PEN Central Asia: Not Just A Club But a Network of Regional PEN Centers
The PEN World series showcase the important work of the more than 140 centers that form PEN International. Each PEN center sets its own priorities, but they are united by their commitment to advocate for imperiled writers, promote literature from all cultures and in all languages, and advance the right of every individual to speak freely.
In this series, PEN America interviews the leaders of different PEN centers from the global network to offer a window into the literary accomplishments and free expression challenges of their respective countries. This month, we feature PEN Central Asia. PEN Central Asia has a regional importance, its members live in five different countries across the region. We spoke with the President of Central Asian PEN Dalmira Tilepbergenova and its member Marat Akhmedjanov. The podcast was recorded in Russian by Polina Kovaleva and translated to English by Rachel Caywood.
P.K.: Thank you for agreeing to answer our questions. PEN Central Asia covers a pretty big region. Could you please tell us what countries it includes? And then, what projects do you work on currently?
D.T.: PEN Central Asia covers five countries: Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan. Because Kazakhstan now has its own PEN Center, most Kazakh writers are members of their own regional PEN Center, but we also have some Kazakh people in PEN Central Asia. Why was there a necessity to cover such a big region all together? According to the PEN International Charter, it is not exactly a club, it’s more like a network of PEN centers. However, legally, we cannot call it a network. Why is the Central Asian center based in Kyrgyzstan? Because of political reasons. Such countries as Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan cannot open a PEN Center on their territory. At the same time, writers who are not linked with government are not well known, free expression is not supported in these countries, but nevertheless there are many good authors who really need to integrate into the international writers’ society. And therefore, in 2010, in Korea, our status officially went up to the level of regional – before it was only Kyrgyzstan, and now we have a regional PEN Center. There are very few such combined PEN Centers. Generally, for PEN centers, the principle is one language, one PEN Center. And we combine them – several languages. Why did we combine them? Because it’s the Turkish language family. So in this way – except for Tajikistan, of course, where they speak Farsi – it’s unique.
P.K.: Marat, you work with even more countries than the five that Dalmira mentioned?
M.A.: Yes, that’s true. I have been a member of Central Asia PEN Center for two years already. But I have been friends with Dalmira about five years. In addition to being a member of Central Asia PEN Center, I am also a member of the Eurasian Creative Guild. This is an organization which connects all the countries of the former Soviet Union: writers and creative people of all professions. Our work, together with the Central Asian PEN Center, includes the organization of a literary festival which we founded in 2012 in Bishkek, which was very successful, and now has taken place in Kazakhstan and in Great Britain. We have created a platform from which all representatives of former Soviet republics can present their art.
P.K.: You have already touched on PEN’s programs. What else can you say about PEN Central Asia’s work?
D.T.: The founding principle of PEN is the defense of freedom of expression for writers, by region, by country. And in the framework of our founding mission, for over five years we have led а summer school on human rights as part of PEN’s Civil Society Program, it’s called “Freedom of Expression in Central Asia.” We invite writers from different countries, writers who are human rights activists, and we organize non-academic summer courses where writers, on their experience, on the experience of other famous writers – they teach our Central Asian youth how to defend their rights, how to exist in a totalitarian, authoritarian society. The next project we have, also lectures, also related to youth, is field lectures. We travel to different regions, read lectures, organize interactive games, with college and high school students, those who want to apply to humanitarian colleges. Depending on the situation in the region, we prepare lectures on necessities, the most pressing issues that students want to hear. And why do we do this? Because this is a unique project in Central Asia, because there is not a single university in Central Asia with one subject of defense of free expression, of human rights. And so our students come to us with pleasure and when they finish the course they request more, they say “can we come to you again”. But aside from that, we lead international conferences like Epos of Ural-Altay Region covering Ural-Altay region, a very big territory, and we bring attention to ancient storytellers, carriers of ancient culture and art. Earlier we didn’t have official writing. We had, of course, writing – cuneiform, Ural-Altay runes – but literary sources have not survived, all spirituality and culture is kept in oral storytelling. Therefore we started such conferences as Epos of Ural-Altay Region, and also the Forum of Women Writers of Central Asia and Europe. In addition to that, we make an anthology – one of our latest successful projects was an anthology of female writers of Central Asia. We chose two female authors from each Central Asian country – from their native language, we translated to Russian, and our colleagues from the Finnish PEN Center translated from Russian into English. And we are very proud of this anthology. And there are many other projects that I don’t think I have time to talk about.
P.K.: It’s wonderful to hear about the popularity of PEN, and about your projects. Tell me about difficulties that you are facing today?
D.T.: First of all, we are NGO, and we face all possible problems related to that in our region. First and the most important, resources. We aren’t a for-profit organization, we don’t have our own resources, so we work with international funds, grants, etc. On one hand, this is good; on the other hand, it’s bad. It’s good because it means that there are organizations that support freedom of expression; there are organizations that try to help writers of our region. I’m not saying there are a lot, there are only a few, but they exist. And it’s bad because we are dependent. It could happen – we have a great project, but it’s not interesting to any sponsor. And we simply cannot implement it. And further, because we are an NGO, I don’t know how it is now in other countries, in Kyrgyzstan it’s definitely – there is a kind of unspoken mark, that we are western spies. It’s not good when other allied organizations start treat you with caution. I always say, “We aren’t your competition, we aren’t your opponents – we all do the same business. Why not do it all together? Here are our ideas; we can combine resources, we can combine manpower, etc.” But this patriarchal ideology or what, or what remains as a consequence of Soviet ideology. The west means to them, they will jam their ideology down our throats.
P.K.: Marat, do you have anything to add about difficulties that you’ve had to deal with?
M.A.: Well, Dalmira already brought up the most important difficulty, already mentioned the absence of resources. It’s probably also a difference of mentalities, because the region finds itself in a kind of transition period when the older generation is used to, and expects, one kind of relationship to writers’ organizations; and young writers live in different reality. And this difference of mentalities leads in part to a lack of funding because the local society probably hasn’t matured to accept new realities of humanitarian work based on internal donations coming from Maecenas from Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, or Kazakhstan. This we can see in western PEN Centers which are also supported by governmental organizations. In Kazakhstan, there was some experience when the government supported the PEN Center. At the same time, we see Switzerland, for example, where governmental organizations often finance projects of the PEN Center. Unfortunately, in Central Asia we don’t have that yet. And another problem that Dalmira also already noted, is the closeness of several countries, like Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, in part, and Tajikistan, when people live in an information blockade and the only way to communicate is the Internet. And here the joint projects that we’ve already discussed, like field lectures, like the summer school, like the festival become particularly important. this is the only chance for them to communicate with each other, to learn something new.
P.K.: Tell me, who would you recommend that we pay special attention to from young writers and poets today?
D.T.: There is a competition at PEN International, it’s called the New Voices Award. Every year there is a competition in which young authors participate, up to 30 years old. Last year there was a very good animation among our young authors who entered very interesting work. And among them, there was one laureate, his name is Adil Ravil, a young prosaic who writes ironic literature. A little decadent, but I think it’s the tendency of young beginners. And then we have many young poets, like Aida Agembergieva. She actively writes right now and is published a lot. She has wonderful, deep Kyrgyz language. There are also some authors who write in Russian. I will say that in the last few years, young authors today are a bit more active. Up until then, we had a very strong base of writers who write in the genre of social realism, writers held on for so long. But it’s good that we have more youth today.
P.K.: Central Asian PEN Center, I understand, plays a role in this?
D.T.: Yes, because we hold this writers competition, and in general – there was a tradition, and we should start it again – every last Thursday of the month, we led a literary reading. We gathered young poets and writers that simply wanted to speak with readers face to face, read some poems, etc. And this was a very good tradition, I think we will restore it.
M.A.: I wanted to add that the work that PEN does in Bishkek with these literary readings is wonderful. With the availability of resources, it would be great to make these events more regional. There are people who want and are able to perform, share stories but cannot because of the regimes of their countries. We will work on these issues, and I believe that through the projects that we are doing in Bishkek and in Eurasia we can change for better.
P.K.: If you had a dream project that would probably take a lot of time, money, power, but which would really be worth it, what would it be?
M.A.: Such a dream project for me would be what we are already doing, our Eurasian festival but in places where it would have a large influence, and could change the situation, for example, in New York. Because large audience and Eurasian society in America seems cut off from the homeland, from its own culture. For authors from Eurasia and Central Asia, this would be a unique opportunity for perhaps the first time to announce to the whole world and their compatriots living abroad about their culture and literature. Or another option, that we have already discussed with Dalmira, to hold the festival in Tajikistan, in Dushanbe, where, for 25 years, there were no international literary events at all. And that would be, really, a big deal. It’s the only country where still, I think it’s politically possible to organize it – because, in Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan, I fear that even though there is the desire and financing, it would be technically impossible to do.
D.T.: Yes, we have another project. It could probably take many years if we worked on it but it could solve a very global problem of our writers and in general our Central Asian region. Linguistic diversity is very important now. And when we lose one language, it’s already a loss for the whole world. It also violates the right to freedom of expression of people who speak this language. There’s a statistic that there are around 300,000 languages in the world. From them, unfortunately, 80 percent are expected to become extinct. Because they aren’t on the Internet, because they aren’t developed. Because there are other big global languages which the younger generations would rather learn, forgetting their own language. And the number of these problem languages that are on the edge of extinction, include, unfortunately, Turkic languages. In this situation, I see only one way to save the Turkic languages and make them competitive with other languages like Chinese, English, which have billions of speakers. Billions. And other languages, like Japanese, German, which are represented very widely on the Internet. Our languages, unfortunately, suffer. There’s also the problem that Turkic languages, in general, have three alphabets: Arabic, Cyrillic, and Latin. Further, many young people are turning away from the language, considering it not promising. In order to create a kind of middle ground to study, speak, save Turkic languages, I believe that it is only in the combination of all Turkic languages, in the creation of one language on the basis of the general characteristics of the Turkic languages, and transfer to one alphabet. Because the majority are now using the Latin alphabet, I think – and for young people, it will be significantly easier to make the change – I think it would be very good if we could all switch to Latin alphabet, step by step, particularly in the literary sphere. I think that a good example of this would be the special literary journal in the Latin alphabet, but in Turkic languages: let’s say Uzbek in the Latin alphabet; Kazakh in the Latin alphabet; Kyrgyz in the Latin alphabet. I know that the majority of Turkic languages in the world have already switched to the Latin alphabet. It would also be uncomplicated for Kyrgyz language to switch because we already have this experience, a wonderful alphabet created by Kasym Tynystanov which we used for several years until Soviet times. And how would this help? It would help integrate the Turkish world in one single community, and share experience, literature, and other work, new discoveries with everyone, other brothers of the Turkish world. Plus, it would help not just unite on the literary level, but on the societal level as well. I understand that it would be a global project, demanding many resources, attracting linguists, attracting literature specialists, etc. But it’s a dream project, right? So why not dream of how we could save our Turkic languages from extinction.
P.K.: So you believe that it’s possible, right?
P.K.: That’s the most important?
D.T.: Yes, you need to be an optimist! I believe that it’s possible because speaking in the Crimea at a language conference, we also discussed the problem of languages, and remembered the educators who studied and asked these questions, a long time ago already, such educators as Edward Gasprinsky, Kasym Tynystanov, Torekul Aytmatov, Mukhtar Awezov — this idea of the creation of a single common Turkic language is not original. I’m not saying that it’s my idea. I’m saying that it’s my dream to continue their ideas. My dream is to help in some way for our Turkic languages to really be able to compete with the other languages in the world.
P.K.: Thank you very much, Dalmira, Marat, for this immersion in the world of PEN Central Asia. I wish you big success in your projects. Thank you.
D.T.: Thank you very much, Polina, wonderful questions. I also want to thank PEN America, because our cooperation gives us hope that, first of all, we won’t remain in the backyard of civilization, that we still remain promising as an international organization, and as writers. And on the other hand, it helps us to build bridges, cooperation.
M.A.: I want to echo what Dalmira said. A big thank you to PEN America for your support, for the projects that we have done together, and those we will do in the future.