Big interview: Nabijon Boqiy: “Slaves will Create a Servant Literature”

Nabijon Boqiy: “Slaves will Create a Servant Literature”

Dear readers! We would like to introduce you to a wonderful novelist and short story writer from Uzbekistan, Nabijon Boqiy. Born in 1956 in the Baghdad District of Fergana region, he is one of the leading contemporary authors of Uzbekistan.  His novel about the recent hard times of the Uzbek people during the dictatorship is available in English. His two novels have been published in Turkish. Nabijon Boqiy spent months in the KGB archives in search of historic materials for his novels.  His published books include Qatlnoma (A Story of execution, dedicated to the sad fate of the great Uzbek writer Abdulla Qodiriy); Gulzamira; Letters to Chingiz Efendi; and The Will of Anwar Pasha.  Nabijon Boqiy translated works by Robert Louis Stevenson, Chingiz Aitmatov, Mukhtor Shakhanov and Georgiy Pryakhin into Uzbek.  He is the holder of the Shuhrat medal and the winner of the ‘Best Historic Book’ award.   

In the interview below, Uzbek poet A’zam Obid and writer Nabijon Boqiy talk about the current state of creative writing in Uzbekistan, the life of a writer, and what it means to be a writer in this Central Asian country.

A’zam Obid: Hello, brother Nabijon! Thank you so much for agreeing to answer my questions!

It seems to me that a good writer or poet is not only a person who writes a beautiful work of art, but also a person who regularly reacts to events in his/her society on various platforms (for example, on social networks).  A writer must be a defender of human rights, an opponent of an unjust system, a humble person as well as a strong person who lives with conflict. In fact, I am not a person who describes or evaluates poets or writers, dividing them into ‘mediocre’, ‘good’ or ‘great’ artists. A writer or a poet, who is unpopular or shallow, sometimes seems to me to be a very strong person. In general, I would like to ask you how important strength is for a creative person. Who is the real Uzbek writer today? Can you describe him or her?

NABIJON BOQIY: I think now in Uzbekistan the one who describes himself as ‘a true Uzbek writer’ is a hypocrite. One type of writers are those who hang around the presidential administration (Devon) until they beautify their own houses and the cemeteries where they could be buried. The other type (such writers are too many) are those who, even if they could not get to Devon, they would take themselves to the managers from Devon and work with them.  The most interesting thing is that both groups think that they serve the nation, always saying “My people!” and “My country!”  However, their ultimate goal is that they reach the level when the government would feed them and they would be closer to the palace. I told an interesting story about them in my novel called The Diary of Yurtmenboshi. In 2010, I signed a contract with Ozodlik Radio (RFRL), and the main part of the novel was published on its website.  My teacher, famous Uzbek writer Erkin A’zam, who was one of the first readers of that novel said: “This novel of Nabijon brightens the face of Uzbek writers, no matter when he publishes it: during his life or after his death. The person who reads this work, fortunately, will say that representatives of Uzbek literature are not only engaged in praise and that they also wrote the bitter truth!” Writers and poets such as Temur Pulatov, Gulchehra Nurullaeva, Miraziz A’zam, Asqar Haydar, Nurulla Oston, Ibrahim Haqqul, Orozboy Abdurahmanov also liked this novel.

A.O.: Today I took my two foreign writer friends to the Oybek House Museum. Through the exhibits, they got acquainted with the life and work of a great Uzbek writer whom they had never heard of before. Why do you think we, the Uzbek people, cannot even promote our biggest names? Why is not one percent of the examples of our literature translated into foreign languages? Whose job is this? Where are the billions of funds allocated to the literary field? Do you think we need literary coordinators, international literary festivals? Or are we going to be waiting for a presidential decision to do something?

N.B.: Recently, we visited the house of our teacher Sobit Madaliev with my student Javlon. Sobit-aka had been retired for a quarter of a century; he writes his work in Russian, and he calls himself a hermit. You know, he has spent ten years  translating some of Hazrat Navoi’s works into Russian. During the Soviet period (in the 70s), a 10-volume collection of Navoi’s works was published in Russian. Unfortunately, it turned out to be of very poor quality. Sobit Madaliev retranslated three or four of Alisher Navoi’s works into Russian. Does the Writers Union know about it, so that they can help? The Union does not even know if Sobit Madaliev is alive or dead!

They have a Creative Fund. Do you know that the head of that fund arbitrarily privatized Muhammad Salih’s garden and built a house for himself in Chorbogh? Muhammad Salih is living abroad, but do you think his personal property was confiscated by a fair court verdict? No, no court has ruled on this. It is not too late, however. It would be appropriate if Muhammad Salih’s garden-yard was returned to the owner and a “Translation Center” was established there in the name of the author of “Shayboniynoma”, Muhammad Salih.

A.O.: How do you view the concept of literary independence or independence of literature? Does literature need a sponsor?

N.B.: When I was studying at the journalism faculty of Tashkent State University, the teachers always quoted our great grandfathers and said, “This literature will be a FREE literature, because new forces will be added to it. This literature will be a FREE literature, because this literature will not serve the lusty ladies, tens of thousands of nobles, but the millions and tens of millions of working people who are the flower of the country, the owners of the country’s strength and prospects.”

I understood from those quotes that a) the owner of the country’s perspective is WORKERS; b) LITERATURE is a servant to workers. And Hamza Hakimzoda Niyoziy, a famous Uzbek poet, wrote, “Is the prospect of Turkestan left to you, traitors?” So, my university teachers used to make me dizzy.

Now, what would change if the remaining orderly literature that spilled out of our Grandfathers’ torn pockets 117 years ago was replaced by the synonymous word INDEPENDENCE?

In 1861, in tsarist Russia, serfdom was abolished by the decree of Emperor Alexander II; twenty years later, the defenders of the workers, who had achieved relative freedom, treacherously executed the “savior” emperor. If a “slave” who has no FREEDOM in his mind gets a gun, he throws it away and clings to a shovel or a hoe. If he was given a rifle and told, “You are free, defend yourself!” he would shoot and kill the owner who distributed his land to the peasants, and then he would execute the king who abolished slavery.

We are not talking about only Russians, Uzbek-Kazakh-Tajik-Karakalpak-Turkmen-Kyrgyz, who have SLAVERY ingrained in their blood, are also not left behind.

There was a Charter of the Union of Writers. From the appointment of the most talented person to the Union as Chairman (1995) until he was relieved of his duties (2010), the Union did not hold a meeting about its Statute – its Legal Program! Does the Writers’ Union ensure literary independence? Who gives independence to literature?

Even if a person born oppressed puts the Declaration of Independence approved by the UN in his pocket, as soon as the neighborhood watchman summons him, he wakes up in the middle of the night, and sleepy, his hand raised, goes to the neighborhood committee for interrogation.

So, should Literature serve the oppressed workers? In general, does it always have to do someone’s service? Who needs literary independence? Do members of the Writers’ Union need Literary Independence? When a writer is truly independent, he does not need any formal independence. A writer whose consciousness and mentality is not independent will become a SERVANT – a temporary worker – a hired hand until he dies.

A.O.: In your opinion, what is the possibility of creating a free literary organization in Uzbekistan?

N.B.: It is 100% guaranteed that any literary organization would be registered with the Ministry of Justice as soon as it is created as a “daughter” – stepdaughter of State Security Services.

A.O.: There is a concept of “blue sky”: that is, if all resources are available and if all conditions are created, what would the writer want? For example, what are your dreams as a writer?

N.B.: To this question, Azamjon, the project of my multi-volume book that I sent to you is probably a sufficient answer. For a true writer, there can never be “All conditions provided.” Well, let’s say, did Count Tolstoy have “all the conditions”? Yes! So where did he go with his head at the end of his life? Why did he leave? At the end of his life, the story “Farther Sergiy”, which Tolstoy wrote secretly from his wife and tucked away in a chair folder, was a worse rebellion than openly spitting on the person of Nicholas I, the grandfather of the imperial majesty (the executioner of Turkestan), the owner of the existing political system.

Or because the novel “EARTHQUAKE” created by Abdulla Qahhor at the end of his life is an artistic indictment dedicated to the terrible years of 1937-1938, how can one explain why his wife Kibriyo Qahhorova was heartbroken and burned most of the work in 1969-70 out of fear?!

I used to blame the actions of Kibriyo Qahhorova more superficially. However, during the summer months of 2015, a master writer, who started reading the manuscript of my novel called “Yurtmenboshi’s Memory book,” which expressed the scenes of the time when president Karimov’s tyranny was raging, asked me to invite him to his house and asked me to read it. There I heard from his own mouth that he cut the book into pieces and hid them in places where even the dogs could not find it. How many more of my fans will tell me later that they deleted my novel from their computer because they were afraid to read it to the end?

What more could a rich writer want? It cannot be said that he did not want anything. Wandering the paths of youth left far away, he may dream of being buried at the edge of the nearest cemetery.

A.O.: Tell me about the translations of your works, your trips abroad, please.

N.B.: My books “Letters to Genghis Effendi” and “Qatlnoma” were translated into Ottoman Turkish and printed twice in Istanbul. “Anvar Pasha’s Testament” was completed by my professor friend Husayn Boydemir in Erzurum, and it will probably be published in book form soon (my brother Yashar Kasim started translating this book into Azerbaijani three or four years ago in Baku, but for some reason it got delayed).

Recently, the translation of the draft “Yurtmenboshi’s memory book” into English was completed. We now need to find an Anglophone writer to professionally edit the translation.

In 2000, with my friend Asqar Mahkam, poetess Farida Afro’z and editor-in-chief of Gulistan magazine Tilab Mahmoud, we went to Iran to the international book fair in Tabriz. We spent 15 days in Tabriz. We also spent 8 days in Tehran. A person who knows Uzbek can easily travel in Iran. The people of Iran, whether they are Persian, Azerbaijani or Turkmen, treat a foreigner from Uzbekistan differently, treat them with respect, and do not spare any service they can.

The graves of Kamal Khojandi and Kamaluddin Behzod are next to each other. I observed that the Iranian people are physically and mentally healthy. Young women, women, even in hijab, will gladly answer any of your questions. It can be noticed even from a short conversation that their outlook is extremely comprehensive. My friend Asqar has some beautiful poems about his trip to Iran in his Tabriz notebook.

A.O.: It seems to me that many Uzbek poets and writers are always looking for awards, recognition, or titles from the government. There are many awards in the world that are established by independent literary organizations, not governments. For example, what do you think about the Nobel and other prizes in the field of literature?

N.B.: One quote by Ernest Hemingway stuck in my mind when I was a student: “No writer has ever written anything worth to read after winning the Nobel Prize.” He said this after receiving the award.

I read Hemingway books when I was younger. In addition, I found and read books by Hemingway’s favorite writers. I now regret that I read Gogol’s books superficially. Gogol’s 7-volume collection of complete works should be read carefully.

Awards and titles are not worth a penny. It is necessary to create at least one important book that will remain in history and will serve the interests of all Turks and our fellow believers.

A.O.: Who are your main readers? Are you often in the circle of those who say “Nabijon Boqiy is my favorite writer”? Have you recently been invited to literary meetings or master classes? What is your relationship with readers?

N. B. Unless I go by accident, I never go to meetings on purpose. Recently, young writer Javlon and I went to the university named after Alisher Navoiy because we had a thing to do there and he suddenly started a meeting with the 2nd year master’s students. Almost 90 percent were young women.

A told them: “If you teach students, don’t teach them to write poems and memorize poems, don’t fool young people, especially girls! Girls, open your eyes! When a woman is elected president in Uzbekistan, fundamental social reform and real development will begin. With a male president, we cannot rise above the bottom of the ranks in Central Asia or in the Turkic world. Do you know why? Unfortunately, during the period of independence, the male part of the population was subjected to cruel and unjust punishments, a special JASLIQ prison was established and thousands and thousands of men were deprived of their freedom for a long time and deprived of their human rights. In addition, over a quarter of a century, 5-6 million men worked mainly in Russia. Now our women and girls must take into their own hands not only the NATION’S EDUCATION, but also the NATION’S LEADERSHIP from this age. Let women form a new party and learn the secrets of winning elections, and in 5-10 years, a candidate worthy of real leadership will emerge. Women, stop watching as our nation gets closer and closer to the edge of the precipice by focusing only on domestic problems. The homeland is in tragic danger! Open your eyes!”

A.O.: Do they keep inviting you to the Writers’ Union?

N.B.: What would I do in that union? I did not lose anything to find it there! Besides, I know very well that they don’t pay attention to me either.

A.O. Before writing your books about Abdulla Qodiriy and Hamza, you carefully studied the archive documents of the KGB. Recently you appealed to Sardor Umurzokov, chair of Uzbek presidential administration. Did he answer your letter?

N.B.: No, there is no answer yet. The corrupt security service employees who started a new job at the Archives Agency – worried about our national unity – pretended to be knowledgeable and conducted an ineffective conversation with false dignity. They are enemies of national unity. They panicked and said to me, “If you are allowed to use the archive for free, other historians will also come here to ask for free use!”  I found out that they never want to bring anyone closer to Fund No. 715 of the state archive.

Unfortunately, it seems that our society is again in the hands of security service management. When the world is on the verge of a hard test, if our Motherland is not in the hands of its real owner, the brave UZBEK PEOPLE, I am afraid everybody would laugh for our state!

A.O. My last question: it is gratifying that the movement of the unity of the Turkic peoples and joining the literature of the Turkic world has revived. To what extent does the Uzbek writer have the opportunity to rise higher than the Turkic world? I want to see you not only in the ranks of artists of developing countries, but also of developed countries. I believe that the writer of our time should appear on the stage of world literature before his book. For this, perhaps, first of all, it is necessary to know a foreign language, ability to speak in public, and to be open to communication. How do you feel about learning English at this age?

N.B. I am in favor of learning English or German language anyway (knowing how to read, write, and speak Turkish is both an obligation and a debt). Earlier I spoke about the poet and translator Sobit Madaliev. Do you know that he perfectly translated Alisher Navoiy’s masterpiece “Nasoyim ul-Muhabbat” into Russian? Now, he took his 700-page translation to the “Ma’naviyat” publishing house, not knowing how to publish it. The head of the publishing house was very surprised after reading the translation and said, “I will print only two copies and take them to the BOOK EXHIBITION on November 3-5 and look for a sponsor.” Sobit Madaliev said, “I saved two thousand dollars for my funeral, I can give it to you to print this translation.” And the publisher said, “Well, what are you saying, 2,000 dollars is not enough!”

As for you, Azamjon, you are dying to bring our literature to the world stage at a time when a great poet cannot find funds to print the masterpiece of Hazrat Alisher Navoiy in Russian… What a shame! Or how about appointing Lola Islamova, the youngest daughter of the former head of state, as an ambassador to UNESCO and asking her to sponsor literature?

A.O.: Thank you for your answers, dear brother! I wish you great creative achievements, good health, as well as inspiration to write wonderful books that everyone would love to read!

A’zam Obid is a poet and translator based in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.  He is the author of several poetry collections and translations, including most recently “My Name is Uzbekistan” in Uzbek and English.