"What they live, in fact, is their literature"

An interview with Hamid Ismailov, author of The Underground

On a beautiful day in Indian Summer, I was fortunate enough to speak with Hamid Ismailov about his recent novel, The Underground. We chatted over Skype about subversiveness in literature, the difficulties of translation, the incredible connection an author can feel to a character, and more. Below is the transcription of our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.

There are many references to famous Russian writers in The Underground  Mbobo is nicknamed Pushkin, the title itself calls back to Dostoevsky, etc. What influence have the great Russian writers had on your life and your writing?

The Underground as a novel is, in a way, a love song for Moscow. Living in Moscow, you can’t be free of Moscow, and like St. Petersburg it’s a center of Russian culture and literature  especially literature. Everywhere you look has some reflection of this-and-that writer; on the right you can see the house where Tolstoy lived, on the left you can see where Dostoevsky used to stay, here Gogol, there Pushkin, and so on and so forth. It’s full of literature, both classic and contemporary, and you can’t be free of it.

Generally, Russians treat their life like literature as well. Some nations have the privilege of inventing religions or inhabiting them Arabs are the owners of Islam, in a way, as Jews are of Judaism, and so on. Russians were left to the orthodoxy of Christianity, but they haven’t adopted it the way the English did with Anglicanism or the Germans did with Protestantism. What they live, in fact, is their literature. It plays the role of the religion, and is the raison d’etre for Russians. Any person living in Moscow, whether he wants to or not, is taken into this space.

What drew you to telling Mbobo’s story through the subway stations?

While writing this story, I was thinking to myself it should very much be a Russian book, but something completely different to the Russian tradition and Russian literature. One of the things I discovered while writing The Underground was the “underworld” is not present in Russian literature at all. Is it because of where Russia is situated geographically, places without caves or cavities? I don’t know. But generally, what Russian people and Russian literature does explore is the world under water with Sadko, for example, or in Russian fairy tales, they go under water rather than under the Earth. But my case was a wonderful example of an “underworld”. The metro served as a great metaphor, and it was something new to the concept of Russian literature.

Your work is currently banned in your home country of Uzbekistan. How does that make you feel? Are you hoping to see the ban lifted someday?

As a matter of fact, President Karimov, who ran the country for the last twenty seven years, died recently, and new authorities came to power in Uzbekistan. Generally, I’m sure they’ll be continuing the same policies, but somehow I hope they will change and my work will be allowed in the country. But even if it’s not officially allowed in the country, in the age of the internet it’s impossible to sustain censorship. I can put my work on the net and people, whether they’re in Uzbekistan or abroad, they can read it. So this ban doesn’t make any sense.

[Editor's note: Hamid informed me that on March 1, 2017, he was denied access to Uzbekistan and was deported from Tashkent airport. He summed up the incident: "So it seems that the new authorities follow the same suite as the late President Karimov."]

But it does indicate that you’re writing something that someone might consider dangerous. Is there any sort of pride associated with that, knowing that your work is touching on something important?

I’m not a political writer or a political satirist. I’m not writing pamphlets or manifestos against the authorities in Uzbekistan. But the more I think about it, the more I understand the subversive nature of my work. When you’re writing about the realities in Uzbekistan, you’re breaking lots of lies and ideologies which the authorities have been passing off as the truth. You’re putting a mirror in front of them and saying, Look, your reality isn’t what the authorities are saying it is. It’s completely different. In that sense, all my writing is subversive, I think. As Andrei Sinyavsky famously said, “My differences with the regime of Uzbekistan are aesthetic ones and stylistic ones, rather than political and ideological ones.”

You speak English very well (obviously!). What was it like to see your words translated by someone else? Have you ever considered translating your works yourself?

It’s a very difficult question. Last night I wrote an email to a friend of mine who lives in Moscow, to whom I sent my Uzbek short story he’s an Uzbek himself asking him to translate it into Russian. And he says to me, “You are considered to be one of the leading Russian novelists, why don’t you translate it yourself?” Though I’ve translated lots of other works from language to language, it’s impossible to translate my own. I’ve tried many times and it just doesn’t work for me.

The difficulty is, the material comes to you in a certain language and you write it out that way. Then, when you start to translate it, it’s like giving birth to an already born child. You can’t put him back into the womb to give birth to him once again. It’s better to write something completely different, something fresh and new, rather than try to translate yourself. Here’s another metaphor: it’s as if, for example, you were born Christian, and you brought up all your children Christian, and then one day you decide to become a Buddhist. You can’t then convert your children to Buddhism; you have to allow them to choose for themselves. In my case, that’s the opportunity I give to another translator, another missionary.

Not all writers who have their works translated necessarily speak the target language. Since you do, was there any back-and-forth between you and the translator on how the “new child” was turning out?

Never ever. I spent nearly twenty years translating pieces from language to language, so I understand it’s hellish work. Ultimately, I gave up with the translation because languages, for me, are completely different worlds which are ultimately untranslatable.

I’ll dare to say I know Russian and Uzbek to the ultimate extent, so I know how incredibly different they are. What you can express in Russian you can express in Uzbek as well, but in a completely different manner or form. So, since I know the difficulties of this art, I never interfere. I help my translators if I can, for example by explaining things or clarifying things, but I never interfere. I give them carte blanche. Sometimes it works against me, sometimes it works for me, but nonetheless I give them all the credit, because they are bearing this child, and they are giving birth to this child.

The reference point for a translated book is completely different. For example, my works are compared with Uzbek authors, whereas an English translation will be compared to Shakespeare, to Chaucer, to T.S. Eliot. It’s a completely different context; therefore, it’s ultimately their child, the translator’s child. I know of cases where Russian writers, especially, were interfering and trying to recreate a sort-of Russian version that just doesn’t work in English. Instead, I give my child away, saying “Adopt it, it’s your child.”

How many languages do you speak?

It’s a difficult question, because Turkic languages are very similar to each other. You can count 28 or 27 Turkic languages. So, knowing Uzbek, you can understand and you can communicate in many of them. If you say that language is a tool for communication, I can communicate in many, many languages. If you say that language is a tool of grammar, then I’ve got five or six languages where I’m pretty sure I follow the grammar.

Describe your writing process in three words.

Season, Discipline, and Story.

I’ve got seasons of writing. In my youth, I used to write poetry, and the urge to write poetry used to start early in the Spring. With prose, it’s the other way around. My season starts with the clock change, when we go into long nights starting in October, and it lasts until April.

The second word is discipline. I write every night. I don’t put an objective in pages, but I write whatever I can. Sometimes it’s a paragraph, sometimes it’s three pages, it depends. Nonetheless, I’m writing in a very disciplined manner.

Then, I have to have a story to write, which I’m preparing with all the time left. For example, in the summertime (and it’s constant) I have five or six stories in my head, which I’m developing and thinking through, and when the season comes I sit down and write them.

If you could meet one of the characters from The Underground in real life, who would it be and why?

I’ll tell you a secret. I wrote this novel in Russian, and when I finished it I felt very strange, as if I lost my love. My love was Moscow, the mother of Mbobo. I fell in love with her. I don’t know why, because she’s not the nicest character: she drinks, she’s a lady of strange morals, but I fell in love with her. I even admitted to my wife my in-a-way “intellectual cheating”, and my wife took it very seriously as well. I was deeply missing this character for half a year, maybe. I was in love with her.

Do you often find yourself connecting so strongly to the characters in your novels?

Not always, but yes, many times. Generally, when I think of a story to tell, it’s always some impulse. Maybe you fell in love with a picture, or you meet someone, and there is something in this human being that attracts you. And it’s not always a sympathetic attraction; it could be a hatred as well. It happened with one of the characters from one of my latest novels. Initially I hated her, I hated this lady, and the impulse was to express my hatred. But little by little, by writing her story, I developed an attachment to her. Though I hated her, I started to understand and love her, in a strange way. It’s a very complicated process, but unless you are developing this attachment, everything is sort-of pulp fiction, and it’s not worth writing.

Writers can be superstitious about their process. Do you have any superstitions around your writing?

Not about my writing, though I love to keep the same habits. Usually I write on grid paper with a fountain pen, not with modern pens. That may be my only not superstition but habit, I think. In my childhood, I wanted to become a football player, and Uzbeks have a superstition that when you sneeze, you make a wish. Even now, I catch myself saying “I’ll be playing better than Pelé” when I sneeze. That’s my only superstition.

So you draft longhand with pen and ink. At what point do you convert those drafts to a digital document?

When it’s finished. Usually, I type it myself and by typing I’m adding, I’m editing, I’m doing this-and-that but then I leave it alone for awhile before looking through it again. If I have the opportunity (which is rare), I’ll give the manuscript to other people to type it into a word processor. Then, while reading their version, I’ll edit. My handwriting is very particular. Though it’s beautiful, it’s difficult to read, so usually I type it myself.

Is there a novel or an author you really love or admire that you feel hasn’t gotten the type of attention it deserves?

There are many. If you’re asking me about Uzbek literature, there is a writer called Abdulla Qodiriy, and I know that one American translator just translated one of his iconic writings. My latest novel, The Devil’s Dance (forthcoming from Tilted Axis Press), is about him and about his work. He was a victim of the Stalinian purges, and he’s a wonderful writer.

If you’re asking about English writing, I love everything starting from Laurence Sterne all the way to the present I’m quite an ardent reader of modern literature as well.

If you’re asking about Russian literature, one of the still-unrecognized names is Andrei Platonov. Robert Chandler translates him quite a lot, but he hasn’t yet gotten his due recognition. He is one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century.

By the way, in English literature, every time they award the Nobel prize I’m thinking of Joyce Carol Oates. I was reading her as a mad person when I was young and every year when they’re awarding the Nobel prize I’m supporting her.

Thank you for your time, and thank you for writing The Underground!