Alisa Ganieva writes about the republic of Dagestan, winning the Debut Prize, and the moment when the identity of the mysterious author Gulla Khirachev was revealed…

In Soviet times there was a concept known as ‘young writers’. It was in fact a class concept. A budding writer was expected to descend from the working class and to glorify the Soviet regime. All facilities were provided for this purpose, such as the Gorki Literary Institute, founded to teach workers creative writing.

Today, a life of a young writer in Russia is very different. Writers of the younger generation don’t belong to any creative trade unions, they do not rally round any single idea and they don’t accept any authorities. We grew up in the period of chaos, with social and state institutions falling apart around us. As a result, the works of 20 and 30 years-old writers are marked by split consciousness, a feeling of total estrangement and rejection of all authorities (including parents and elders).

My literary career was strongly boosted by the Debut Prize, which I won in 2009. The Debut was founded in 2000, when for a young unknown author it was next to impossible to be published or noticed.The introduction of this prize changed the literary life of many writers from Denis Osokin, Igor Savelyev, Arkady Babchenko, Polina Klukina to Aleksander Snegirev, Natalya Kluchareva, Irina Bogatyreva, Aleksey Kachsheev and many others. In 2010 Olga Slavnikova, the 2006 Russian Booker Prize winner and the Debut’s Director, initiated an international translation and promotional program to introduce Debut Prize winners to overseas readers. As a result all of these authors are now published in many languages by well known publishing houses from Gallimard to Suhrkamp, as well as by Natasha Perova in English by GLAS.

I am from Dagestan, but now I live in Moscow. At first I used a male pen name: Gulla Khirachev. There were two reasons for this. First, in our literary circles, I was well known as a critic and I did not want my reputation to influence the Debut jury. The second reason was more important: my writing describes the male-dominated world of today’s Dagestan and the hero is a young man, so I wrote my initial piece of prose under a male pseudonym, because women in Dagestan are not supposed to write about street life and men’s issues.

So, when I sent my manuscript to the Debut Prize, everybody was deluded. During two months, while the jury was working, journalists didn’t stop making conjectures and suppositions about the unknown Gulla. I remember how Aleksander Ilichevski, the Russian Booker Prize winner, who was in the jury that year, began to ask me: “Do you know this boy? Is he well known in your region? Is he at least handsome?” After the short-list was announced, I opened myself only to Olga Slavnikova. Finally, my identity was revealed during the award ceremony, and the public was so shocked, that some of them continue talking about the real author of my stories, slaving in a basement. Since then I have had a torrent of very different letters from Dagestan, lots of them accusing me of “betraying my motherland” and “slandering my place of birth”.

The Caucasian mountainous republic of Dagestan is populated by approximately 100 nationalities, each with a language and ethnic characteristics of their own. Most of them are represented by fewer than 1,000 people. The capital Makhachkala is a melting pot of all of them. All sorts of climates and landscapes coexist and all sorts of ideologies clash. Well educated, progressive-minded people, lowbrow Islamic fundamentalists, followers of the local brand of Islam known as Tarikat (which means The Way), former communists, urban outcasts and country bumpkins; also strong are the Wahabis who believe that an independent Islamic state will solve the problems of unemployment,  lawlessness, gang rule, and all-round corruption.

In my Debut winning novel, Salam, Dalgat!, I wanted to show the split personality typical of young Dagestanis today: on the one hand, they live in a secular state at the time of globalisation with all the benefits it provides; but on the other hand, the conservative Caucasian mentality is still strong in them.

The plot of my novel Salam, Dalgat! is simple: a young boy Dalgat moves about the city searching for a relative meeting all sorts of people and witnessing various events.  Full of street scenes and conversations in a peculiar Dagestani version of Russian, local expressions, dialect, and Arabic words, Salam Dalgat! reflects our contemporary society with all its contraditions and difficulties.

In Dagestan, traditional closed society comes into conflict with modern, open society. To my great regret, Dagestanis are increasingly losing their age-old inimitable culture. Each mountain village looks like a castle or a beehive, clinging to a rock, and almost each village is famous for its craftsmen: goldsmiths, silversmiths, potters, carpet-makers and felt makers. Young Dagestanis are forgetting their native languages and customs, turning to the East, especially to the Arab world, for imitation. However, in the past Dagestani culture was closer to the European world. Now Dagestan is a tangle of painful problems and in my stories I try to show the main ones, to inspire a public discussion.

My next novel Festal Mountain will be published in Russia in June. It describes an imaginary, but not impossible situation in Dagestan when the North Caucasus is suddenly and stealthily cut from Russia with a wall, and people have to adapt to a new life full of struggles between contradictory forces. Unfortunately, nobody is writing about modern life in Dagestan. The few elder writers, members of the Writers’ Union, keep working in their tradition, surviving from previous decades. Most of them use their native languages and suffer from a lack of good translators. Although I would like to mention original, bright and exceptional writers like the poet Adallo or the writer Gazimagomed Galbatsov.

My peers for some reason do not describe what’s going on now, maybe because it’s hard for them to distance themselves sufficiently to describe what they see. Nevertheless, there are a few interesting young poets, for instance, Fazir Djaferov or Vadim Keramov, but they all have moved to Moscow over the last few years. Intellectuals leave, and a lot of people who stay are trying to aggressively impose their vision on others. In every conversation they ask if you pray, and if not, why not, they endlessly lecture you, being neophytes themselves. It’s wearisome. I believe that creating new worlds – is a good strategy for escaping and even transforming the reality. I hope that the ‘Debut’ generation in Russia will manage this task in the near future.

About the Author

Alisa Ganieva was born in 1985 in Moscow, but soon moved with her family to their native Dagestan. A graduate of Moscow’s  Literary Institute, Ganieva has since won numerous awards for her prose and also a prize for her literary criticism.  Salam, Dalgat! her first novel won the Debut Prize in 2009. This book  was written under a pseudonym of  Gulla Khirachev, a Dagestani male name. Alisa uncovered her true identity only after the announcement of the award of the Debut Prize.    Salam, Dalgat! has since been translated into English and is available in Squaring the Circle, an anthology writing from the Debut Prize winners.

Additional Information

Alisa Ganieva, Salam tebe, Dalgat! (Russian) : Astrel, 2010

Debut Prize – Martin Amis and Olga Slavnikova

Publishers Weekly report – Debut Prize

Arkady Babchenko, One Soldiers War in Chechnya