Archipelagic Model of Global post-Soviet Cultures (*)

About a year ago, when Yelena Furman and I decided to get serious about our ongoing Twitter conversation about Russian literature and to start this blog, I read Maria Rubins’s essay “A Century of Russian Culture(s) ‘Abroad’: The Unfolding of Literary Geography,” published in Global Russian Cultures (edited by Kevin M. F. Platt; a volume in which Yelena Furman’s own essay “Rewriting Gender: Russian-American Women Writers and the Challenge to Russian Femininity” also appears). In this programmatic essay, Rubins argues that “A polycentric, nonhierarchical model of global Russian cultures may be visualized as an archipelago, a chain of islands that appear independent and isolated but in fact are interconnected in space, as well as time, often owing their origins to a series of volcanic eruptions.” In this model, Rubins argues, “the metropolitan Russian ‘continent,’ … can be seen as just the largest island within the global archipelago of Russian culture.”

Prior to encountering this essay, I had heard of archipelagic studies from a friend and a colleague, Olga Blomgren, who is working on her dissertation in Comparative Literature. Olga pointed me toward this theory and to the ideas of de-colonization, as distinct from post-colonization, as promising ways of conceptualizing literatures born of multiple languages and cultural influences. In her own work, Olga discusses the writing of the multilingual authors from the Caribbean, Rosario Ferré and Edwidge Danticat. The notion of an “archipelago” offers a compelling vision and a path to undoing the hierarchies of values imposed by colonial regimes. “Landmasses traditionally conceived of as continents may be reframed as islands that are constituent parts, rather than continental administrators, of the global meta-archipelago,” write scholars Brian Russel Roberts and Michelle Stephens in their essay “Archipelagic American Studies and the Caribbean.” Just because a traditionally conceived continent is physically larger than an island, its claim on culture and influence isn’t more valid than that of an island.

Rubins applies these ideas to Russophone literature, including in Paris during the interwar period, literature created in the US during the Cold War Era, and in Israel in the more recent times. She quotes from the famed theorist Homi Bhabha, who argued in his book The Location of Culture that “peripheral locations are rich in innovation and can destabilize and refashion stagnating ‘centers’.” In fact, with the introduction of the archipelagic model, the very terms for “center” and “periphery” (so important to the 19th Century Russian writers, from Gogol to Chekhov) may become obsolete. “Diasporic authors and communities contest their alleged marginality and assert their hybrid character. Yet diasporic consciousness and patterns of writing inevitably spill over into the metropolitan world, eroding monolithic identities and discourses even as they participate in transnational literary systems,” Rubins suggests.

These ideas deeply influenced my thinking about what I wanted to accomplish with Punctured Lines, and it was exciting to find that Yelena was thinking along the same lines. In her draft of our mission statement, she wrote that we want to amplify the traditionally underrepresented voices from the post-Soviet diasporas. If I were to translate this into the language of the archipelagic theory, the idea is to unsettle the colonial maps of literary value that tend to place Russia at the center of the Soviet literary space and that of the Russian Empire, and to treat Russophone literature as one island among many of the metaphorical post-Soviet archipelago. This work feels all the more necessary to me on the personal level because in the earlier draft of this post (displayed in the comments), I have unconsciously defaulted to the colonialist language while actively seeking to avoid it. I’m very grateful to the comments that Shelley Fairweather-Vega, Christopher Fort, Mirgul Kali, and Kevin M. F. Platt offered on this post that helped me to unpack my own unconscious bias and tendency to conflate “Russia” and “the Soviet Union.”

(*) Title and content have been edited; the original version is in the comments below.

Moving from theory to practice, here’s a few recently published and upcoming books from the post-Soviet archipelago to read this summer.

Night and Day by Abdulhamid Sulaymon o’g’li Cho’lpon, translated from Uzbek by Christopher Fort. This novel comes to us from the 1930s and is set at an earlier time, in Turkestan under Russian Imperial rule. “Despite increasing censorship and previous arrests by Soviet authorities, Cholpon subtly employs a variety of techniques including satire and farce to undermine the legitimacy of the Soviet government that was being established around him. Bitterly portraying the hypocrisy and collusion of jadid reformists, Muslim clerics and local Russian officials, this unfinished novel, which was halted by the author’s execution in 1938, remains as one of the darkest comments on Soviet Central Asian history in the Uzbek language,” wrote Shawn T. Lyon about this novel. An illuminating interview with the translator aired on a podcast New Books Network.

Pub Date: November 26, 2019
Publisher: Academic Studies Press

Translated from Uzbek by Shelley Fairweather-Vega, Hamid Ismailov’s GAIA, Queen of Ants is set in England in the milieu of Central Asian immigrants. ” The pivotal relationship in the novel is that between septuagenarian Uzbek émigré Gaia and Domrul, her young Turkish carer. Readers may recognize hints of Harold and Maude,” writes Joshua Bird in a review of this novel. “Contact with Gaia brings up [for Domrul] conflicting feelings of lust, shame and longing, and through their complex relationship, Gaia draws the young man into her dark world of infidelity, sexuality and secrets.”

Pub date: February 11, 2020
Publisher: Syracuse University Press

Good Citizens Need Not Fear is the first book by Maria Reva, who was born in Ukraine and grew up in Canada, and has published a number of the stories from this linked collection in the most prestigious journals of the English-language world, including Electric Literature, Granta, McSweeney’s, The Atlantic, and others. “Set in the Ukrainian town of Kirovka in the 1980s and starring a set of characters who live in the same block of flats, Maria Reva’s enthralling debut of interlinked short stories achieves the double effect of timelessness and timeliness,” Kapka Kassabova writes in The Guardian.

In addition to her fiction writing, Reva translates from French and writes opera libertti!

Pub date: March 10, 2020
Publisher: Doubleday Books

Nino Haratishvili’s The Eighth Life, translated from German by Ruth Martin and Charlotte Collins has been probably the best publicized book on my list. It is currently listed as #11 in “Russian Literature” on Amazon — woo hoo! This book opens in contemporary Berlin, but the family saga begins in Georgia, at the turn of the 20th Century, and follows the central characters to St. Petersburg during the Russian Revolution, and then on through time and geographical locations. “The Eighth Life is narrated by Niza Jashi, a Georgian expatriate living in Berlin, as she writes a history of her family for Brilka, her niece. The novel explores the ways that various characters are fated not only by the political tumult and government brutality of 20th-century Georgia but also by the legacy of a family curse,” explains Lori Feathers in an interview with Haratishvili on Lit Hub.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020
Publisher: Scribe US

Three Apples Fell From the Sky by Narine Abgaryan comes to English in translation by Lisa C. Hayden. Abgaryan was born in a small town in Soviet Armenia, and later moved to the capital of Armenia, Yerevan, and from there, to Moscow. Abgaryan fictionalizes her hometown in her work with tenderness and care, showing us a range of fascinating characters and a lifestyle that seems as though of a different century. This is Abgaryan’s seventh novel, and the first to be translated to English. Due to the pandemic, the pub date for this novel has been delayed to late August, but I encourage all of our readers to pre-order this book (it is already available for pre-order).

While we wait, read Katherine E. Young’s translation of an excerpt from Abgaryan’s earlier novel, People Who Are Always With Me, in Two Lines 31.

Pub Date: August 4, 2020
Publisher: ONEWorld Publications

Don’t forget to order from your favorite local bookshop, they need our help! Bookshop.org is a good second choice.

7 thoughts on “Archipelagic Model of Global post-Soviet Cultures (*)

  1. I read your post with great interest and I think that the choice that you and Yelena made about the focus of you blog is an excellent one. I have read several woman writers from the Russian archipelago in the past few years and I’m definitely curious and interested in more!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks to translators Shelley Fairweather-Vega and Christopher Fort for engaging in the conversation about this list on Facebook. As a result of this conversation, I want to add this comment as a clarification of the original post and the direction for further research.
    1. The main reason why I chose to include books translated from Uzbek and German on my list is because they directly engage the legacies of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.
    2. I understand decolonial theory as an attempt to untangle the literatures and cultures of the former colonies from the influence of the colonizer: in this case, the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. I’m aware that the attempt to approach books written in languages other than Russian through the Russian could be seen as an attempt to recapture them for the Russian imaginary — which is a colonial project in itself. This is a known danger that will take more work to address. My intention here is not to subsume, but to pay attention to the work that directly addresses the legacy of the Russian colonization projects.
    3. “Russian” in the title and throughout the post (unless marked) refers to the vestiges of the Russian Empire, rather than the contemporary state of Russia.
    4. Additional direction for further research includes the attempt to dislodge the notion of “peripheries” being “backwards” in temporal sense. As Christopher Fort put this in his Facebook comment, “How does the archipelago metaphor, if we take it further, help us conceptualize differences in time as well as space? Usually when thinking of time in center and periphery, the center maintains itself as center through the construct of modernity, i.e. “we in the center are modern, they in the periphery are backward.” Can the archipelago model change how we imagine this temporal construct?” — I take this as a prompt for further research.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. As s result of thoughtful critique by Shelley Fairweather-Vega, Christopher Fort, Mirgul Kali, and Kevin M.F. Platt I reiceved on Facebook (Thread: https://www.facebook.com/bowlga1/posts/10157227303082539?notif_id=1592501849011128&notif_t=feedback_reaction_generic&ref=notif), I’ve revised the content and the title of this post. Since my original post displayed the exact kind of thinking I was trying to avoid, I’m copying the original language below with the intention to keep working through my unconscious bias.

    Archipelagic Model of Global Russian Cultures

    About a year ago, when Yelena Furman and I decided to get serious about our ongoing Twitter conversation about Russian literature and to start this blog, I read Maria Rubins’s essay “A Century of Russian Culture(s) ‘Abroad’: The Unfolding of Literary Geography,” published in Global Russian Cultures (edited by Kevin M. F. Platt; a volume in which Yelena Furman’s own essay “Rewriting Gender: Russian-American Women Writers and the Challenge to Russian Femininity” also appears). In this programmatic essay, Rubins argues that “A polycentric, nonhierarchical model of global Russian cultures may be visualized as an archipelago, a chain of islands that appear independent and isolated but in fact are interconnected in space, as well as time, often owing their origins to a series of volcanic eruptions.” In this model, Rubins argues, “the metropolitan Russian ‘continent,’ … can be seen as just the largest island within the global archipelago of Russian culture.”

    Prior to encountering this essay, I had heard of archipelagic studies from a friend and a colleague, Olga Blomgren, who is working on her dissertation in Comparative Literature. Olga pointed me toward this theory and to the ideas of de-colonization, as distinct from post-colonization, as promising ways of conceptualizing literatures born of multiple languages and cultural influences. In her own work, Olga discusses the writing of the multilingual authors from the Caribbean, Rosario Ferré and Edwidge Danticat. The notion of an “archipelago” offers a compelling vision and a path to undoing the hierarchies of values imposed by colonial regimes. “Landmasses traditionally conceived of as continents may be reframed as islands that are constituent parts, rather than continental administrators, of the global meta-archipelago,” write scholars Brian Russel Roberts and Michelle Stephens in their essay “Archipelagic American Studies and the Caribbean.” Just because a traditionally conceived continent is physically larger than an island, its claim on culture and influence isn’t more valid than that of an island.

    Rubins applies these ideas to the territories broadly related to the former Russian Empire. She quotes from the famed theorist Homi Bhabha, who argued in his book The Location of Culture that “peripheral locations are rich in innovation and can destabilize and refashion stagnating ‘centers’.” In fact, with the introduction of the archipelagic model, the very terms for “center” and “periphery” (so important to the 19th Century Russian writers, from Gogol to Chekhov) may become obsolete. “Diasporic authors and communities contest their alleged marginality and assert their hybrid character. Yet diasporic consciousness and patterns of writing inevitably spill over into the metropolitan world, eroding monolithic identities and discourses even as they participate in transnational literary systems,” Rubins suggests.

    These ideas deeply influenced my thinking about what I wanted to accomplish with Punctured Lines, and it was exciting to find that Yelena was thinking along the same lines. In her draft of our mission statement, she wrote that we want to amplify the traditionally underrepresented voices from the post-Soviet diasporas. If I were to translate this into the language of the archipelagic theory, the idea is to unsettle the “continental” ideas of Russian literature that are Moscow-centered, male-centered, and centered around essentialist ideas of “Russian” identity (in which “Russian” becomes defined ethnically, and reduced to vague notions of “Russian soul”). As a coda, I’ll add that we briefly considered using some form of “archipelago” as a title for the blog, but had to reject it for the Solzhenitsyn connection.

    Like

  4. Thank you, again, Olga for your thoughtful reading of this important literature and your willingness to engage with the thinking and processes of different theoretical frames in your work. I’m reminded of the old saw about doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome… Different outcomes, or “amplify[ing] the traditionally underrepresented voices from the post-Soviet diasporas” as you and Yelena endeavor, requires a new method. We may not yet know what this method is, but there are ways to begin. As I read both the early and revised version of the blog, you brought me to a few ideas.

    German Studies has been an active source of innovative work on the topic of monolingualism and [national] literatures. Scholars like David Gramling and Yasemin Yildiz have highlighted the construction of monolingualism, the persistent link of language to nation, and how literature by authors like Emine Sevgi Özdamar and Yoko Tawada challenge these constraints with their writing. So, I now wonder if one way to understand Nino Haratishvili’s writing is also as a member of the postmonolingual cohort of writers [in German]. The very act of choosing to write in a language which subverts [German and Georgian and Post-Soviet] imperial and nationalist definitions of literature makes a decolonial break from those narratives.

    Your goal for further research into dismantling periphery/center thinking has begun with Rubins’ citation of Bhabha, who argues the opposite of “‘peripheries’ being ‘backwards’.” Conversely, he writes “peripheral locations are rich in innovation and can destabilize and refashion stagnating ‘centers’.”

    These ideas reminded me of a manifesto, ‘‘Pour une ‘littérature-monde’ en français,’’ published in Le Monde in 2007 and translated by Daniel Simon to English as “Toward A ‘World Literature’ In French” in World Literature Today in 2009. This astonishing document was signed by over forty authors, including Édouard Glissant, one of the most important thinkers and writers of archipelagic studies. These authors go further than postcolonial theorist Bhabha and write their decolonial refusal of periphery/center thought by claiming “the center […] is henceforth everywhere, at the four corners of the world. The result? The end of ‘francophone’ literature—and the birth of a world literature in French.”

    They end with an appeal to our imaginaries: “With the center placed on an equal plane with other centers, we’re witnessing the birth of a new constellation, in which language freed from its exclusive pact with the nation, free from every other power hereafter but the powers of poetry and the imaginary, will have no other frontiers but those of the spirit.”

    Best wishes!

    Liked by 1 person

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