With her debut novel The Mountain and the Wall, Alisa Ganieva became the first Dagestani author to have their work translated into English. A dystopian tale set in her native North Caucasian, the novel follows a community in turmoil as rumours that the Russian government plans to build a wall cutting off the Caucasus’ Muslim provinces from the rest of the country take hold. Today, as nations across the world creep towards more isolationist futures, such a scenario is becoming frighteningly plausible, and not only in the Caucasus. For Ganieva, documenting individual lives is never more important than exploring the power and personality of the crowd; her work is at once amusing and down to earth, contemporary and prescient.
With only a few months left before her second novel, Bride and Groom, is released in English, we caught up with Ganieva to talk books, nationalism and the rise of Islam in a region heading towards an uncertain future.
You famously wrote your first long story Salaam, Dalgat! under a male pseudonym. Why did you do that?
I was already published and recognised as a literary critic at the time of writing that long story, so the act of presenting my first piece of fiction was a very big step for me. It was really frightening, but at the same time very invigorating and I wanted to make sure I received neutral and objective feedback not linked with any of my other faces or fields of professional activity. The world of this long story was so masculine: my protagonists were boys or men and the world I was describing was quite tough, on this southern fringe of Russia, the Muslim-populated hotspot with an ongoing, hidden, smouldering civil war between the secular state and the religious opposition [as well as] between Sufi Muslims and Salafi Muslims.
Also, subconsciously I struggle to debate and upend the overwhelming stereotype of women writing only about melodrama, love and petty affairs. I remember one of the judges who gave me the prize — after he found out I was a woman, he began rereading my story in order to try and find the trace of a woman. He found a sentence about dancing at a wedding where the participants of a dance present each other with a special stick adorned with chiffon. He said that a man would have never gone into such details and would have never known the right name of the fabric!
Speaking of gender, how would you characterise the state of gender equality in the Caucasus?
It has some similarities with the state of gender across Russia as a whole. We hear condescending official rhetoric about women in which we are referred to only as mothers or sexual objects. As for the Caucasus, these references are strengthened by the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and we encounter honour killings and forced marriages, and the general perception of women as some kind of property of the family that has to be protected from the outside world is quite strong.
Of course, these stale perceptions are mixing with loud signs of modernity and new gadgets: phones and the Internet facilitate online acquaintances between sexes and so on. On the other hand, the Internet is becoming an instrument of control and surveillance. Compromising evidence on women recorded on mobile cameras by men has turned into a regular blackmailing technique. Secret male groups in social networks are used to accumulate and exchange compromising information about young women — their participants position themselves as moral judges and defenders of their native land’s honour, an honour threatened by the risky and dubious looks or behavior of their countrywomen.
Yes, women are traveling more, receiving more education and combatting some older traditions, but at the same time, many girls are trying to emulate the example of Middle East society and borrow a new-fangled conservatism from there. It’s becoming more and more fashionable to wear hijabs, to refrain from alcohol (though traditionally men and women do drink in Dagestan) and to bandy around Arabic Islamic terminology via WhatsApp… Islam, which has been quite superficial in my native region, is becoming more and more overwhelming. It has this taint of a subcultural, fashionable youth movement. Younger people are now more conservative than their parents and grandparents.
Do you feel Russian or Caucasian? How would you characterise your identity?
It’s complicated. My identity shifts according to the place I find myself in, according to my environment. Of course, I always maintain this inner identity of being from the Caucasus and being from a tiny minority, the Avars. My mother tongue was Avar, but at the same time my fiction is written in the Russian language and I was raised with Russian literature and culture. In English there is one word “Russian”; but in Russian, there are two: one meaning “belonging to Russia the country”, and one referring to the Slavic ethnicity. When I present myself as a “Russian” writer, it’s not always met warmly by others who try to indicate that because I’m from an “ethnic” part of Russia, I don’t have the right to consider myself a Russian writer. That’s a big impediment. On the other side, my countrymen sometimes consider this as a treacherous breakaway from my roots.
In your book The Mountain and the Wall, there is so much fascinating material about the different cultural and linguistic histories of the Caucasus region. Is this common knowledge among people who live in the region, or is it something of personal interest to you?
Unfortunately, this isn’t widely known. Despite the fact that we have lessons in local history and literature in Dagestani schools, they are not seen as important and ignored somewhat by teachers. Instead, this lack of knowledge is substituted by the glow and flourishing of so-called patriotism and people’s desire to belong to some place, to cry about it, to raise slogans about their love to their motherland. But practically speaking, they don’t know the names of their grandfathers, or great-grandfathers, or the history of their communities and almost nothing about the traditions of their grandparents. Especially after some decades of forceful deportations and resettlements in the region, not to mention purges, dispossession and the way new Russified names were given to the locals. By the way, the new Islamic identity I was talking about earlier is another way to substitute the abrased historical memory and an absent knowledge about the past.
Where did you find the inspiration to write The Mountain and the Wall?
This idea of the North Caucasus being separated from Russia is something I kept hearing from time to time during different debates with people holding different political views: some were nationalists, others were liberals saying “let the North Caucasus be free”. But they were all alike in their rejection of reality: it was obvious that if the Caucasus is separated from Russia, other influences would take hold, the strongest of which is from the Middle East, in particular, Saudi Arabia which has been sending its missionaries since the 90s. This new Salafi movement is becoming stronger. That’s why if the region became free, it wouldn’t be some orderly independent state, it would be a mess. My main goal wasn’t to talk about politics, it was to show private lives and the way ordinary people are coping with the multiplicity of propagandas, rumours and ideologies.
What kind of writer are you? How would you describe yourself?
I am very thirsty to hear and grasp different views and voices and give them a floor. In The Mountain and the Wall, there are many scenes and episodes where crowds and not some distinct personalities play the role of the main heroes: it’s the whole crowd which is trying to impose its views, or to seek some hidden truth. I suppose I’m trying to catch something which is going on in Russia right now, which is not very easy because it’s much more comfortable to write about something from the past, something that’s already finished, definite and clear. The present is so chaotic and although this novel is formally dystopic, in fact, it’s trying to say something about today’s Russia as a whole, not just the North Caucasus.
How do you think the current political landscape in Russia will change the creative potential of writers and artists?
I don’t think Russia’s current political landscape can really influence writers all that much. Though I will say that there are too many historical novels and family sagas around and that writers are avoiding the problems of the present. They are avoiding writing about Russia now. Maybe it’s a consequence of today’s political situation, which is very unpredictable and flexible and changing every second. Censorship is something that can really affect literary trends and tendencies, but it’s much more tangible in media or cinema where the audience is much, much wider. Literature is quite a marginal field from the government’s point of view, so, fortunately, at present, we are not having any regular encounters on the surface. But of course, the shrinking freedom of speech and some events in current Russian politics have a divisive and frustrating effect on creative spirits.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve been working on short stories for a while and now I’m working on a novel, not set in Dagestan but in a little provincial Russian town. Very soon my second novel Bride and Groom — short-listed for the Russian Booker Prize — is coming out in English translation. To my mind, it's much wider and more comprehensible for foreign readers. Though it‘s also set in the Caucasus and is brimming with local peculiarities, it tells universal stories about matrimony, superstition and freedom. I hope UK readers will like it.
Interview: Nadia Beard