The Peripheral Writer: An Interview With Hamid Ismailov, Author Of The Underground
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Hamid Ismailov is the author of dozens of books of poetry, visual poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. An Uzbek writer, Ismailov has been subjected to censorship throughout his career and was exiled from his homeland in 1992. His novel The Underground is released in translation in the U.S. this week by Restless Books, in time for Banned Books Week.
I spoke with Hamid over Skype earlier this year, then visited him at the BBC in London, where he was formerly the Writer-in-Residence and now works as the Editor of the Central Asian division. We talked censorship and creativity, political economy, and life for writers outside of the global centers of literary production.
Melody Nixon: I have your novels The Railway and The Underground on my bookshelf. In each book the plot unwinds through snapshot vignettes, spiritual ponderings, and existential anguishes. How emblematic is your work of a Central Asian storytelling aesthetic?
Hamid Ismailov: I try to be as unique as possible. But in writing these books, I want to represent reality. What I lacked as a reader and writer in the Soviet era, from childhood onwards, was a depiction of the reality that was around me. I was in a melting pot of all kinds of nations, cultures, beliefs, faiths and civilizations, and I didn’t see the richness of these experiences depicted in Soviet literature.
MN: Did you find any of the multicultural richness you sought in books from the west?
So in the mainstream English literature you can’t see any multi-national, or other realities apart from rare exceptions. It was the same in the Soviet Union.
HI: In coming to the west I all of sudden realized it was an even bigger problem for western literature than for Soviet. For example, in British literature, take the most famous books of the last years. Nearly all of them are mono-national, or mono-ethnic. As if people are writing for their titular nation, and that’s it. In Ian McEwan’s famous books you hardly meet any Black people, or Caribbean people, or Chinese. Take wonderful Kazuo Ishiguro, who is himself Japanese by origin. Almost all his books are about English people, and that’s it. So in the mainstream English literature you can’t see any multi-national, or other realities apart from rare exceptions. It was the same in the Soviet Union. I was quite unhappy with this, because the reality was completely different.
MN: I haven’t been to Uzbekistan, but the book really spoke to my experiences of Mongolia and Southern Siberia. In Siberia especially you have a converging of different ethnic groups and different cultures — the white Russian culture with the multiplicity of indigenous Russian cultures, the Central Asians with the Northern Chinese who are trading across the border, the Orthodox with the Muslim practitioners — all these groups are in conversation. But the narrative we’re given in the west about the former Soviet Union is that it’s a very homogenous place. (White, Christian, Slavic, Russian, colonialist.) Your work shows us a much more nuanced image.
HI: I think The Railway is the first novel that depicts the reality of Central Asian civilization during the Soviet era. I decided to depict reality as it is, in all its richness. I wouldn’t be creating a masterpiece just for my nation, for Uzbeks, or Russians, but for Koreans, Jews, Gypsies, Chechens, Tartars, all of the people who lived there. I gave voice to everyone. Whoever they were, they had a voice. That was the civilizational and aesthetic task for me.
MN: Did this representation have a political element for you?
Me, as a Muslim who lived in the Soviet Union, I’ve seen 1001 types of Islam. Every strand is completely different…
HI: You could say there is a philosophical element. When we’re talking about the mono-ethnic and mono-focal view of the world — when we are looking at the world with black and white glasses, rather than colored ones — it is problematic in philosophical terms, because it leads to oversimplification. As we discussed, the western perspective was that the Soviet Union was mono-colored. The same is happening now with the western view of the Muslim world. It’s seen as monolithic, one thing, whereas it’s so different and diverse. Me, as a Muslim who lived in the Soviet Union, I’ve seen 1001 types of Islam. Every strand is completely different — Shamanic, Sufi, etc — to an unrecognizable extent.
In The Railway I tried to show the richness, not just of Communism, or of ideologies, but of all kinds of beliefs. These ideologies and beliefs — Communism, Islam, Marxism, Freudianism — are not monoliths. All of them have strands and strands, because human nature is like that: versatile. Even when we’re being dictated to we can’t be monopolized by one strand, whatever it is.
MN: Is there an interaction between where you are and what you’re reading? How does your place, and place of exile, play a role in your literary tastes?
HI: In Uzbekistan and the USSR I was mostly reading only Western literature. Human nature always seeks otherness, something else. You seek unfamiliar familiarities, and familiar unfamiliarities: which appeal to you, but at the same time are different.
I was reading all the twentieth century Western literature, starting from Faulkner through to Joyce Carol Oates, Kurt Vonnegut, Gore Vidal, everyone basically.
I knew the Soviet life well, to the extent that I was fed up with it, so I was reading more and more Western literature. But gradually, moving to the West, I was more and more carried away by my own literature: Soviet literature, historic literature. The further I moved towards the West, the more I liked the old literature of my own country; and when I say my own country that includes Russian literature as well.
MN: You sought that which was different to your present reality.
HI: It’s an interesting interaction. When you are within the culture you are somehow trying to bring into it something of an other nature, of an alternative nature. Western literature played an enormous role in my upbringing while I was in the East; and while I’m in the West I’m more carried away by Eastern literature.
MN: Was it easy to get Western books when you were in Uzbekistan?
HI: The translations, yes, generally. But not everything was translated; Ulysses, for example, was difficult to find. I used to go to Moscow to get the first translation of Ulysses, from 1936. I’ve written several short stories about the experience of getting books. All of my salaries were spent in order to find banned books — for example, Nietzsche. In 1981 I spent one year saving to buy a volume of Nietzsche’s.
MN: Was it worth it?
HI: Every single penny. I used to translate Garcia Lorca. He was not banned like Nietzsche. I tried to buy a small book of his in translation, which cost at that time the same price as really good mountain boots. I bought the book in order to translate him into Uzbek. Normal books were not available or affordable.
MN: Did this scarcity increase your desire to write? Did books begin to seem like precious, magical objects?
HI: Yes, somehow it influenced me. Literature was a kind of magic lantern. It taught me about the effort you have to put in to reach something.
MN: The West is not exactly free of censorship, though in our corporate publishing model censorship operates along subtler lines of political economy and access than perhaps the blunter state instrument of the Soviet Union — though this is of course not true in every state, as demonstrated in our need for a Banned Books Week in America. Can you speak about your experiences with censorship?
People were deprived of their salaries, of their jobs, because of my writing.
HI: I am the victim of censorship myself, because for the last twenty years my books have been banned in Uzbekistan. And even when they were not banned, when they were only going to be banned, I felt very bad because the whole editorial board for a magazine that published some chapters of The Railway was punished. I felt that. People were deprived of their salaries, of their jobs, because of my writing. Therefore, I’m not just a victim of the censorship but I’m a culprit as well, in a way. It’s an abhorrent thing.
MN: How has the experience of censorship shaped you as a writer, and as a person? Did you doubt what you were doing, or did you feel more resolve?
HI: My case was not the worst in Uzbekistan. Unfortunately, my colleagues are incarcerated. One, Mamadali Makhmudov, spent fourteen years behind bars because he is a writer. There are poets, like Dilmurad Sayid, who are still behind bars. Writers have been killed because of their writing. All I suffered was expulsion from Uzbekistan — which is tragic, and painful, but I’ve always thought it might have been worse.
MN: Are you able to go back?
HI: No. I could go visit as a British citizen, but if something happens, I’m aware that I would face the consequences alone.
MN: Do you see yourself as an Uzbek writer, even though you’re in exile?
HI: Yes, very much so. Because you know, I wrote my last three novels in Uzbek. So I’m not writing for international readers; initially, I’m writing for Uzbek or sometimes Russian readers.
MN: When you look at your writing now, what do you see as the biggest challenges?
HI: I’ll tell you, the biggest issue with me and many writers like me: if I were born Chinese or Indian I would’ve had a platform. I would have been much more appreciated by now. You have to belong to a huge community. People like me who belong to small nations, whatever their talent is, whatever their capacity is, they’re doomed to not be seen. There must be a huge population behind you. I think, were I an English writer I would have become more known.
This is about the hegemony of World Literatures — by which I mean, the two or three literatures that run the world. English, French, and maybe partly Spanish literature.
MN: The colonial powers.
HI: Yes. I know writers who are extremely powerful that we as human kind should be proud of. But nobody knows them because they belong to small nations: Georgians, Armenians, Tajiks, and so forth. Ion Druţze the Moldavian writer. Otar Chiladze from Georgia. Meša Selimović the Bosniak writer. They are world-class writers.
MN: One could say the same about you. Let’s discuss your work in more depth. There’s a powerfully idiosyncratic style and feel to your books, and each is so different to the last. What compels you to continually experiment?
HI: In everything I write I set myself up for a new style and a new tone. When I started writing The Underground in 2006, I wrote fifty or sixty pages frantically, and I felt it was beautiful text. But the only problem was that the tone was repeating an earlier work of mine. I was so unhappy I decided to stop immediately. I tore apart the sixty pages and rewrote them in a completely different manner, which became The Underground.
If you compare any book of mine by tone or stylistics they are completely different from one another. I don’t like repeating what I have discovered already.
MN: Why is that?
HI: Creativity should be an “ultimate creativity.” It should be dictated by the particular thing you are writing. Every particular thing should not be repeating a previous version.
Unfortunately, many writers exploit the things they found once, and they become slaves to their own ways of writing. For me, creativity should come with every new piece.
MN: What do you think of the idea perpetuated in the west, particularly in writing programs in the US, that you “find your voice?” Once you discover your voice — or two or maximum three voices — you’ve “arrived” somewhere final, which will carry you through for the rest of your career.
HI: That is a point of view dictated by consumerism, and the literature of consumerism. If you are J. K. Rowling, until the end of your life you should stamp out Harry Potters and nothing else. I’m utterly against it. Because unfortunately this consumerist literature has already done harm to world literature.
MN: How so?
We’ve created a class of readers who want to swallow a pill and understand everything.
HI: We’ve created a class of readers who want to swallow a pill and understand everything. “One voice” literature is creating these type of readers. I worry, and I’m afraid, that if today Kafka or Joyce wrote their books, no one would dare to publish them. No one would dare to publish Finnegan’s Wake. Because no one would read it, because it’s too difficult to understand in one go.
MN: So the “literature of consumerism,” as you call it, is reducing creativity in writer and reader? Is this because creativity becomes seen as something conquerable, and static?
HI: I don’t believe in “discovered” creativity. If it is “discovered” and it is used, it is no longer creative. It’s already taken root. Creativity is shown in potential, and challenge. Every creative act is against the previous one; it’s breaking the rules of the previous one. Unfortunately, what the modern Western school is implanting is the “created creativity.”
For example, if we study Haruki Murakami’s way of using plot structure, we can choose to follow it or to say, “No, I won’t use it — because he himself has already used it. I’ll break his rules” — and that is a creative act. But this attitude is so difficult in the modern world, because you’re endangering your readership if you take these risks. It’s much easier to become a brand, with your own voice as your brand. Everyone is buying book after book because they know exactly what these books are about.
My trade is a bit different: Creativity in everything I am doing. And creativity afresh when I am creating.
MN: Do you think your openness to, and desire for, fresh creativity is what drives you as a writer?
You reconstruct and deconstruct reality, by breaking myths, lies, clichés, and propaganda. That’s why dictators are afraid of writers.
HI: One thing, yes, is creativity, but this is not the objective in and of itself. Generally the first impulse comes from curiosity: when you want to know something about yourself, or about the way life is appearing in front of you or exposing itself to you, or the logic of character development. You ask: why is this appearing in this particular manner, and not in another manner? Then you start to investigate and understand it. You see the logic you couldn’t see at first. Then you start to unravel everything. You reconstruct and deconstruct reality, by breaking myths, lies, clichés, and propaganda. That’s why dictators are afraid of writers.