Although Aigerim Tazhi is Kazakh, she writes in Russian. “I live in Kazakhstan,” she is quoted in translator J Kates’s introductory essay as saying,
but I was born in the Soviet era. We had a common country then, a common capital (Moscow), and the main language was Russian. Therefore, in school we were taught in Russian, on the streets and at home we talked in Russian. I did not choose the Russian language, did not evaluate it in terms of its attractiveness. It’s just the language that I’ve spoken since childhood.
Tazhi’s circumstances, therefore, in some ways parallel those of ethnic Chinese English-language poets in Hong Kong who have chosen to write in the language of the erstwhile foreign suzerain rather than the local language (in this case Cantonese: in full disclosure, I have published some of these poets via Chameleon Press). These poets, like Tazhi, write in one literary tradition while physically living in another.
The poems in this volume are mostly short—few extend beyond a dozen lines—and free verse. Most are observational, philosophical or personal; some are surreal, many can be quite obscure. Fish, insects, birds, the sea and the sky figure prominently, as do various ways of seeing.
The title comes from a line in the first poem:
Walking like a camel
a traveler throws up dust, draws near.
Your name? Say the word out loud.
A furrowed face. The angle of the sun shifts.
Paper-thin skin translucent,
letters shine through the forehead.
The approach, says the Kates, is a function of whence Tazhi comes. He quotes a critic:
On an imaginary border between Europe and Asia, between the Russian and Kazakh languages, it is as if the author leads us to a world where borders do not exist, where languages and ways of thinking are merged, and the word becomes a conductor into this world.
One of the more immediately poems accessible goes:
She smiles as if to her own womb
At shouts in the street
At broken lights
At dark news from the bright box
The woman waits for the inevitable boy
A girl will do as well
The rare mention of a camel notwithstanding, little ties the poems to any particular place or even culture. If one knew the foregoing were written in the former Soviet Union, the “broken lights” and “dark news” might take on nuance, but this knowledge is hardly necessary.
Interestingly, the poem that is perhaps more clearly rooted in place is also the one that uses the most straightforward imagery
Round dances of stout people are honored
among gingerbread-houses, unnaturally beautiful children
and ladies rising like dough,
shaking their sides, float along the grass to a river.
I should ask the way, but then would hardly understand
the reply in some unknown language.
Paper-Thin Skin is a bilingual edition. The Russian serves as a perhaps necessary reference, but doesn’t aid appreciation much if one doesn’t know Russian (mine, again in full disclosure, is not non-existent, but very poor); a knowledge of the script is needed even to get a feeling for sounds.
Tazhi has been published in English before, a 2004 collection БОГ-О-СЛОВ, cleverly (and indeed literally) rendered as THEO-LOG-IAN, but which might be read, notes Kate, as GOD O’ WORDS. Tazhi, he notes, makes not inconsiderably use of this sort of wordplay, making translation difficult. Even simple things can get lost in translation. The “Made in China” in the lines “They dance exotically in their grass skirts, / a label flashes ‘Made in China’” is actually in English—transliteration—in the original: “«мэйд ин чайна»”.
Where Paper-Thin Skin fits on the Kazakh-Russian poetic spectrum is perhaps a matter of definition. Nevertheless, Central Asian literature in English translation remains rare and since Tazhi’s current home of Almaty is equidistant between the capitals of Russia and China, a leading Kazakh poet, for such Tazhi evidently is, deserves to be read as much to her East as to her West.