Yuriy Serebriansky (IWP ’17) is a Kazakhstani author of Polish origin, and cultural researcher. His prose, poetry, and non-fiction have appeared in Kazakh, Russian, and American literary journals, and been translated into Kazakh, Polish, English, Arabic, Chinese, Spanish, French and German. In 2010 and 2014, he was awarded the Russkaya Premia literary award; in 2017, his [Kazakhstani Fairy Tales] was recognized as the best bilingual book for a young audience at the Silk Road Book Fair; in 2019, his novel [Black Star], co-written with Bakhytzhan Momyshuly (1941-2012) received the Altyn Kalam literary prize. Editor-in-Chief of Esquire Kazakhstan from 2016 to 2018, he is currently Editor-in-Chief of the Kazakhstani Polish diaspora magazine Ałmatyński Kurier Polonijny, and the prose editor of the Russian literary magazine Literatura. In 2019, he was one of the instructors for IWP's Between the Lines youth program. In 2018, he and translator and researcher Anton Platonov co-founded the Literary Translation Laboratory in Almaty, which in October of 2020 published a collection of nine contemporary American stories in Russian translation.
Q: How do the various languages you write and read in align in your head—practically, emotionally, grammatically?
A disastrous feeling of losing control leads to a fragile and paranoid attention to every single word. Love it.
Q: What reading is on your work desk, under your bed, on your phone, on your mind, right now?
When I’m about to begin a new piece of writing, I usually reread For Esmé With Love and Squalor and Other Stories in a Russian translation. It’s a kind of ritual. The deal is that this Salinger collection was my gift to a good friend on his twelfth birthday, and I have to borrow it every time. It feels awkward but we have gotten used to it. Currently, I have been reading the wonderful Polish novel Pokora by Szczepan Twardoch, and The Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence, and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan by Sarah Cameron.
Q: In your career as a journalist and editor, what were your major challenges, and what was the most satisfying accomplishment?
At the time when Sergey Dovlatov, an American and Russian writer, argued that we lose 80% of our identity in a different language environment, there was no internet. Today we can live in New York and still be in Saint Petersburg 23 hours a day unless we go out to a grocery store. Twenty years ago, I was afraid to not be able to find a proper job when moving from country to country. Now I truly believe in living a boat lifestyle.
Q: What marks—ideas, friendships, ideas, networks— has your time in the IWP left? What of its resources (to use American bureaucratese) do you continue to use?
Sure: ideas, friendships that have fortunately lasted, lifehacks--all are incredible experiences. As for professional writing, thanks to IWP Residency I’m currently working on a PhD thesis, happy to have chosen an academic lifestyle after meeting colleagues, and being able to prove that I could take a next step. So, thank you very much, IWP!
Q: So little is written about the literary culture(s) in Kazakhstan. Is it possible to offer a thumbnail sketch of its places, atmosphere, institutions, ambitions?
I expect my new book, titled Книга о вкусной и здоровой казахстанской литературе [“The Book of Tasty and Healthy Kazakhstani Literature”], to be released in the middle of December . Its goal isn't to give an exhaustive account of the situation in Kazakhstani literature since 1991, i.e., during the period of independence. The book is based on interviews with the winners of the literary contests organized during this period by the Open Society Institute in Kazakhstan, but in fact most contemporary Kazakhstani authors were involved, and can find their name in the book. I was surprised to learn that the literary contest organized in 1997 by the Soros Foundation-Kazakhstan was the very first literary prize in the newly independent state. The chapter “Two Literatures, or Even More” focuses on translation issues, and on the fact that authors writing in Kazakh aren't familiar with the works of the authors writing in Russian and vice versa; it discusses definitions of Kazakh and Kazakhstani literatures as well as those of Russian-language Kazakhstani writers—i.e. the different angles that became important in the period of post-colonial re-thinking. The title refers to the cult Soviet tome on food Книга о вкусной и здоровой пище [“The Book of Tasty and Healthy Eating”] and I hope the allusion remains sufficiently ironic until I have finished writing my book.
Q: How do young writers emerge in Kazakhstan? Has creative writing as a teaching area found a foothold? Should it?
In Kazakhstan there are now some academic opportunities for creative writing, and also some private courses; I was one of the co-organizers of the private Almaty Open Literary School, established in 2008--a literary institution for writers of all ages, which offers anyone a chance to become involved in the local creative environment. I estimate that most young writers working in Russian who in the past decade received some recognition within the Russophone literature have in some way been connected to our School. When in 2018 Anton Platonov and I established the Literary Translation Laboratory (supported by the U.S. Mission in Almaty as well as by Chevron), half of the participants in our workshop arrived with some experience from the Almaty Open Literary School. I’m talking about authors working in Russian; contemporary Kazakh-language writers did not participate. Unfortunately.
Q: We at IWP are inevitably preoccupied with the concept of “world literature.” Do writers in Kazakhstan tend to orient themselves more toward “the West” (Europe—or is that the US?), “the North” (Moscow), “the South-East” (Asia), or…?
In spite of the language status discussion in Kazakhstani society, the optimal way for an author to get recognition here is through Russian translation of their work, or simply by writing in Russian. A Russophone point of view does exist, and should somehow receive attention separate from Russia’s “internal” literature, as well as from other Russophone literatures existing in Kazakhstan--e.g. the Ukrainian. And not only in post-Soviet countries, but also in Israel, for example. Above all, though, the position of the Russian language in Kazakhstan needs rethinking, and while we don't have a consensus in this matter, it will have impact on literature as well. At the moment, the Russian language environment in Kazakhstan is dwindling...1
Q: What gratifying or hopeful developments in social life or politics have you seen in Kazakhstan in the last decade? and/or What gratifying or hopeful developments in social life or politics have you seen in Poland in the last decade?
The answer is quite simple: the accomplishments of my friends. I'm happy for people I love who turned out to be capable of surviving under any conditions.
Q: Describe your utopia.
My daughter keeps reading books, and when she walks in the street anywhere in the world, she has more or less the same possibilities I have had--at least before the pandemic.
(1) A 2021 conversation with Yuriy Serebriansky and other about the situation of Russophone liteature in Kazakhstan and Ukraine can be found here.