Hamid Ismailov is an Uzbek journalist, novelist, poet and translator who was born in the Soviet Union in 1954 in what is now Kyrgyzstan. His poem “Lovers in Samarkand,” co-translated by Richard McKane, appeared in our September issue, Writing from the Silk Road. In 1992 he was forced to flee his home in the Uzbek capital Tashkent when his writing drew negative attention from government officials. Under threat of arrest he moved to London and now heads the Central Asian division of the BBC World Service. Hamid's poetry and prose, including his acclaimed novel The Railway, has been published in Uzbek, Russian, English, French, German, Turkish, and other languages — but his work is still banned in Uzbekistan.
We conducted this interview over email while I was, ironically, traveling in Uzbekistan. When I first asked Hamid if he would be willing to talk to me about his work, he said: “Just out of curiosity, where did you get my name from? I would think Uzbekistan is the last place people are likely to talk about me.”
TARA FITZGERALD: How do you think the experience of having to flee your home and live in exile has affected both your writing and your relationship with your homeland?
HAMID ISMAILOV: I'm not sure that I would have continued to write about Uzbekistan if I hadn't started working for the BBC. My work keeps me in daily touch with my country, with its problems and issues. There are many cases where writers have become more patriotic and even nationalistic while living abroad (this happened to many Russian writers who were forced to leave the Soviet Union). I hope that's not the case for me, but it's true that being separated from your country gives you a new-found appreciation for the language, the culture, the very core of your national identity.
TF: You work as a journalist and also write fiction and poetry. Where do you see the intersection between these three genres, and how do they feed and inform each other in the context of your own work?
HI: I started my writing career quite early as a poet, and then as Pushkin said “my age made me lean towards the austere prose.” My journalistic career was last to come about, and increasingly I love to interplay those roles in my writing. Some of my books mix real documents with fiction, in others I mix poetry with prose, or even all three elements in one narrative. Sometimes, when I'm annoyed with one of them, I start to think that the other forms have been given to me for the sake of my sanity.
TF: Does reading your work in English significantly change its context and the reader's understanding of events? Do you feel that aspects are inevitably lost in translation from Uzbek or Russian to English?
HI: It's extremely difficult to recreate the arabesques of Uzbek either in Russian or in English. In Uzbek all verbs are placed at the end of the sentence, so that is the most active part of the phrase, and the closer a word comes to the end the more important it is. So you can hold back the essence of what you are going to say to the very end. And unless you have heard the whole sentence you can't fully understand what it's about, or whether it's a question, a statement, an exclamation, a wish, an intention or something else. In short, you apply different tools to a different reading of the same reality and then that reality becomes different. My Russian or Uzbek books are essentially remade when they are translated into English or other languages. It's like taking a saksaul tree from the Central Asian steppes and replanting it in an English garden. It can look beautiful and exotic, but not natural.
TF: The Railway was your first book translated into English. What was the experience of being translated like for you?
HI: The Railway was translated from Russian. I started to write it in Uzbek, but then the Uzbek writer Sayid Ahmad who himself lived through Stalin's camps, told me it would be impossible to publish it in Uzbekistan. So I shifted into Russian with long Uzbek inserts translated in the footnotes. Robert Chandler — probably the best translator from Russian that there is — loved the book and translated several chapters in 1997. At that time the book was turned down for publication, but it eventually came out in 2006. Robert was the most meticulous translator I have ever worked with in my life. I still have his thousand or so emails with questions, clarifications, suggestions. As one joke goes: while explaining the novel to him, I started to understand it myself.
TF: What are the different cultural implications of writing in various languages for you?
HI: Generally speaking, I wouldn't write what I write in Uzbek in any other language. The same goes for my Russian writing. I wouldn't dare to recreate in Uzbek the books I originally wrote in Russian. It's a completely different world, different emotions, different tuning. But what I do, I use those languages in turns, because while I'm writing a novel let's say in Uzbek I have enough time to start to miss and long for Russian.
The more important distinction for me is between writing by hand or typing on the computer. I have written all my most important things by hand. The mechanics are completely different: your train of thought is not broken the way it is when you type. When typing you are preoccupied, even if just for a split second, with finding the right character each time. So it's a broken, staccato act.
TF: Your latest book in translation, A Poet and Bin-Laden, has just been published and it deals with 9/11, Islamic fundamentalism, and an Uzbek poet who becomes a terrorist. How do fiction, reportage, and historical writing work together in this novel?
HI: Well, to give you a good example, when the Russian version of the book was published in the UK one of my “well-wishers” passed a copy of it to the Uzbek authorities, and apparently it ended up with the Uzbek security service or former KGB. A leading Uzbek specialist on radical Islam, who is well-connected within those power circles, came to London to give a talk and when he met me there he said: “According to KGB you were mistaken with your character X. When X met Y he was severely beaten up by him, but you wrote the opposite.” It's worth noting here that character X — one of the main characters in the novel — was a purely fictional creation, but the KGB apparently tracked this character down and 'embodied' him. What an ominous and sinister turn of events. But it also shows how real documents and fiction are intertwined within this novel.
TF: What's the next piece of your work we'll be able to read?
HI: I've just finished an Uzbek novel The Feast of Devils, which is about the life of the great Uzbek writer Abdulla Qadyri. In 1937, Qadyri was going to write a book, which he said was to be so beautiful that it would make his readers stop reading his iconic novels Days Bygone and Scorpion from the Altar. He began writing it, but on December 31, 1937 he was arrested. All his manuscripts were confiscated and later burned, and not a single word of the novel was left. Then on October 4, 1938, Qadyri was executed by firing squad.
The Feast of Devils tells of the period when Qadyri was in prison and obsessed with his novel, which reflects both his prison life and his literature. And it is also about this unwritten novel that is unfolding in the mind of the writer. I've started to publish The Feast of Devils on Facebook and now have thousands of readers who are managing to dodge censorship and the authorities by reading it that way.