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Open Central Asia Literary Festival

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 14:22 UK time, Friday, 30 November 2012

Last weekend the British Open Central Asia organisation ran a literary festival in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

They invited writers and publishers not just from Central Asia, but from all over the world.

Kyrgyz and Kazakh, Uzbek and Russian, Azeri and Polish, English and Scottish, Jewish and French literati met in the Kyrgyz capital to discuss ways of bringing Central Asia's best literature onto a world literary stage.

Prior to the festival the organisers ran a literary competition, choosing the best of the best in three categories: fiction, literary translation, and book illustration.

Trees in Bishkek

Bishkek in November

Since I was in Bishkek I spent my weekend taking part in the event. Reflecting upon it now I would like to discuss a couple of points which might be of interest to you too.

First of all, the notion of a "world literary scene". Somehow we assume that there is one and that it is connected to English as a global language.

The assumption is that unless you are published in English you are not part of world literature.

The status of "world literature" may be given to French and, to a lesser extent, Spanish works, but it seems that no other languages - including Chinese and Arabic - are considered to hold the same rights.

In fact literature is created and lives its life in every language in which it is written.

And in fact world literature is the sum of all those unknown and unheard works in Georgian and Swahili, Chuvash and Tonga, as well as Italian and Indonesian, Swedish and Gujarati and many many other languages.

Yes, English has assumed the role of the truly global language, but it doesn't mean that the entire world's literature must be judged through English translations.

For instance I met in Bishkek a Polish writer, Jan Vishnevsky, who published his first book Loneliness on the Net in his late 40s, turning himself from a computer scientist into a bestselling author both in Poland and Russia. He sold millions of books in Eastern Europe, but hardly anyone knows him in the West, because he hasn't been translated into a Western language.

Hundreds of his most devoted fans were swirling around him in Bishkek, but to my shame I had never heard of him before the festival.

There's another problem - the problem of "big literatures". Even the books which are translated into English never top of the bestsellers lists - English-language readers would prefer to read English-language authors. There was a joke in the former Soviet Union on the famous Armenian Radio network. A question: "Could a general's sons become field marshals?" - "No way!" - "Why?" - "Because the field marshal has got his own sons"... It's the same way with translated literature.

But even within translated literature there's a kind of "quota for representativeness" - a priority list for bigger nations and ethnicities.

I'm pretty sure that a translated Chinese or Indian writer has a much greater chance of being noticed by reviewers and peers than, let's say, a Latvian or Nepalese writer.

I used to have a friend in Georgia - one of the greatest writers and poets I ever met - whose name was Otar Chiladze.

Just because he was from a small country which never made it into the headlines, Otar Chiladze with all his mighty talent never came to international prominence.

He died several years ago. One English friend of mine who also knew and loved him, said bitterly to me that Otar was maybe the most "Nobelable" of all the writers of his generation.

I'm not so bitter though, his literature lives on in Georgian and in my mind that's a big enough contribution to "world literature".

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