By Hamid Ismailov

22 March 2019 - 13:24

Hamid Ismailov
'What is storytelling for human beings? I suspect that's the question I'm proposing in this novel.' Photo ©

Tilted Axis Press

Hamid Ismailov's novel The Devil's Dance, first published in Uzbek in a series of social media posts, won the EBRD Literature Prize 2019.

Tell us about the writer and historical figure Abdulla Qodiriy, who is central to The Devil's Dance.

If you ask any Uzbek to name a famous Uzbek novel, they would name Abdulla Qodiriy's first novel, O'tgan Kunlar (Bygone Days).

He was one of the most famous Uzbek writers, and the creator of the Uzbek novel in the early 20th century. Qodiriy said that he was influenced by the Arabic writer Jurji Zaydan.

Before him, Uzbek literature, including oral epics and novels, were written in verse. Like Shakespearean tragedies, for example; they are novels, but they are written in verse. The same tradition existed in Uzbek literature.

He enjoyed fame for several years, but he criticised the Uzbek authorities in a satirical magazine, and was arrested for the first time in 1926. His co-workers wrote letters informing against him.

During his trial, he said that he would prefer to be killed than to return to the people who betrayed him. He said that he couldn't look into their eyes again.

He wrote a couple of other novels that were popular with Uzbeks, and by 1937 he decided to write his ultimate novel. He said to everyone he met that he knew exactly what this novel would be about. It would be about Oyxan, who was the wife of three kings, a kind of Helen of Samarkand. He wanted to write a novel that was better than his previous three novels.

It should have been so beautiful. 

But he was arrested on 31 December 1937, while he was working on the novel, and spent the next ten months in an NKVD (the secret police agency which was a forerunner of the KGB) prison. He was shot dead on 5 October 1938, along with other Uzbek intellectuals. He was acquitted in the 1950s.

You've written a story inside a story inside a story; you tell the story of Qodiriy, who tells the story of Oyxan. Why did you make that choice? 

What is storytelling for human beings? I suspect that's the question I'm proposing in this novel.

This is the story of a narrator, and how a narrative is born. Qodiriy is writing a novel and thinking about his novel while he is in prison.

I was interested in how a newly born narrative changes a person. He is constantly interacting with his narrative, to the extent that he hallucinates and becomes part of it. Sometimes he's the victim of his own story. 

We talk about fake news now, but there has always been a clash of narratives in human history. In The Devil's Dance it's Qodiriy's narrative against the NKVD narrative. The interrogator plays a cat and mouse game with him; he tells him stories to change what he believes.

How do we separate one narrative from another? It is one of the great questions of humanity, and so there is something in storytelling that is fundamental to humanity. 

Why did you choose Oyxan and Qodiriy for your novel? 

I've lived in the UK for 25 years, and initially I wanted to write about the relationship between the UK and my part of the world.

I found lots of archived literature, and ethnographic and anthropological material from the time of the Great Game, when British agents were sent to central Asia.

Then I realised that Qodiriy wanted to write about the same period. Oyxan lived during the 1840s to the 1860s, at the time of the Great Game.

You have these two stories in The Devil's Dance, of Oyxan in the 19th century and Abdulla Qodiriy in the 20th century, and you published it on a 21st century medium. Why did publish your novel on Facebook?

My books are banned in Uzbekistan. I published it in the Uzbek language on Facebook because social media was the only option. There was no other way to reach my readers in Uzbekistan.

Now, other writers in Uzbekistan are using the same technique to publish their novels and short stories. It's one of our tools against censorship.

Was Abdulla Qodiriy's experience of censorship and betrayal the reason you chose him for your book?

There are echoes in both of these stories. Oyxan's story was also one of censorship and betrayal. She loved a young man, and she wanted to be happy. But kings decided differently. One after another, they forced her to marry them against her will.

That's what happened to Qodiriy. Uzbek readers thought his literature was beautiful. At the same time, his Uzbek colleagues and pupils betrayed him, put him in prison, and ultimately killed him.

How did other Uzbek writers respond to The Devil's Dance?

The best thing I read was in a forum, where I was accused of plagiarism.

There was a theory that I had found Qodiriy's original manuscript and published it under my name. In a way it was the best praise, because they were comparing The Devil's Dance with Qodiriy's writing.

There was apparently a meeting at the writers' union. Some people said that there must be a political agenda behind the book, and that we must protect our youngsters from it.

Basically, I think they were saying 'I haven't read this book, but I hate it.'

Is social media and the freedom to self-publish changing debates about censorship?

People have always debated what should and shouldn't be published, in every medium. Social media is just a new tool.

But we have to use new tools cleverly. There should be new technologies, and there should be some element of responsibility in this new democracy.

The scale of change at the moment is enormous, and I don't think we are noticing it. Many people feel that everything is decided by a click. Click and you get a book, or food. That gives people the perception that they're running the world with a click

While everyone is an autonomous journalist, writer or politician, autocratic tendencies are flourishing. 

I don't trust the future of social media as a publishing tool. You can publish five or six paragraphs at the most on social media; any more and people won't read it. Unless it's the only option, like in my situation.

Where does that element of responsibility come from? 

It's naïve to assume that the ability to publish on social media gives you responsibility. These tools don't grant you the responsibility that comes with education. 

I'm not only talking about formal education. My granny was from a very well-off family of mullahs, but she was left without any formal education.

However, she often used the word Farosat. It's an Arabic word, and it means the common rules of living, of etiquette, of goodness.

The closest English word is 'consideration'. For example, to extend your hand over someone else's food is not farosat for her. When she related to any person, be they Russian, Jewish or Korean, she always looked for farosat

What other words might we hear in an Uzbek home?

The word olagasto means chaos. If you come home and you see that everything is upside down because your children were playing, you might say what's that olagasto, or everything is olagasto now.

Woti kuti is a person who talks behind your back. 

Has your identify changed as you've learned and written in different languages?

I haven't got a single identity. I prefer to think of the richness of my heritage, rather than to define myself as an Uzbek or a Russian.

If I'm writing in Russian, for example, or Uzbek, or English, I always consider that I am talking to different people.

There is something inside of you which is constant, and permanent, regardless of the language you're speaking. And on the surface, you're adapting your farosat to other people. 

What about your identity as a writer? You're often described in relation to your Uzbek heritage, and your work being banned in your own country. 

The best thing for an author is when you disappear from your work.

I had a neighbour, who had a wonderful garden, with beautiful flowers. But the sticks next to the flowers were ugly.

Storytelling is the same. You should hide the sticks that support the flowers.

One of the gratifying things for me, after I published The Devil's Dance, was that no one talked about me in the reviews. I was sort of made redundant.

I was perplexed at first, but then I realised that I had hidden myself so well I had disappeared from the story.

The Devil's Dance is translated by Donald Rayfield and published by Tilted Axis Press.

Follow Hamid Ismailov on Twitter

The British Council supports the EBRD Literature Prize as part of our programme to encourage more literature in translation to be published around the world.

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