Sema Kaygusuz: Every Fire You Tend

“Finally, I would like to say, I intended to write… not just in Turkish, but in the language of all who lament for the dead. And I intended to write it with the language of figs…”

The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres that was signed between the Allies of WWI and the Ottoman Empire is not explained here. There is nothing here that mentions how it marked the beginning of the partitioning of the empire, how Armenia was subsequently recognized as an independent state and a referendum was scheduled to decide the fate of the dream of a Kurdistan, but nothing of how the referendum never took place. No details of what exactly happened when the Kurds within Turkish borders clashed with Turkish nationalism; nothing of the decisions, events, or indecisions that led to the extermination of more than half of the Kurdish population in Turkey by 1938.

Throughout the book an unnamed and unidentified narrator addresses a woman muted by grief and coaxes her, not to speech, but to remembrance — a remembrance not of a specific event but of her spiritual and personal history, and the ancient mythology of her people; and I believe here lies the genius of this novel. Without explicitly saying that this book is about identity, Sema Kaygusuz makes this book wholly about identity. 

Out of the silence roars a powerful voice that resists all attempts at wiping out Kurdish identity. I have come to understand that this book is, above anything else, a rallying cry for the Kurdish people: For them to never forget who they are. To never give in to the silencing, and to never allow grief to estrange them from who they really are.

What is between these pages is something that we won’t find in the chronologies of history. What is written here is more profound. In this novel that reads more like a lengthy poem, Kaygusuz achieves the impossible task of giving shape to grief and silence, and intimating a manner of history that can only be expressed through obmutescence or poetry.

“Finally, I would like to say, I intended to write not just in Turkish, but in the language of all who lament for the dead. And I intended to write it with the language of figs… the fig tree whose fruit has, over the course of the history of civilization, seduced and destroyed, poisoned and healed, struck panic in those captivated by its pleasure, and been served like jewels at the tables of kings, pharaohs, and sultans — in order that I might set aside its vitalizing force, its enviable adventure, in writing. What I mean to say is that, over the course of this novel, I am not only my grandmother who survived the massacre: I am also her granddaughter, I am Hizir, and I am a fig, with its countless tiny seeds. Each of us has written the others into being.” — from the Afterword of Every Fire You Tend by Sema Kaygusuz

Thank you for knowing exactly what I’d love to read and for lending me your copy, Gabi. Always grateful. 🤍

Hamid Ismailov

“We are a nomadic people. Today we pitch our yurts on one mountain pasture, tomorrow on another. Some people see their sense, their history, their fellow men as urban, and preserve all this in schools and madrasas, books and manuals. But we get on our horses and carry everything on our persons, and we have to keep it like this, on the move, in our minds and hearts.” — Hamid Ismailov, Manaschi

Sometime in between the first and the second volume of this Central Asian triptych, I travelled to Uzbekistan where Ismailov’s books cannot set foot because they are banned, and had a glimpse of the place that wrote the author.

Devil’s Dance is an intense initiation to Uzbek Literature. Of Strangers and Bees playfully meanders across the boundaries of time, literature, and geography. Manaschi is a geopolitically relevant finale that equals the force of Devil’s Dance.

But whether one speaks of the persecution of Uzbek writers throughout different regimes and implies that the writing process is akin to a dance with jinns;

the other of exile, elusive homelands, the value of community, man’s capacity for good and evil, or the search for truth and self through wanderers and bees;

and another of the trouble with imposed artificial borders, ethnic conflicts, the complexity of identity, or mystical bardic traditions;

all three uniquely celebrate the rich storytelling heritage of Central Asia — a heritage so crucial that a protagonist from the second volume boldly claims it to have shaped the shorelines of the great ocean that is Russian literature.

I love how this trilogy is a confluence of literary traditions rather than a defiance of the Western form. It manifests the power of stories, written, uttered, or observed; the power of stories when lived, as we become our stories and our stories become us; and the power of stories to take us beyond pathways of silk, even to places where only the rustle of words can go.

“It was a good thing the world had Uzbek literature.” — Hamid Ismailov, Of Strangers and Bees

Geetanjali Shree: Tomb of Sand

“Anything worth doing transcends borders.”

Samadhi, a word that denotes a meditative calm greets like a namaste on the first page.

And then, cacophony! An onslaught of sounds, smells, colors, and wordplay! You are planted right smack at the center of a palpable, household chaos — the matriarch sinks into depression, the matriarch disappears! Bickering. Finger-pointing. A familial upheaval. What samadhi?!

But cacophony, if we listen closely and do not shut it out immediately, can turn into polyphony; and we chase after as many melodic lines that make themselves heard to us. Although sometimes, as in the case of the old woman, just one particular melody line, the one that meant most to her in her last days, the one that muffled all others, the one she pursued as the path to her own personal samadhi. 

– – –

Tomb of Sand, winner of the 2022 International Booker Prize; written by Geetanjali Shree and translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell is the culmination of Women in Translation Month that came to me by chance, but just in time.

If not for a dear friend who mailed me her copy for infinite adoption after reading and reviewing it insightfully, then I would not have rushed into acquiring one.

Tomb of Sand turned out to embody in its polyphony the leitmotifs explored in my significant picks for #WiTMonth:

Egyptian Nawal el Saadawi’s The Fall of the Imam and Moroccan Leila Slimani’s Sex and Lies on gender and the freedoms or, to be more accurate, non-freedoms that come along with it.

Georgian Nino Haratischwili’s The Eighth Life on the topic of how we are all reflections of our own time but inheritors of intergenerational memory. In Shree’s words, “I feel as though a bullet was fired in some other century but didn’t stay in that century. It keeps hitting the people who came later…”

Hungarian Magda Szabo’s Iza’s Ballad on the relationship of mother and daughter and the collision of old and new.

Palestinian Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail on the painful subject of encroached boundaries and artificially imposed borders; reminding me that there were two massive Partitions in world history that transpired in 1947, and that both involved religious segregation. “Divisions. A jubilee of hatred. The joy of rifts.”

But Tomb of Sand’s old woman, whose life and interfaith romance was a victim of the Partition, has this powerful thing to say about how borders should be: “Do you know what a border is? What is a border? It’s something that surrounds an existence, it is a person’s perimeter…. However a border is not created to be removed. It is meant to illuminate both sides…. A border does not enclose, it opens out… Where two sides meet and both flourish. 

Every part of the body has a border. So does the heart. A border surrounds it but it also binds it to other parts. It doesn’t wrench the heart from the rest. Fools! If you cut a border through the heart, you don’t call it a border, you call it a wound…

Asses! A border stops nothing. It is a bridge between two connected parts…

A border is a horizon. Where two worlds meet. And embrace.

A border is love. Love does not create a jail… A border is a line of meeting… It is a confluence…

A border, gentlemen, is for crossing.

The border exists to connect, one to another. If there’s one, there’s another. Through love.

If you hate, the blood that flows through arteries to deliver strength from here to there will flow out and away; each side will die bit by bit. What fool would want this?

But this is what you fools want. You’ve made the border a sort of hatred. Not an exquisite border enhancing beauty on both sides, but one that kills them both, a murderous beast cutting the artery. Ignoramuses!

…borders running with blood can have only one consequence. The blood will burst their borders and seep away, all the limbs will dry up and stiffen, but everyone will keep chanting Allahu Akbar and Hare Rama Hare Krishna.

Though it marches to its own rhythm, the literary symmetries it shares with the works of other women authors across borders only pronounce the universality of this novel.

It is life, crossing the boundary to literature.

Thank you, Gabi, for passing on the tears and the lessons along with a pretty bookmark!

_ _ _

WiTMonth Wrap-Up

It is my first time to observe Women in Translation Month since its birth in 2014. I’ve never felt the need to participate because of a consistent presence of translated works by women in my literary diet. But now that I’m back to maintaining a book blog, I feel this is the time that observing #WiTMonth will make a difference.

Meytal Radzinski started this tradition after a critical assessment of the publishing world led to the discovery that only thirty percent of translated literature were works by women authors.

So here I am, along with those celebrating, reminding the publishing community that there is an overwhelming readership eager to tip the scales.

Freya Stark once wrote, “No medium has yet been devised for the translation of life into language.”

Most of this month’s selections come rather close.

_ _ _

Minor Detail – Adania Shibli (Palestine) | Translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette

Life with Picasso – Françoise Gilot and Carlton Lake (France)

The Fall of the Imam – Nawal El Saadawi (Egypt) | Translated from the Arabic by Sherif Hetata

Fire in the Blood – Irene Nemirovsky (Ukraine under the Russian Empire) | Translated from the French by Sandra Smith

The Mirador – Élisabeth Gille (France) | Translated from the French by Marina Harss

Embroideries – Marjane Satrapi (Iran) | Translated from the French by Anjali Singh

Sex and Lies – Leila Slimani (Morocco) | Translated from the French by Sophie Lewis

Love – Hanne Ørstavik (Norway) |Translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aiken

Celestial Bodies – Jokha Alharthi (Oman) | Translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth

Iza’s Ballad – Magda Szabó (Hungary) | Translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes

The Eighth Life – Nino Haratischvili (Georgia) | Translated from the German by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin

Sculptor’s Daughter – Tove Jansson (Finland) | Translated from the Swedish by Kingsley Hart

Tomb of Sand – Geetanjali Shree (India) | Translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell

Hamid Ismailov: The Devils’ Dance

Old Uzbek language has one hundred words for different manners of crying, and special verbs for gestures like gazing imploringly into a lover’s face. 

Elif Batuman writes about this in The Possessed, and I reacted to this information as a reader would and thought, “How rich Uzbek literature must be!”

So here I am. Few things are more appealing to this reader than a scarcely-translated and relatively scarcely-read novel by an author whose works are banned in his own country.

It is intense in both intellectual and emotional degrees, and probably not too easy for those who are unacquainted with the Arabian Nights fashion of telling stories within stories within stories. This is one of those jealous novels that demand your full attention, but also one of the most masterful I have read for my Silk Route Reading Project.

The characters are real figures from Uzbek history. It chronicles the arrest of the nation’s prominent writer, Abdulla Qodiriy, by the Soviet secret police in the 1930s. His abduction interrupted the work on what he himself believed would be his greatest masterpiece, a novel about 19th-century poet-queen Oyxon. Abdulla Qodiriy’s manuscripts were subsequently burned and his last novel remained unwritten, but this is where Hamid Ismailov spins an imagined tale of Abdulla Qodiriy who, despite being in prison and enduring its horrors, continues to write the novel in his mind. 

In this book we have Hamid Ismailov telling a story about Abdulla Qodiriy who is telling a story about Queen Oyxon.

“Wasn’t the concoction of endless misfortunes that made up Oyxon’s life a reflection of the nation? …when and how had Oyxon’s tragic life-story turned into Abdulla’s own?” Concerning betrayals or intellectual persecution, perhaps Ismailov’s, too.

Yes, it is absolutely political, but how the Uzbek character is laid bare, their superstitions, their literary traditions, the exceptionally moving ending that had a cinematic quality which inspired a soundtrack in my mind, and most of all the tormenting pleasure of a writer’s thought process and how it is like a dance with jinns; these are the reasons why I think this is the perfect initiation to Uzbek literature — albeit complete with figurative hazing.

Expect no less from a people who has a hundred words for crying.