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Women Artists Datebook – Open Opportunity

January 6, 2022

I am thrilled to share this request for submissions for art and poetry by all women. Syracuse Cultural Workers welcomes translated work as well as art from around the world. They offer honoraria for the art and poetry they select and your work appears in a beautiful datebook. Moreover, the production timeline is such that you can easily make sure people on your Christmas list (yes, we are thinking ahead here) receive theirs in good time.

And yes, the 2022 book includes a poem of mine, “For S.”

Sean Murray’s Story in Symposeum Magazine

December 28, 2021

The setting was old Tbilisi, a strange destination, fable-like. The rough brown bricks of the ancient baths, the second-story verandas, enclosed in the vernacular architectural style. The dry cliff faces and banks rising in random juts around the city. Scrub vegetation.

— Sean Murray, “The Black Dogs of Enlightenment” as published in the Symposeum.

That’s right. The story that began on a trip to Tbilisi in June 2019 finally found a home at the wonderful Symposeum magazine. It took a long time and many submissions, but this is a perfect match.

Please visit the Symposeum website and read the story here.

“Ivan and Phoebe” Wins Support from Peterson Fund

December 8, 2021

If you are a regular follower, then you know I am at work translating Oksana Lutsyshyna’s epic novel Ivan and Phoebe for publication by Deep Vellum. I started in January. I’m on page 300 of the original. It was probably a hundred or so pages ago that I was thrilled to get the news the project was awarded a grant from The Peterson Literary Fund.

Congratulations to the other outstanding translators and authors whose work was funded in this round.

Why is this funding important? Because translators don’t make a lot of money, and every contribution helps. Because the contracts are based on the volume of the work and honoraria (or advances against royalties) calculated at per word rates, they do not accurately reflect the actual amount of time put into getting a book to market. A translator’s job (much like a woman’s–is this why translators are predominantly women?) is not done when the translation is finished. There’s line-editing, proof-reading, and copy-editing, all of which require time, effort, and significant mental energy. Once the book is published translators do–and in my opinion should–participate in promoting and marketing the work, to the extent possible. Finally, in some cases, the English translation might serve as the text from which the book gets translated into another language, and the translator will have to be on hand for that.

So–if you are able, please support the Peterson Literary Fund. Or if you know a translator, buy them lunch :)

Ukrainian Literature in Translation Prize

November 11, 2021

I am honored and humbled. I would not have taken on this canonical Ukrainian writer if it hadn’t been for this contest. I remember, about a decade ago, Dr. Zabuzhko told me one day I would be translating Lesia Ukrainka. At the time, I did not believe her. I think I just couldn’t. So there’s very satisfying cosmic symmetry in the fact that the winning excerpt is from Cassandra, a play about a woman whom people do not believe.

Read more here.

Reading in Kazakh: The Finer Points of Finding and Losing

November 4, 2021

by Dana Kanafina

Dana Kanafina is an author from Kazakhstan. She writes prose and essays and works part-time a journalist. Dana is a graduate of the Summer School of Almaty Open Literature School for Young Writers (2017), Between The Lines of the International Writing Program (2019), Fem-Writing with Oksana Vasyakina and Galyna Rymbu (2020), Get Dusty Creative Writing Seminars with Anna Poloniy (2020), and Almaty Open Literature School (2021). Her works have been published in “Literaturra” and “Daktil” online magazines, as well at the “MindMelt Worldwide” media space. The main themes in Dana’s works are alienation and trauma. She is a founding member of The Alma Review.

My first online publication was a short story titled “Daddy’s Girl” in the Russian media-journal Literratura. The female narrator, in this story, starts a relationship with an older man and remembers her father who had abandoned her at an early age. The relationship eventually turns abusive, and while working with editors, as well as after the publication, I got told many times there was no point in writing about female trauma. No one, I was told, wants to read about it. I also heard that I wrote “Daddy’s Girl” about myself; that the story was based entirely on my own experience. And parts of it were, of course: I do know someone who had broken an arm skating accident, and I did get to see the rare snow in Prague. However, the main character is based on my middle-school classmate. And now it’s her, and not the short story (and especially not myself) that makes me think about the importance of translating books into Kazakh.

We were not close friends, but I have a few memories about this class-mate of mine. I remember, for example, that her handwriting looked like the Caveat font, and she always carried around lip balm, which was a pale yellow color, like glue, and came in a mint-green case. She was pretty in a doll-like way, and worried about the hair on her arms: she always pulled down her shirt sleeves to hide it. Another classmate of mine, who used to cut herself, often speculated that this girl did too–but there was never any evidence of that. Of course, we all hated school. The teachers plainly told us that their man job was to raise us into good wives and nothing else (I used to go to a Muslim boarding school for girls). But other than the distaste for school we all shared, my classmate always seemed quite content, a person comfortable in her own skin. I often saw her gossip and laugh with her pale, yellowish lips. Now that I’ve read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, she reminds me of Kathy, the protagonist, described sometimes  as “[almost] boring in her absence of autonomy.” I disagree with this criticism:  both Kathy and my classmate are the inevitable products of their circumstances.

What is also important is that this classmate’s father had died of cancer. This happened, I’m pretty sure, before we started studying together, and I found out about it by accident. There were only two girls in my class who did not have fathers and somehow everyone knew about it. In retrospect, I think this notoriety was triggered by the general nature of the school,  and the pervasive shame culture attached to any relationship. My own parents were still together at the time, so the shame did not apply to me. I was just a witness to endless gossip about people I had nothing to do with. 

I remember I stood by the gates of the school that day. It was winter and I was freezing in my panty-hose (our uniform did not allow pants). The day, already gray, was coming to an end. My dad promised to pick me up, but forgot, as I would later find out, and I stood there waiting for him for two hours. At some point, my classmate walked by. Unlike me, she lived near the school, so she could stop and chat on her way home. Irked and tired, I felt so betrayed–and was a mindless teenager at the time–so I used this as an opportunity to vent about my dad. My classmate listened to me, stepping from one foot to another, wearing, as I was, the thin armor of hose and a skirt. Without thinking, very angry, I asked her if her Dad was like mine.  I must have expected support, a momentary echo-chamber for my frustration. But instead she just replied:

‘Dad died of stomach cancer. But no, he was different.’

Instantly, my anger was replaced with shame. I don’t remember how we ended that conversation, but I do remember that she was not upset with me at all. It seemed like she was already much wiser than me, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it is still the case today. 

Still, I got some things right in “Daddy’s Girl.” Three years after graduating from high school, this classmate of mine married a guy ten years older than her. When I got the big news about the wedding, I wanted to text her even though I don’t think we’d have a lot to talk about. I could not expect her to share my opinions on literature and journalism, or appreciate tales of the sex I had had with foreigners, or listen to me evangelize about vegetarianism, which I do every chance I get.  For my part, I could never understand her job (she studied economics, and I am not even smart enough to come up with an example of what she might be working on day-to-day), and it would be unclear to me why she married so young if it had been out of love. Honestly, what would I tell her? I can marshal no reasonable arguments in favor of having sexual experience before marriage or why it is important for a woman to have a career. These things are paramount for me but many Kazakhstani women don’t care about them at all.

It feels important to discuss choice here. In Kazakhstan, the average age for marriage is younger than twenty-five,  almost ten years below the global average. A hundred thousand cases of domestic violence were reported last year. Our society holds it to be self-evident that  a woman cannot be fulfilled if she does not have children. Kazakhstani female experience is all like this: insignificant and, unfortunately, cyclical. Being a young woman in Kazakhstan means that one’s world is understood to rotate around men, and the relationships with them, and this world is naive, hysterical, and pointless. People often think that important things – famine, war, death, or betrayal – can only be properly experienced by men. Maybe this is why many readers (especially male readers) think I write about myself regardless of what my work is about. And I am not the only writer who is told this: the phenomenal author Shapagat Serdalikyzy, whom I had the privilege of meeting at the Almaty Writing Residency in 2021. also said that she hears such sentiments suspiciously often.

And yet the female experience in Kazakhstan has always been my subject. The essay I wrote as part of my application to the Between The Lines program which took me to the United States to learn creative writing in 2019, is about it.  I have always wanted to know why the female experience in Kazakhstan is the way it is, and now I think that the reason, at least to some extent, is  books, the books that Kazakhstani women get – or do note get – to read.

Writing about my reading always feels odd, just as odd as writing about my own sexual experience. I am as happy as the next writer to talk about the books my fictional characters read and who they sleep with, but when it comes to myself, nothing in my experience seems, essentially, special enough. And yet, the more I write, the more I realize the political importance of talking about both these things. 

I’ve been thinking recently how clearly this connection is shown in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. The way Plath openly talks about her relationships really surprised me the first time I read the book. I was seventeen at the time, and I thought I would die of shame if I ever wrote like this. I did not, of course, but only because I had found Plath and could have her as my model. 

I’ve been thinking also of Margaret Atwood, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale, and Joan Didion, the author of Slouching Towards Bethlehem. For Kazakhstani women, especially those who do not live in the cities, it is essential to see examples of successful, independent women who make their own way in the world–at least in books. In my experience as a writer in this country, most emerging writers are women, but at least half of successful writers are men. This is something that needs to change.

In Kazakhstan, one is expected to die of shame–sincerely, and if possible, in a group. I think this comes from the idea that there is nothing worse than  shame brought onto the family and doing so thus must be avoided at all costs. Books that deal with this subject but are set in other countries could have us think critically about such beliefs. Black Boy by Richard Wright, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison would be a great start.

I can also think of Russian books that should be required reading in Kazakh-speaking households. Reading The Wind of Rage by Oksana Vasyakina, Natalia Meschaninova’s stories, or Sentences by Lida Yusupova could help denormalize domestic and sexual violence, something we desperately need.

None of this will happen, however, if none of these books are translated into Kazakh. Countless high-school graduates will get married at the age of twenty, countless women will be beaten by their husbands and other family members. It is time we dismantle the world of Daddy’s Girls. I can always write about something else but not until there are things that matter as much as this.

The Alma Review is Now Live!

November 3, 2021

Our new venture is now live! Please check it out here.

The launch issue features my review of Aman Rakhmetov’s debut collection of poetry and Dana Kanafina’s interview with Sultan Kamyshbayev. More coming soon!

We created The Alma Review to make writing by Kazakhstani writers visible to the English-speaking literary and scholarly community. In the year when a Kazakhstani author is the first woman from Central Asia to have translations of her short stories supported by a PEN/Heim grant, the need to do so is urgent. 

Our aim is to bring awareness to the Kazakhstani authors and to develop the practice of literary criticism. We want our reviews to become a bridge from Kazakhstani literature to the world. My secondary goal is to give younger writers a place to practice their critical skills, enter the larger conversation, and get a couple of by-lines. 

We will happily work with anyone willing and able to read in Russian or Kazakh and write a review or two in English. If you would like to review a book, or know someone who might, please fill out this form.  Please share this information widely with your students and networks. 

New Venture: The Alma Review

October 26, 2021

More exciting news to result from my trip to Almaty: We are launching a new blog, The Almaty Review.

Our graduation photo from the residency.

One of the things that is currently–and critically–missing from the national literature ecosystem is a platform that would make writing by Kazakhstani writers visible to the English-speaking literary and scholarly community. In the year when a Kazakhstani author is the first woman from Central Asia to have translations of her short stories supported by a PEN/Heim grant, this is a bit of a gaping hole.

So, what are we going to do? Follow literary news from Kazakhstan and review books.

Who are we? We are an informal collective of readers, writers and translators who are passionate about literature being written in Kazakhstan.

Why are we doing this? Our aim is to bring awareness to the Kazakhstani authors and to develop the practice of literary criticism. We want our reviews to become a bridge from Kazakhstani literature to the world. My secondary goal is to give younger writers a place to practice their critical skills, enter the larger conversation, and get a couple of by-lines. Oh – and – this enterprise is entirely run by women.

What will it  be like? We will publish reviews and interviews in English, to be freely available on our blog. 

Who can participate? Literally everyone! We have a small collective, but we want our resource to grow. That’s why we are eager to welcome new participants! If you would like to review a book, please fill out this form. 

When is the launch date? November 1, 2021.

We really hope that people will be interested in our endeavor. Let’s create something amazing together!

Alcestis in the Underworld–Signed Copies Available!

October 20, 2021

Friends,

Just in time for your holiday shopping, my publisher has run a limited number of additional copies of  Alcestis in the Underworld, my full-length poetry book. I happen to have them in my house, so I will gladly sign and mail one to an address of your choice. Bonus: This time, I am mailing to any U.S. address, including DPO and military addresses and any address in the U.K. 

If you would like one, shoot me an email or DM me on Instagram!

Murray-cover-front

Your National Literature: A Toolkit

October 10, 2021

This is going to be a thinking-out-loud and processing-things kind of post. I spent a week in Almaty talking about one subject: what ingredients do you need to have a national literature?

Writers, of course. There’s no shortage of those. There are poets, novelists, short-story writers, playwrights. I didn’t run into any non-fiction writers, but I bet it’s because they are simply less visible.

The writers–the ones I met in Almaty–write in one of two languages.

Readers read, similarly, in one of those two languages. Plus, sometimes English. Readers appear to be finding what they want to read without much help from the marketplace: they read on the internet, they read on apps on their phones. Because the market is essentially out-of-touch, behind, and only one of the languages (Russian), the readers, unfortunately, do not appear to be committed to paying for what they like to read. Which may actually be a universal problem… ask any author.

I was, however, struck, by the consistency of book prices vis-a-vis other goods in the market. I hereby propose to call this relationship the Almaty index. It goes like this:

A=(B x nb)/(H x nh)

Where A is the Almaty Index; B is a price of a new-release hardcover novel; nb is the number of times in a year the presumed consumer buys such a thing; H is the cost of a routine ladies’ haircut and blow-out, and nh is the number of times our presumed consumer (yes, she is a woman) pays for that procedure in a year. If A equals zero, out market has some fundamental infrastructure problems. What I would like to see, is a market where A > 1. Please do the math and let me know.

Moving on. Absence of local distribution, I think, is a temporary gap (or one hopes it is). As long as there are writers and readers, writers will find a way to produce books, whether that means basically self-publishing, i.e. paying for the print-run and then selling individual copies, or doing the same thing with additional external funding. The missing link is solvent publishing houses. When I asked my hosts if publishing is even something that occurs to the entrepreneurially-minded folks in Kazakhstan, the answer was uniformly negative.

Let me dwell on this, for a bit. Is publishing an attractive business–anywhere? Or are the glory-days of the industry, when it could create, if not fortunes, then at least comfortable livelihoods, and employ scores of well-educated people, over? Has it atomized into a gig economy/ies of writers, editors, copywriters, PR agents, book designers, and–oh, translators!–who spend most of their active hours looking for the next contract and chasing down payments for the one they just completed? It certainly looks a lot like it from where I sit. But I’m a translator.

There is a number–an indicator–that I would like to know and have not managed to find–so please help me. It is this: what portion of the income of a solvent publisher comes from activities other than publishing, i.e. rights sales? There is a school of thought out there that holds rights-sales to be essential for a publishing industry. In our case this means foreign rights sales, and here we arrive to face the need for a few more ingredients: a comprehensible national IPR regime and a working understanding thereof by authors and their publishers or agents; the existence of translators from the national language(s) into global languages. English is a great place to start. French, Spanish, German, Chinese, and Arabic are similarly desirable.

But what about Russian, you say? Isn’t that a big market? It is, in itself, but again, I do not see evidence of a robust trade in rights that could generate additional income for both publishers and writers. Do correct me if I’m wrong.

Finally (at least for this blog post), books need a means to be a subject of conversation. Notice I don’t say, “books need to be a subject of conversation.” When two people read the same book, they will have a conversation about it–I am quite sure of that. Opinions about books are eminently civilized and unlike to offend–just what we need these days! Everyone should have more opinions about books. In fact, having opinions about books is a great, safe way of learning to have opinions. That’s why we make school-children write essays about books, even when we fail to get them to have actual original opinions. But I digress.

There needs to be a public forum where people can talk about books. A smoke-filled cafe in Paris might well be the first thing that comes to mind, but smoking is so last century. An online journal, a book-club, a reading group, a college course (yes, that too)–and a book review section in the paper, as long as I’m dreaming, whatever form the paper comes in.

Hence, people who can write book reviews. And people who want to publish them.

The next question to ask is, which one of all these people are you going to be?

Review of Iryna Shuvalova’s “Pray to the Empty Wells”

September 21, 2021

Iryna Shuvalova’s bi-lingual (Ukrainian and English, with translations by the author and Olena Jennings) collection of poetry Pray to the Empty Wells (Lost Horse Press, 2019) consists of three parts, one of which is also a part of a different book. In the conversation we had at the Ukrainian Institute London (virtually), Iryna spoke about all her poems, written and unwritten, existing equally in her mind at all times. Each book she publishes can be seen then as an arrangement of poetry incidental to a particular moment in time, a fragment of a larger whole seen through a particular peep-hole.

This book begins with poems that often address what feels like a female presence, an alter ego, perhaps, an earlier (or yet-to-be-had) incarnation, or the reader. She is enjoined to “look/дивись”, “give up/віддай”, “become/ставай” in a world that contains magnitudes: the poems are full of presences that are felt, intuited, or seen precisely in the instant they vanish. These can be interpreted as genii loci, souls that animate trees, water, rocks, grass. Communion with these souls comes at a price.

whoever walks the paths of grass
like mice and badgers
like beetles and snakes
wears inside out
its speckled woolly skin

Difficult and elusive, this covenant is an ache, a missing limb in the second part of the book, where the collective “we” articulates a precarious, transient existence: “where we stood/imprints were left in the air/like when a small wound/scabs over.” The reader is now in the waste-land, made all the more devastated by being made recognizable: here, poems are placed in specific geographic locations, cities, streets, and lines of contact, a universe away from the unnamed and omnipotent ever-place in the first part of the book. The following lines seem to declare an ars poetica that is, like a quantum particle, both here and not-here at the same time:

a poet is a hybrid creature, and poetry is a balancing act
between words and things

The final part of the book is perhaps the most intimate, an iterative meditation on the frailty and isolation of the self.

the pain is alive, it lives, it’s more alive
than those who are in pain
we wrap pain into white handkerchiefs
we hide it under our pillows

In the end,

no one comes out of the night’s big house
no one comes out even though we call

but the reader has learned, perhaps, that an empty house–much like an empty well–is not the same as a house deserted by its soul.

Iryna Shuvalova read from this book at a poetry night sponsored by the Ukrainian Institute London on July 28.

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