Uzbek author to speak at SU about book dealing with multiculturalism, experimentation

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After being exiled from Uzbekistan for criticizing the leadership of the Central Asian country, Hamid Ismailov started working for the BBC as a journalist. But the separation between him and his native country did not hinder his interest in his people and connection to the community, he said.

“I purposefully follow what’s happening in Uzbek literature in Uzbekistan or in Central Asian literature in Central Asia,” Ismailov said. “So in a way, especially with the internet, it’s not felt that you are far apart from your own country.”

On Wednesday at 5 pm, Ismailov will be speaking at a book talk at Bird Library. He will read parts of his book, “Gaia, Queen of Ants,” and answer questions pertaining to the novel. The English translation of the book, which was originally written in Ismailov’s native tongue of Uzbek, was published in 2020 through Syracuse University Press.

The book follows the lives of four characters: Gaia, an elderly, but conniving, Central Asian woman; Domrul, a Turkish caretaker of Gaia; Emer, Domrul’s girlfriend and an Irish immigrant in Serbia; and Kuyuk, a mysterious Central Asian bard. Ismailov said that each character represents different myths from Greek, Irish and Turkish cultures.

By using an amalgamation of peoples and cultures, Ismailov experiments with the concept of multiculturalism, he said. He said he wants to see at what point one has to give up with one’s presumptions or assumptions of other cultures. Ismailov also offers a terse conclusion to this experiment: everything ends in tragedy.

This novel is also one of the only books Ismailov originally published in Uzbek. This was a purposeful choice, he said, as he wanted to create a work in Uzbek “without Uzbeks.”

“The issue of ethnicities is an extremely artificial one, you know, we have to understand that it’s quite a relative thing,” Ismailov said. “Because we are united into the ‘nations’ so called based on our beliefs, on our identity choices.”

The process of translating “Gaia, Queen of Ants” to English started when Ismailov won a grant from Arts Council England to get three of his works translated. Two of them, including “Gaia” were translated by translator Shelley Fairweather-Vega, who will also be at Wednesday’s talk.

Fairweather-Vega said that the difficulties of the language came from the Uzbek sentence structure, which is very distant from English, along with Uzbek proverbs that do not work as fluently in English. Fairweather-Vega, however, was able to get creative with the language and create flowing sentences that better reflect the “Uzbek artistry of the words.”

“We all want to express the same thing no matter what languages ​​we speak,” Fairweather-Vega said. “Most languages ​​are capable of expressing those concepts, feelings, images or whatever you’re trying to get across. … You just may not be able to use the same words or constructions to do that.”

Once the translation was finished, it was published through SU Press as a part of their Middle East Literature in Translation series, sales and marketing coordinator of the press Lisa Kuerbis said. After the book was published, SU Press and other institutions were only able to interact with Ismailov virtually due to the pandemic.

Plans were made to bring Ismailov to the US once travel was available again, Kuerbis said, and these plans were finalized when Samuel Hodgkin of Yale University organized a book tour for Ismailov.

The tour takes the author through the states, with stops in New York, Washington and California, among others. Being able to bring a writer that is published in the Middle East Literature series, which has been active for over 50 years, is a rarity, but Kuerbis said she’s excited for the opportunity it presents.

“Part of it is bringing this celebrated and renowned author from a part of the world that a lot of people don’t know much about and just exposing students, faculty and everybody to literature from another part of the world that there’s not a lot of information about,” Kuerbis said.

Because of his exile from his home country, Ismailov said he relishes the opportunity to speak with those who appreciate and want to learn more about his novels outside of where he is from.

“Since I am banned in my own country, I really, really appreciate the readers who are reading my books in other languages,” Ismailov said. “I cherish meetings with them if they’re interested, so it’s a sort of an extra bonus for me.”

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