Exploring Eurasian Literature and History: CASI/AUCA Workshop on the “Intersections of History and Literature in Central Asia”

“Intersections of History and Literature in Central Asia” was a three-day interactive workshop which invited experts on Central Asian literature. Research papers ranged from nineteenth century Bukhara to Zar-Zaman poetry; from Soviet-era Uzbek, Kazakh, Tajik and Uygur literature to discussions of Turan, postcolonial identity and post-Soviet punk shamanism.

The goal of the workshop was to gather a group of scholars working on the still under-studied field of Central Asian literature and to focus research on the intersections of history and literature in the region. It was held on 29-31 August 2014 at the Central Asian Studies Institute (CASI) of the American University of Central Asia (AUCA), Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.  It was organized by Svetlana Jacquesson and Christopher Baker of CASI, with a generous grant from USAID.  The organisers followed the SSRC workshop format (http://www.ssrc.org/programs/dpdf/) where all participants submit their papers a month prior to the workshop and read each other’s papers in advance to facilitate in-depth discussion.

All ten participating scholars have worked on the links between history and literature in the region for some time. While sometimes using similar approaches to the study of a particular writer or epoch, many scholars also found contrasts in the analysis of the same author. For example, Naomi Caffee (UCLA) and Chris Baker (Indiana University and CASI) both presented on the works of Kazakh writer Olzhas Suleimenov. But in words of James Pickett, the papers “presented his work as if it belonged to two very different writers.” The key to the difference was not only in the rich multiplicity of Suleimenov’s work but also in their differing focuses that ranged from a postcolonial perspective to the creation of ethnicity.

The workshop participants discussed several threads that their papers were engaged in: contextualization, colonialism and post-colonialism, and so on. Some questions were raised about the nature of research driven by identity studies and the importance of evaluating literary texts in literary or cultural theories within the given contexts of literary or artistic production.

The translation of poems, novels, and archival documents was another point of the discussion. The scarcity of available resources and the few English translations of Central Asian literature are a significant obstacle for foreign and local regional scholars who are not fluent in a given language. All of the workshop participants workshop were fluent in at least one Central Asian language and exchanged information on materials, ideas, rare books and proposals for further projects. All of the literary and archival translations used in the papers were done by the authors themselves, and some technical issues were also discussed.

In my opinion this workshop was successful because of the very strong papers that spoke to each other and shared approaches. One of the conclusions of the workshop was that processes and content of various Central Asian literatures have gone through similar historical developments, revealing comparable scholarly problems. The comparative dimension of the workshop was thus very valuable.

The Central Asian Studies Institute of AUCA proved to be an excellent host for the workshop in Bishkek and has created a new network of young scholars in this overlooked field.

Further details, program and abstracts are available at the CASI website: https://www.auca.kg/en/auca_events/1501/


  • Svetlana Jacquesson, PhD, Director, CASI, Head of the MA program in Central Asian Studies, AUCA;
  • Christopher Baker, Indiana University, Bloomington and CASI, AUCA



  • Naomi Caffee, UCLA
  • Christopher Fort, University of Michigan
  • Joshua Freeman, Harvard University
  • Samuel Hodgkin, University of Chicago
  • Diana T. Kudaibergenova, University of Cambridge
  • Gabriel McGuire, Nazarbayev University
  • James Pickett, Princeton University
  • Boram Shin, University of Cambridge
  • Jutta Wintermann, University of Cologne


Workshop Participants and Discussion Themes

Naomi Caffe’s work titled “History, Memory, and Postcolonial Identity in the Thaw-era Works of Olzhas Suleimenov” focused on the diversity of postcolonial writings of this Kazakh writer, who wrote in Russian. Naomi’s PhD project has also focused on Russophone literature across the Soviet Union. Not surprisingly, the paper featured the Us-Them dichotomization in Suleimenov’s work. With the in-depth literary analysis of Suleimenov’s poetry from the early 1960s (trademark texts like “Earth, bow to the Man” to series of poetic texts in “Argamaki”) Caffee brilliantly demonstrates how Suleimenov’s poetry “contributed to the birth of postcolonial literature worldwide.” The use of Suleimenov’s autobiographical poems and detailed biographical aspects of his trips to the U.S.A. and India blended along his political career as “Nevada-Semipalatinsk” anti-nuclear movement in Soviet Kazakhstan helped Caffee to contextualize Suleimenov’s own critique of Russian/Soviet domination and power.

While Caffe’s analysis on Suleimenov’s poetry is a must-read for students of post-colonial literature in Central Asia, Chris Baker’s take on Suleimenov in his paper titled “Ethnic Bricolage: Collecting Texts, and Power in the Historical Works of Olzhas Suleimenov” provides an excellent analysis of the processes of “ethnic writing” in the late Soviet period. In a complex and detailed study of Olzhas Suleimenov’s historical writings, e.g., his famous Az i Ya (1975), and The Book of Clay (1969), Baker constructs a very convincing argument. This is the process defined as ethnic bricolage – the desire of Suleimenov and other late Soviet Kazakh authors to collect, settle and organize their ethnic history in the form of written books, archives, encyclopedias and libraries, a desire that envisioned a coherent but constructed ethnic past. The historical works of Olzhas Suleimenov distorted and dissembled genealogies and vast geographical spaces even while he researched, wrote about, and re-imagined pasts.

Although both Caffee and Baker’s works seem to focus on two distinct developments of Suleimenov’s literary and literary-research careers, both papers contributed valuably to our knowledge of historical developments in late Soviet Kazakh literature. Using the example of Olzhas Suleimenov, his talent as a poetic writer and his context as a deeply embedded Soviet yet paradoxically indigenous Kazakhstani writer, both papers also enabled a wider Soviet historical contextualization. Baker’s in-depth analysis of Soviet cultural ordering and its building of coherent lineages and images should provide for a deeper theoretical and methodological development for further studies of Soviet and colonial literature. Caffee’s discussion on the internationalization of Suleimenov, his travels and authorial position as an anti-colonial writer opens futher research on Soviet modernization and developmental policies in the Third World.

The theme of history and historical appropriation of cultural or geographical symbols, and the process of fortifying historical images were discussed in two historical papers on Turan and Bukhara. Jutta Wintermann (University of Cologne) wrote a paper on “Iran and Turan from Myth to Modern Politics” which spurred much discussion, highlighting the need to publish more material on this key historical and cultural category. The discussion of the paper was facilitated by historians such as James Pickett (Princeton University, History) and specialists in inter-disciplinary approaches to cultural study and history like Boram Shin (Cambridge University, Slavonic Department specializing on Uzbek Soviet cultural production) and Samuel Hodgkin (University of Chicago, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations specializing on Persian language and literature). Particular attention was drawn to processes of the cultural and historical appropriations of specific time periods, famous historic figures, and heritages. The theme of appropriation (clearly distinguished in the analysis of Uyghur writers by Joshua Freeman), heritage construction (in the analysis of Chris Baker) and historical imagining (James Pickett’s piece on Bukhara), genealogical and historical contestation (in Kudaibergenova’s analysis of post-Soviet cultural production in Kazakhstan) formed a central thread of the papers and discussions.

James Pickett’s elaborate PhD dissertation chapter titled, “Bukhara Center/Centering Bukhara: the Reconstruction and Mythologization of Dar al-‘Ilm,” focused on the complex processes of the historical, geographical and physical construction of Bukhara’s centrality in the cultural and religious production in the region. Through the rich study of Persian-, Arabic-, and Turkic-language manuscripts, colonial Russian documents, and by examining geographical connection of Bukhara’s architecture and geography to Islamic sources and the Shahname (the Persian Epic of Kings), James argued convincingly on the mythologization that made Bukhara into an Islamic center in Central Asia.

Similar processes of myth-making and canonization processes were the focus of Joshua Freeman’s (Harvard University, Inner Asian and Altaic Studies Program) paper titled “Contested Canons: The Sino-Soviet Struggle for a Uyghur Poet’s Memory,” though focused on a specific historic cultural figure, namely Uyghur poet Lutpulla Mutelip. In this very rich contextualization of the Sino-Soviet diplomatic struggles that have influenced the development of Uyghur literary and cultural production Soviet Kazakhstan and Chinese Xinjiang, Freeman highlighted the ever-changing processes of canonization and of the erasing of the Uyghur poet Lutpulla Mutelip’s symbol. Freeman argued that the cross-border has dominated the process of the poet’s canonization as a historical and static cultural symbol contingent on the political situation surrounding the Uyghur intellectual community in the Soviet Union and in China. Joshua’s paper was notable for its in-depth analysis of Uyghur literature that he has translated himself and by his expert usage of Uyghur and Soviet archival documents on the matter. The discussion of the paper also focused on the peculiarity of trans-border identity formation among minorities (point taken by Pickett and Kudaibergenova).

The Sovietisation of national identity and patriotism was at the heart of Boram Shin’s paper (University of Cambridge). Boram has meticulously studied the construction of Soviet Uzbek identity during the Stalinist period (it is the focus of her Ph.D. dissertation) for some years and works with the voluminous data based on her archival research in Uzbekistan. This extensive research is clearly evident in her paper on “The Red Army Learning to Speak the Languages of the Others Within: Red Army Propaganda for Uzbek Soldiers and Localised Soviet Internationalism during World War II.” Her close reading of the processes of Soviet patriotism construction among Uzbek soldiers and cultural elites, which coincided with Soviet efforts to construct Uzbek identity, offered an excellent discussion on the intersection of war and identity formation. The audience appreciated Boram’s own translation of Uzbek-Soviet poems and the rich analysis of poetic and archival data presented in the paper.

Sam Hodgkin’s (University of Chicago) paper “Revolutionary Springtimes: Reading Soviet Tajik Poetry, from Ghazal to Lyric” discussed in detail a similar Stalinist approach to the “literary-critical discourse” of Sovietizing old genres and forms of cultural production – in this case of the Tajik ghazal (a Persian poetic form of fourteen couplets) Sam has called for the close consideration of form and genre and its evolution under the Soviet paradigm of socialist cultural production. Sam’s deep knowledge of genre and the content of these works piqued the audience’s desire to hear more about it, as Chris Baker noted. Joshua Freeman and Christopher Fort called for closer attention to similar processes of folklorization of literature and writers; in Chris Fort’s words “when writers turn into sole archetypes we really lose the writers and their contextualization and personalization behind their figures or cultural symbols used by the [Soviet] propaganda.” James Pickett drew attention to the peculiarity of Tajik folklorization of forms and writers; he also called for the consideration of the fact that what was being altered here were centuries long traditions in Tajik/Persian literature . Gabriel McGuire addressed a question that was much discussed: “How did soviet modernization transform [local] literature?” Further discussions of Sovietised projects of homogenizing forms, contents and frameworks in literary developments across Central Asia, Soviet projects of modernization and the role local writers have played themselves in these transformative processes were discussed in detail during Day 2.

Christopher Fort (University of Michigan) raised interesting points in regard to parricides and modernity. In his paper titled “The Universal and Particular of Central Asian Parricides” he used Freudian theory to discuss the works of Mahmudho’ja Behbudiy, Odil Yoqubov and Chingiz Aitmatov – all of whom have addressed the linkage between parricide and modernity. The paper was presented by Sam Hodgkin, who raised an interesting question “how do archetypes form and who shapes them?” The discussion evolved further facilitated around the concepts of modernity, Soviet modernity and the way local writers have perceived modernity at different times; what has happened to these concepts during the post-Soviet era was also discussed. Joshua Freeman called for “native language literary criticism” while Gabriel McGuire also focused discussion on family relations and family concept in Soviet literary and cultural production in general. The audience appreciated Forts’ use of theory; Naomi Caffee raised a question about parricide developing into a specific genre.

The two remaining papers have focused on the genealogy and conflict of generations in the development of forms, genres and content in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Gabriel McGuire) and post-Soviet literary and cultural reconsideration of the national authenticity (Diana T. Kudaibergenova) in Kazakhstan.

Gabriel McGuire’s (Nazarbayev University) paper “‘Like a River Wild in Floor’: Literary Genealogy and the Politics of Poetic Speech in Kazakh Literature” focused on the important consideration of poetic speech in the works of Zar-Zaman (19th century) and on the genealogical construction of these poets and bards (akyns) in Mukhtar Auezov’s seminal work Abay Zholy (Abay’s Path, 1954). Through close reading of the poems of different akyns like Shortanbai Qanaiuly, Dulat Babataniuly and Auezov’s rewriting and re-consideration of the different groups of akyns, Gabriel demonstrated the varying forms and contents of their poems. Great attention was given to the discussion of the Russian colonial context and to the ways Auezov has re-configured and re-imagined the genealogies of the literary tradition of Zar Zaman (Time of Sorrow) in his novel. The audience was very receptive to his ideas and appreciated the topic. The discussion also evolved around Abay Zholy and its structural content, including the role of genealogies and the importance of historic continuity addressed by Auezov.

As a participant of the workshop myself I sent one of my latest works on the reconfiguration and contestation of official and historical paradigms of linkages in post-Soviet Kazakhstani cultural production. The paper “Punk Shamanism, Revolt and Break Up of Traditional Linkage: The Waves of Cultural Awakening in Post-Soviet Kazakhstan” (Diana T. Kudaibergenova, University of Cambridge, Sociology) focused on shifts in the cultural and ideological perceptions of new and old generations of Kazakhstani artists and writers. The paper was envisioned as an analysis of forms and content of national imagining in late Soviet and post-Soviet period, on the one hand, and the ways in which various groups of independent or state-sponsored cultural elites were approaching this process of cultural transition before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, on the other hand. This was one of the first experiments to combine what Sam Hodgkin termed “oral histories” or simply semi-narrated interviews with the cultural elites (producers) and the new forms of cultural production (new visual forms of mass Kokpar games, artistic performances, online novels and artistic memories of perestroika) with the old content – linkages and semi-official historicism. The discussion of the paper evolved around the differences of geographical production and the affiliations of various art groups (e.g., Shymkent based Kyzyl Traktor), as well as on the importance of the visualization of these post-Soviet projects of national imagining and re-imagining.