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Aigul Kemelbayeva: ‘Every line of Kazakh literature is a treasure’

Haddy Ndure | 2 August 2019

Born in the same year as J.K. Rowling, Aigul started writing 15 years before the British novelist. The Kazakh author tells us how foreign writers struggle to access English-speaking audiences

When did you start to write prose?

I started to write prose when I was fifteen, and in 1983, when I was eighteen, I received the 2nd prize at the country-wide competition for children’s literature. It came with considerable prize money and they publish your book in three years’ time. So, my debut book was published in 1986 with 10,000 copies.

What does this project mean to you?

The first English translation of my work came out in January 2018 in New York as part of the Words Without Borders. It was the first chapter of my novel Munara (Tower), a winner of the Soros-Kazakhstan Fund’s literary competition (2002–2003), ‘Bala bagushy’ ‘The Nanny’.  It was translated by Zaure Batayeva and edited by Shelley Fairweather-Vega. The novel hasn’t been translated in its entirety into English or published in the West yet. But partial publication is better than none to promote Kazakh prose.

Your story explores a forbidden romance for cultural reasons… How much do you think it is important to maintain traditions?

‘Kokenay and Qalqaman’ is based on a true story; it’s a story that comes from the tribal period of ancient Kazakh history. It is the only short story developed for ten years in my mind. I did read a lot of chronicles to make it as historically accurate as possible. I also wanted to revive lexica of our ancestors who lived 300 years ago. It was a really fascinating process. There’s no more significant treasure than one’s traditions. 

The atmosphere of male privilege is made apparent by the way Qalqaman’s life is favoured over Mamyr’s…

It’s based on a true story. Qalqaman’s life was spared, while Mamyr was killed by her own cousin Kokenay. It’s a tragedy of the clan since all the characters in this story are related to each other. Mamyr and Qalqaman are fourth cousins. It was necessary to punish the young for reasons of consanguinity. Incest is taboo for Kazakhs.

I think everyone should be equal, but we can’t change the past. Humankind regarded women as the weaker sex for a long time. Even today, many societies in the East, as well as in the West, regard women as the secondary sex. In Kazakh literature, women gained respect with the emergence of Fariza Ongarsynova’s poetic voice in the late 1970s. As they say, ‘A sharp knife won’t stay at the bottom of the bag’, and if somone is talented, he or she can’t be neglected, just as the sun can’t be prevented from shining.  

In 250 years of unceasing warfare two-thirds of the Kazakh population was killed primarily fighting Dzungars. In times of warfare, sons were more valuable as a military unit. As Kazakhs say, ‘Clouds gather in the sky when they hear people’s words.’ There’s nothing more sacred than words. The respected elder of the clan, Anet Baba, wanted to save Mamyr as well but was late. That’s why he tried to save at least Qalqaman and influence Kokenay as much as he could. And he succeeded.

Which writers do you admire?

I was raised on classic literature. I studied prose at the Gorky Literature in Moscow for five years. They taught everything from ancient to modern literature. I love folklore and myths. Among my favourite writers are Apuleius, Cervantes, Jane Austen, Goffman, the Brothers Grimm, Balzac, Hugo, Merimee, Edgar Poe, Thackeray, Dickens, I can read them over and over again, and I admire their various styles.

What treasures can Kazakh literature present to the world?

I would say Kazakh traditional poetry: every line of the traditional four-line stanza is a treasure, a folk philosophy celebrating life. A three-volume collection of fairy tales headed by ‘Er Tostik’, epic poems, the poetry of Abay, Magzhan Zhumabayev, Kasym Amanzholov, Mukagali Makatayev, Tolegen Aybergenov, and Kadyr Myrza Ali, the prose by Mukhtar Auezov and Zhusipbek Aimauytov, and linguistic works by Olzhas Suleimenov are the most admirable pieces of literature for me. There are a lot of contemporary writers as well.

How important is this project in getting Kazakh literature out to the world?

 I was born at the same year as Frederic Beigbeder and J.K. Rowling but started to write prose 10–15 years earlier than they did. However, I think I have no access to wider audiences worldwide mainly because of language barriers. That’s why any step forward towards wider audiences is very important for me. It’s my dream and something that I’ve been striving towards for a long time now.


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