Alisa Ganieva, a Russian writer from the Caucasus region of Dagestan, was a 2012 resident with the International Writing Program. While in Iowa City, she spoke with our Writing University writer Zlatko Anguelov about her life and literary career.
Ganieva was born as a premature baby in Moscow while her parents were living there as graduate students. When she was two months old, her parents returned to Dagestan, and she fondly remembers spending her early childhood with her grandmother in the mountains. In her own words, this has allowed her to have “a real experience with authentic Dagestani life.” Then, the family moved to Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, at the Caspian Sea, where Alisa went to school. But she never liked this town that struck her as too backward and provincial.
After graduating from high school in 2002, Ganieva moved to Moscow to attend the Maxim Gorky Literary Institute. Here, she found herself immersed in the ambivalent atmosphere of traditionally thinking old professors from the communist era and young students searching for their authentic voices in the fast changing post-communist trends of the Russian capital. She lived in an “exotic” area full of skinheads and chronically drugged adolescents that was dangerous to walk through after dark. Her colleagues at the Institute were walking the premises like little geniuses, having the air of ultramodern artists, showing off their homosexuality, transgender status, and acting rebellious, including attempting suicides, to any thing traditional. These students attended lectures of octogenarian professors from the Soviet times who stayed completely out of touch with this reality.
For that reason, Ganieva considers herself as rather self-educated. She read avidly, and in different periods liked different writers. During her undergraduate years she also read all of the famous Russian literary theorists, such as Shklowsky and Bahtin, and she believes that this has given her a good basis for her writing techniques. “Rather than separating masters of classical and contemporary, I tried to put them all together. I didn’t start reading contemporary writers instantly; I soon realized that when I began my studies in Moscow, I didn’t know anything about contemporary Russian literature. And the reason for this was that in Dagestan there were no bookstores, no contemporary magazines, it was some kind of a backwater in that sense. The only authors I could read were those in my parents’ library, and all they were by Russian classics.” While in the third year of college, Ganieva joined the Forum of Young Writers that put her in touch with famous writers and allowed her to discuss her own writing with peers. This was her real boost, “a gulp of fresh air” compared with the Literary Institute.
Ganieva began her literary career as a reviewer. She found that there was no real literary criticism in Moscow media; instead, all writings about books was of the advertising and PR quality. She began submitting her reviews to magazines in person, and soon discovered that there still existed good editors in those magazines covered with old glory, who have preserved their sense of high quality literature and who were willing to help her by editing her texts. At the same time she was already thinking of writing a book about life in Dagestan, of which she felt no one was aware nor interested.
She claims that her literary success was pure luck. When she wrote her first short novel, Sallam, Dalgat, she had on her resume several awards, such as the Voloshin Literary Award (2007, 2009); the Gorky Prize in the critical category “Untimely Thoughts” (2008); the literary journal ‘October’ Prize for literary criticism (2009); and a nomination for the Debut Prize in critical-literary essays in 2008 and 2009. She submitted her novel for the Debut Prize in 2009 under a male pseudonym, Gulla Khirachev. Khirachev successfully beat out over 70,000 submissions to win the award for that year. But no one knew who the author was, and that created a growing suspense among the Moscow literati. Finally, at the award presentation, Ganieva revealed her true identity and thus caused a great uproar but set out for a stunning public success.
Salaam, Dalgat! is a wonderful example of fiction where form and content complement one other, creating a harmonious, readable work that has more depth than you might initially feel or see. Ganieva’s book narrates about a day in the life of Dalgat, a young man who travels around Makhachkala, on a mission to find a relative, Khalilbek.
Salam, Dalgat! opens at a farmers market, among soaps, shampoos, henna packets, raspberries, grape bunches, pomegranates, sad-looking kittens, and sellers’ pitches… and closes hours later, after Dalgat has, among other things, experienced a minor mugging, sat for a bit in a café, and witnessed such events as a literary ceremony and a shooting at a wedding. Ganieva moves Dalgat—and the vignettes that accumulate to form a plot and collective portrait of a time and place—at a brisk but rational pace, weaving in language as varied, colorful, and juicy as the market goods on the story’s first pages.
In the fall of 2012, the Moscow publishing house “AST” published Ganieva’s second novel, Holiday Mountain, an imaginary story about a forceful separation of Dagestan caused by the Russian government, which began building a Separation Wall fencing off the province. It is a novel praised by Russian reviewers as one written by the first contemporary writer from the Caucasus who shows the Caucasus culture through a local perspective, on a perfect Russian language at that. It is an author who successfully merges the Russian and the Dagestani cultures into one. According to Ganieva, she used this absurd plot as a device to show Dagestani present, which remains unknown to Russians and in which, she claims, unlike in Chechnya, there is no serious political or social forces aspiring to a separation.
Ganieva enjoyed her stay in Iowa City, and is especially praiseful about the wealth and diversity of the Program’s schedule. Although she was hesitant to agree to stay away from her daily life for three long months, she feels her residency paid back in many respects. The most interesting part was, she found, the cultural exchange: the opportunity to see real writers from different parts of the world and of all ages and stages of their careers. All this cosmopolitan gathering in one little Midwestern town! Besides, Ganieva confided that she likes small, confined places and that is, she said, the reason, she liked so much Franz Kafka’s novels.
Comparing her residency in Iowa City with a one-month residency that she attended in Berlin a few years ago, she thought the program here was full of events and attractions that kept her busy and gave her a lot of insights about America. She was able to challenge the main Russian prejudice about America: that Americans were cold, aloof, austere and their perpetual smiles were insincere and artificial. Every day she saw the extreme opposite. On the other hand, she was surprised to discover how humane and ordinary her fellow writers from the U.S. and around the world were, in comparison with some of her Russian peers, who strain themselves to appear solemn, non-smiling, pretending to be some high-brow carriers of Russian artistic culture.
Text: Zlatko Anguelov