Burning Books: Akram Aylisli on Literature and Cultural Memory

February 27, 2021   •   By Akram Aylisli, Katherine E. Young

ON FEBRUARY 9, 2013, the works of writer Akram Aylisli were publicly burned in Azerbaijan because his writing upset the Azerbaijani government. Aylisli watched his books burn via the internet, an experience he describes in a 2018 essay excerpted in this very magazine. Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev stripped Aylisli of the title of “People’s Writer” and his presidential pension; his wife and son were fired from their jobs, and he received death threats. In 2014, Aylisli was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by supporters from several countries. In March 2016, he was invited to address a literary festival in Venice, Incroci di civiltà; however, the 79-year-old writer was detained at the Baku airport, and trumped-up legal charges were filed against him. Those charges are still pending.


In December 2020, Aylisli joined scholar Mark Lipovetsky, Azeri-American journalist Alex Raufoglu, and translator Katherine E. Young for his first public appearance in many years at the virtual event “Burning Books: Akram Aylisli, Literature, and Human Rights in Today’s Azerbaijan.” During the event, Aylisli took questions from a worldwide audience. He addressed the recent resumption of armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan — Azerbaijani forces prevailed in the fall 2020 fighting — a longstanding conflict depicted most notably in Stone Dreams, part of Aylisli’s trilogy Farewell, Aylis: A Non-Traditional Novel in Three Works (Academic Studies Press, 2018, trans. Katherine E. Young). He also discussed literature, his continuing legal troubles in Azerbaijan, and his faith in human empathy. The event was sponsored by Columbia University’s Harriman Institute and Institute for the Study of Human Rights and PEN America. Mark Lipovetsky moderated the audience Q-and-A. Aylisli spoke in Russian from his home in Baku, Azerbaijan, where he continues to live under de facto house arrest. His remarks have been translated, edited, and condensed by Katherine E. Young; full transcripts of his remarks in Russian and an English translation are available here, along with video of the event.


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MARK LIPOVETSKY: In March 2016, you were slated to deliver a speech at a literary festival in Venice, but could not attend because you were denied permission to leave Azerbaijan. You later published the remarks you’d planned to give. At the start of the speech, you write, “Now we are all defenseless before these inconceivably cruel times. There are periods in history when nothing can fill the emptiness of the human heart: not religion, not science, not literature.” Do you feel the same way now, and what does it mean to be a writer in such times?


AKRAM AYLISLI: I’d like to first of all clarify the circumstances of my situation that not everyone understands completely. They made me sign an agreement not to travel, so I don’t have the right to leave the confines of Baku. What’s more, the prosecutor’s office confiscated my proof of identity. Without that proof, a person has no actual rights — can’t take part in elections or anything. The prosecutor’s office was supposed to investigate my case within a year, according to Azerbaijani law. But to this day, the case that was opened in March 2016 hasn’t been reviewed. They simply aren’t processing it. This all weighs very, very heavily on me psychologically, and all of it puts pressure on me. But I think some people are starting to overcome the anxiety they felt about the fact that part of Azerbaijan’s land was, let us say, under the control of Armenia. They’ve calmed down a bit, and I think [laughs] that calm will in some way make a difference in my life. They’ll calm down and finally say: “So what about this guy? How much can we really cut him off from society? This kind of thing isn’t good for him.” I think this will all pass. I’m sure of it.


In terms of how I live in this difficult time, it seems to me that no matter what the circumstances, no matter what situation a writer lives in, he lives in his own world. For example, I didn’t feel the loss of what was taken from me very deeply, and I wasn’t depressed because I never remembered myself being free. I never felt that: not in school, not at university, not at work. I felt myself to be a little bit free only at my work table, my writing desk. They couldn’t take that away from me. It can’t be taken away from any writer. I live now through literature. It’s possible to live through literature — there’s a lot of air there. More, maybe, than there is even in the street, especially during a pandemic.


From your trilogy Farewell, Aylis, which of these novels — Yemen, Stone Dreams, and A Fantastical Traffic Jam — is the most important for you?


If I think about it, Stone Dreams. I wrote Stone Dreams for Azerbaijanis, not Armenians. I wrote it out of the desire that not all of the bridges between our peoples would be burned. So that there would not be this deep alienation, particularly in terms of culture. We are, after all, a Turkic people, but in point of fact we are people of the Caucasus. Our mentality is of the Caucasus — not Turkish, not Central Asian, specifically of the Caucasus. I wrote Stone Dreams out of the desire to bring people closer, so that people wouldn’t think that we have to revile one another, that we have to kill one another.


Who has supported you? Are there writers, cultural figures, who supported you in Russia and Azerbaijan?


In general, the Russian intelligentsia defended me a great deal — Andrei Bitov, Viktor Yerofeyev. That level of writer — important writers — really defended me. A few Russian journalists, also. In Azerbaijan, my support mainly came from young writers. Among them, many people understood things as I understand them, and in the way people will someday understand.


How can we, readers living all over the world, help you?


You’re already helping me. We’re sitting here, today I’m looking at you, at such good-hearted people. That joy is enough for me, if only for a few days. Sometimes you suddenly remember such good moments, and that helps you live. I don’t know how exactly readers can help. Many organizations wanted to help me. In Norway, they even proposed an excellent situation so that I could move there. I didn’t go, because someday these people will understand that I love Azerbaijan more than they do. I think there are individuals among the Azerbaijani people who know that I love Azerbaijan more than the authorities do. It’s dangerous to say so [laughs], but it’s necessary.


What are you writing now? You said that you’re saving yourself through literature.


I am saving myself through literature. And I’m saving myself only through literature, if I’m honest with you. How am I saving myself? I’ve written several things after these events that are very important for me. But you know what happened to me. I had a very good translator in Moscow, Tamara Kalyagina, who translated me for many years. And I had print runs of my books published in the USSR of more than a million copies, thanks to her translations. But after she died, I lost contact with my Russian audience. Now I write solely for an Azerbaijani audience.


But you also translate yourself into Russian?


I started translating. Now, it’s difficult for me to translate myself. For me, translation is an enormous labor. It’s easier to write than translate. For example, I’ve translated an enormous number of pages into Azeri, pages from Turgenev, Paustovsky, Böll, García Márquez, Shukshin, Aitmatov, many writers. I had energy then. Now I conserve my energy to write, if only in Azeri. I’m not a native speaker of Russian, but when I enter the element of the Russian language and begin to translate, I don’t translate badly, and it turns out well.


And you yourself translated Stone Dreams into Russian, right?


Right. With the help of a native Russian speaker.


Who influenced you as a writer? Who is important to you as an authority on writing?


Different writers influenced me during different periods. I was first dazzled by Heinrich Böll. It seemed to me that we’d been born in the same place, lived in a single village — that’s how close his work felt to me. And then, of the Russian writers, I really, deeply loved the early work of Maxim Gorky. He captivated me by showing that this life is hard, by dreaming about a better life. And of the Russians, now, I’m most attracted to Ivan Bunin. Bunin is also close to something in my soul. His daydreams, that particular style he has, his calm prose, that’s what speaks to me. My favorite American writer is John Steinbeck. I love him deeply.


The Azerbaijani epics influenced me most of all. The kind where there is a dream, a person wants to be a hero, to do something good for others. In early childhood, I especially loved fairy tales. And to this day I love fairy tales. It seems to me that everything we write is a fairy tale. I think Gabriel García Márquez, for example, is a teller of tales. It’s hard to find a better storyteller than García Márquez. He’s a storyteller in everything. Especially in One Hundred Years of Solitude — he’s a consummate storyteller. That whole book is a complete fairy tale.


Now I’ll be reading questions submitted through the Zoom chat. Why is there such hatred on the part of Azerbaijanis toward Armenians, and why is history being falsified?


Thank you for the question. I know few Armenians who who’d harbor any kind of hatred toward Azerbaijanis. And my personal Azerbaijani friends don’t harbor any hatred for Armenians, either. I don’t think anyone is capable of destroying our cultural connections with Armenia. That culture brought us together and will bring us together again, I want to hope. These days there is no hope for politicians. All hope rests in such time-honored values as culture, our songs, our dances, the ones we dance together. There’s no other Turkic people, except Azerbaijanis, who could dance to this kind of music. I still preserve hope, because culture is a sturdier material than politics. Politics is always moving on, but there’s nothing transient about culture. I hope there will come a time when culture will bring us together, will summon us to good.


How can a dialogue be restored after recent fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan and continuing human rights violations in Nagorno-Karabakh?


The Armenian people are seriously traumatized. I would very much like for that trauma to pass as quickly as possible. During the recent fighting, it seemed as if everyone would help the Armenians, but in fact no actual help arrived. If the Russian army hadn’t been there, if Russian peacekeeping forces hadn’t gone into Nagorno-Karabakh, what mischief would have gone on there? I think there would have been terrible carnage. Thank God, that carnage didn’t happen. But these wounds of Armenia are very deep. Only the Armenian people can heal these wounds — the spirit of the people, their faith in their own history, their own power. And with regard to politics, I still think that Armenians should not have believed their politicians; the patriotic fanaticism we see from several Armenian leaders is no less than what’s in some of our own leaders, and that’s very harmful for getting things back on the right track, for bringing things back to normal. And I do think there are Azerbaijanis who would like for Armenians to rise, stand on their feet, and solve their problems. There’s so much to say, I’m overcome with emotion. It’s hard for me to talk about this issue because I’ve always considered these tragedies to be my own personal tragedies. I take in all these wars, the pain of any person, the death of any young person, that’s my own grief. That’s who I was and who I remain. How else to help, I don’t know.


Would it be interesting for you to write a utopia and describe the kind of Azerbaijan or Caucasus that you’d like to see?


I’d like that very much. By nature, I’m an idealist. I didn’t ever imagine that this would all lead to such a bloodbath. I think that our Caucasus culture and mentality will help the leaders of the countries solve their own problems. I always think: If they don’t solve these problems, no one will solve them and, in fact, no one has solved them. Who can solve your domestic problems? For the world, the Caucasus is just a small sliver of the planet. I wrote Stone Dreams so that Armenians and Azerbaijanis wouldn’t be eternal enemies. I don’t think I did anything heroic. I just didn’t want these two peoples to lose one another, to lose their own memories.


Your decision to remain in Azerbaijan is not unlike the decision of Socrates, whose students proposed that he flee Greece. Are there any historical figures that serve as examples for you in this difficult situation?


It helps me to think about the fate of many writers who were in a worse situation than I am. The memory that I’m not alone and never have been. It’s not possible that one person thinks of something sacred, something big, and others haven’t thought of it. If a writer thinks of something good, it means that many people are thinking of it, not just that writer alone. A writer simply expresses the soul of the people. A real, genuine writer is never alone.


What do you think now, almost 30 years after the end of the Soviet Union, about the legacy of the Soviet Union, the relationships between the republics that were part of it, and the role played by the Russian language? And what do you think about so-called “multinational” Soviet literature, about how relations were constructed between the center and the republics, between languages?


It’s really a very simple question. For example, I studied at the Literary Institute in Moscow in the same class with such writers and poets as Vasily Belov, Gennady Rusakov, Viktor Astafyev, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Bella Akhmadulina. Many famous people were at the Literary Institute then. They were driven out of the Literary Institute, I remember. But the personal connections remained very close. Different events took place in different republics. Writers got together, writers shared their own thoughts. These days it’s only through the internet that some kind of connection exists. Perhaps that’s easier for many people, but for my generation, that living connection was a normal thing.


In the speech you wanted to deliver in Venice, you write that not just specifically the society in which you live but the world as a whole is at a dead end, that the world suffers from an emptiness that’s filled up with nationalism. Almost five years have passed since then. Does your diagnosis remain the same?


I’m convinced that this is so, even now. Shaitan, the devil himself, is always on duty; where there’s emptiness, he can crawl in and do his terrible deeds. The devil’s emptiness is personified by the superpatriot. Every government says, “My national interest is most dear to me.” Nothing can be more harmful than that. What kind of national interest can there be if all nations are experiencing an epidemic of flu [sic] that no one can get away from? This is killing humanity, this pride, this “my country above everything” mentality. What can the interests of your people be if the whole world is now in danger? What can territorial unity be if the whole planet is a single territory that’s under threat? Now the slogan of all leaders of all states is “I am for my national interest.” This seems to me to be a parody, even. This is even spitting in the face of God, in the face of nature, in the face of humanity: “My interest is more important to me.” What kind of interest? If your neighbor is in a terrible situation, how can you be happy, if you’re human?


Thank you very much. I think your last answer is very important, and we’re going to leave it there.


I am so happy to be with you, if only in an online conversation. I’ll remember all of this, our meeting today — I’ll remember it all my life. I wish you all happiness and good health. Don’t get sick in the pandemic there. Beware of evil in any form, beware of any form of evil. Thank you so much.


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Akram Aylisli is an Azerbaijani writer, playwright, novelist, and editor, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in connection with his novella Stone Dreams. He currently lives under de facto house arrest in Baku, Azerbaijan.


Katherine E. Young is the author of Woman Drinking Absinthe and poet laureate emerita of Arlington, Virginia. She is the translator of Anna Starobinets, Akram Aylisli, Inna Kabysh, and numerous Russophone poets; she received a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts fellowship to translate Akram Aylisli’s Farewell, Aylis.