Interview with award-winning author Hamid Ismailov
Hamid Ismailov, is not an unknown figure in UK literary and broadcasting circles. Having worked with the BBC for many years to help bring Uzbek and Central Asian news to the fore, he is known for being a reflective and passionate supporter of bringing Central Asian authors to the fore. However, as Uzbekistan opens up as a country under new leadership, this formerly exiled writer is now making new advances as his novel, The Devil’s Dance, has gained EBRD Literature Prize recognition for its English translation. Described as an “Uzbek Game of Thrones” it won a EUR 20,000 prize in March, to be split between Ismailov and the books’ translators, Donald Rayfield and John Farndon. Set in the 19th century, The Devils’ Dance, published by indie Tilted Axis Press, is a novel in two parts. The story of an unwitting courtesan, who navigates the intrigues of the courts and harems of the Uzbek emirates and khanates at a time when Britain and Russia are competing for influence in the region, is told alongside the trials of a well-known Uzbek writer and literary dissident who is imprisoned and executed at the hands of the Soviet state in the late 1930s.
Open Central Asia Magazine had the fortune of putting its questions about the novel, the writer and his future projects directly to Hamid Ismailov.
OCA: Please tell us a little bit about yourself, your background and how you came to be a writer?
Hamid Ismailov (HI): I was born in a very religious family and since Islam is based on words (the Koran is considered to be a Word of Allah, Hadithes – are sayings of the Prophet) therefore from the early childhood I was surrounded by stories of different kind – lives of the prophets, fairy-tales, poems, stories about my ancestors. From the very childhood my paternal granny taught me Koran and even wanted to send me to study Islam to Bukhara, like my late granddad did. He studied in Bukhara for 23 years and being mullah was shot dead during the Stalinian repressions. My mother, who was a professional woman, stood against it, but when she died quite early (I was only 12 years old) my maternal grandmother took me to her house near Tashkent. She was quite a frail person and loved listening to ‘1001 night’ tales, which I used to read her along with other Uzbek classics. My grannies, as well as my late granddads were writing some poetry, so literature was around me, and inside of me, in my genes.
OCA: Who or what would you say influences your writing?
HI: As you have seen, I was surrounded by stories from my very childhood. Apart from that I used to live initially in a village, later in a station with lots of different nationalities in them. Rural life is full of stories, as well as the life in a Tashkent suburbia. Every evening was about the stories of these people who came from different corners of the Soviet Union to gather in a small station next to Tashkent. However, if you are asking about the writers and books which influenced me, they are too many to mention. Then I wouldn’t say that they influenced me, they rather invited me into their conversations, involved me in their discussions and thoughts, so they were sharing their own and their literary heroes’ experiences with me.
OCA: As an Uzbek writer, how did your country’s approach to freedom of speech in the past affect your writing and your own life?
HI: Writing for me is a very private issue. Therefore, I never took into consideration what was happening around me on and state-level. Though I must say that during the Soviet times I used to have strong headaches, reading literary magazines or newspapers, because I wanted, but couldn’t write in that manner at all. So what I used to do and then publish – were translations. I used to translate our Uzbek or Persian classics into Russian, or European poetry into Uzbek. I translated Yugnaki, Jami, Navoi, Mashrab, Nishoti, as well as Verlaine, Lorca, Edgar Allan Poe and many others. After the independence I was forced to leave Uzbekistan either because of my writing or because of my social activity. I don’t know the reasons, I can just guess. It’s the government who decides why it’s forcing their citizens, but being in exile I was writing whatever I wanted to write, I was free to now pursue my aesthetical, cultural and literary aims, rather than thinking about the censorship, or freedom of speech. As I said in the beginning, writing for me is about my own liberty, my own freedom.
OCA: Congratulations on your EBRD Literature prize. This is not your first book, however, how would you describe your style and approach to writing in general?
HI: I’ll be short in answering this question: first of all, I don’t want to repeat anyone in my writing, and secondly, I don’t want to repeat myself in my writing too. So every new novel, every new poem is a look inside of yourself and at outside world afresh, anew.
OCA: Your winning novel, The Devil’s Dance, approaches many themes from the era of the Great Game between Russia and Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries. Why did you choose the title?
HI: This title ‘The Devils’ Dance’ was pre-chosen for me by Abdulla Qodiriy. He wrote a short story under the same title. In that story he tells how his father was seduced by the devils, who invited him to dance at their feast along the most beautiful woman. But then when he woke up from this seduction or obsession, he found himself in a muddy ditch. So that is a metaphor which shows us that every time there are seducing devils around us. They might exist in many forms: in ideological, cultural, financial – you name it – but waking up from that hallucination is a painful experience. My novel is named after this short story, because for me the life of Abdulla Qodiriy was also marred with these devils’ dances of the Stalinian time. Abdulla, like his friend Cholpon, accepted the revolution, which was promising an angelic future, paradise on earth, but turned out to be the devils’ dance of hellish repressions, purges and murders for them.
OCA: How did you ensure that nothing was lost in translation as it is notoriously difficult to capture the same essence as the original when works are translated?
HI: My books are written primarily for my audiences: if it’s in Uzbek – then for Uzbek readers, if in Russian, or English, then respectively for the Russian or English readership. I never write books for the sake of translation and therefore I regard any translation to any language as a bonus for me. Ultimately the responsibility fully lies with the translators, it’s their work, rather than mine. It’s them who are bringing this work from my culture into their own, they make it sound as a part of their language and tradition, therefore I am usually playing a tennis wall: if they ask, I’m answering, if not, I’m not interfering more than that.
OCA: How does the novel’s story reflect and/or attempt to reconcile tensions that exist between Russia and Britain today?
HI: Obviously, fiction books are not political manifestos, or social manuals, hence one shouldn’t expect them to amend the relationship or to improve them between countries or even people. A good novel is like if not a sea or ocean, at least like a lake, full of life. One can be drawn in it, another one might enjoy and have fun, the third one could quench his or her thirst. I think politicians and other people who deal with the international relationship should deal with the relationship you are asking about. What I’m describing in my novel is not geopolitics, but life of people, be it a Bukharian, or a British, an Iranian, or an Afghan, a Russian or a Jew. What interests me is the interplay between ordinary people and their stories, rather than the geopolitics of it.
OCA: The book has been described as being like “Game of Thrones”, to what extent do you agree with this comparison and would you see the story as being adaptable for film?
HI: I must admit that I haven’t read that book, neither I watched the film, therefore I can’t compare. As I said I’m trying not to repeat anyone, including myself. But if you ask me for the filming prospects, then for me the best literature is always the literature which can’t be filmed. Could you imagine, for example, a film based on ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ by James Joyce or let’s say on ‘Tristram Shandy’ by Lawrence Stern? So the best of the literature is always literature as an art, rather than a raw material for a screen script. Yet, if the filmmakers would be inspired by the story of ‘The Devils’ Dance’ – let it be so, I have no objections.
OCA: You have supported many ECG literary festivals. What word of wisdom do you have for aspiring Central Asian authors struggling to get their works published?
HI: Writing and especially writing novels is a very solitary work. Though on the one hand it seems that you are privileged to surround yourself with your literary characters, be in the circle of Qodiriy, Cholpon, Nodira, Uvaysiy, like in my novel, nonetheless it’s a very difficult work, which requires lots of discipline, lots of devotion, lots of give ups. You have to give up with nearly all your social life, with entertainment, with having fun for the sake of concentrating on your writing. If the young, aspiring writers are ready for that – all I wish them is good luck! Purely on writing I often say – wear your size of clothes, don’t try to seem bigger than you are, wearing two size bigger clothes. Equally don’t underestimate your own size trying to put yourself in two size narrower trousers. Both extremes are not only comic, but also dangerous…
OCA: What can we expect to come next from your pipeline of literary ideas?
HI: If you’re interested in what I am writing now, I am in the middle of a big Russian novel in five parts. If you are asking about my publishing prospects, with the translated books you’re always two steps behind. Now, for example, this September a novel, which I wrote in 2002, will appear in English. It’s called ‘The Language of Bees or Hayy ibn Yakzan’, translated by Shelley Fairweather-Vega. It’s a Sufi parable about the life of Avicenna. My other books that have been translated’ Gaia or Queen of the Ants’ in her translation too, is coming out in United States.