Three layers of fleece under my Po Po’s silver fur, ungainly sporty mittens and a Pepto-Bismol pink yoga mat strung cross-bow style across my back, I interfaced with the guards at the American Consulate. I tried to avoid locking eyes with the Consul General on the elevator, en route to a security briefing.
Discovered: Almaty is “long overdue” for a “catastrophic” earthquake.
That Kazakh and American advice about how to handle natural disaster may be linked to the structural particularities of the buildings is subject for another discussion, and one which could connect to hybridity – more questions, friends, that seem only to be, er, accumulating like so much snowfall.
At the (brief) de-brief, I met Maria Blackwood, another Fulbrighter doing dissertation research in the Archives. Over coffee in the glittering new mall near ul. Dostyk, where lithe leather-panted Italians engaged in interrogations equal parts honey and hostility over an absence of Stevia, we kvetched about visa woes, Kazakh identity. Under the Soviets, ethnicity and nationality are essentially interchangeable.
I’d read about this in Kate Brown’s work; Marysia pointed me to Terry Martin’s A State of Nations: Empire and Nation Making in the Age of Lenin and Stalin.
How exactly can one support national consciousness without simultaneously encouraging nationalism? And how can one build a unitary state while encouraging potentially divisive substate identities…Nationalism will be disarmed by granting forms of nationhood.
Later: The translation that best captures the meaning of Stalin’s nastional’naia kul’tura is not ‘national culture’ but ‘national identity’ or ‘symbolic ethnicity.’
Classify in order to de-deify. Multitudinous as collapsing into absence.
I’m still chewing (as one would on a particularly assertive thread of a lagman noodle) on the interchangeability of “nationality” and “ethnicity.”
I’m dissatisfied. Yet t’s perhaps in the bleed, the shard, the little shadow between these two terms that my questions about ‘aesthetic responses’ to hybridity may be found.
Of interest, too: Kazakhstan no longer requires that nationality be listed on a passport, and, for me, “American” would never suffice as response to an inquiry about nationality. And where, in all of this, is race, and the accompanying notion of “passing”?
On my run today, along the frozen canals, towards mountains obscured, momentarily feeling virtuous (it’s -2! my eyelashes are bedazzled by tears!), I slid by the city workers in their bright orange emergency jackets and pants of shade I’ll call Kazakh Blue, spades in hand, chipping at the snow.
These employees, who I’ve also observed clearing sleet on ulitsa Furmanovna, adjacent to the MEGA, site of Ramstore, where well-coiffed Almatians stroll through boutiques proffering champagne and Cartier, are generally women my mother’s age.
I cannot generalize about ethnic differences and social mobility.
(Perverse, to fantasize about being more visibly different, as provocation for more an immediate response, a delineation of what it is I will narrate?)
The Soviet impulse to assign in order to trump assignation, to sub-divide as transcendence of affiliation.
But how does this play out now, in the Kazakhstan-on-the-verge? And is what I observe, document, as “legitimate” a form of reportage, or merely a pretender Princess a of accuracy, unlike Mariya’s scholarly work in the archives?
Such binaries are of no use to a hybrid, I suppose. I hope. But to insert the words [personal narrative] as disclaimer – laziness? In a hybrid text, which encourages collage, fragment, disassociation, borrowing, and in the impulse to produce, produce (as someone who ritualistically stirs honey into kefir each morning and allows just enough time for full enjoyment of the process), how much “background” is sufficient?
I think about those Who Am I? identifier vids shot during my teaching days, which I did with equal parts duty and dread. I believed my students, especially at the schools where lacrosse and lobbyist parents reigned, needed to see me as:
I am woman, wife, writer. I am then-wife, ex-wife, divorcee. I am Chinese, white, both. I am hula hooper, horticultulturalist, Hootie & the Blowfish apologist. As soon as I held my Sharpied placard up, I wanted to flee, to disavow.
The psychological fallout of self-labeling – as compared to external designation.
Maria mentioned that the Kazakh intellectual elites, at the genesis of the Soviet Union, tended to marry Russian wives, although their children identified as Kazakh.
And I wonder, as ever, about the question of beauty. even while concerned that this is a sufficiently high-brow pursuit, a trite lens through which to examine whether, within Kazakhstan’s ease with its multiculturalism, there nonetheless exists a latent, unexpressed (as of yet) hierarchy.
My gypsy-cab driver, beanie-wearing, goateed, pressed his number on me and refused my fare, saying that he is fluent in Chinese and Turkish, but needs to learn English.
My student, twenty-two, who whispered that I could “keep shoes at the department” rather than teach in my rugged lace-ups, works full time at the University as she pursues her Masters’ in Philology and cooks for her mother, father, and two younger brothers. I want to be very good at English, she writes under “Goals.”
The state language is Kazakh. The Russian language has the status of a language of interethnic communication.
And English has been variously described as the language of “business,” or a necessary precursor to elite (the definition of which is, too, in flux). And what of English’s desirability, near-fetishization itself as correspondent to the complications of hybridity. A sidestep. A rather in place of an or or and. What will these from-birth bi/tri-lingual brains produce as national literature?
An American friend claimed that the re-embrace of a strong Kazakh-ness was only kitsch.
My mother, Hong Kong-born, learned English at eighteen. Her (devastating) dismissal is: affected.
What is the legitimate language for a discourse on identity? Not legitimized, not sanctioned.
Even I spoon guacamole from smuggled avocados with the American historians, or unspooling the smoked Kazakh cheese strings with the NGO workers here in Almaty, there’s a uniform anticipatory self-consciousness to perceived skepticism, a fear of fraudulence: my project too amorphous.
“Oh, but I’m not an academic,” she says quickly, which, like any disclaimer, serves to reduce or divert expectations. But I am impatient with this tendency, just as I am with my writing students, and protestations that insulate the ego and evade creating a context by which failure can be evaluated.
Is poetry, “born slippy,” the wrong language? Or does a poem’s balance of ambiguity slash universality ideally situate it for this project?
I’m eager to learn more, and fighting the (In?) explicable Dread that arises from never enough, never enough: known, read, distilled. At least I have Elena Ferrante’s The Story of a New Name by bedside as the darkness comes early and the car outside my apartment begins its nightly start-up wheeze.
Of her fiancee, Pietro:…he knew how to connect texts that were very unlike one another and he quoted them as if he were looking at them, but without being pedantic, without pretension, as if it were the most natural thing between two people who were devoted to their studies. The more time I spent with him, the more I realized that he was really smart, smart in a way that I would never be, because where I was cautious only out of fear of making a mistake, he demonstrated a sort of easy inclination to deliberate thought, to assertions that were never rash.
Elena’s anxiety about being an impostor – of pedigree, pedagogy, etc. – has been explored ad nauseam. Her way “through” is an autobiographical novel. I am obsessed with her work, yet, I feel sheepish, like she beat me to it- like, relationships can be interesting too, “womanish” things, friendships, pizza, gossip. I think: well, my days are too fragmented to be the basis for nonfiction disguised as.
But perhaps that’s actually the source of her brilliance – the breathless, spontaneous, live quality of the prose, and the sense of coherence she imposes on a life experienced when there is nothing coherent about the internal/external, colliding in an hour.
To record the humdrum details: this white dog on white snow, this glittering column which houses the consulate, this guard who sneers at my Russian, this oooau sound, the Kazakh “what” or “huh” or “mmmk,” this building-in-raze, this beautiful couple pelvis-to-pelvis on a bench spiked with icicles, fifty feet from the Orthodox church, this holiday tableaux bordering on the grotesque, the palate of Nazarbayev images, everywhere, and the clumsily-taxidermied snow leopard in the basement of the Central Museum, this bottle of pomegranate juice, shaken, the particular pop of a can of condensed milk, emptied into tea, – to record as dutiful, a waste of time, a self-indulgent log?
Ferrante: I would always be afraid: afraid of saying the wrong thing, of using an exaggerated tone, of dressing unsuitably, of revealing petty feelings, of not having interesting thoughts.
Poet Cathy Linh Che and I exchanged emails regarding poetry & argument this summer. The collections that matter, to her, are united by a thesis. Certainly Split refuses to withhold a stance about the intersection of personal and political violence – and that elevates it to the extraordinary, as I say more about that in review of her collection, and work from Allison Benis White and Chloe Honum, in the forthcoming Birmingham Poetry Review.
I’ve been excited by Nelson and Rankine’s work not only because they explode media in a timely (and seemingly doable) way, but because of access. This but I’m not an academic shifts into tic, far more pronounced among those I categorize to be “real” academics But from what I remember about the conventions and idiosyncrasies of academic prose (I went a year, friends, dieting on inchoate, discourse, interested, problematize, and considered naming my cat “Hegemony” as a a way of remembering the syllabic emphasis), that the academy’s language is not any closer to clarity or accessibility than poetry. More opaque, exclusive, elitist.
Yet to marry stance and avoid proselytizing, and to insinuate the personal without a cataclysmic “event” – or to choose which “event” is sufficient for, well, discourse – a divorce? a move? a bottle of olive oil I spilled on my apartment steps, and babushkas banging on my door at 3am, threatening police action?
Marie Howe’s mantra: Poetry is saying something to someone else.
When I first learned I would move here, responses ranged from polite befuddlement to excitement. Travel: the assurance that “experience” in (Ka-ZA-ka-stan?) is sufficient for adventure, value, utility.
“Nobody knows enough about this place,” said another member of my Fulbright cohort, a family doc who has volunteered in Botswana and Sudan, now training Kazakh medical professionals, on the precipice of a transition that could mirror the US shift in health care following the Alma-Ata Declaration, in diagnosis.
His project as reflection of political hybridity and the Soviet hangover, itself deserving of a far more polished forum than this.
To be of use. It undermines the ambitions of the Fulbright program, and the legitimacy of Kazakhstan itself to reduce it to novelty, obscurity. Relative to what?
To move from abstraction to argument to access to appeal.
Kate Brown mentioned that, perhaps, her next book would take the form of a blog. The best blogs are aesthetic tango partners to the blurred-genre texts I love so much, because of their expansion of what constitutes a consumable, entertaining text – image, poem, anecdote – and acknowledge all options available for connecting with the reader – an act of love, humility.
Rather than the bullying palm-to-ruler of some academic texts – if you cannot understand this, then you are not only stupid but insufficiently dutiful – the equivalent of a canvassing for cod-liver oil, wheatgrass shots. If you know what’s good for you…
What is the hybrid text a reader, dear, deserves?
Now the Banya, and this ubiquitous ad.