Award-winning novelist Alisa Ganieva’s books describe the complexities of her home, the Russian republic of Dagestan.
An English translation of her second book, Bride and Groom, will be released in January 2018. It’s a fictional depiction of marriage in her home.
Ganieva spoke to KGOU’s World Views when she was in Norman for the annual Neustadt Festival of International Literature and Culture. She says her novel begins when the groom’s family book a large banquet for his wedding. However, he does not yet have a bride.
“It's a hodgepodge of different traditions,” Ganieva said. “Our attitude towards marriage when marriage is not couple decisions of two people but something that the whole society and the whole community decide, and it's all about collective matchmaking.”
Ganieva says Dagestan’s culture contains a hodgepodge of different influences, some traditional and some not. It’s a predominantly Muslim society, and some young women wear the hijab. However, she says this is not traditional at all and has only recently been introduced to the area. Women in Dagestan are accustomed to being the heads of their families and many older women smoke and have tattoos.
“So it doesn't resemble anything what we think about Muslim woman or a woman from Saudi Arabia, for example. So it's all about fashion and it's all about abrasion of the true historical memory and substituting real forefathers [with] some artificial forefathers,” Ganieva said.
Women and Islam
For example, many traditions that people of my age are enjoying, like wearing hijabs for example and so on, is not something authentic or very traditional for this region because Islam was a very superficial thing for the region. And for example, some grandmothers and grannies and older women are [smoking] tobacco, they’re wearing tattoos, and are very used to the role as head of the family. So it doesn’t reveal anything we think about Muslim women.
Ganieva’s education in Moscow
I came to Moscow to study in the Literary Institute, after my high school when I was 17. And I was really surprised when I encountered people who didn't know that I'm from Russia, as well, because the country is so big, and it's populated by such a diverse population that people living in the capital in Moscow ... And all life in Russia is centralized, all the cultural events, all the major things are happening just in two cities of Moscow or St. Petersburg. And that is why people who grow up in Moscow, they have somewhat snobbish relationship with the rest of Russia, and sometimes they do not realize the boundaries of their own country.
On her experiencing using a male pseudonym
But it was a fine experiment, not just a literary hoax, because it also raised the discussion about the problem of gender in literature. Is there such a thing as a feminine prose, a masculine prose, and how can you tell apart one from another? And I remember one of the jury members who started, once he knew who was the real author, he started to read my long story in order to find the traces of the woman's pen, of the woman's word, and voice. And he found one episodes ... describing a wedding in Dagestan and the dancers, the guests at the wedding, they are passing a special stick for dancers - adorned, embellished stick covered in material, in textile, and the special textile. So I named, I put the name of this textile, and [he] said no man would mention the name of it. So these pattern details is something that women do.
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Rebecca Cruise: Alisa Ganieva, welcome to World Views.
Alisa Ganieva: Hello.
Cruise: So you are a poet, and a writer, and you are from a part of the world that perhaps people here in the United States don't know all that much about. So I thought perhaps we could start with you telling us a little bit about Dagestan, hich in the Caucus region near Russia, depending on how you categorize things. But could you tell us a little bit about your home country.
Ganieva: Yes. Thank you. Dagestan, the name of this tiny republic on the very southern tip of Russia can be translated as "the country of mountains" because it's really in this mountainous region of Caucasus, and it became a part of Russia in the middle of the 19th century, rather long ago. But since that, it's still remaining a hotspot of the country. It's Muslim-populated, lots of ethnic minorities live there, each speaking its’ own language. For example, I do belong to one of these minorities called Avar people. It's the major ethnicity in Dagestan. So my mother tongue is Avarian language. But I grew up in Russian culture, and I started writing in Russian and I write in Russian language. But I use this peculiar pidgin Russian, spoken in my native region, when people just mix words and expressions, and use some synthesis, of some grammar, or some phraseology from their own local languages.
Ganieva: And I came to Moscow to study in the Literary Institute, after my high school when I was 17, and I was really surprised when I encountered people who didn't know that I'm from Russia, as well, because the country is so big, and it's populated by such a diverse population that people living in the capital in Moscow, and all life in Russia is centralized, all the cultural events all the major things are happening just in two cities of Moscow or St. Petersburg. And that is why people who grow up in Moscow, they have somewhat snobbish relationship with the rest of Russia, and sometimes they do not realize the boundaries of their own country. So they kept asking me what currency do you have? Where did you learn to speak Russian? And so on. And so I started writing about this region which is so unknown, and also full of stereotypes, because during the 90s there was a war for independence going on in the neighboring Republic called Chechnya. Maybe you heard something about that. And then during last 15 or 20 years we're having the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, something which is happening in different parts of the world nowadays. So it's the same thing in my native region, when different branches of Islam fight together, when the more traditional Sufi and philosophical branch is coming into conflict with the more fundamentalist so-called Salafi movement of Islam. And it also goes along with the dissatisfaction of especially young people where the system they're living in, with the police lawlessness, with corruption. And so they're trying to find some stable structure where the law is actually working. And when missionaries from the Middle East come and convert them into this fundamentalist version of Islam, they make these young people to believe that the Shariah independent state would be a solution, and would be this paradise on earth.
Ganieva: So in in my first novel, which has been translated into English which came out two years ago under the title of "The Mountain and the Wall," I'm trying to show what can happen if this region is separated from Russia by the wall. So the topic of walls, of separation is really becoming of current interest as well. And so I was really excited when that was translated ,by Carol Apollonio who is a Duke University professor, and it came out in a little publishing house in Texas. So my next novel is coming out in two months and it is called "Bride and Groom" and it is dedicated to the matrimonial institution in this close society.
Cruise: How is that different than we might think of matrimony elsewhere? Is there is there something unique to it, that's unique to your culture and marriage?
Ganieva: Yes. It's it's a hodgepodge of different traditions and archaic. Our attitude towards marriage when marriage is not couple decisions of two people but something that the whole society and the whole community decide, and it's all about collective matchmaking. When our parents make a list of potential brides and show it to their son, and the son has to pick up. And so the plot. My story, my novel, begins with the family, the parents, booking a big banquet hall, like three or four months ahead and they're spending lots of money for it. So that the hall is booked, but the bride has not yet chosen. So we have a date of the wedding. But my main character has to find his bride and it may seem too melodramatic, too fantastical and unreal, but in fact that's the way things happen there. And, but at the same time, the globalization is working and everybody's on social networks and online.
Cruise: So that plays a role in this matchmaking as well, the social media.
Cruise: Yes, it's really ... so that the traditional societies arose by these new tendencies and trends but at the same time their authentic culture is dissolved and people living in these regions, they do not really understand who they are now, and they are something that they think to be their own tradition and their own history is in fact something enforced on them. For example many traditions that people of my age are enjoying wearing hijabs for example, and so on is not something authentic or very traditional for this region because Islam was a very superficial thing for the region. And for example some grandmothers and grannies and older women they are some smelling tobacco, they are wearing tattoos, and they are very used to the role of the head of a family. So it doesn't resemble anything what we think about Muslim women who, or a woman from Saudi Arabia for example. So it's all about fashion and it's all about abrasion of the true historical memory and substituting real forefathers by some artificial forefathers. And it's a big problem which I'm trying to tackle in the form of fiction. So I just tell stories. I tell how people meet, how they fight, how they wed, how they die, and how they argue. And I love dialogue, dialogue.
Cruise: I find it fascinating that you say that the people in Russia, in Moscow in particular, didn't understand that you two were Russian, and that there were issues there and they had stereotypes about Dagestan. What are, I don't know, the top three things that you would want our listeners to understand about your country? What stereotypes can we get away from?
Ganieva: There is this perception that the Caucasus are an especially Muslim populated region, that it's very conservative and maybe aggressive to everything that doesn't fit the frame. But in fact, if you trace the history back you can see that the region really hosted maybe primitive, but still very democratic institutions. For example my grand grandparents or further on, my ancestors lived and so-called "free alliances" where the head of the alliance or the union of villages was elected each four years, and there was a union for villagers or towners. So they collected together they made decisions. And also, talking about the women's place in the society. The land which was the most precious and valuable thing in mountains, where there is just view of land which is suitable for agriculture. It was inherited only by daughters. So it was passed from mother to daughter, and sons got houses and buildings and daughters got the land, which was the main property. And also it's a region of craftsmen, which still survive through centuries. There are villages of silversmiths and pottery makers, and carpet makers which do not use any chemical materials or anything very modern, and do stick to and adhere to very ancient and old craft traditions which is quite a unique place. And also so many nationalities, and languages, on a little spot or a spot of land. It's also quite unusual.
Cruise: Very multicultural and the image of the mountains and it just sounds lovely. You mentioned gender, and one thing I think is interesting is you did have a published work that you've published under a pseudonym, a male pseudonym. And from what I understand, you received an award for this piece, and it wasn't until you went up to accept the award that those that were granting it realized that you are in fact a woman. That must have been fun being able to kind of say, "The joke is on you." But what was your motivation in doing this and why did you decide to see it through until the ceremony?
Ganieva: That was the very, very beginning of my creative career. So it was my first long story I've ever written. And when I finished it I realized that it's a very masculine world. And while writing it I really felt as if I am somebody else, as if I'm some young man from the same region. And also when I decided to submit this piece of fiction for a very vibrant competition, or for young writers under 25 years, it's a competition for which around 70000 manuscripts are applied every year. So it's very competitive. And I was already being published as a critic, so I didn't want to be recognized and I wanted to get very clear and neutral assessment. So I got this pseudonym, I submitted my manuscript. I went through this vetting process. And then there was a long list and then shortlist and then people started talking about this boy and the manuscript, and trying to find him. And then I had to register a fake email, and messenger, and to give interviews and then they asked me to send a picture portrait of a boy, and that was another challenge. I was looking for a picture. And finally, five finalists remained, and during the awarding ceremony when I had to step up to the stage and receive the awards, everybody knew that it was me. But it was a fine experiment not just a literary hoax because it also raised the discussion about the problem of gender in literature. Is there such a thing as a feminine prose, a masculine prose, and how can you tell apart one from another? And I remember one of the jury members who started, once he knew who was the real author, he started to read my long story in order to find the traces of the woman's pen, of the woman's word, and voice. And he found one episodes of an am describing a wedding in Dagestan and the dancers, the guests at the wedding, they are passing a special stick for dancers, adorned, embellished stick covered in material, in textile, and the special textile. So I named, I put the name of this textile, and I said no man would mention the name of it. So these pattern details is something that women do.
Cruise: How interesting and absolutely an interesting experience an experiment to see how people reacted, and how fascinating that he went back and reviewed it for that. Well it sounds like you're doing just a wonderful work portraying your country and your people. And hopefully we can learn more and more about that from you. So congratulations.
Ganieva: Thank you very much.
Cruise: Thank you for joining us.
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