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Bakhytgul Sarmekova: “I want to depict the life of...

30.04.2024 126

Bakhytgul Sarmekova: “I want to depict the life of the country in the 1990s” 12+

Bakhytgul Sarmekova: “I want to depict the life of the country in the 1990s” - adebiportal.kz

We spoke to Bakhytgul Sarmekova, the winner of the Pen Heim Translation – 2022 grant, one of the writers of the younger generation, who is known for her signature. Recently her new book was released.

Good afternoon, Bakytgul khanym. Congratulations on the release of your new book! Could you share some details about your latest work with us?

Thank you! The book “Keyipker” (means a character from Kazakh lang. – ed.) was initially published in 2020 and featured stories I had written before 2018. At that time, I had not considered publishing a book, but my friends encouraged me and suggested compiling my work into a book. Despite the first edition being put together quickly, it received positive feedback.

The recent release of “Keyipker” is a revamped version with new stories added. I believe these new additions have matured and evolved along with me. Therefore, I have high hopes and expectations for this updated edition.

You mentioned that the narrative of 'Red Brick' was shaped by initiatives that commenced but failed to reach completion in the country where the necessary experts weren't fully engaged, resulting in projects stalling midway. What societal challenges from that country weigh heavily on your mind? 

Hubbes Shal from The Red Brick is a character that appears in several of my stories. While it's generally considered incorrect for a writer to analyze their own work, I must admit that The Red Brick” is one of my most successful and beloved short stories. The narrative reflects moments where promising beginnings are marred by incomplete endings, often due to mismanagement of allocated funds or the negligence of specialists, leading to tragic consequences. However, not all instances of stalled projects can be solely attributed to authorities; sometimes, it stems from individual greed or the inability to manage multiple responsibilities effectively. These issues not only hinder the implementation of excellent ideas but also create hardships for ordinary people like us. It's concerning to witness such societal challenges persisting, and they weigh heavily on my mind.

In recent times, especially among young writers, there's a prevalent sentiment that “The author owes nothing to anyone. A writer should not correct the speech of the country, educate the people. Everyone writes for themselves.” What are your thoughts on this? Do writers have any responsibilities to their country or society?

Generally, I agree that writers shouldn't feel obligated to perform specific duties or educate readers. This aligns with my own perspective. However, I've also pondered the idea of responsibility to the reader. I used to say, “I write whatever comes to mind, and it's up to the reader to decide whether to engage with it or not.” Having already presented my best works, readers now anticipate new, high-quality content from me. While they may not expect my creations to impart knowledge or bring them joy, the fact that they view them as pieces of art brings me satisfaction.

We should view writing as an art form as a whole. Just like how watching a dancer perform or listening to a singer's song can evoke various emotions or insights, a writer's work can also evoke unfamiliar feelings in the reader. For instance, in today's rapidly changing society with advancements in technology, our lives are constantly evolving, and we're often preoccupied with various tasks. In such turbulent times, capturing the reader's attention with our works can be a powerful tool for a writer. I believe this is the essence of a writer's role; there's no need to explicitly educate society.

In the past, writers were revered as model citizens, often seen as representatives of the intelligentsia, reflecting both status and popularity in a respectable society. Can contemporary writers still be classified as part of the intelligentsia? What, in your view, are the prerequisites for such a classification?

Honestly, the term “intelligentsia” has long intrigued me, and I gained deeper insight into its meaning from the film "Wake up, Myrzakyp." I think, historically, the intelligentsia were influential figures of Alash movement, capable of touching souls, empathizing with their people, and swaying crowds with their words.  However, I hesitate to label modern or past writers as intellectuals. This was a topic my friends and I debated, evaluating individuals in leadership roles and assessing their qualities. We noticed discrepancies; for instance, some were educated, culturally aware, and insightful, yet financially disadvantaged. We questioned whether they truly fit the intelligentsia mold, as material constraints can influence one's principles and rhetoric.

Traditionally, the intelligentsia comprised predominantly affluent, educated individuals. The Kazakh language even has a term, "karadan khan shykpas," denoting this. I remain skeptical of individuals with limited financial means proclaiming to champion national interests. Another category includes those who are articulate and well-off but lack a genuine connection with the people. Such scenarios are not uncommon, with many well-educated citizens from prosperous backgrounds residing abroad.

Then there's a third type: individuals with financial stability, patriotic sentiments, but lacking in leadership skills. Consequently, we concluded that the present Kazakh society lacks a prominent intellectual figure.

I would cite Beimbet Mailin as a true representative of the intelligentsia. Despite modest origins, he pursued education independently, authored enlightening works, and contributed to societal issues without expecting recognition or reward. This rarity of genuine intellectuals, who not only comprehend their writings but also live by their principles, underscores the sacrifices often made for the betterment of society. To be honest, I could not do that. My writing is fueled by the anticipation of public feedback, be it criticism or praise, as both serve as sources of inspiration and growth.

Contemporary Kazakh literature lacks extensive works that delve into modern societal issues or genres like fiction, science fiction, and detective stories. What could be the underlying reason for this?

I personally don't adhere to specific genres while writing; rather, I let my stories flow naturally without predefined labels. As someone with limited literary education and distant from the broader literary scene, I write as an amateur, driven by personal enjoyment. Therefore, I cannot definitively state that modern Kazakh writers do not explore certain topics or genres.

Genres like fantasy or science fiction demand a certain level of intelligence and imagination, often derived from diverse experiences such as interacting with diverse people, exploring different locales, and engaging with varied cultures. Our limited horizons, confined to our immediate surroundings, hinder the development of such imaginative realms. Living in a small town restricts our exposure to broader perspectives and diverse events that could fuel creative exploration.

I believe this limitation is rooted in the Kazakh mentality, which tends to stay anchored in our cultural roots. Our daily lives revolve around work and home, with occasional ventures to nearby cities. Expanding our worldview through travel and exposure to diverse experiences would likely nurture a more vibrant literary landscape, fostering the creation of works across a spectrum of genres.


Who do you read from modern kazakh poets and writers?

I make an effort to read extensively from contemporary writers, covering a broad range of their works. I strive to be thorough in my reading, regardless of whether the reception is positive or negative. There's a strong sense of camaraderie among us, as contemporary writers who share a similar perspective and approach. We value diversity in writing styles and are open to both praise and criticism. I mention this because we've observed the conflicts and disputes among the older generation of writers, which I believe could negatively influence younger writers.

Did you read a lot as a child? Can you pinpoint a book that significantly influenced your current personality?

I was an avid reader from a young age, and I believe it played a role in shaping who I am today. Back then, reading regularly likely enhanced my writing skills more than they are now, as my reading habits have become less frequent over time.

How do Kazakh writers sustain themselves financially? Can one lead a fully satisfying life solely through writing?

Kazakh writers primarily rely on their official work for income. It's rare for a writer to become wealthy solely from book sales, Not to mention the wealth, I can't say that they make a living from books. Because society is not ready to buy them yet. Nevertheless, there is now growing competition among publishers. For instance, I didn't have to pay to publish my book; instead, I'm seen as a sought-after writer. Publishers seek out my work themselves, pay royalties, handle sales, and conduct advertising campaigns on my behalf. This trend is gradually evolving. In the next decade, as the population becomes more inclined to purchase and read books, Kazakh writers might have better prospects for earning a substantial income from their writing.

We've heard  that your works were nominated for the Booker Prize, but we couldn't find substantial information about it online. Could you please clarify this?

Yes, my works translated into English were indeed nominated for the Booker Prize in 2024. The book, titled To Hell with the Poets, comprises my earliest stories. However, I wouldn't claim these to be my best works. They didn't make it to either the long or short list of the competition. Still, I was elated that my works were put forward for such a prestigious award, especially as the first Kazakh writer to be considered.

The lack of information about this nomination stems from my tendency to not actively promote or take responsibility for my creative endeavors. This could be why my nomination isn't widely recognized.

Initially, I wasn't even aware that I would be nominated for the award. It was Tilted Axis Press, my publisher, who recommended me for the nomination. As far as I know, it is difficult for the author to present himself to such determined contests. Such contests often rely heavily on the efforts of publishing houses and literary agencies.

That's a remarkable achievement to have your work considered for such a prestigious award. I wish you ongoing success in your writing journey. Now, for our final question: What themes or subjects are you excited about exploring in your future work?

If I were to choose a book topic to showcase internationally, I would write a story or novel depicting life in our country after gaining independence. I grew up during that period, observing life through the eyes of a child in the '90s. This aspect of our history is relatively unexplored in our literature, making it intriguing to global audiences. My previous book, “Keyipker” touched on elements of this era, and now my goal is to weave these experiences into a more comprehensive work. I believe this is something I can accomplish.


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