Spring 1996 (4.1)
Pages 14, 83
New Literary Voices
by Sabir Ahmadli with Jala Garibova
When I was a child, I never dreamed of becoming a writer. I guess it was the circumstances and people around me that made me want to write. It all began after I graduated from the University in 1951. Today, when I look back on those years, I'm amazed at how blind we were. We gained academic knowledge from the university but didn't learn about real life. We weren't taught to think independently and analytically.
Although our professors were well-known, reputable scholars, none of them taught us anything about the Azerbaijani nation, about its history and culture. It was as if such a nation had never existed. Nobody told us about the uniqueness of our own people. The concept of our nation did not exist.
When I graduated, I didn't want to continue in academics, so I returned to my native village of Jabrayil [in southwest Azerbaijan near the Iranian border and currently under Armenian occupation]. There I found that people seemed so different than when I had left at the age of 15. It was as if I had been wearing some sort of spectacles that had kept me from seeing reality when I was growing up there.
The truth began burning its way into my eyes so that I could no longer ignore it. The first story I ever wrote was one my sister told me about a boy in our village. I couldn't sleep the entire night after she told me. I had to write about it.
But the process of publishing has always been tortuous for me. When I think about all the stages of censorship that my works had to pass through, it's overwhelming. You probably won't believe me if I say I don't know how many books I've written, probably about ten. I've never been concerned about publishing my books. I knew that most of them would never be published or, if they were, it would take a great effort. Everything posed a problem for me. First of all, the socialistic system could not be criticized. You couldn't touch it. The Communist Party leader was like a god.
Everywhere they used to preach that Azerbaijan was a paradise. One of the poets even wrote, "If you want to see a paradise, come to Azerbaijan." Skepticism got you into trouble.
In 1972 there was a Party resolution against my novel, "Measure of the World" (Dunyanin arshini). They criticized me for implying that the Soviet Army did not rescue Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. Had I written such a work in 1937, no doubt I would have been among the first to have been executed. But even 35 years later I still wasn't able to escape the wrath of the officials. For the following eight years, they blocked all my works, including articles. "Measure of the World" was to have been printed in four publishing houses - in the Ukraine, Belarussia, and two in Moscow. But everything was canceled.
Even after independence, I've felt pressure. Some of the people whom I expected would help me the most have tried to block me-and those were people whom I thought were democrats (not communists). Pressure today comes in the form of boycott which I've also felt at the newspaper "Adabiyyat" (Literature) where I am editor-in-chief.
When my "January Stories" came out in 1990, officials seemed indifferent. We had lived through an unprecedented attack on Baku by Soviet troops on January 19-20, 1990, when more than 100 of our people were killed and I was trying to reveal the essence of this tragedy and explore its motivation and expose the people who had provoked the attack. My works received so little attention despite the fact that the entire nation had gone into mourning for 40 days and refused to return to work.
People sometimes ask if I'm writing today as I did during the Soviet period. From a writer's point of view, it's the same. I write what I see and feel. But our lives have become very concentrated these days. During the past five or six years, we have experienced events which normally would have occurred over the span of a hundred years. All this has made our life extremely intense. It's impossible to remain the same.
The old style of writing no longer conforms to our reality. Our words, sentences, and chapters must be charged with much more responsibility and penetrate deeper. "Reflection" is much too weak a word to describe our literature today. Writing must swell up from within the writer. In the past, we only used our brains and our intellects to write; today, our ideas must burst forth from our whole being. Only if we boil inside can we create something valuable.
In my early works, I praised the system. I was young at the time. But upon returning to my village, I began to understand everything and gradually stopped praising the system.
Take my novel, "The Forbidden Game" (Gadagan olunmush oyun) which is really an allegory. All the characters are playing games throughout the whole story. They have been made to play these games. I was trying to expose Stalin's repression of 1937 when people couldn't live their own lives as they wanted. But the work is full of ambiguity. I wanted to show how children imitate grown-ups, how they like to pretend they're adults and imitate marriage or pregnancy while, on the other hand, the grown-ups, who have grown tired and bored of life, often revert to childhood games as if they were kids.
Another novel which gave me problems was "The Blood Transfusion Station" (Gankochurma Stansiyasi). Officials kept blocking its publication. Even the KGB interfered. I suggested they go to the Republic's Blood Transfusion Station and see for themselves that blood was being illegally sold instead of being collected for public hospitals. It took an incredible effort to get that work published.
There's a wide-spread belief today that Azerbaijan has no contemporary literature. I completely disagree. The new literature is in the process of being created. Critics haven't yet developed a confidence in such literature as it's always difficult to value contemporary works. Decades are needed to truly appreciate a work.
The tensions and contradictions that we feel today can't help but generate a new literature. I would suggest that both new genres and styles are being created. As editor of "Adabiyyat," I often come across very talented works. There are many examples where authors write "between the lines," expressing thoughts indirectly. Some people think this way of writing is just an imitation of Western authors such as Ernest Hemingway. But that's not true. Writers have felt so much pressure and censorship that they find ways to express their ideas symbolically. This approach has grown out of a desperate need for writers to express themselves.
I'm also seeing quite a bit of surrealism in literature these days, especially in the works of young writers. Movlud's Suleymanli's works are good examples of this as are Yusif Samadoglu's novel, "The Day of Execution" (Gatl Gunu). In Azerbaijan, surrealism is not just an imitation of European literature. Here, it emanates from life itself, not from literary traditions or academic style. Sometimes, our young writers don't even know what "surrealism" means as they've never studied literary traditions of the world. Yet, they are spontaneously contributing to this style.
Today, the main problem that writers face relates to finances. Of course, true writers always try to deal with spiritual problems, but these are so closely interconnected with material problems. It's impossible to write and not think about how you are going to manage to feed your family.
It's true we felt more pressure in the past and weren't independent. We couldn't write openly; but on the other hand, we were protected financially. Today, we have no guarantees. Businessmen and others are becoming very successful and that's good. But writers and people of the arts don't quite know what to do during this period of transition into a market economy.
So we continue to struggle. Why do we write? The eternal mission of literature is to write about problems that concern people so that they know they're not alone. If we write about the most painful, grievous subjects, then, perhaps, we can alleviate some of the pain of those who suffer most.
Today, the person who is able to hold onto human qualities and remain a true human being is a genuine hero. Justice, concern for other people and honesty should be the norms for human relationships. Today, the most disappointing problem is that people are deviating from these norms. I think that the main task and mission of literature is to challenge people to return to these values.
From Azerbaijan International (4.1) Spring 1996.
© Azerbaijan International 1996. All rights reserved.