oslo. She is the author of several prizewinning collections of poetry, and her work has been translated into English, Dutch, Italian, Azerbaijani, and Russian. Samniashvili is also active in the field of translation, and many Georgians know her as the translator of Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf. For this publication, we have chosen two of her most brilliant poems, “A Run in My Stocking” and “Military Drills.”

The poet Irakli Kakabadze was born in 1982 and is the author of four collections of poetry and one book of short stories. For several years he worked in the public sector, specifically at the National Center for Teacher Development in Tbilisi, a legal entity under the Ministry of Education and Science in Georgia. Following his first appearance on the creative scene, while still a civil servant, he rapidly made a name for himself as a passionate social activist and an indefatigable defender of human rights and freedom of speech, and these are precisely the topics he deals with in his work, which is noteworthy for its originality. Even while still employed by the civil service, he never shied away from harsh criticism of the state and the Georgian Orthodox Church, but eventually, due to the impossibility of reconciling his work for the government with his activism, he was forced to make what was, for him, an unbearably difficult decision and leave his homeland for Turkey. Kakbadze now lives in Istanbul. He owns a café called Café Galaktion, named after the great Georgian poet Galaktion Tabidze, and spends the rest of his time popularizing Georgian culture throughout Turkey, teaching Georgian to ethnic Georgians living in Turkey and responding through his writing to controversies back home. For this publication, we have chosen Kakabadze’s poem “The Children of Beslan,” dedicated to the victims of the bloody confrontation between sub-units of the Russian Special Operations Forces and Chechen extremists in a school in North Ossetia on September 1, 2004. We also offer a selection of Japanese tanka. Kakabadze uploaded a number of these short poems to various social media sites over the course of several years under the pseudonym Iaki Kabe, fooling many into believing they were the work of an unknown Japanese poet translated into Georgian. His tanka became so popular on the Internet that when they were published in book form, the book topped the national bestseller lists. To this today, interest in this side of Kakabadze’s work shows no signs of flagging.

Last, but definitely not least, we present Gela Charkviani—diplomat, pedagogue, writer, television personality, and showman. Charkviani was born in 1939 into the family of Candide Charkviani, first secretary of the Communist Party of Georgia under Stalin, and thanks to his famous father was known as the Communist Crown Prince. (In 2000, Gela Charkviani’s son, the musician and writer Irakli Charkviani—the most eccentric member of Georgia’s underground scene from the nineties onward, who created alternative music that even today, after his tragic death, enjoys unprecedented popularity in Georgia—was given the nickname "The King," prompting Gela to joke that this made him both the son and the father of kings.) Eleven Years by Shevy’s Side (here excerpted as "Shevardnadze and Me: The Beginning") is Charkviani’s personal, professional, and political autobiography. More precisely, it is the autobiography of a multifaceted individual in a multitude of roles. He begins life as Communist Crown Prince and grows into a rebellious Soviet youth drawn to banned music and the urban underground. Later he becomes an enthusiastic proselytizer for the free world on the other side of the Iron Curtain (he was one of the few individuals who were allowed out of the Soviet Union, traveling to America in 1970 and taking courses at the University of Michigan), as well as the author of numerous policies reflecting social initiatives. From the 1990s onward, he worked as chief foreign policy advisor to President Eduard Shevardnadze, spokesperson for President Mikheil Saakashvili, and ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to the United Kingdom. Over the last few years, he has published a series of books, including his autobiography, excerpts from his notebooks, and other works of documentary prose, all of which have taken their rightful place on the year-end bestseller lists.

Understanding the historical, political, and cultural backdrop against which these authors, with their diverse worldviews and life experiences, are writing is important to making an unfamiliar literary culture a little less unfamiliar. Their appearance here constitutes a big step forward on the great journey of bringing Georgian literature to the world. 

© 2018 by Gvantsa Jobava. Translation © 2018 by Philip Price. All rights reserved.

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