Filling the Space and Hiding Within

Filling the Space and Hiding Within: Review of Amanat: Women’s Writing from Kazakhstan, selected and translated by Zaure Batayeva and Shelley Fairweather-Vega, with contributions from Sam Brazeale

by Mirgul Kali

Though this contrast primarily reveals different approaches to translation, it is also important to understand the underlying structural inequalities between the source languages.

Amanat: Women’s Writing from Kazakhstan, selected and translated from the Kazakh and Russian by Zaure Batayeva and Shelley Fairweather-Vega, Gaudy Boy, 296 pages, $22.00, July 2022, ISBN 978-0-9994514-8-9

This spring, Nadhif Seto Sanubari, a friend who translates from Indonesian, introduced me to the Indonesian writer Leila Chudori. Chudori, who cites Virginia Woolf among her influences, has frequently written about her need for a “room of [her] own.” But while Woolf gives form to a predominately physical space that a woman writer should claim for herself, for Chudori, “a wide room with a large desk and adrenaline-pumping books” is not enough; she wants “an inner space where she could be free; a ‘soundproof’ room where she could separate herself from her daily routines.”[1] These lines draw on the reality of living and writing in places with strong patriarchal cultures that make it difficult or unsafe for women to express themselves artistically, let alone occupy a physical space. In order to operate in such restrictive environments, women writers learn to cultivate and safeguard a private creative space within their minds. This freer and fuller inner realm manifests itself in their writing, but the awareness of various social, physical, and intellectual constraints in the real world often forces women to mirror these constraints in their fiction and to conceal their innermost thoughts in the folds of a narrative.

In Amanat: Women’s Writing from Kazakhstan, an anthology of short fiction translated by Zaure Batayeva and Shelley Fairweather-Vega, this inner realm, brimming with women’s thoughts, feelings, grievances, ideas, dreams, and hopes, is ever-present—at times hidden behind the façade of male-centric storylines, at times flooding the narrative space between descriptions of domestic chores and interactions with other characters. In the title story by Oral Arukenova, the window into this private world is essentially shut; Raya—an old, thickset, and racially ambiguous woman at the very center of the conflict—remains not only silent but also almost completely invisible. We catch accidental glimpses of this world in “Awkward Conversation” by Zhumagul Solty, where a cheated mother occasionally voices her sense of deep sorrow and humiliation. Yet again, this private domain surfaces through the third-person narration of Zira Naurzbayeva’s “The Rival,” where the wife of a talented and overworked musician quietly runs the household while telling illuminating stories about traditional Kazakh music. And it occupies the entire first-person-singular space of Lilya Kalaus’s delightful and witty “A Woman Over Fifty” and Aya Ömirtai’s caustic and vibrant “18+.”

The very first story in the collection, Zhumagul Solty’s subtly humorous “Romeo and Juliet,” is exemplary in simultaneously exposing and concealing a woman’s private world. During the haphazard staging of Shakespeare’s play at a rural theater, Alip, who acts as Romeo, is unexpectedly reminded of an old extramarital affair with Marzia, cast as Juliet. Though a key female character, Marzia is introduced midway through the eight-page story uttering a few impassioned remarks. The audience assumes the remarks are part of the play, thus witnessing yet remaining oblivious to Marzia’s torment. Solty mirrors the condition of women—both visible and ignored—in patriarchal societies through the mechanism of a story that aims to hide its central message in plain sight.

Unlike this first story, however, the others in the collection hinge on intense internal monologues beneath the outward silence, elaborating a parallel world in which women move and speak more freely. In Raushan Baiguzhayeva’s “Propiska,” a girl staying with her uncle begins to fall for a married man who visits with his wife. As the girl bustles around the apartment, helping her aunt to host the guests, she allows herself to feel admired even as she feels anxious about her future. But the limiting, punishing hand of patriarchy reaches even into fictional worlds: in both “Romeo and Juliet” and “Propiska,” the heroines desire other women’s husbands, as if assuming guilt for taking so much space in the story, as if their inner freedom marks them as unfettered, better yet, loose and adulterous.

Provocatively and perhaps unconsciously, this element of impropriety in female characters is rarely examined closely in the stories. If in Solty’s and Baiguzhayeva’s stories the women’s feelings for married men are presented with an almost startling casualness, in Oral Arukenova’s “Procedures Within,” where women engage in endless, unsympathetic gossiping, and Olga Markova’s “The Lighter,” where a homeless teenager earns money by swindling and blackmail, the women’s “indecency” is repeated and amplified, producing a desensitizing effect.

In Nadezhda Chernova’s “Aslan’s Bride,” the heroine’s homeliness is announced in the very first sentence and is repeatedly brought up throughout the story. But here, this purported ugliness ends up symbolizing an injured sense of racial superiority. A tale of a colonizing conquest disguised as a strange, lyrical story of a woman searching for love and happiness, “Aslan’s Bride” doesn’t shy away from othering and diminishing the inhabitants of the village where the protagonist Milochka travels to: their garb is “black,” their glances “dour,” their language “throaty, incomprehensible,” and their furniture “awkward-looking” and “rudely made.” To “this Russian woman, who was not so pretty […] but was to all appearances harmless,” the locals look like eagles, seagulls, and cats. Milochka stares at them “wolflike” but later discovers that their food “really [is] good” and their houses are “surprisingly cool and clean.” As she begins to feel more at ease with the locals, she transforms into a “fair and beautiful” woman, “sent by God” to become “an extraordinary bride” for the revered hero of the village who never returned from a war that ended thirty years ago. The strange “brown” people restore the confidence of the White protagonist and put her on a pedestal. Whose fantasy is this: of the indigenous inhabitants of the post-Soviet lands who were made to believe that “blue eyes… and a classical nose [of] Greek goddesses” is a mark of “unprecedented beauty,” or of the White author?

A clue to this mystery may be found in a recent article by Asel Omar, a contributor to the Amanat anthology, who writes about the predominantly conservative, chauvinistic tone of the works published in the Kazakhstani Russian-language literary journal Prostor. Omar’s article contains several quotes by Chernova, the author of “Aslan’s Bride” and the former poetry editor of the journal, who laments the dismantling of the old monuments of Russian imperial power in Chechnya and Kazakhstan, blames the “rebirth of fascism” in Ukraine on “gluttonous Western invaders,” and appears to accuse Olga Mark and some of her followers, several of whom are featured in this anthology, of choosing the direction of “spiritual destruction.”[2]

Omar’s article points at various tensions within the Kazakhstani literary sphere, sharply divided along ethnic and linguistic lines. The original languages of the stories in Amanat, about half of which are written in Kazakh and half in Russian, not only allude to differing worldviews but may influence how the stories are perceived. The pieces originally written in Russian flow freely in Shelley Fairweather-Vega’s inspired translation, while those written in Kazakh reveal the idiosyncrasies of the source language in Zaure Batayeva’s more straightforward rendering. Though this contrast primarily reveals different approaches to translation, it is also important to understand the underlying structural inequalities between the source languages. There is no shortage of talented, experienced literary translators from the Russian language, which had been prioritized and actively promoted at the expense of other national languages during the Soviet era and which is widely taught in Anglophone countries. Supported by a vast array of resources and established professional communities, people working in the imperial languages of Russian and English are more likely to produce articulate translations. In the Kazakh-to-English translation sphere, the absence of acceptable dictionaries, lack of support networks and funding make literary translation a challenging pursuit. In this context, Batayeva’s unapologetic translation and preference for a more literal interpretation of colorful Kazakh idioms should be seen as an invitation to experience and interact with the source language and culture.

These variations aside, each story in Amanat offers an intriguing perspective into the lives of people in Kazakhstan and an insight into the ability of language and literature to reflect larger societal moods and processes. The book is especially interesting as a study of writing that takes place under oppressive circumstances. In Kazakhstan, women writers face many obstacles: they must find courage to write, carve out the time and space for writing between their domestic and familial duties, strive to develop professionally in the absence of training and mentorship, navigate the prejudices of the male-dominated literary community, and find a place in a book market that prioritizes the more powerful and profitable Russian language and the better-connected and successful male writers. Constrained, the women build fictional worlds that operate between the interstices of the patriarchal reality. And though sometimes they have to tread carefully even within these incorporeal worlds, their writing practice sustains them creatively and spiritually. As if to reaffirm a resilient spirit at its core, the anthology ends with Zira Naurzbayeva’s “My Eleusinian Mysteries,” a story that underscores the importance of a strong and resourceful maternal lineage.


[1] Quoted in: Sanubari, Nadhif Seto. “Navigating Private Spaces: Translating Leila Chudori’s ‘Nina and Nadira.’” 13 May 2022. Seminar in Comparative Literature, The University of Iowa, student paper.

[2] Omar, Asel. “K SOTSIOLOGII LITERATURNOGO PROTSESSA… ZHURNAL PROSTOR: KHRONIKI PADENIYA.” Dialog, 31 March 2022. (The translation of quotes is mine; MK)

Mirgul Kali is a literary translator working from Kazakh. Her translations of short fiction by Kazakh writers have been published in Tupelo Quarterly, Electric Literature, Exchanges, The Massachusetts Review, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. She is a recipient of the 2018 ALTA Emerging Translator Mentorship and a 2022 PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant, and is currently pursuing an MFA in Literary Translation at the University of Iowa.

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, July 19, 2022

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