A new work from Turkmenistan

People often ask me about the unpublished manuscripts I encountered during my 2012 quest to read a book from every country in the world. Have they been picked up by publishers? Are they available for other literary explorers to read?

The answer is mixed – while some of the works, such as Juan David Morgan’s The Golden Horsehave appeared (albeit briefly) in English – several deserving books, chief among them Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa’s Ualalapi, remain off-limits to anglophone readers.*

Getting translated works published can be an uphill struggle, so I was very pleased when Glagoslav Publications took on The Tale of Aypi, the first novel ever to be translated from Turkmen into English. Its author, Ak Welsapar, kindly shared it with me in manuscript form during my project and it’s great that it’s now commercially available.

Late last year, I received more news from Welsapar. Glagoslav Publications were bringing out another book by him – a collection of short stories. Would I be prepared to write a foreword for it?

I accepted gladly and am delighted to announce that the collection, Death of the Snake Catcher, translated by Lois Kapila, Yossef Azemoun and Richard Govett, was published last month. Containing stories written during Welsapar’s time in his homeland and over the decades since his exile, the book is an intriguing insight into life in one of the most closed societies on Earth, as I attempted to explain in my foreword:

‘Although the stories may appear very diverse, a closer look reveals a number of common themes and tropes at work. The power of the unexplained is among the most prominent. As in The Tale of Aypi, a book that is haunted by the ghost of a girl who died some centuries before the story takes place, the uncanny has a strong influence. The ground shifts constantly beneath our feet, leaving us uncertain what to expect and what to trust.

[…]

‘In other stories, this sense of uncertainty spreads to engulf everyday objects. People cannot be trusted and neither can things. Even the most innocuous-seeming of occurrences – a love affair, two carts approaching a crossroad, a man writing at a desk – can turn treacherous and become the thing that destroys your life. As Jummi, the luckless team leader in “One of the Seven is a Scoundrel”, says, “these days one of your two eyes can become your enemy.”

‘For readers, these sudden shifts in significance are as instructive as they are unsettling. Faced with a reality that may never be quite what it seems, we find ourselves ill at ease. Like a citizen in a society overseen by a fickle dictator, or a writer working in the shadow of freedom of expression-limiting rules the specifics of which are left at the discretion of individual censors – as was the case in the Soviet era – we can never be sure what is safe. It is as though Welsapar writes us into the world he has left, letting us taste the bitterness of living in constant fear of recrimination for offences, or faults in interpretation, we may not even realise we have committed.

[…]

‘Yet, although the stories frequently tackle dark subject matter, there is a lightness to the writing that lifts it out of the gloom that might otherwise swamp these pages. We see it in the optimism of young lovers and in the determination of many of the characters to achieve the dignity of leading an independent existence – no matter how limited and basic that might be. What’s more, hopefulness pervades the title story, in which two mortal enemies – the snake catcher and his prey – meet and in so doing discover that they have made each other what they are. Although their identities are built at least partly on their mission to destroy one another, the story hints that the world might nevertheless be big enough to contain them both. As Welsapar explained when I asked him about the collection: “People should never forget that we are only part of a great life, a cosmos, and it does not become a person to take living space from other living creatures. Only the weak strive to destroy one another. The strong learn to coexist.”

‘For all the difficulties he and his characters face, the belief that a better reality is possible underpins Welsapar’s writing. Just as he continued to work in the face of what must have seemed like insurmountable obstacles when he was first blacklisted and forced to endure seeing his books destroyed, so the people he portrays retain faith that survival is its own reward and that tomorrow may bring better things. Even if “the most important thing, the secret thing, maybe, slips away as always, and remains unfathomable”, the effort to express what can be expressed and live what can be lived is worthwhile.

It is great to see this second work of fiction from the only Turkmen writer with a voice in English hitting the shelves. Congratulations to Ak Welsapar and to Glagoslav Publications for continuing to champion this author.

* Thanks to Catherine for alerting me to the fact that Ualalapi is now available, published by Tagus in 2017.

Picture: ‘Golden statue of Saparmurat Niyazov, aka Turkmenbashi, first president of Turkmenistan, Ashgabat‘ by David Stanley on flickr.com

How does censorship affect a writer’s career?

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A controversy in New Zealand has this month brought the issue of banning books to many bibliophiles’ attention around the world. At the centre of the storm is Ted Dawe’s award-winning Into the River, a Young Adult novel that follows a Maori teenager who wins a scholarship at an exclusive Auckland boarding school.

The book has been out for two years, but on September 3 it was withdrawn from bookshops and libraries after a Christian group objected to its sexually explicit content and portrayal of drug use. While New Zealand’s Film and Literature Board of Review decides whether or not to issue a permanent ban, any company caught distributing the book in the nation faces a fine of up to NZ$10,000. It is the first time a title has been restricted in this way in the country for around two decades.

As censorship was a big issue I encountered during my year of reading the world, the story threw up several interesting points for me. The first was the curious and counter-intuitive effect that bans like this tend to have in much of the English-speaking world. Although such steps are rare in New Zealand, there have been attempts to restrict certain titles in other Anglophone nations in recent years, with the Harry Potter books, To Kill a Mocking Bird and even The Diary of Anne Frank drawing challenges.

What’s interesting about such episodes is that they almost invariably result in precisely the surge of publicity and sales that these works’ opponents would most like to avoid. Although NZ librarians reported borrowing rates for Dawe’s novel dropped when it was first given a warning sticker in December 2013, the latest events have brought Into the River international renown. My first action on hearing about the ban was to order a copy – something I would probably not have if the book were freely available, given that it is aimed at teenage boys.

Granted, the restrictions on distribution may hamper sales inside New Zealand in the short-term, but the widespread media coverage will fix Dawe’s name in many minds for a long time to come and will no doubt drive sales of his other titles, whether Into the River returns to the shelves or not.

The second thought for me was how sharply this situation contrasts with the issues facing authors working in many other languages and under much more restrictive regimes, where the media does not have the ability to challenge similar decisions and hold authorities to account in the same way. Throughout my project, I came across a number of writers whose careers had been stunted and sometimes cut short by often brutal attempts to limit their freedom to write what they felt they must.

When I researched my book Reading the World, I interviewed several of them at length, in particular Uzbek writer Hamid Ismailov and Turkmen writer Ak Welsapar. They had both been forced to flee their home countries in fear of their safety and even their lives.

As they explained to me, rebuilding your career in another language is a huge challenge for an exiled author. Welsapar, who now lives in Sweden, even went so far as to call it a tragedy – not surprising when you consider that the unpublished translation I read of his novel The Tale of Aypi remains without a publishing deal, despite it being the first book ever translated directly from Turkmen into English.

More than 20 years after they fled their homelands, Ismailov and Welsapar have nevertheless made admirable progress. Ismailov has had several works published, most recently his acclaimed novella The Dead Lake,  and was writer in residence at the BBC World Service for several years. Meanwhile, Welsapar has been published in Swedish and Russian, and he was the Turkmen poet at Poetry Parnassus, a cultural event organised to complement the London 2012 Olympic Games.

I was particularly delighted that both writers had short stories featured in the summer 2015 issue of the excellent Index on Censorship magazine.

For Welsapar this represented almost the first prose work he has ever had published in English. Not comparable to the worldwide attention Ted Dawe’s novel has received over the past few weeks. But at least it’s a start.

Picture by Samuele Ghilardi