Amanat: Women’s Writing from Kazakhstan

Earlier this year I had the great pleasure to read this anthology in manuscript. This month AMANAT is published!

In the fall of 2018, the Kazakh writer Zira Naurzbayeva agreed to meet me, an English traveller and writer, to discuss her work of nonfiction “The Beskempir,” which I had read online though only in the form of an extract. Like many travellers, whenever I prepare for a journey I gather books of fiction and nonfiction set in each country on my route. However, in the case of Kazakhstan, I found it difficult to track down translations, especially translations of Kazakh women’s writing.

I contacted Zira through her translator, Shelley Fairweather-Vega, in the hope that by meeting Zira I might gain personal insights into a part of the world that was unfamiliar to me. Zira and I emailed back and forth, sometimes in English but also in Russian. I don’t speak Russian so I typed my messages into online translators, and kept my fingers crossed that in spite of our language incompatibility we would manage to make a real-world connection. A last-minute change to my complex train schedule might have scuppered our plans. My route took me from western Europe, through Belarus to Russia, and I entered Kazakhstan via the northern city of Petropavl, later travelling onwards to China.

Fortunately, we did meet on a Saturday afternoon at Astana’s National Library. Zira’s daughter, Hadisha, kindly came along to translate.

At the end of the afternoon, I came away emotionally wrecked. As a former journalist I have enjoyed the privilege of meeting many generous people willing to tell me about their lives, their family histories. But I had never met anyone with such a bewildering and traumatic family history as Zira’s. I believe the intensity of our conversation became heightened because Zira’s daughter acted as an innocent conduit for these appalling accounts of the past, which ended, more often than seemed plausible, in dispossession, famine and starvation. Their extended family history mirrored the gamut of Central Asia’s century of catastrophes: the loss of livelihoods during political upheavals and disastrous macro-economic interventions, the confiscations of livestock by the Red Army during the Russian Civil War, dispossession of land when the Bolsheviks pushed to collectivise farming, the destruction of the fishing industry at the Aral Sea. Not forgetting, the loss of good health following the Soviet nuclear testing programme in eastern Kazakhstan.

I also came away from our conversation wanting to know more. I craved more personal reflections on life in Kazakhstan whether those reflections took the form of essays, short stories or fictionalised autobiography, which I could read alongside the limited number of English-language travel guides. I wanted the authentic, insider stories, the authentic voices of women.

Here we have it, in Amanat: Women’s Writing from Kazakhstan. Edited by Shelley Fairweather-Vega and Zaure Batayeva. Published by independent press, Gaudy Boy.

At last, we can read “The Beskempir” unabridged in English for the first time.

One of the great pleasures in reading these works in translation is our encounter with Kazakh idioms. ‘Why hurry away as if you’ve come to borrow a matchstick?’ (“An Awkward Conversation”). ‘If I pulled one way, my bull would die, and if I pulled the other, my cart would break’ (“Hunger”). In the same story we read about a food vendor: “They have everything but bird’s milk.” And we meet a local dignitary described as a ‘big bird’ (“Romeo and Juliet”).

The reader gleans that the writers in Amanat are connected to a rural heritage even if their families had moved to the cities, away for the steppe and their villages half a century earlier. Indeed, the difficulties in transitioning from a rural life to an urban life is a key theme in Zira’s “The Beskempir.” It records the pressure on grandmothers to leave their auls, their village homes, and help their adult children in the city. An elderly woman sinks into despair having left her aul to live with her daughter in a soulless apartment block. In secret, the daughter sells the family house, and is allocated a larger apartment by coercing her mother to stay. The old woman stands at her window on the fifth floor, and howls.

Though western readers will be intrigued by the portrayal of life under state central control, enthralled by the unfamiliarity, the stories reveal the universal nature of everyday life. Children steal apples from an orchard (“The Orphan”), a woman suspects her husband is dreaming of a lost love (“An Awkward Conversation”), a family feud is sparked over the deathbed wish of their matriarch (“Amanat”), a mother waits for her son to return from war (“Aslan’s Bride”), a woman reflects, while cradling her child, on the deep connection she feels to her grandmothers (“My Eleusinian Mysteries”), and the pervasive love of traditional music (“The Rival” and “The Anthropologists”).

We glean the impression through several accounts—whether fictional, factual or semi-autobiographical—that many adults in Kazakhstan have been raised in orphanages, and we learn of one particular orphanage ‘for children of enemies of the people,’ which stopped me in my tracks. Readers eavesdrop in “The Beskempir” on a group of elderly women who meet regularly in the writer’s family home, and who turn out to be former inmates of ‘Algeria,’ the nickname for the Akmolinsky Camp for Wives of Traitors to the Motherland. The so-called traitors were ‘repressed,’ often as a punishment for being captured by German forces during the Second World War.

In fact, the Second World War feels ever present in Amanat. “Aslan’s Bride” is the emotionally taut story of a mother waiting for her son to return from the war. Each year she pays the impoverished cobbler in her village to re-sole her son’s shoes in readiness for his return. The story seems to ask if it’s better to know the truth or live with hope. A particularly poignant story with a surprising revelation.

In the latter years of the Soviet Union, in an inflammatory move, Mikhail Gorbachev installed Gennady Kolbin as First Secretary of the Communist Party in Kazakhstan. Kolbin had no close connection to the country and his appointment sparked student riots in December 1986 in the Kazakh capital Astana (now Nur-Sultan). “The Black Snow of December” takes the reader to a newspaper office where a journalist is fearful he has landed himself in deep trouble by examining those student riots in a retrospective exposé.

I found myself drawn to stories in Amanat that reveal the impact of geopolitics on ordinary citizens. The internal collapse of the Soviet Union, beginning in 1991, led two years later to the dramatic overnight issue of a new currency by Kazakhstan’s then-president Nursultan Nazarbayev. In secret, the first banknotes were printed in the United Kingdom and the coins minted in Germany. And we see the immediate fall-out of this currency switch in “Hunger.” This portrays a young Kazakh woman studying literature in Moscow who finds she can no longer cash the money orders sent from her home in Almaty. Close to starvation she is forced to take any work she can find to survive. She recalls the phrase, ‘Wash a donkey’s ass, if you must, as long as you earn some money.’

A teenager claiming to be a refugee, finds herself in similar dire straits. She lives on her wits in the richly detailed story, “The Lighter.” Sheltering in the basement of a building under construction, she adopts a reckless strategy for tricking men out of money so she can feed herself and her young friends sharing this basement squat. Nevertheless, her outlook appears hopeful. She stands on the roof of the unfinished building, spellbound by the city sprawl below.

Those stories set in the present-day point to the challenge of corruption (“The School”) and the clash of cultures as Kazakhstan has opened up to foreign workers, academics, aid workers and, I suppose, foreign travellers like me (“The Anthropologists” and “Precedent”). We glean that the undercurrents of ethnic tension are still present, and that a new generation remains caught up in the geopolitical tensions of the region, with young people yearning to see more of the world themselves.

Since my mind-shattering conversation with Zira Naurzbayeva and her daughter in 2018, Zira has ‘derussified’ her name on social media to Zira Nauryzbai, and she will publish under this name for future publications.

If you would like to read Amanat: Women’s Writing from Kazakhstan, it’s now available from a range of bookstores and websites or through the publisher Gaudy Boy. For anyone looking to understand the politics of Central Asia, Amanat is an excellent place to start.

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