At this point it is almost a truism that travel memoirs are more about the author’s internal journey than the physical one. “It is the journey, not the destination,” we are frequently told. Never was this point more clearly made than in The White Mosque by Sofia Samatar. Billed somewhat humbly as merely a “Silk Road memoir”, the author provides a personal account of her trip following the passage of a group of Mennonites who relocated from Czarist Russia to Central Asia in the late 19th century.
The region of Northeast China best known as “Manchuria” has long held a special place in the global imagination. Its geopolitically important location near the borders of Russian, Korea and Japan have seen it inspire Hollywood films and countless spy novels.
There are, in a very general sense, two kinds of travel memoir. In the first, writers take you on a journey somewhere they know very well. They share with you their deep understanding of the place—its people, its history and its geography. The authors’ physical journey is for the most part a literary scaffold upon which they hang their knowledge and expertise. In the second kind of travel memoir, the author is a direct proxy for the reader: as clueless and naïve as you—though perhaps a little braver—embarking together on the journey from the same starting point. You see new experiences and sights through the author’s eyes, and slowly develop the ability to interpret and understand these new surroundings.
Throughout history, expansionist powers have attempted to integrate newly conquered territories through the imposition of their own language, laws, and moral codes. These “civilizing missions” have been a defining feature of most imperial projects, whether motivated by religious fervor, to facilitate trade or simply an honest belief in the cultural superiority of one’s own culture.
Few contemporary works of fiction from Uzbekistan are translated into English directly. Those that have found their way into the English language are usually classical texts or themselves translations of Russian translations of the Uzbek originals. Given this scarcity of accessible modern Uzbek literature, the casual English language reader could be forgiven for not knowing upon what basis to judge the relative worth of a novel like Gaia, Queen of Ants by Hamid Ismailov.
The image of Central Asia in the minds of many in the West is that of an exotic, distant land ruled by evil despots—its entrenched culture of corruption and repression both eternal and intractable. However, in Dictators without borders: Power and Money in Central Asia, academics Alexander Cooley and John Heathershaw aim to refresh and reframe our understanding of the region.
Unlike other forms of disaster—such as earthquake, flood or hurricane—famine is a distinctly political occurrence. Most often they are the product of political action that deprives people of food, either through neglect or targeted victimization. Such was the case for the nation-wide famine inflicted upon the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic—now the modern-day Central Asian state of Kazakhstan—from 1930-33.