John is an author, playwright, songwriter and poet, and chairman of the Eurasian Creative Guild. He is the author of over thousand books on many topics, and has been shortlisted for the Young People’s Science Book Prize five times. He is also a translator of literature from Russia and Central Asia. He was joint winner of the European Bank Literary Prize 2019 for the translation of Uzbek writer Hamid Ismailov’s The Devil’s Dance and Finalist for the US PEN Translation Award 2020 for his translation with Olga Nakston of Kazakh author Rollan Seisenbayev’s The Dead Wander in the Desert.
OCA: Tell us about yourself and your activity / work?
JF: I earn my living mostly writing non-fiction books and so far I’ve written well over a thousand. I write on just about every topic, and it’s such a pleasure learning new things all the time. But I write especially on science and nature – which is one reason, I’ve become deeply concerned about the ecological and climate crisis the world faces. You cannot write about it and not be aware that we are in deep, deep trouble! But I’m also a poet, playwright and songwriter – and a literary translator. I work entirely from my ancient home with its beautiful roof garden right in the centre of London, but translation gives me a wonderful window on the world. I don’t speak any foreign languages, but collaborating with native speakers has opened up a wealth of literature especially from Russia and Central Asian languages. I feel deeply privileged to have been given the chance to put into English for the first time the works of great writers such as Vladimir Vysotsky and Ravil Bukharaev. Personally, it’s hugely enlightening to learn and understand how writers from such different cultures and faiths think. But I also think that sharing literature and art is one of the best ways of building bridges of understanding and emotion across the world – and making the world richer and kinder for it. That is hugely important right now, with the world so divided and frightened.
OCA:What is “Eurasianism” for you?
JF: I’ve not heard this phrase before, but to be honest, I’m distrustful of blanket terms like this which try to label varied cultures or catch an imaginary wave. But I do think that there is something rather wonderful happening across Eurasia. Ancient Central Asian cultures, so long in the shadows of world consciousness that they were in danger of vanishing, seem to be emerging into the light again; and rightly – they have so much to offer. Yes, there are problems, but it’s no accident that people in the West are beginning to get excited by the history and culture of the ‘Silk Road’, as they call it, even though the view here maybe full of misunderstandings. It’s no accident, I feel, that in the last year Central Asian books have been involved in major literature prizes for the first time – and I was lucky enough to have had a hand in two. First the wonderful Uzbek writer Hamid Ismailov’s The Devil’s Dance, for which I translated the poertry, won the European Bank RD literature prize in 2019. Second, this year the Kazakh writer Rollan Seysenbaev’s epic The Dead Wander in the Desert, which I translated with Olga Nakston, was a finalist for the US PEN Translation Award. So watch this space! I am sure there are more to come.
OCA: What are your favourite artists?
JF: Ah, I have so many! Of course, I love British writers such as Shakespeare and Blake, Dickens and Hopkin, and the wonderful Irish and Scottish writers who also write in English. I could spend months waxing about their merits. They have shaped our culture and given it the richness and depth which the false patriots of Brexit utterly miss. I love our music, too – it’s rich heritage of traditional songs, and the new writers emerging all the time. I am blessed to know such young talents as Zoe Wren, Ayanna Witter-Johnson, Kim Lowings, Flora Curzon and Luke Jackson. You may not have heard of them yet, but you should. But this is a Eurasian magazine, so I will venture further afield! Which playwright could not fall in love with the plays of Chekhov, whose subtle dramas show the deep tragedy and comedy of life in such small details, multum in parvo, or which poet not love Pushkin, with his intoxicating use of language, his romance, passion and vision? But I’ve been lucky enough to discover artists from Central Asia, too. I’ve got to say one of the towering talents is Hamid Ismailov. I am convinced he will be seen as one of the great writers of this century, and his short novel The Dead Lake is true masterpiece. And my favourite painting right now, because I see it all time on my wall, is a large and wonderfully atmospheric painting from 1960 by a Ukrainian artist whose name escapes me of Kiev’s Mariensky Park in winter. Two lovers walk, wind and rainswept into the distance, between the ranks black trees bedded in snow. The dark slushy path with it coloured reflections and the headlights like stars in the gloomy street beyond create a vision of hope. It’s a true masterpiece, worthy of a great gallery, which I am very lucky to possess.
OCA:Have you taken part in the events of the Eurasian Creative Guild (London)?
JF: Yes indeed. They are remarkable events bringing writers and artists from many countries together. It’s so wonderful to see writers from Moldova to Moscow meet and share their work, and to have a chance to share my work too. Remarkably, thanks to the tireless and inspirational efforts of Marat Ahmedjanov, and a new team of incredibly committed and energetic interns, this year – the year the world went Into lockdown – is proving the most dynamic and exciting yet. The calendar is packed with events, and the ECG’s regular zoom meetings, each covering a different topic, are proving absolutely fascinating. We are not cut of at all, but making new connections.
OCA:What does the Eurasian Creative Guild mean to you, and how did it affect your creativity / activity?
JF: The ECG is a very special organization, and it is true privilege to be connected through it to artists across Eurasia. Amazingly, they feel like my family. How extraordinary to say that! And right now, that international kinship seems so, so important as boundaries, physical and emotional, real and imaginary, divide us in such a dangerous way. I am chairman of ECG this year and next, and I feel deeply touched to be in this fortunate position. Being part of ECG has enabled me to work with great poets such as Belarusian Anna Komar and Uzbek Xosiyat Rustamova, amazing painter Alesia Issa and 3D artist Emile Goozairow, and get to know the, work of many more. In one’s own country, one can sometimes feel limited and marginalized. But the international companionship In the ECG show inspire with their wider vision – and it’s that shared and varied artistry and vision that keep me more optimistic about the future in these rather dark times.
OCA:Do you have any personal project that you would like to talk about?
JF: Next year, thanks partly to ECG and Marat, I hope to be bringing to English audiences for the first time the famous Kazakh opera Abai by Latif Khamidi and Akhmet Zhubanov, on a libretto by Mukhtar Auezov. The idea is that we’ll do a compact touring version, with music brilliantly condensed by Australian Warren Wills, to take to the more offbeat venues where younger and more varied audiences go. We have been blessed by the enthusiastic support of the Kazakh embassy in London, and in particular His Excellency Erian Idrissov and Counsellor Dana Masalimova. We were hoping to get it on this year and take it to the Edinburgh Festival amongst other places. But the pandemic means that it will have to be next year now! I’ve also got a musical I wrote, Anya, set mainly in Russia but also in the USA in the decades after the war, which I would love to see staged somewhere in Eurasia, and play about Pushkin. I’m deeply involved in translations too. But like many writers and artists, I can’t help but be stirred by the state of the world. Over the last year, for instance, I’ve been helping create work for the climate activists Extinction Rebellion including a poem with music by Lewis Murphy for mass audience participation, performed across the UK. This kind of work is hugely important to me, and I’d like to see it reach even further
OCA:What projects have you participated in and in which do you plan to participate?
JF: Actually one of the most amazing projects I’ve been involved in was the #Resolution2020 choir projects. The driving force behind it is London theatre director Abbey Wright, and the idea was to get choirs, singers and families around the world to sing their version of the specially written song World on Our Shoulders and make a resolution to solve the climate and ecological crisis. So many ECG members joined in such as Anna Komar and Ilona Vilit in Belarus, and It was truly amazing to see people from most countries in the world, from villages and cities, young and old, come together to contribute versions of amazing power, beauty and commitment. To hear kids singing in harmony and hope, to see brilliant artists employ their talent for the good of the world, to find people who live in situations of strife sing out in unison – this is truly moving and inspirational. Last week, in a completely different vein, I was performing In the first English version (online, of course) of a play created by the amazing Teatr.Doc of Moscow and translated by Alex Thomas about the trial of Chechen human rights activist Oyub Titiev. But of course there’s a host of ECG events, including the creation of the Almanac of Poetry and the Open Eurasia Festival with its amazing array of contests and opportunities for writers and artists across Eurasia.
OCA: What would you wish the members of the Guild, just starting their career?
JF: Luck, inspiration, persistence and happiness – but above all the courage and vision to see and speak the truth. Don’t create what someone tells you create ¬– create what you absolutely need or want to create. That should be a given, unless of course you’re working to commission… 😉 But going your own way doesn’t mean staying in a bubble. Learn your craft from the best, and never stop learning. Learn about the world. And think about your audience. Artistry is sometimes called a gift – and that’s just what art should be: a gift to your audience and the world. Mostly, though, I just wish you support, friendship and love.