Interview with Guzel Yakhina

In 2015 a new and far from typical star arrived on the Russian literary scene. Guzel Yakhina won multiple literary prizes for her debut novel Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes, including the Big Book Award and the Yasnaya Polyana Literary Prize. Yakhina was born in Kazan, Tatarstan (a semi-autonomous Russian republic) and her novel tells the story of a woman from a Tatar village in the 1930s sent into Siberian exile. Now English-speaking readers can look forward to being able to read this celebrated work as it is being translated by Lisa Hayden for Oneworld Publications.

At this year’s Moscow International Book Fair (Sept 7-11) Yakhina said the novel’s English version should be out in the latter part of 2018. She also spoke about the sources of the novel and its unique linguistic mix.

I asked Yakhina if the origins of the novel were purely historical or whether there wasn’t a more personal connection to the story.

“I heard the stories of my grandmother. She was sent to Siberia as a child. She was sent in 1930 as a seven-year old child and spent 16 years there,” she said. “After my grandmother died I was interested in this topic and it was a pity that I hadn’t asked her that much. It was just lost for me. So I began reading about it. And after I read a lot of material about it I decided to write something about it.”

According to Yakhina there are only two details from her grandmother’s actual life in the book. All other details and other events are from the lives of other people and other sources. “But I spent a lot of time reading other material, reading archives, reading memoirs, creating the base of the facts and events and feelings,” she added.

Another interesting feature of the book is that it wasn’t conceived as a novel at all.

“The book was first of all written as a screenplay. I was a student at the Moscow Film School and Zuleikha was my work at school and from this screenplay I developed the novel. The story has a cinematic structure. I tried to visualize as much as I could,” Yakhina said.

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What also distinguishes Zuleikha from your average Russian novel is the use of the Tatar language, something particularly significant in the first third of the book set in Tatarstan.

“Zuleikha lives mentally in a Tatar fairy tale. She speaks with God, she speaks with ghosts and she believes in fairy tales. On the way to her new life in Siberia Zuleikha’s vocabulary changes and the Tatar words disappear,” Yakhina said, adding that this section of the novel is rich with allusions to Tatar fairy tales.

“I used many Tatar words. There’s a glossary at the end of the book so you can look up the words but you don’t need to, because you can understand the Tatar words from their context. I just added these words to increase the atmosphere.”

Initially, she was worried that this mix of languages would be a problem for foreign translations of the novel but she says these concerns proved baseless as none of her translators have had any questions about this aspect of the book. “The problem has been some real details of life in the 1930s. I need to interpret some details of Soviet life that they don’t understand. There is a hero in the book, for example, that is a former prisoner, and he sings some prison songs. These details of his behavior I need to explain.”

Read more about Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes on its translator’s website here

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Categories: Interviews

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