Writing in & of the World: Silk Routes Grant Narrative, Kyrgyzstan

I grew up in the Soviet Union. In one of the “southern” Central Asian parts, in the most wildly beautiful country, the Kyrgyz Republic, among a people with an ancient, not to say archaic life history/biography, in the family of a writer and an actress and film-director - both pure, naïve, extremely talented and genuinely free in their minds, people formed at the time into a family of poor intelligentsia. These three factors formed me ideologically and let me stay free…  Three things – the Soviet Union, my parents, my country’s beauty and heritage (sorry for this banal truth) – which I couldn’t depend on, or choose, were mingled metaphysically and shaped my life …

And it’s interesting to think about now, thirty years later, with more mature and lucid (I hope) mind…

I remember the first  bedtime reading by my father, at an early age, for a good night’s sleep… nothing less than Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and I was attentive, at four… So the Birnam forest and the ever-itching hands of Lady Macbeth stayed forever in my mind, along with the kind and sort of monotonous timbre of my father’s voice…  Actually the story never frightened me – rather, it put pillars in my soul for the understanding of good and evil… (though Falstaff and Merry Wives of Windsor came later and further on Selma Lagerlöf with her Nils and his Adventures and so on, the ethnic fairy tales every normal kid could be interested in…). But the first initiation by Macbeth marked me forever and I think set up the criteria for understanding good literature – it should be great, grave, dramatic, with strong collisions in the inner world of a human being…  

I remember, as well, my shame in facing my  parents when, in the second grade, I was supposed to write a short story about a person I would consider an example to follow… and I couldn’t invent better than “the boy Volodya Ulianov” – the  Lenin-child. Well, I thought he was a real example, as he could read so many books in his childhood, and was so clever… I remember how upset my parents were by the easiness and the plainness of my choice… Another shame – much later, in my teens, when they discovered I traded books with a classmate: I would give him Homer’s “Iliad” in exchange for Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes (we didn’t have such light reading on our bookshelves)… They made an example of that boy “understanding” the real things in life… I believed them, but Sherlock interested me as well… But I was an outstanding reader despite my different choices – one book a week at least…

I started to write stories in my letters. I loved to write letters – to my parents when they were away, to new friends, at first a few lines, nothing special. Then we used to make up the stories with my dad… then I wrote several stories in my math notebook and forgot about them. My mother discovered them much later and was astonished; both parents said – “you probably have your father’s talent, you should write more…”.  And this came after years and years of self-torture while writing school-essays and compositions…

In the Soviet Union children went to school at the age of seven, had to fulfill ten years of study, and pass a final exam to be able to enter the university. From the fifth year, when we were about 12 years old, we started to write papers, the so called “sochinenie” (сочинение) or compositions. Interestingly, “composition” comes from compose… and sochinenie from “sochiniat” – to invent, to make up a story… 

As easy as it was for me to invent a story, or to write a joyful letter, as difficult and torturous was it for me to complete this “sochinenie”. These compositions were a sort of feedback on predetermined themes from Russian classics. The topics were quite interesting but too literary for that age group: “The idea of the little man in Chekhov’s short stories”, “The inner world of Pechorin”, “Images of women in War and Peace”, etc. etc.  As soon as the teacher, after reading the book, announced the next topic of the “sochinenie”, the assignment poisoned my life and drove me crazy, and certainly was a great obstacle for me to write… I still do not understand what it was – whether the idea of writing on a predetermined topic, or the fear of writing stereotypes, or maybe the deadlines…. But I know I suffered greatly, to the point where my father helped me a couple times.  Oh! Those “sochinenie-compositions” of my father, completely outside any conventions, boosted by inner freedom and too daring…

He is the writer in full sense! Talented-- yes. Free– yes.  Free of conventions, stereotypes, free in his language, in his wording, disregarding and defying whole ideological machine! He paid for this during Soviet time, and he is “paying” still.  Almost all of his novels were written “for the drawer”… his name on the KGB’s black list.  After the first big success of his novel The Sun Didn’t Complete Its Self-portrait, he was acclaimed, translated, published in the big Moscow literary magazines, and then forgotten. Although he was never explicitly against the Empire, he just never mentioned the Party and the “great rules” we lived with, nor was he reverent about it… He wrote about simple men and their not at all simple situations, the lines of evil and good…  And the Party decided to not mention his name, he passed into total taboo, oblivion… So seeing all this, living through this, I cherished the idea of writing but never wanted to be an official writer… Living through “the System” gave us all some tools and abilities; it made us, paradoxically, free in our minds, against the backdrop of toughness and dullness… And mostly that is what has formed me - a living example of such parents – what I most value is their integrity and fearless fairness…

When I went to France in the 1990s, I suddenly began writing in blank verse, sometimes in rhyme, it went on and off strangely… I wrote a lot – articles for our newspapers, essays, poetry, and again letters, the most valuable – to my father… Poetry came as a story, as the narration interweaved with feelings of empathy, wonder, and astonishment… My journalistic activity, once I started to write regularly for a couple of newspapers as a free-lancer,  gave me a lot different possibilities… I remember attending the highly significant press conference with the presidents of Russia and France, Yeltsin and Mitterrand, but instead of a news-report I wrote an opus describing the volatile atmosphere in the Elysee Palace and named it “Hello to my silence-keepers…”.  Finally I expressed all my wonder, shock, and sweetness of that time in Paris in a cycle of poems and essays … 

My mother used to say, probably to provoke me, that journalism is not an art at all… I remember always looking to perform, to search for my way in journalism, to somehow prove the contrary… That is how I am now working on a new project, “The Song of the Earth”, in the genre of photojournalism – it is a photo diary with images and stories about different cultures and people… 

And certainly, I could not avoid the visual… All my childhood I grew up around film crews and on film shoots, given that my mother was an actress and a film director of documentaries. And this was an incredible burden for a woman at that time… She was a brave and talented person with an inner energy – exactly what a good director needs in order to make a good movie. I was consciously avoiding working in cinema, but strangely, finally, couldn’t… I even went to the NY Film Academy for an intensive course, and shot a film about an unhappy Russian man in New-York… But again, film interested me as narration, as a medium for human stories… I am at work on a series of TV documentaries on the Kyrgyz in China, and am involved in a TV talk-show with intellectuals, “Commentaries”…

What now?  In addition to Philosophy, which is my professional :D  background,  I now teach something interesting but terribly adverse to (art)-writing, a new course here - “Critical thinking and academic writing” – although my work with students is based on sections from the wonderful Plato-Socrates dialogues and on Dostoevsky’s Legend of the Great Inquisitor (Shakespeare is next :)).  I think it is important that they should understand, or at least discover, the ways and reflections that lead to freedom…     

Writing has for me always been, and remains, a very fragile, subtle, deep and personal thing… Strangely I feel almost naked when read my own things … I believe one word can be great literature, just as a very ornate piece can be empty. Good literature has its soul. I am looking for that soul…