At 24, author Alisa Ganieva won a prestigious Russian literature award for her long story, Salaam, Dalgat!, which was published under a male pseudonym in 2009. She tells us why she decided to use a male pen name at first, and what it was like to be translated into English.
You started your career studying literature. How was the transition to writing fiction?
I'm often asked if it was complicated to switch from criticism to fiction. Not at all. I'm sure these two activities involve different parts of our brains. The language of my prose is nowhere near the language of my reviews. That was one of the reasons nobody guessed that I wrote the story, Salaam, Dalgat!, which drew all the experts’ attention when it was submitted to the Debut Prize. The mystery lasted for several months. Journalists were desperate to find its author, whom they believed to be a young man from Dagestan who'd managed to expose everyday life in his troublesome region of the North Caucasus. To keep my real identity secret, I had to register an email address on his behalf, give interviews, and even send out a dummy photograph. Finally, at the awards ceremony, I had to walk on the stage to accept my prize. And that was when the hoax was revealed.
Why did you choose to write your first novel under a pen name?
Honestly, it was scary to step forward and declare my new identity as an author. You know, when I wrote my first piece of fiction, I was already a published literary critic. I knew that if I put my book out under my real name, I wouldn't get objective feedback, which is crucial for beginners; I would be treated with different preconceptions. I needed my work to face zero expectations, as if nobody knew me. So I went incognito.
Why did you choose a male name?
A 'typical' writer should be a man, but not a literary critic; so I became a man. But there were other reasons, too. The world of my story was so tough, so masculine, that it seemed the most natural thing to take a male pen name. The only thing which my alter ego had in common with me was our background, the Caucasus. Once my identity was revealed, I took my real name back.
This all happened six years ago. Now I'm no longer a critic. I've swapped analysis for imagination, and have written several short and longer stories, plus two novels which have been lucky enough to be successful. My work has had a controversial reception, from hatred to adoration.
What's your style of writing like?
It’s hard to disengage yourself from your own literary style and describe it clearly, but I'll give it a try. My writing is based on action and details. I like using gossip and rumours to unravel the plot and push it forward, and multiple voices and arguments to emphasise the elusiveness of truth. Dreams and visions should also give the reader a general sense of uncertainty, ambiguity, and suspense.
The world of my books, the Caucasus, is a battleground for all sorts of world views, so my language imitates this restless diversity. It changes and sometimes transforms into pastiche, parody or stylisation. My novel The Mountain And The Wall is not very long, but it's extremely concentrated, because it mixes styles and genres from one sentence to the next. You can find snippets of newspapers, a fairy tale, an ideological Soviet novel and even shreds of intentionally bad verse in the book. The trick is to turn this medley of ingredients into good fiction.
Who are your literary influences?
I love the way Dostoevsky crams people in one little room to inflame the scandal and draw out disclosures. And how James Joyce binds and entangles his characters with complicated and hidden connections. And Kafka’s somewhat abstract habit of recording the absurdity surrounding his estranged characters. Of course, the Russian greats also did their bit in moulding me as an author: Chekhov, with his knack of being brief and ironical, and Leo Tolstoy with his sparkling interest in the subconscious. That's inevitable. But it’s hard for me to say which of them exactly was my most influential teacher.
Did you learn anything during your formal studies that's helped you as a writer?
During my studies at the Moscow Literary Institute, we wrote critical articles and discussed them in a circle. Of course, I learnt some advice and tips there: not to begin with quotations, and to avoid citing authorities while mouthing platitudes. I read literary theory and eagerly used obscure words like 'entelechy'. While my peers huddled together to discuss how many cigarettes they needed to complete one page of the novel, I was the one being asked, as a critic, what the difference was between allusion and reminiscence in literature. Back then, I already knew that I would become a fiction writer, but it was fun to begin by learning how to do something more complicated and humble - analysing the texts of others. It gave me some time to amass experience and mentally prepare for my start as a novelist.
Have you incorporated anything you learnt as a literature student into your writing classes?
Now, when I teach creative writing to Russian teenagers, I try to be inventive and practical. I make them write little essays based on the development of particular literary methods or devices, be it dialogue, the narrator’s perspective, or composition. Afterwards, my pupils have to present their essays, like writers usually do at their readings, and be ready to answer provocative questions from the class. That way, everybody is involved, not only in writing and reading their stories aloud, but also in listening to and assessing their peers' work.
Tell us about your more recent work. What was it like to have it translated?
The Mountain And The Wall came out in English last year, due to the enthusiasm of a bright publisher, Will Evans. The novel was also translated into German, Spanish, Italian and some other languages, but the English language draft was the only one I was able to read closely. I was in contact with the editor, translator and publisher throughout the process, sharing suggestions, remarks and comments on certain words and phrases. My translator Carol Apollonio from Duke University in the US did a great job, bravely facing all the challenges involved.
What's the hardest part of your work to translate?
The most subtly difficult thing was the dialogue. Conversations between characters in my work involve lots of specific local knowledge and slang. For example, there's a word which literally means 'dragging' or 'lugging', which is used by young people in the sense of knowing, or having information about somebody. So, colloquialisms are the hardest part for translators. I tried to have mercy on English-speaking readers and spare them from too many unknown words and footnotes, but even so, there still needed to be a glossary at the end.
How do you convey idiosyncratic dialogue?
Using a mixture of local languages and the broken Russian typical of the North Caucasus has become one of my signatures. Although it can hamper the reader's understanding, it’s also very much a part of my books' expressiveness. I like to write in contrasts: clear and neat passages that alternate with unbridled speech, with Russian, Arabic, Persian and Turkic words mingling.
Working on The Mountain And The Wall, my translators had to get to grips with lots of unfamiliar Russian, Caucasian and Islamic realities and words. They struggled to find analogies and alternatives. My German translator adopted the slang of Berlin’s Turks to deal with the problem of Dagestan’s linguistic idiosyncrasies. My English translator Carol Apollonio’s first attempts were more or less neutral. She cautiously avoided using American dialects, because they would immediately make readers think of a particular US state or region, which would be ridiculous. But she consulted her son, and used youth slang in some conversations. She stopped avoiding vulgarity and jargon and came up with lively expressions, a decent amount of charismatic rudeness, and a dose of oriental exotic. I'm quite happy with the result. We also changed a few words – for instance, the game 'cats and mice' (which is unknown outside Russia) was replaced in the novel by blind man’s buff.
What else did you do to help your translators?
Sometimes, I have to boost my word explanations with pictures. Among the images I sent to my translators were Caucasian goats, drinking horns, niello engravings on silverware, ornately designed structures over water springs, and other surprising stuff. Sometimes it’s better to show, not tell, as the saying goes.
Did you discover anything new about your work?
My gorgeous German translator says, that a good translator is the most profound and strict editor. He or she notices the tiny inconsistencies in your texts that are invisible to your readers, who are raptly following the narrative. While working with my translators, I learned much more about my own writing, about its dark and brilliant sides. It was an education, not only in the art of creating new worlds by means of language, but also in understanding other cultures.
My novel is such a complicated and explosive mixture that I was very relieved to get approving feedback. Not only from US and UK book reviewers, but also from readers, whose opinion is so valuable. One reader said that '[o]ne of the main appeals of the book is that it's written not in standard Russian, but more accurately reflects the local dialects in Dagestan.'
Are there any UK writers you admire?
I'm very excited about the British writer Michel Faber, who is, by the way, quite popular in Russia. When I won the Debut Prize, my long story was abridged and translated into English for a sample anthology of young Russian writers, Squaring the Circle. I came to the UK for the first time to present the book at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Mr Faber came to listen, read my story and wrote to me afterwards. His letter concerned my translator’s work more than mine, but it gave me some insight and understanding into the English translation of my words. It was so exciting to receive this letter. I still recall it with warmth and gratitude. I'm also waiting my turn for Ian McEwan's new novels. I'm his biggest fan. I also admire works by Julian Barnes and Martin Amis, although my taste might seem lacking in originality.
What about contemporary Russian writers?
Hopefully, my adventures with English-speaking readers are only just beginning. My last novel Bride and Groom was short-listed for the Russian Booker Prize in 2015, and I'm thrilled to say that the English translation will be published next year in Britain. As for other contemporary Russian writers, I would recommend Ludmila Ulitskaya, Boris Akunin, Olga Slavnikova, and many others. I hope you'll enjoy short stories by Alexander Snegirev, who is also among the Russian participants of the London Book Fair this year.
On Thursday, 14 April, Alisa Ganieva will be in conversation with Sasha Dugdale at the London Book Fair. Find out more about British Council events at the London Book Fair, including this one.
You can also see Alisa Ganieva in conversation with Imtiaz Dharker and Kirsty Lang at the Free Word Centre in London on the same day. Book tickets now.
Find out more about the UK-Russia Year of Language and Literature 2016.