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Kanat Abilkaiyr: Writing is my way of self-express...

30.06.2024 200

Kanat Abilkaiyr: Writing is my way of self-expression

Kanat Abilkaiyr: Writing is my way of self-expression - adebiportal.kz

Recently, the book “Agyraptagy aty zhok adam” (Nameless Man in Agyrap) by writer Kanat Abilkaiyr was published. He actively addresses socio-political problems in the literary environment and on social networks. We interviewed the author about this book and the current issues in society.

First of all, I would like to congratulate you on the publication of your latest book, "Agyraptagy Aty Zhok Adam."  We heard that the first 500 copies sold out quickly, and another 2000 copies were reprinted. How are sales going?

About 700 of them have been sold.

I apologize if this question seems intrusive, but I’m curious because the culture of reading and buying books in our country is still relatively young. It’s notable that Kazakh writers often write, advertise, and sell their books independently. What are your thoughts on this and the current state of the Kazakh book market?

I believe we need to change our attitude toward books. Currently, many books are published by government order and distributed free of charge in libraries. Writers receive a small fee for their work, which has conditioned people to expect free books. Additionally, some writers focus on commissioned works about someone's history or genealogy, which rarely find readers. Over the past thirty years, many have turned to writing to gain fame rather than to contribute meaningful literature, which has diminished public interest in reading and hindered the development of genuine writers. 

In the past, I too published books through government orders and with the support of entrepreneurs. There were times I gave them away for free to people I knew and respected, but they were often not read. If someone isn't invested in a book and hasn’t paid for it, they are less likely to read it. I’ve observed this myself; when I buy books from bookstores, whether world literature or local works, I read them immediately. Knowing this, I encourage everyone to buy my book. I don’t even give free copies to my father. 

What conditions do you think should be created to support writers so they can focus on writing rather than selling books? What are the current challenges?

There should be literary agencies, like in other countries. But first and foremost, we need to change society's attitude toward books. For example, when one of my books is published, several people are involved: editors, proofreaders, and publishing house staff. We need to explain to people that these professionals deserve to be paid for their work, which contributes to the cost of the book. I often tell my friends: "Even if a light bulb burns out at home, you buy a new one and see its value. Even a matchstick costs money." Books should be treated the same way. In our country, and likely in Central Asia and CIS countries, book prices are often undervalued. Sometimes, though, prices are set too high. Meat, which seems simple at home, is expensive in restaurants. However, people are gradually learning the value of purchasing books.

Now, if we shift our conversation to "The Nameless Man in Agyrap", for me, this book is the first novel to address the current socio-political issues in the country. Reading the book, I immediately thought of the “Shanyrak” story. However, nowhere does it say that this book is based on that story. Even in the synopsis, it simply states “a novel about a house”. You have not mentioned this in any interview. What is the reason for this? Currently, we have a growing number of civil activists, and public interest in political events is increasing. Why not emphasize the book’s relevance to these topics and attract people's attention? I thought this could be a good marketing move for Russian-speaking Kazakhs, who mainly consume Russian content, or for those who dismiss Kazakh literature as "only glorifying village life".

If readers make that connection, it's appropriate. However, there might be a misunderstanding if I claim that the story in the book solely concerns the "Shanyrak" incident. Of course, it's true that I studied that story and wrote a novel based on it. I didn't create anything out of thin air. For example, during that time, I met a man who was admitted to a mental hospital and 4-5 women who had miscarriages. There's also the story of two convicted men. I needed to write everything as the story of one family, providing a general account of their fate. The lives of the book's characters, though drawn from real events, are composite images. 

If I mention "Shanyrak," it could be mistaken for a factual account rather than a work of fiction. Until now, we have been accustomed to seeing the works of historical writers like Ilyas Yesenberlin as documentary truths. I do not want to mislead readers into thinking my novel follows a specific plot line directly tied to real events. Moreover, there are still people among us who bear direct responsibility for the "Shanyrak incident". I am a writer, not a hero. What right do I have to question them about human rights and bring this issue back into public discourse? My goal was merely to document what happened; the full truth is known only to God.

Additionally, the problem of state violence began then and continues to this day, so I wanted to express my perspective on this issue as a writer. Even if I don't explicitly state it, the country speaks about it, it reaches people, and the book is in demand.

I see that you trust your readers. We also read comments and opinions from people on social networks. However, Talasbek Asemkulov wrote in his essay “I Haven’t Read”: “There is a more serious crime than burning a book.” Joseph Brodsky said, “It is not reading a book.” We would add to this that “there is a crime even more serious than not reading a book, and that is not commenting on a book you have read.” Does this problem persist, and do you receive any feedback from your colleagues in general?

There are those in the literary world who express their opinions. Several people, such as Zhusipbek Korgasbek, Tursynzhan Shapay, Zhadyra Shamuratova, and Shynar Abilda, have already shared their thoughts on my novel. However, I have also seen posts with just two or three appreciative sentences from some well-known contemporaries. As a writer, I understand them. When everyone is moving forward together, it becomes more challenging when someone gets slightly ahead. So, it’s understandable when they say, "I haven’t read it." But I believe that my contemporaries who are also writing novels will definitely read it.

Does this mean there is solidarity among our writers?

There is solidarity, but it is very difficult for people who are on the same level to appreciate and support each other. It was probably the same before, it is the same now, and it will likely be the same in the future. Only those who come after you can openly express their thoughts because they do not see us as competitors. It is difficult for the previous generation to acknowledge us, but we do have some elders who can genuinely be happy for us with all their hearts.

Which contemporary Kazakh writers do you read? Whom do you see as your competitors?

We have many strong writers. Of course, I can’t say that I like everything. Not everyone has to write the way I think. But there are good writers in our literature. As Tursynzhan Shapay said, we either have very strong writers or very bad writers. It is said that we lack mid-level writers. If we had more writers producing average-level work, our literature would thrive.

 Recently, I was wondering why many of our writers become either philologists or journalists. Writers who specialize in another field, especially in the technical field, seem rare to us. I wonder if a child who did well in school and turned to literature is interested in journalism and poetry because they grew up with writers who instilled a love for the profession in them. Why do you think we don’t have genre writing? When will we see Kazakh writers creating fantasy, science fiction, with main characters who are scientists, doctors, or human rights activists?

It seems that this day is just around the corner. Since my youth, I have been a fan of the Russian writer Alexander Belyaev. In his science fiction work "The Head of Professor Dowell," a young doctor installs a human head onto another body. For the first time in 20-30 years after this work, a human kidney transplant operation was performed. Even if we take Jules Verne, he wrote about everything that came to his mind, sometimes exploring the depths of the sea, other times soaring in the sky. It's true that sometimes writers pave the way for science with their imagination, creating fantastic works. For us, however, writing often means glorifying the village and praising the Kazakh people. We need to move beyond these outdated ideas. Some still consider literature as ethnography, thinking that writing on the same old topics is a sign of literary mastery. They see the writer as a keeper of artistic language, admiring archaisms and ancient words, and drawing beautiful pictures from elaborate words.

Literature is built on thought. And thought must be clearly expressed without unnecessary words; the main thing is that the reader understands what you are talking about. This can lead to a conversation about linguistic poverty. But for me, when you fully embrace and describe what you want to tell, that is rich language. It won't be literature if you delve into history and pick out old words. If we change this understanding, fantasy and other genres can develop. Of course, we cannot say that there are no such works in Kazakh literature at all, but they are isolated. The imagination of a writer is formed depending on the environment and the worldview in which they grew up.

So, if we were a technocratic country, could our writers write on these topics?

Yes, that's possible, but the opposite can also be true. As noted, thanks to the creativity of writers, societal changes can occur. For example, my appearance in journalism prompted several of my siblings to take up this field after me.

I agree with your opinion in this case.  In the same way, literature has a great influence  on cinematography. What can you say about the collaboration between cinema and literature in our country?

 I cannot say that I closely observe the film industry. But we see that films based on literary works such as "My Name is Kozha" are viable. Additionally, I notice a positive trend where literary works are often staged in the theater.

Recently, director Daniyar Salamat's film "Talaq" received the Grand Prix at the Shanghai Film Festival, one of ten festivals classified as "A". It was based on the stories of Beimbet Mailin. This suggests that where cinema and literature come together, there will be a good result.

 If we look at the global experience, the famous J.K. Rowling became one of the richest writers in the world, and the popularity of her novels increased even more because of the films based on her Harry Potter books. In our reality, when we talk on this topic we still remember works like "Kokserek" and “Gaukhartas” from last century. There are practically no works based on modern novels that have become the subject of public discussion and brought popularity to the writer.

 Their time will probably come too. It likely depends on public perception. In the past, I went to see a film about child suicide called "Black Box". I'm not a cinema expert, but I really liked it; it was a significant film. However, the producers of this film could not raise much money. Currently, there is a great demand for light comedy films. Therefore, even if high-quality films are made from literature, it is unlikely to interest people. But in this case, we can only blame society. People busy with other problems may prefer to relax a little. Therefore, we need to learn effective methods of presenting high-quality films to the public.

 It seems to me that one of the pressing issues in modern society is the language problem. Why haven’t we been able to elevate the status of our language in the 30 years since independence? Why do children in the neighborhood still speak Russian, and even the children of Kazakh-speaking parents often use a others language?

The most effective solution to language issues lies in ideology. Speaking Kazakh should become fashionable. Kazakh content should dominate the entire Internet, especially for children. For instance, the influence of the Balapan TV channel led Kyrgyz children to start speaking Kazakh. We should capitalize on this and increase the production of Kazakh cartoons and content for teenagers. Translation is also crucial. Works across various fields and topics should be translated into Kazakh, a practice that is gaining traction now. However, if this trend had begun 30 years ago, would our language situation be different today? If those in power genuinely wanted to elevate the status of Kazakh, one law could solve this issue. But they hesitate, perhaps because their children speak Russian. We need a language revolution now. If we continue to accommodate convenience over commitment, our country will never fully embrace Kazakh. "If you know the language, you can live in Kazakhstan; if not, you cannot," this should be our stance.

When you mentioned content, I recalled that sometimes I assign my friends and young aspiring writers a task: "Write works for children in Kazakh and promote Kazakh content." How relevant do you think this is? Do writers have a responsibility to the people?

 Serving the people, addressing the people's issues is a noble idea passed down by the intellectuals of Alash. Some dedicated their lives to the nation's good, dying in pursuit of their ideals. Their commitment surpasses ours. If modern writers engage in politics, they risk closing doors for themselves, which many cannot afford. In my view, we should stop to say that writers should raise the Kazakh problem. “Why don’t you write about this problem, aren’t you a writer?” some say. And why are you silent?” I would say. First, people should buy my books, comment on them, and support each of my works. Only then can I authentically address the concerns of my readers. What right does someone who hasn’t read a single story of mine have to demand I write about the state of the people?

 Why do you write at all?

I write because I want to contribute to literature. Writing is my way of self expression. Everyone wants to showcase their abilities. Mine is writing. I do it without hesitation. Perhaps I write because there are people who read my works. As you mentioned, we grew up reading books, inspired by them. Like Erkin, the hero of Berdybek Sokpakpaev, I grew up dreaming of becoming a writer.

What are your goals in your writing career? Do you think about submitting yourself for world awards?

No, I do not want to put myself forward. What right do I have to represent Kazakh literature to the world on my own behalf? There are many other outstanding talents both in the world and in Kazakhstan. If I survive and don’t die, perhaps I will receive a state award. I survive and continue writing, perhaps I might receive a state award someday. Of course, it would be wonderful if translators took an interest in my work and literary agents discovered it and recommended it, but I don’t want to chase awards myself.  They value real art there. But every writer should ask himself: "Is what I do real art?" We should think about this question often. It seems too early for us. If the generation after me and the generation after that read my works, draw inspiration from them, and win the Nobel and Booker Prizes, that will be a great achievement for me.


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