Olga Mark’s “The Lighter”: An Excerpt from Amanat, a Collection-in-Progress of Recent Women’s Writing from Kazakhstan

Shelley Fairweather-Vega on Amanat: Women’s Writing from Kazakhstan

The idea to translate and publish a collection of recent women’s writing from Kazakhstan grew out of my collaboration with Zaure Batayeva, a Kazakh writer and translator living in Belgium. Zaure contacted me in October 2016 when she wanted to hire someone to edit her English translation of a novella by Aigul Kemelbayeva. We eventually submitted the final version to Words Without Borders, whose editor, Susan Harris, was looking for “post-Soviet” literature from different places. Excerpts from the Kemelbayeva novella and two other pieces appeared in a WWB feature in January 2018. By that time, Zaure and I were thinking seriously about collecting writing by more authors and publishing an anthology. Ever since, she and I have been trading stories, checking each other’s translations (she translated the Kazakh-language stories, and I translated the Russian-language pieces), and querying publishers. We won some much-needed funding and publicity from the generous RusTrans program, and our collection is now nearly complete.

“Amanat” means legacy, or sacred trust. The title of our anthology is also the title of one of the shorter stories in it, by the wonderful poet, translator, and prose writer Oral Arukenova, in which a dying woman’s grown children struggle to decide what to do about her last request of them. The cultural clashes and generational conflicts in the title story are evident in other pieces in our collection, as well. But those sorts of conflicts are surprisingly rare in the “official,” state-approved literature in Kazakhstan today, which prizes tradition, patriotism, and stability above all (as does the bureaucracy that supports it). Yet there are many other types of stories to tell in a country that has undergone such profound political, social, and economic upheaval through Russian colonialism, Soviet cataclysms, and sudden independence in the space of just a few generations.

This story, “The Lighter,” is by Olga Mark (1963-2008), who was one of the most influential figures in independent (non-state-sponsored) Kazakhstani literature of the 21st century. It addresses child prostitution and poverty in an unnamed modern city, though with a dash of pure optimism, and it’s one of my personal favorites from this future anthology.

Zaure Batayeva on Author Olga Mark

Olga Borisovna Markova (Olga Mark) should be remembered both for her writings, which explored issues none of her Kazakhstani peers would dare to mention, and for her role as literary mentor and organizer, her ability to galvanize so many young people in the chaos of post-Soviet Kazakhstan, while being bound to a wheelchair at home.

In 1993, Olga founded the first independent arts and literary journal in Kazakhstan: Appolinarii. She ran the journal, and the many events organized under its umbrella, with a group of volunteers from her 3-room apartment in Almaty. A few years later, she managed to obtain funding for the journal and its many related activities, not from the state but from private donors, including the Dutch humanitarian HIVOS organization.

Moreover, in the early 2000s she founded a writers’ workshop, which nurtured a new wave of independent Kazakhstani writers: poets such as Marat Issenov, Aigerim Tazhi, and Erbol Zhumagul and fiction writers such as Lilya Kalaus and Ilya Odegov. As Maks Velichko, another writer who benefitted from this workshop, put it: “Olga Borisovna created something that was beyond the power of the powerful Ministry of Culture of Kazakhstan—a new literary wave.”

What Olga was able to do as a mentor and organizer was to provide conditions in which independent artists could learn, work, and create, despite being deliberately and systematically ignored by the state—a Soviet method that has prevailed until today. Olga’s achievements in this regard thus stand as a rare feat in the history of Kazakhstani literature.

Olga Mark with her students (2002) and colleagues at a book exhibit (2003). Photo credits: Aigerim Tazhi and Alexei Shvabauer.

P.S. 1
Here is one of Olga’s last interviews in which she spoke about the difference between independent writers and state-promoted writers (in other words, Soviet writers). The situation has not changed since Olga gave the interview: https://time.kz/news/archive/2008/06/25/5381

P.S. 2
I knew Olga personally because she was my teacher at Almaty State University. As a graduate student, I was honored to publish some of my badly written essays in Appolinarii and to attend various literary events that she and other teachers organized in her 3-room apartment.

The Lighter

A Story by Olga Mark, translated by Shelley Fairweather-Vega

“Kind people, have compassion for a poor orphan!” The girlish voice rang out through the bus and beat against the windows, as if to flee the stuffy air and escape outside.

When this voice suddenly intruded into their pre-holiday routine, demanding enough as it was, the passengers gave a start. Some glared at her with annoyance, this petite figure wrapped in a warm coat that wasn’t terrible looking, but most had a favorable enough reaction to both the voice and its owner, and wrinkled bills dropped generously into the thin palm of her hand.

Verka was happy. She smiled at everyone who gave her money, knowing her pretty little face would move people to kindness, and increase the size of their donations.

“Where are your parents?” asked a middle-aged woman, concerned.

“We’re refugees,” Verka answered cheerfully. “From Chechnya.” Then she added, just in case, “There’s a war there.”

The woman shook her head regretfully while Verka headed for the exit. The tribute had been collected and it was time to move on.

Humming something and skipping as she went, filled with joy, Verka walked between the new, tall apartment buildings in the fanciest part of the city. It was dangerous to work for a living here, too many cops and alert citizens, but Verka liked to take risks. She stopped near one doorway, examined it closely, rejected it and moved to the next. She walked inside that door and waited. To make things more fun, Verka took a half-eaten hot dog from her pocket. She chewed off tiny bites, not in a hurry—her belly was full—and like an actress before her entrance, she went over her lines. After about ten minutes a man walked through the door. Clutching the rest of the hot dog in one hand, Verka hurried over to meet him.

“Want a Lolita, a nymphette, a juvenilette?” Verka sang the words, opened her coat, and quick as a bat blocked the way to the stairs. She wore nothing other than that coat. Her pointed little breasts poked out threateningly, the dark nipples contracted maybe with cold, maybe with arousal. A flat stomach and blond puffy triangle below, the strong thighs and angular knees of a creature half girl, half woman… Frightened, the man took a step back, away from the glow of the bare young body. Verka advanced. Her whisper rang out loud, now beseeching, now commanding, fast, rapid-fire, over and over.

“Have compassion for a poor orphan, uncle! I’m a pretty girl, a good girl, you’ve never seen anyone like me, you’ve never had anyone like me…”

The man was retreating to the exit, but then he stepped forward abruptly, grabbed Verka by the shoulder, and shoved her out the door.

“Little wretch!”

Verka flew outside and fell, almost knocking a woman who was walking in off her feet. The woman stopped, distraught, staring at the naked Verka spread-eagle on her coat.

“He raped me!” Verka said, speaking very clearly and staring right at the woman. “He took my clothes! Me, an orphan!” The picture of despair, she covered her face in her hands.

The man ran outside and Verka, catching a glimpse of the look on the distraught woman’s face, shouted “Help!” Then she jumped up and dashed off between the buildings.

She stopped to catch her breath a couple blocks away. Shaking with laughter, she spent a long time resting near one of the young trees they had planted two years ago. Verka took the souvenir bottle of vodka from her pocket, the one she had fallen in love with for its beauty and miniature size and bought that morning at the bus stop kiosk. She opened it and took a gulp. Then she walked off to another building, dancing along the way, in no hurry at all, pretending to be Laime Vaikule on the TV. The doors here had locks controlled by keypads. She waited until a kid was going inside, hopped in after him, and stood there waiting again.

A man appeared almost at once. Opening her coat, Verka went to meet him.

“Want a Lolita, a nymphette, a juvenilette?” The man stopped, and looked her slowly up and down.

“How old are you?”

“Eleven!” Verka said cheerfully.

“You’re lying,” the man said.

“Fourteen,” Verka corrected herself. “I don’t remember, Uncle. We’re refugees from Tajikistan. There’s a war there.”

“Where’d you learn to talk like that then, Lolita from Tajikistan?”

“I’m really smart,” said Verka, coming closer to the man. “I read books, watch movies, play the guitar. You’ve never even dreamed of someone like me.”

The man examined her closely again, reminding her of a doctor at a checkup.

“All right, let’s go to my place,” said the man.

“No, Uncle, I’m not stupid. Here, please. I won’t go to your place.”

The man hesitated for a second, then grabbed Verka and dragged her up the stairs to the first landing, where there was a small niche in the wall.

“Uncle!” Verka whimpered, “I’m just an orphan. What about a little money?”

“How much do you need?” asked the man. “Enough for ice cream?”

“A thousand.”

The man pulled out some money—Verka got a glimpse of the contents of his wallet—and thrust it at her. He fumbled around in his winter clothing and spent five minutes trying to find a comfortable position.

Verka waited patiently, and she earned the money she had gotten just as patiently and dispassionately, staring, aloof, out the foggy stairwell window. She felt in her pockets for the rest of the hot dog and started chewing.

“You could at least not eat,” said the man.

“I don’t waste food,” Verka snapped back.

“Now where will you go?” the man asked, when Verka was fastening her coat, in no hurry. She took two steps down and stopped to fix her hair.

“I’m not going anywhere until you pay me, Uncle.”

“What do you mean, until I pay you?” The man was angry. “I gave you a thousand!”

“A thousand of our stuff,” Verka said. “I meant a thousand dollars.”

The man swore. Verka froze for a second, then rolled her eyes theatrically, threw up her arms, and shouted so the whole building could hear her.

“Help, help! I’m a child being raped!”

The man rushed at her, but Verka was ready for that and she dodged, then dashed upstairs, banging on every apartment door as she went.

“Stop! Quiet down!” the man shouted at her from behind.

Verka turned and hissed at him.

“You give me my pay, you child rapist, or I’m going to the cops and that’s it!”

Somewhere a door slammed and they could hear voices. The man, his face pale, pulled out his wallet, took three hundred dollars from it, and threw the cash at Verka. One keen glance at the wallet told her there was nothing left inside it, so Verka picked up the money, pulled her coat closed, and ran downstairs, past all the worried “What happened?” and “Who screamed?”

Once she was far enough away, in the empty lot near the place they were building another tall building, Verka leaped high in the air, doing the victory dance of some unknown tribe. She finished her vodka and headed to the Ramstore to turn the useless green paper into good things she needed.

The city was muffled up in the early winter evening. The afternoon smog had settled in a poisonous cloud to fill the streets. Bent under the weight of several stuffed shopping bags, a green alien beast printed on each, Verka slowly made her way past the long concrete barricade walling off a construction site abandoned ten years back. Once they were planning to build a new department store here, the biggest one in the city, and they had even managed to put in a good solid foundation and build the first four floors.

Then times changed, there wasn’t enough money, the lot got overgrown first with weeds, then little trees. By now there were supermarkets all over the city housed in imported prefab structures. They grew before your eyes like houses made of cards. Nobody cared about an old Soviet behemoth of a project anymore. Verka walked, and to distract herself from her aching arms, which could barely lug the heavy load, she repeated the new words she had read for the first time today in the store, in ads and on products, on book covers and cassette cases. I-beam. Consulting services. Mortgages. She loved the mysterious combinations of sounds, which you could repeat and savor until, pretty soon, what you had heard or seen or read suddenly became clear and made sense… People laughed at her weird fixations, and the almost forbidden pleasure grew even more acute.

When she reached a break in the concrete wall Verka slipped the bags through first, then crawled through herself. She followed the well-beaten path to the unfinished building and knocked at the basement window. None of the upper stories had walls, just framework and barely a roof, but the basement and the storage cellars underground were finished. All they needed was to put some plywood in the holes for the windows and vents and the place was ready.

A cardboard shutter slid down fast and the shaggy head of a fifteen-year-old boy appeared in the window.

“Verka! Come on in. You cold?”

“Here!” Verka, proud, handed him the shopping bags one at a time. The guy oohed and aahed happily as he took each bag, trying to figure out what was inside, and Verka laughed.

When she had passed them all in Verka slipped through the window herself. The guy caught her and helped her down, then hurried to cover the window. They brought the bags into the next room, where it was hot from a burning cast-iron stove, and noisy. Five young teenagers had evidently been living there for a while. Blankets were spread in the corners, dishes sat on homemade tables cobbled together from boxes, and a dark boarded-up window was decorated with a curtain.

Verka was met with joyful shouts, and when she started laying out triumphantly the things she had bought, the joy turned to jubilation. They applauded the slightly bent sticks of sausage, rounds of Dutch cheese and pinwheels of smoked cheese, baklava and pastries, food in cans, bottles of vodka and Pepsi, candy, chocolate, mints and other treasures.

“How did you carry all that?” asked the strong, bony girl who was always sniffling. But Verka had caught her breath by then and waved her off. “No big deal.”

When everyone had eaten their fill and had plenty to drink, when they were waiting out the brief stupor of satiety, smoking with relish, and everyone was having a good time, Verka spun in circles in the middle of the room and told them about the events of her day. She acted out all the roles, mimicked the men’s voices and the women’s frightened faces, and told them how skillfully and smoothly she, Verka, had done it all.

Everyone was laughing, copying her words and gestures, and as she basked in their love and admiration, Verka felt happy.

“It was getting cold this afternoon,” the strong girl said suddenly. “Should we go spend the night at the orphanage?”

“Nah,” said the shaggy-haired boy, looking over the meager remains of their feast. “Let’s go tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow, tomorrow!” Verka cheered. They only showed up at the orphanage when things got really bad on the streets, or they needed to hide out and wait for some kind of trouble to pass. And the caretakers had long ago stopped paying attention to the older kids’ frequent disappearances. They were often gone for days on end in the summer, and sometimes in the winter too.

“I bought this, too,” said Verka, and she took a lighter from her pocket.

“So?” somebody asked her, giving her purchase an uninterested look. “It’s just a lighter.”

“It’s everlasting. It lasts forever.” Verka held the little red rectangle with rounded corners proudly above her head.

“Nothing lasts forever,” laughed the dark-skinned boy who looked like a Gypsy.

“This one does, this one does!” Verka chanted, and traced a finger lovingly over its smooth surface. “They told me it does!”

“You’re so lucky,” whispered the girl who always sat quietly in the corner, the youngest of them all. “You always have money and you know so many big fancy words.”

“That’s the way I am!” Verka crowed.

She spun across the room, one hand flicking the lighter, the other holding an open vodka bottle, and she was happy, the warm room felt good, the little flame flickered and went out, the kids around her were getting ready for bed but she wanted to go somewhere, do something, it didn’t matter where or what, as long as this drunken happiness could go on.

“Let’s go upstairs!” she called to them. “Let’s look at the city! It’s night, it’ll be great!”

“You’re wasted!” the shaggy-haired guy told her, getting under a blanket with one of the girls. “It’s cold out there. We’ll freeze.”

But Verka was already going up the rickety flight of stairs. She opened the door at the top and then up, up, up, to the last finished floor. The sharp, cold air seized her, she gasped in delight, and she pulled her coat closer around her.

Verka walked to the very edge. The city winked at her with dozens of bright windows, the holiday lights in the streets, the colored flashes of the ads. It was cold. At night nature forgot that this was a southern city. Verka took a hurried gulp of vodka. She flicked her lighter mechanically, as if adding one more small flame to the sparkling night, and she looked off into the distance. For her, the view from up above was always spellbinding. She looked for a long time over the city, sprawling in all directions, and then, frozen, she started to dance. Soon, laughing and yelping, spinning in circles, she had her head tossed back and her arms thrown out wide. When she stopped and went back to looking at the city, it seemed to her that the lights in the windows were being carried away, whirling unrestrained, into the measureless blackness of space. Everything was swimming, the headlights, the houses, the streets… The wayward planet was flying into the unknown, drawing after it the slim lobe of the moon, and the sun wherever it was hiding, and the fragile winter stars. Barely holding back, full speed ahead, Verka shouted at the lights smeared into thin, bright streaks.

“Kind people, have compassion for a poor orphan!”

Olga Mark (1963-2008) was a teacher, critic, and fiction writer. She published three works of fiction and a monograph on poetry. Olga wrote in Russian.

Shelley Fairweather-Vega is a professional translator from Russian and Uzbek and has translated fiction from all over the former Soviet Union. She holds degrees in international relations from Johns Hopkins University and in Russian, East European, and Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington. She is currently the president of the Northwest Translators and Interpreters Society and runs FairVega Russian Library Services. Co-editor, with Zaure Batayeva, of the work-in-progress Amanat: Recent Women’s Writing from Kazakhstan.

Zaure Batayeva is a journalist, translator, and fiction writer. Her articles and stories have been published in print and online. Zaure writes in Kazakh and Russian. Co-editor, with Shelley Fairweather-Vega, of the work-in-progress Amanat: Recent Women’s Writing from Kazakhstan.

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