Though death looms in Amanat: Women’s Writing From Kazakhstan, the collection sounds a celebratory note.
Amanat features the translated prose of 12 authors, representing multiple generations. Some are accomplished literary figures while others are relative newcomers and some write in Kazakh, while others write in Russian. The two source languages alert the reader to the diversity of Kazakhstan’s literature, which in turn speaks to the complex history of the former Soviet republic. Many readers will come to Amanat as I did, knowing all too little of the history of Central Asia’s largest country. To orient such readers, the translators, Zaure Batayeva (who is also featured as an author) and Shelley Fairweather-Vega, have provided a succinct historical overview in their welcome introduction, which also explains the book’s title:
An amanat is a promise entwined with hope for the future. It is frequently a task that comes with moral obligation, and often it is a legacy, an item of value, handed down for us to cherish and protect. This collection is our promise, to these writers and the ones who have come before and who will come after them, that their legacy will be honored and continued.
Reading Amanat feels a bit like overhearing a conversation or happening upon a performance that draws you in even though you lack the full context. Indeed, several of the stories are framed as conversations or feature dramatic or musical performances. In Zhumagul Solty’s “An Awkward Conversation”, a woman tells a friend about the final affront that her unfaithful father afflicted on her long-suffering mother. Oral Arukanova’s “Precedent” is a dialogue between a lawyer and a client who wishes to bring charges against her Italian employer for his abusive language. In “Operatic Drama” by Lilya Kalaus, a disappointing outing to the opera gives way to a dramatic show of one-upmanship as two new acquaintances recount, with overtones of dark comedy, the myriad ways their family members suffered under the Soviet regime.
The authors anthologized in Amanat are in conversation with each other.
In one of the most captivating stories, “Aslan’s Bride” by Nedezhda Chernova, the very cosmos seems to be in conversation.
The sea churned heavy masses of water, rumbling and conversing with heaven and earth. The sky answered with a twinkling of close-in stars, but Milochka couldn’t hear its voice. The earth responded with the metallic shrieking of cicadas, the calls of some nocturnal bird, and the strangled, eerie cry of a hunting weasel.
Awareness of these cosmic murmurings convinces the character Milochka to move into the home of a widower even though the two women do not share a common tongue.
It occurred to Milochka that she didn’t understand the language of nature, but she lived right beside it, and that was fine, it didn’t bother her. So why couldn’t she live with Tomiko?
Milochka does move in and also becomes, hauntingly, the titular “Aslan’s Bride”, even though Aslan, the widow’s son, was conscripted to fight in World War II decades ago, and never returned, like so many Kazakh men of his generation.
The authors anthologized in Amanat are in conversation with each other as well, and the conversation so often circles the subject of death. The stories are heavily populated with widows and orphans of different generations and the graveyard makes appearances in starkly different tales. Even the paragraph-long piece of flash fiction “The Stairwell”, told from the perspective of the stairwell, is a story of mortality. This preoccupation with death stems in part from the historical backdrop to the stories: “the great tragedies of Kazakhstan in the 20th century, the famine and purges of the 1930s, the astonishing casualties of the Second World War, and the violence of the Jeltoqsan protests,” as Gabriel McGuire writes in a Foreword. But Amanat is no mere history lesson. It often speaks a language of universals. The book’s final essay may start with an image of a dark steppe highway and end with a Kazakh prayer, but its author, Zira Naurzbayeva, also voices that shared commitment of mothers the world over, the “sacred right to go next,” to perish, that is, while one’s child or children yet live.
As with any literary collection, some contributions will appeal more than others. But someone is sure to make you laugh, teach you something, or share a startling but relatable confidence. So if you join the conversation between the 12 authors and two translators of this illuminating volume, you may be tempted to converse far into the night, perhaps while listening to a recording of the dombyra, a Kazakh stringed instrument, with a glass of vodka in arm’s reach.