Technical Dystopias: An interview with Russian author Alisa Ganieva

Alisha Glaviena currently lives in Moscow -- photo provided by The International Writing Program
Alisa Ganieva currently lives in Moscow — photo provided by The International Writing Program

Live From Prairie Lights: Kiki Petrosino, Karim Alrawi and Alisa Ganieva

Prairie Lights — Thursday, June 25 at 7 p.m.

Alisa Ganieva’s career as a fiction writer began in 2009 when her story, Salam, Dalgat!, won Russia’s Debut Literary Prize. Written under a male pseudonym, her identity was revealed only when she took to the stage to accept the award. Ganieva’s latest novel, The Mountain and the Wall, was published in English translation by Deep Vellum earlier this month. The book imagines the construction of a wall between the Caucuses and the rest of Russia and, like Ganieva’s earlier writing, it’s situated in her native Dagestan, a place of traditional customs and ancient conflicts as much as of iPads and contemporary global issues.

Acclaimed authors Kiki Petrosino and Karim Alrawi will join Alisa Ganieva tomorrow night at Prairie Lights Bookstore for a reading sponsored by The University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. In anticipation of the reading, I spoke with Ganieva about her work and its unorthodox debut.

For months before you accepted the Debut Literary Prize, your gender was a secret.

When I came to press conferences myself, nobody knew I was the author and they kept talking about that new, unknown, brutal, unshaved, unkempt person from the Caucuses. One of the jury members who knew me approached me and asked, “Do you know the boy? Because he’s also from Dagestan.” And I said, yes, actually I know him but not in person. And he asked me, “Is he handsome?” I said, “I didn’t see his photos, but I hope so.”

The biggest problem began when the organizers of the prize wrote to this boy, because I registered his email. I talked to journalists. They asked me to send a photo. It was another challenge: I was looking for an appropriate photo, which would represent him. I found the photo of a boy I don’t know — he’s also from Dagestan — and I found people who knew him and asked for their permission to use this photo for press.

The writer who was conducting this whole process said that she had 30 years experience in working as an editor, and she can define the gender of the author by reading the text. But she failed, and she was really sure. She couldn’t believe her eyes when I finally wrote to her that I’m the author — because she asked for ID details to buy the ticket for the boy to invite him to the ceremony. During the award ceremony, finally it was revealed.

Do you often go back to the Caucuses?

I visit several times a year. The society there is very miscellaneous. It’s on the one hand very secular; on the other hand, it does have its own traditions that are authentic and aesthetic. [But] it’s trying to resemble Western society in superficial ways, or Arabic society. Girls of my age go to boutiques and shops and try the latest versions of iPhones, and at the same time they’re trying to be Muslim girls. It’s a sort of generation gap. The young generation is more conservative than their mothers and fathers, which is strange. They are hiding their Muslim garments and putting them on in the bathroom, because their parents are really afraid of this conservativeness, because of religious extremism.

In all my texts I’m not trying to be a political essay writer. I don’t put accents on these problems, but inevitably they become the main problem. They show up in my texts because the life there is very politically intense, and there are lots of religious wrangles, and wrangles between different ethnic groups, political groups and even in everyday life people are always discussing bribery or venality. So when you are discussing just routine, everyday life, one family, you find yourself talking about global things.

Do you think about your work being read politically, especially in translation?

I think it can be judged as political, because I am talking about this scenario of dividing the Caucuses from Russia. There are many voices rooting for it, even liberal and democratic voices, which think, “Let them be independent.” But if you leave them independent, nothing good happens because between two evils you have to choose the lesser evil. Many young people are enchanted with these stories about sharia paradise. Many of them don’t even live in the Caucuses; they live in Moscow or far away from their home. And when you are far away you [start] idealizing things. They think that the secular state and Russia is their enemy because of that bribery and the venality and police lawlessness. The most primitive decision is to create something free from all these things. But they all know it in theory, but not in practice. If they begin to build it in practice, there will be lots of blood, and I think that’s the dark point of any ideology.

On the back of the translated edition of The Mountain and the Wall, there’s a quote from you that, “It’s no longer possible to consider my book as fantastic or dystopian.” I’ve noticed that a lot of the contemporary Russian literature that’s being translated into English right now is dystopian, like Victor Pelevin and Dmitry Glukhovsky.

All the novels are dystopian. First of all, the Russian reality is in some ways fantastic. It changes all that time and it’s unpredictable, it can be one way today and anything can happen tomorrow. You can’t predict and you can’t make plans and that is why people don’t feel stable. They can’t build businesses because, for example, the state may interfere tomorrow and everything will fall apart.

It gives way to thinking, what if something would happen. On the other hand, I can’t say that writers are afraid of anything with censorship. It’s present only on TV and places but not in fiction, though there are some laws that are appearing again, for example, [on] the abuse of words in fiction. There are some other restrictions but they are not too big, so we are comparably free. But nevertheless writers, while talking about present reality, they prefer to pretend that they are speaking about the future. All the dystopias, they are dystopias only technically. In fact, they are all realistic.

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