Russia is Restless: A Brooklyn Book Festival Event

By Alisha Kaplan

On September 19, almost sixty people gathered at Karloff Restaurant in Brooklyn for dinner and conversation with exiled Uzbek writer and BBC reporter Hamid Ismailov and Russian-American novelist Boris Fishman. The Brooklyn Book Festival event was hosted by Restless Books, a Brooklyn-based, digital-first publisher devoted to a wide range of international literature. Only a year old, Restless Books is off to an impressive start, with twenty-two titles by writers from countries such as Cuba, Chile, Nigeria, Hungary, Iran, Poland, and Pakistan.

The event description promised “insightful, no-holds-barred conversation about literature, freedom, and our global culture,” which was delivered during a delicious three-course meal of health-conscious, home-style Russian cooking. Fishman and Ismailov perched at the bar, facing an audience seated at a long table, sharing dishes of potato latkes, varenikis, devilled eggs, and other delicacies.

Fishman began the evening with a toast—a shot of vodka, of course—to thank everyone present for their commitment to and investment in literary culture, and for having dished out the $40 that it cost to attend, because, as he said, why shouldn’t we pay for literature, considering how much work goes into producing it? He also encouraged the audience not to be shy, and apropos of that, passed around a bottle of his favorite vodka. Creating a lively and intimate atmosphere, the two writers conversed easily with each other and with audience members.

Boris Fishman is the author of the novel A Replacement Life and editor of Wild East: Stories from the Last Frontier. His journalism and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, the New Republic, and other publications.

Hamid Ismailov is the author of numerous novels and poetry collections, including The Underground, translated and published by Restless Books. At Fishman’s request, Ismailov shared his rich personal history. In 1992, he was forced to flee Uzbekistan (where his works are banned) because of his involvement in a foundation that supported democracy. He eventually moved to the United Kingdom to work for the BBC World Service. He explained how writing helped him deal with the trauma of what he experienced. Fishman then quoted a friend who said that much great art would not exist without oppressive regimes and asked Ismailov, as someone who has lived through oppression, how he would respond to that. Ismailov was skeptical about that theory and listed great Russian writers who didn’t live under oppression, like Tolstoy.

Ismailov went on to speak about the concept of Soviet literature, which he felt hadn’t actually existed when he started writing; the ideology said one thing but reality another.

There was, for example, Russian literature featuring only Russians, or Georgian literature featuring only Georgians, but not Soviet, despite the fact that in all of his experiences in Russia, he encountered many minorities.

He explained that his novel The Runaway is a very different book in Uzbek than in Russian. It became more universal in the latter because it had to appeal not just to Uzbeks but to a larger demographic. Ismailov also said that he isn’t satisfied with the Russian or the English translations of The Runaway because the languages work  so differently from Uzbek. For instance, in Uzbek, the verb appears at the end of the sentence, so the meaning isn’t clear until the very end, and everything hangs on that last word. But in Russian, like English, you can guess what’s going on right away, so there is less ambiguity and scope. Also, in Uzbek, “he” or “she” is the same as “it,” like an object, which changes how the characters are perceived. He compared Uzbek to Japanese and quoted Murakami, who said that he always writes in first person simply because it’s easier to translate. Because of these obstacles, Ismailov chooses to write his books in Uzbek and has never translated his poetry.

One of Fishman’s last questions for Ismailov was: What’s one title that Restless Books should publish next? Ismailov explained that Russian literature becomes interesting when it is about otherness, and listed Alisa Ganieva, Dina Rubina, and Alexander Terekhov as noteworthy contemporary Russian writers who do this in their work. Ismailov’s own novel, The Railway, is something to look out for, in an American edition forthcoming from Restless Books.

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