American University of Central Asia - AUCA - CASI conferences


2019 CESS

Representations of Self and Other in Kazakh Literature

Convenors: Christopher Fort (American University of Central Asia), Emily Laskin (NYU)

Papers presented:

Ethnic Words and Soviet Things: Coming to Terms with Soviet Civilization in Esenberlin's Kōşpendiler. Christopher Baker (American University of Central Asia)

The Kazakh repatriation from China in late 1950s and early 1960s: comparing official and literary discourse. Didar Kassymova (Ch. Valikhanov institute of history and ethnology)

The Unknowable, Known: Abai Zholy and the Soviet Representation of Tsarist Colonial Knowledge. Gabriel McGuire (Nazarbayev University)


Exploring Kyrgyz Literature: From Manas to Chingiz Aitmatov

Convenor: Christopher Fort (American University of Central Asia)

Papers presented:

The pecularities of sacred symbols in the epic "Manas”, Indira Musaeva (Ala-Too International University)

Ethnographic and historical realities of the Soviet Union in the works of Chingiz Aitmatov, Gulnaz Kalambayeva (Nazarbayev University), Gultas Kurmanbay (Nazarbayev University)

Kyrgyz Literature after the demise of Socialist Realism: Representation of Literary Culture in "Asaba" newspaper, Mukaram Toktogulova (AUCA), Elira Turdubaeva (Online University)

The hybridity of Chingiz Aitmatov, Azatkul Kudaibergenova

The uprising of 1916 in Kyrgyz pross, Nurgul Imanberdieva (Kyrgyz state University them I. Arabaev)


Oral Literature in Translation 

Convenors: Gabriel McGuire (Nazarbayev University), Virginia Martin (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

Papers presented:

Death Scenes and Narrative Form in Kazakh Oral Epic: Tölegen and Qyz Zhibek, Gabriel McGuire (Nazarbayev University)

The Aitys of Birzhan and Sara: a young woman's voice in Kazakh oral literature, Eva-Marie Dubuisson (Nazarbayev University)

Рoem "Kenesary-nauryzbai" Nysanbai-zhirau: The Truth Or A Myth, Meiramgul Kussainova (Nazarbayev University )


Literature and Identity: Historical Models and New Configurations 1900-1940 

Convenors: Diana Kudaibergenova (University of Cambridge), Christopher Baker (American University of Central Asia)

Papers presented:

Women, Textiles, and the Textile-Text in 1930s Central Asia, Claire Roosien (Yale University)

Locating Central Asia in Adbulrauf Fitrat's Tales of an Indian Traveler, Emily Laskin (NYU)

Deconstructing Soviet Literary Construction: The Making of Uzbek Socialist Realism's First Classic, Hamza Hakimzoda Niyoziy's The Rich Man and the Servant (1918-1939), Christopher Fort (American University of Central Asia)


2019 ESCAS

Intersections of History and Literature I: Oral and Written Literatures

Chair: Tim Epkenhans (University of Freiburg)


Christopher Baker (American University of Central Asia): An Inheritance of Paper: The Art of Anuar Alimzhanov

This paper will examine Anuar Alimzhanov and his relationship to the literary imagination of taxonomy in the late Soviet era. The writing of the Kazakh poet was part of a broader literary reflection in this era on what it meant to classify the things of the world and record experience on paper. His art unfolded in tandem with a literature that offered distinct, plural optics on the meaning of being counted, encapsulated, and defined. Almizhanov had always been fascinated by immense taxonomic compendia. There are references throughout his essays to the compilations of imperial figures like Vladimir Dal,’ Grigorii Potanin, and Petr Semenov, the latter having spent the last decades of the nineteenth century enumerating human difference and indexing Eurasian plants, animals, and insects. He was studied in a heritage that had bent the instruments of natural history to ethnographic knowledge, retooling them to classify human difference in taxonomies that had previously indexed “plants, animals, and natural curiosities, as well as artificialia, or ‘objects of art.’” He sifted through this knowledge while altering and amending it, listing the words that did not match Kazakh things and while remarking on compendia in which the pieces of his past seemed present but also out of place. He made himself an expert in the encyclopedias of the classificatory heritage, envisioning a codex in which the remnants of the past would fit together to form an image of his own ethnicity and in which disparate Eurasian names would represent iterations of a single Kazakh tradition.

Gabriel McGuire (Nazarbayev University): Death Scenes and Elegy in Kazakh Literature 

The different versions of the Kazakh oral epic Qozy Korpesh-Baian Sulu include narratives that end with the doomed lovers’ deaths, and narratives in which the two survive and the tale ends with their marriage. In Mashhur Zhusip Kopeyuli’s version, the titular heroine joins her lover in death, and word of their fate is then carried to the three Kazakh hordes, who will remember the story in song. The Kazakh written literature of the early 20th century and of the Soviet era similarly offers multiple examples of protagonists—sometimes male but usually female--who seemingly trade their lives for literary voice. The works of Mirzhakip Dulatuly, Beimbet Mailin, and Mukhtar Auezov all provide examples of plots in which memorialization in literary form emerges from the death of protagonists. This paper examines the ideologies at work within these sacrifices, asking how they shift both between genres and across eras. In answering this question, the paper pairs analysis of the different versions of Qozy Korpesh-Baian Sulu with a comparative discussion of similar narratives in the works of Mirzhakip Dulatuly and Beimbet Mailin.

James Plumtree (American University of Central Asia): The Collection and Analysis of Contemporary Performances of the Manas Epos.

Manas, a hero of Kyrgyz oral epic poetry, has been given a prominent position in post-Soviet Kyrgyz political and cultural identity. This has coincided with a recent renaissance in both the number of performers and performances of the epos, a resurgence that has received little scholarly comment. The Analyzing Kyrgyz Narrative (AKYN) Research Group, based at the American University of Central Asia (AUCA), was founded to study the vitality and context of these modern performances. Wishing to examine in the recent issue of a ‘real’ manaschi (a performer capable of improvisation) a ‘book’ manaschi (one who recites from memory), while also wanting to see whether the Lord-Parry theory of oral formulaic composition is, as some authorities claim, less present in Turkic poetry, AKYN recorded two contemporary manaschis three times each on different occasions performing the same section of the narrative: the birth of Manas.This paper shows what analysis of these performances revealed: specific features of the performers – their style, their learnt phrases and formulas, their focus – and the methods to reveal their influences that, consequently, illuminate how the modern oral tradition is closely connected with early Soviet printed variants.

Intersections of History and Literature II: Central Asian Literature and Globality

Chair: Shioya Akifumi (University of Tsukuba)


Chris Fort (University of Michigan): A New Friendship? Reworking the “Friendship of the People’s Myth” from the Imperial Periphery in 1970s Central Asia

This presentation argues that in the 1970s, Central Asian writers and litterateurs engaged in a broad project to recenter the transhistorical Stalinist myth of the “Friendship of the Peoples” around their nations. The friendship myth, coined in the 1930s, held that throughout all time, the peoples of the Soviet Union coexisted alongside one another in harmony, led through history by the achievements of the “elder brother” Russian people. In the 1970s, as the so-called “men of the ‘60s” became increasingly disillusioned with Soviet ideology and the friendship, many of them turned to their own nations. As is well-attested in scholarship on Central Asian literature in the Brezhnev period, non-Russian writers of the 1970s turned to the historical novel, documenting the achievements of their nation’s great personalities. Inherent in these historical treatments but commonly missed by scholars is a strict adherence to much of the friendship mythology: these writers maintain that their nations had amiable contacts with Russians thanks to which their cultures advanced. However, close examination reveals that cultural exchange in these novels is depicted as a two-way street: Central Asian writers asserted that contact with their cultures advanced Russian culture. This presentation looks specifically at how Uzbek writer Asqad Muxtor’s episodic novel The Plane Tree (1968) recenters important moments in Russian history to make Uzbeks key historical players. The conclusion of the presentation suggests this reconfigured friendship myth as a unique derivative discourse of the nation, one still in play in the national ideologies of post-Soviet Central Asian states.

Christopher Baker (American University of Central Asia): Ethnic Words and Soviet Things: Coming to Terms with Soviet Civilization in Esenberlin’s Kōşpendiler

This presentation focuses on Kōşpendiler, a trilogy written by Iliyas Esenberlin in the 1960s and 1970s, and the relationship of this text to classificatory practices in the imperial and Soviet eras. It explores Esenberlin’s understanding of the erudition that had marked and recorded his heritage in uncertain, overlapping classifications. My analysis centers on the conclusion of the work, a part of the novel Esenberlin wrote with more than a century of taxonomies on his mind. Its culmination is replete with references to sprawling compendia and to individuals studied in the categorization of existing and historical things. The concluding section unfolds in the headquarters of Russian Governor-General Vasilii Perovskii and among the paper instruments at his disposal for enumerating landscapes and peoples (the character was based on the real-life imperial officer who presided over the Orenburg region from 1833- 1842, the same period in which Kōşpendiler’s concluding section begins). There are also cabinets filled with documents on the flora, fauna, and topographies of the steppe areas that sprawled to the south and east of Orenburg. There was nothing fortuitous about this setting or the books and maps with which Esenberlin surrounds the Russian governor-general in the novel. The conclusion was his effort to understand the erudition that had accumulated in the offices of men like Perovskii in the imperial era. It was his attempt to come to terms with this inheritance of paper and with the sediment of words and taxonomies in the steppe across which the Kazakh SSR sprawled.

Vsevolod Kritskiy (Graduate Institute of International and Development): Global Histories of Central Asia: Imaginations, Eurocentrism and Postcolonialism

This paper seeks to situate Central Asia’s place in global histories of the 20th century and provide pathways for global historians to engage with Central Asia as a site on its own merits. Based on my PhD dissertation which explored the spread of the nation-state in 1920s Central Asia, I interpret national delimitation as part of this spread, showing that Central Asian histories can not only enrich existing global histories, but also challenge them. This paper has three main elements: first, it seeks to locate Central Asia in the imaginations of "Europe" and "Asia" while paying attention to the overwhelming scholarly focus on its relationship with Russia and the Soviet Union. Second, I then look at how Central Asian history has been missing from key non-Eurocentric global history texts, and how the conclusions reached by my dissertation on the national delimitation of Central Asia can complement and confront these texts. Third, I explore the value of postcolonial approaches to 1920s Central Asia and find them lacking and unable to fully explain the diversity of relationships and interactions that I saw in the archival evidence. In filtering the main findings of my dissertation through the global history lens, my conclusion that national delimitation and post-delimitation border disputes were initiated and driven by local elites, authorities and borderlands inhabitants gains new significance, not just in anchoring the Soviet self, but also in the broader establishment of the post-Second World War international system based on the nation-state.

2020 MLA

Central Asian Literature: Subjects and Worlds, Saturday, 11 January 2020. Presider: Naomi Caffee, Reed College


The Radical of Representation: Persianate Epideictic Verse, Stalinist Mass Politics / Samuel G Hodgkin, U of Chicago

Deconstructing Soviet Literary Construction: The Making of Uzbek Socialist Realism’s First Classic, Hamza Hakimzoda Niyoziy’s The Rich Man and the Servant (1918–39) / Christopher Fort, American U of Central Asia

Minor Literatures and Intra-Soviet Translations: The Case of Nisso / Emily Laskin, U of California, Berkeley

An Inheritance of Paper: The Art of Anuar Alimzhanov / Christopher Baker, American U of Central Asia

2022 CESS

Visions of Self and Community: tradition, modernity, and the negotiation of national and Soviet by Central Asian poets and writers. Convenor: Svetlana Jacquesson (Palacky University). Chair: Ali Igmen (California State University, Long Beach).

Papers presented:

A mirror of paper: Anūar Älīmzhanov and the art of vernacular classification, Christopher Baker (American University of Central Asia)

My contribution will focus on the writing of Anūar Älīmzhanov, a poet who devoted his career to assembling distinctly Kazakh ethnographies from bits and pieces of paper and taxonomy that had piled up in the Eurasian steppe. Älīmzhanov was a Kazakh artist studied in a heritage that had bent the instruments of natural history to ethnographic knowledge, retooling them to classify human difference in taxonomies that had previously indexed “plants, animals, and natural curiosities, as well as artificialia, or ‘objects of art.’” He sifted through this knowledge while altering and amending it, listing the words that did not match Kazakh things and while remarking on compendia in which the pieces of his past seemed present but also out of place. He made himself an expert in the dictionaries and encyclopedias of the classificatory heritage, envisioning a codex in which the remnants of the past would fit together to form an image of his own ethnography and in which disparate Eurasian names would represent iterations of a single Kazakh tradition. He pulled apart taxonomies and compendia, trying one piece and then another from compendia made by men who imagined a time when “all the languages of the world will be recorded and placed in the dictionaries and grammars and compared together.” His engagement with this knowledge involved cutting out pieces of ethnography and reassembling them to form a mirror of paper, though the reflection he fashioned was ultimately plural than singular. The Kazakh figure he exhibited in his art was covered with paper and words taken from heteroglot translations of experience. Every piece of text or classification he patched into his art represented a translation of reality specific to a time and place and an optic or way of seeing the world bound to “historically determined and determining methods by which experience is apprehended, imitated, and reproduced.”

How Kyrgyz Bards Sabotaged Soviet Folklorization Projects, Svetlana Jacquesson (Palacky University)

Between 1922 and 1926, Sagymbai Orozbakov – a bard (akyn) -- and Ibyraim Abdyrakhmanov -- a scribe – worked under contract with the Kyrgyz Academic Commission and produced an extensive written record of “the Manas epic”. In this presentation I am trying to solve a puzzle: throughout the Soviet period Sagymbai kept being named a great epic singer; yet, the only way to consider the text he co-produced with Abdyrakhmanov “epic” was by pitilessly purging it.

It is undeniable that in his sprawling masterpiece Sagymbai paid respect to the epic tradition. But he also warned against its limitations, provided examples of what oral traditions missed, and invited Kyrgyz to partake of the rich Turki written tradition. When “read along the grain”, Sagymbai’s records embody the attempt of a Kyrgyz bard to create a modern literary artefact in the Kyrgyz language. In doing so, Sagymbai ignored the expectations heaped on him as an “epic singer” and strived instead to interweave traditional epic themes and motifs with religious, historical or literary narratives that he considered indispensable to a modern Kyrgyz literature.

The answer to my puzzle resides in the fact that throughout the Soviet period and up until the present Sagymbai’s records have been read “against the grain” or against their authorial intentions, i.e., as a sample of textualized oral epic. Sagymbai himself was stereotyped as an epic singer and his composition as a traditional epic, a rare “monument” of Kyrgyz history and culture. For the sake of maintaining these stereotypes, Soviet scholars kept editing and rewriting Sagymbai’s masterpiece while the written records stayed locked in the archives. As did other written records of the epic produced in the first 20 years of Soviet rule. There were not, in fact, satisfactory written recordings of the Manas as a traditional epic but neither Kyrgyz scholars nor Soviet ones wanted to acknowledge this openly. I suggest that to the extent that these written records of failed performances of the “traditional epic” are still preserved, they represent an untapped source for the study of vernacular practices and vernacular identities – Sagymbai offering one such example -- that have been either ignored or suppressed by Soviet (and post-Soviet) folklorization projects.

Witnessing the Past: Abdulla Qahhor’s Tales from the Past and Soviet Uzbek Self-Identification in 1930s-1960s, Christopher Fort (American University of Central Asia)

This paper examines the final work of Soviet Uzbek author Abdulla Qahhor, Tales from the Past (O‘tmishdan ertaklar, 1965), an episodic autobiographical novella that, according to the author and his readers at the time, “unmasks” the evils of pre-Soviet Central Asia in order to justify the post-revolutionary Soviet state. The paper uses the example of Qahhor’s novella to argue that the author, and other Soviet Uzbek writers like him who wrote similar autobiographical pieces between the 1930s and 1960s, had another, less discussed goal with his autobiography: to publicly present himself as a Soviet citizen through the act of witnessing and suffering a cruel pre-Soviet past. With this, I suggest that Soviet Uzbek men of letters pioneered a mode of Soviet subjectivity parallel to the better-known subjectivity studied by Russianists. Whereas the Russian authors and public figures analyzed by the Soviet subjectivists typically represented themselves as revolutionaries who constantly struggled between the Marxist-Leninist dialectic poles of spontaneity and consciousness, Uzbek authors like Qahhor presented themselves in these narratives of the pre-Soviet past as passive witnesses, as Soviet new men awaiting the revolution in order to achieve self-actualization. The paper focuses on Qahhor’s Tales from the Past as particularly exemplary of this parallel mode of public self-representation, but I also demonstrate the popularity of witnessing as an act demonstrating Soviet citizenship among Uzbek authors throughout the 1930s and 1960s and tease out the origins of this form of witnessing in pre-Soviet Uzbek writing.

Kazakh Children’s Literature of the Thaw: the case of Berdibek Soqpaqbaev, Gabriel McGuire (Nazarbayev University)

Berdibek Soqpaqbaev’s 1957 Meniñ Atım—Qoja (My Name is Qoja), a short novel that reads like a Soviet version of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, is perhaps the most famous work of Kazakh children’s literature. In 1960, Soqpaqbaev followed this novella with his memoir Balalıq Şaqqa Saiaxat (An Excursion to Childhood), an account of his own childhood in the 1930s. Both the novella and the memoir are narratives in which the protagonist’s central task is to fashion themselves not merely into an adult but specifically into an adult who is a citizen of Soviet modernity. As other scholarship on children’s literature in the Soviet Union has emphasized, these tales of talented but mischievous young children are socialist realism in miniature, models of how the Soviet institution of the school brings direction and order to the chaotic and directionless enthusiasms of childhood. Yet the peculiarity of Soqpaqbaev’s work is that his characters are not just Soviet but Kazakh, and in the case of Qoja, not just Kazakh but also a poet. The struggle to fashion the child into a Soviet citizen is consequently entangled with the larger struggle over how (and to what extent) Kazakh culture might be reconciled with Soviet culture. In both Balalıq Şaqqa Sayaxat and Meniñ Atım—Qoja, this paper argues, Soqpaqbayev uses references to pre-Revolutionary Kazakh aqıns (bards) and to oral literary forms as a device by which possible gaps between these identities are smoothed over.

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