Amanat: Women’s Writing from Kazakhstan

The cover to Amanat: Women’s Writing from KazakhstanNew York. Gaudy Boy. 2022. 296 pages.

FROM A STONE house in a tiny village at the edge of the Caspian Sea to the close quarters of a two-room Soviet apartment in the urban landscape of Almaty, the works in this first collection of contemporary writing by fourteen women from Kazakhstan in English translation explore the challenges of modern life—personal, cultural, and political—in fresh and surprising ways.

Gender roles are complex. In “Aslan’s Bride,” by Nadezhda Chernova, a modern city woman, Milochka, unlucky in love, frustrated and lonely, abruptly leaves the city to travel to the rural seashore. There, she is adopted as a daughter-in-law by an elderly villager as the bride her son, lost in a war, never had. Milochka finds worth and belonging through this “ghost marriage” in a remote landscape where “the sea smelled fresh, and under the crescent moon the sand glowed a gentle blue.” In “A Woman Over Fifty,” Lilya Kalaus muses on age, gender, and obsolescence through an image of a typewriter, now only useful as a creative container for a cactus. She writes, “What can our current reality offer to a woman over fifty?” advising, “Pick up that typewriter. Put it on the desk. Slide back the carriage, cough a few times, crack your knuckles . . . And type whatever your little heart desires, directly on to that cactus.”

Politics infuse many of these pieces, but you might almost miss it. In “Black Snow of December,” Asel Omar documents a silenced period of student protests, interethnic violence, and violent repression in the 1980s. She writes though the eyes of characters who, like most, only “witnessed” this period while hiding indoors, as far from trouble as possible: through rumor and hearsay, glimpses out windows, from doorways on furtive shopping trips. These subtle narratives question the extent to which individuals can control their own fates. The young protester who insisted that “It’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees” becomes, years later, the corrupt police officer. The protagonist’s confusion at this transformation figures a society-wide confusion of roles and ethics: “He no longer knew who he was talking to.”

Rooted in the landscape and cultures of Central Asia, these works are neither provincial nor exotic; they connect into the world and echo global history. The excerpt from “The Anthropologists,” by Zaure Batayeva, is a quasicomic piece on the collision between cultural stereotypes held by Western academics in Kazakhstan and the equally partial Kazakh ideas of “the West.” The odd popularity in post-Soviet regions of forgotten (but socialist!) writers like Theodore Dreiser, the belief that all Western academics are spies, and the bureaucratic hassles and paranoia of daily life in post-Soviet regions will all be recognizable to visitors. Conversely, westerners’ baffling ignorance of their own literature (Dreiser) and their marked oversensitivity to routine Kafkaesque scenarios will be familiar to residents of post-Soviet regions. And while this book went to press before Russia invaded Ukraine, it was jarring to realize that the fate of the ghost soldier in “Aslan’s Bride,” drafted under the USSR to fight a war in the West, may foreshadow the fates of so many men from poorer eastern regions of Central Asia today who are being recruited to wage war in Ukraine, far from their homes. These men leave holes in families and communities. Again.

There are challenges in these works—but also a fierce sense of the power of simply existing. In “The Lighter,” by Olga Mark, a teen orphan girl swindles men and peddles sexual favors for cash to share with her orphan friends. This is a story of abjection—but also of a girl’s power in facing brutal conditions on her own terms—with an air of delight and unquenchable raw joy in the world around her. From the roof of a squatters’ building, “she looked for a long time at the city . . . then frozen, she started to dance . . . laughing and yelping, spinning in circles, she had her head tossed back and her arms thrown out wide.” This collection offers a welcome and still-too-rare opportunity to enjoy the fresh voices of these talented writers from Central Asia.

Alison Mandaville
California State University, Fresno

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