Alisa Ganieva and The Chronicles of Dagestan

Alisa Ganieva, Russia's emerging young writer depicting the life of the North Caucasus. Source: RIA Novosti / Alexey Nikolsky

Alisa Ganieva, Russia's emerging young writer depicting the life of the North Caucasus. Source: RIA Novosti / Alexey Nikolsky

Winner of the prestigious Russian literary Debut Prize award of 2009, Alisa Ganieva, 26, writes about Dagestan in Russia’s North Caucasus and its vanishing people – the Avars, Laks, Kumyks and others. Her controversial novel, “Salam, Dalgat,” which she wrote under a mysterious pen name, was a sensation in Russia.

Russia Beyond the Headlines: Why did you choose a psuedonym for your first novel?


A. G.: Writing “Salam, Dalgat” was a complete change for me, because even though I had finished Gorky’s Literature Institute, this work was, literally, a debut for me in the world of literature. I didn’t write serious prose before that.  It was a bit scary to enter the new world, and secondly, I wanted to hear independent opinions. Someone would raise or lower my grades, if they knew it’s me, Alisa Ganieva. Until the very last moment everyone was sure it’s a new writer, some people were even disappointed, when I came out, they were really expecting some brutal unshaved guy from the mountains.


RBTH: Is there a literary scene in Dagestan?

A.G.: Unfortunately, there is no one writing about modern life. There are a few elder writers, members of the Writer’s Union, who keep working in their tradition. And my peers for some reason do not describe what’s going on now, maybe because it’s hard for them to get distant enough to be able to describe what they see.

When I go there from time to time (I moved to Moscow at the age of 17), I can see…from the outside. Yet it’s my native world, and I know everything there. But since my book came out in Russia (thanks to the Debut award for that, otherwise it’s very hard to get published), my relatives and countrymen speak with me very carefully. They are afraid that I will use something they say in my books.

RBTH: How was the reaction to your novel among people in Dagestan and Russia?

A.G.: Critics mainly praised it, but as for the public, it was very surprising for me, both, liberals and nationalists [reacted to] my book. Skinheads were even sending links to each other saying, “we need to know our enemy,” and liberals just loved it. Many people in Dagestan liked that finally something about the republic came out, but they were afraid that it adds to a not-all-that-positive image of Dagestan. I describe some young outcast squatting and speaking broken Russian, local extremists, but in fact I don’t see any negativism in it, it’s the opposite. I’m trying to soften what’s really happening there, and I have a great sympathy to almost all of my characters. I let them speak and don’t insert my author’s opinion and impose it on the situation.

RBTH: You said there are no contemporary writers in Dagestan, why is that?

A.G.: There are a few interesting young poets, but they are all have moved to Moscow over last few years, because there is no culturally nourishing, literary atmosphere for them in Dagestan. Intellectuals leave, and a lot of people who stay are trying to aggressively impose their vision on others. In every conversation they ask if you pray, and if not, why not, they endlessly lecture you, but these people are neophytes themselves and just recently learned to pray.


RBTH: Why is it important to bring young Russian authors to America?

A.G.: I think it’s a very good idea, because modern Russian literature is barely presented on the English-language market. There are still many stereotypes about Russia, we had a good chance to experience them while talking to press here in the United States.


RBTH: What stereotypes?

Oh, different. For example, we were asked, how many writers are put in jail in Russia, or one woman filming us on her iPhone for a local TV channel was wondering whether, if we say what we think about Putin, we are going to be arrested at the airport back in Russia, and so on… There are plenty of exaggerations like that, so it is very useful to present real, live people not just some wax masks.


RBTH: Do you consider yourself Russian or Dagestanian?

A.G.: I’d say my culture is mainly Russian. I grew up on Russian literature, I did not read a lot of Avar books, because we didn’t study those rare Dagestanian languages at school and many kids don’t have a chance of learning it. But I identify myself more as a Dagestanian Avar.


RBTH: Do people here in United States know anything about Dagestan?

A.G.: Just a little, and it’s like this in Moscow too. When I enrolled the Institute, my fellow students, seemingly educated people, asked me, whether Dagestan was in Russia, what currency we have there, whether I speak Dagestanian – and we have dozens of languages in Dagestan, of course, not everyone knows that. In the U.S., I was asked by journalist who is writing about international relations, ‘Where in Siberia are The Caucasus  situated?’


RBTH: How would your describe your literary generation, is it different from other generations of Russian writers, or part of the same Russian tradition. Russian school?

A.G.: Judging by texts of my peers that I read a lot as a critic, over the past ten years [a large group] of young writers has formed. There is a federal program of support for them, there are some nonprofits too, there are conventions, conferences, congresses, and due to all this support many new bright names appeared. It’s something that didn’t happen in the 90s. Many of our colleagues about 10 years older regret that they were born in the wrong time, they were a lost generation, so to speak, because in the 90s there were no conditions, no attention, no money, no support. Everyone was reading “returned literature” at that time. No one was interested in new Russian writers


RBTH: Who are your favorite writers?

A.G.: It changes all the time. Now it’s Isaak Babel, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan….

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