Alisa Ganieva met with the Swarthmore college (USA) students who had read her Mountain and the Wall and prepared their questions regarding the novel. The international Music and Literature journal has published their conversation. «In our talk with Ganieva, we discussed, among other things, how The Mountain and the Wall both reflected the reality of Dagestan at the time of its composition and seemed to predict the surge in nationalism and fundamentalism worldwide that has ensued since its publication»
A CONVERSATION WITH ALISA GANIEVA
March 22, 2021
by José Vergara
“I WAS IMPASSIONED WITH A STRANGE DESIRE TO CATCH THIS REALITY BEFORE IT MELTS DOWN”
The novelist Alisa Ganieva, who is based in Moscow and writes in Russian, was born in Makhachkala, Dagestan. Her first novel, The Mountain and the Wall (2012), imagines what would happen to the Russian Muslim-majority provinces of the Caucasus, the region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, should the Russian state seal itself off from them with a wall. The wall, not mentioned in the original title (Prazdnichnaia gora, or Celebration Mountain), finds its counterpart in the mystical Mountain of Celebrations, which is meant as a symbolic space for the region’s reunification.
It is this tension between opposing forces, between competing symbols, between voices that propels the plot of the novel. Ganieva offers a perspective on the Caucasus that is derived from within. She harnesses Dostoevsky’s polyphonic art to “catch the shifting reality,” as she puts it in the following conversation, and to uncover the complexity of a region often reduced to stereotypes.
Her first two novels, The Mountain and the Wall and Bride and Groom (2015), were both translated into English by Carol Apollonio and published by Deep Vellum. A translation of her third novel, Offended Sensibilities (2018), is forthcoming in 2022 from the same team. Winner of the 2009 Debut prize for her first novella, Salam Dalgat!, and an alumna of the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, Ganieva has taught Creative Writing and Global Literature at Iowa’s Between the Lines summer program.
Last semester at Swarthmore College, I opted to make the best of our Zoomified existence by organizing a series of conversations with contemporary authors, including Ganieva, for my courses. My students developed questions after we finished reading their work, and then we held seventy-five-minute interviews during class. In our talk with Ganieva, we discussed, among other things, how The Mountain and the Wall both reflected the reality of Dagestan at the time of its composition and seemed to predict the surge in nationalism and fundamentalism worldwide that has ensued since its publication.
Jimin: I’m curious about the characters’ agency in the novel. Your protagonist, Shamil, appears to be nonchalant even when confronted by violent groups, but at the same time, he’s marked by this special hallucination of the Mountain of Celebrations—an idyllic space in the mountains of Dagestan—that only he and his friend witness. Why is Shamil, out of all the characters in the novel, able to undergo this experience?
Alisa Ganieva (AG): I always return to the idea that the main character of my novel is not Shamil, or any other human. Rather, it’s the region itself, the space of Dagestan as a whole, the Caucasus as a region, with all its voices, ethnic minorities, wine, and crowds—its multiplicity of perspectives. This is what makes up the main character of the book.
You mention that Shamil looks nonchalant. I think many of my characters seem too passive, maybe. They’re not as active as heroes used to be. They’re perceiving the catastrophe going on around them as if it’s normal. They’re not trying to resist it at first. This way of presenting my characters as groups, instead of as individuals, without their own complicated psychologies, was a conscious move on my part. That was the way I was trying to catch the shifting reality of the Caucasus.
Sarthak: On that note, how would you say your personal experiences in Dagestan and Moscow shaped your depiction of what Dagestan would be like without Russia?
AG: Maybe I should explain the background first. This region became part of Russia in 1864. In Russian literature, the canonical way to write about it was from a military perspective or an outsider’s point of view. If you take classical Russian novels by Lermontov, Tolstoy, and many other writers, they served there as officers, they were exiled to the Caucasus, and they perceived this region as something opposite to what they witnessed in Russia. It was a region where, for example, serfs and slavery didn’t exist, but at the same time, they perceived the mountaineers as savages. It was a colonial way of regarding this region. So, it was a romantic literature about some “exotic” place where the battle never ends. Strangely, this perspective survived and was maintained throughout the twentieth century, and even after the Soviet Union’s collapse, especially when the war in Chechnya ensued. Contemporary Russian writers who served there in the 1990s also shared their stories and novels with this traditional perspective on the Caucasus.
When I started writing—only ten years ago—my debut piece of fiction, Salam, Dalgat!, provided an insider’s perspective, how the Caucasus are seen from the inside. All the troubles and tension notwithstanding, Dalgat, the hero of my novella, doesn’t see any war around. His is an everyday life with weddings and discussions and gossip and people meeting each other and making friends and partying in restaurants. But at the same time, something is always in the air, something is about to happen. It’s always very politically intense; every dialogue, every discussion is about religion or politics. Not on purpose, but it comes up naturally, because this is a geopolitically intense region, the southern tip of Russia with lots of ethnic minorities, Muslim populations with clashing clans and mentalities, and also the younger generation, which is in search of its identity.
Sarthak: And Shamil, with his passiveness, represents this generation?
AG: Yes, Shamil is one of these young people who has a very blurred sense of identity. He regards himself as a Dagestani, but he doesn’t know what that means. This is a problem of many people in Russia, but especially in the Caucasus after seventy years of Soviet erosion of historical memory. People were forced to forget their ancestors and rewrite their family history, take another last name, because of the ideology. You had to be from the working class or the peasant class; otherwise, if you had some clergyman or aristocracy among your friends or family, then you wouldn’t have any career or you might be persecuted or imprisoned. People were hiding their roots. There were so many resettlements. The whole population was put into wagons, onto trains, and deported to barren lands in Central Asia, and they had to survive there. It also crippled any sense among young people of who we are, because after the Soviet Union collapsed, they began re-finding their roots and many found them in what turned out to be a superficial version of religion. They’re trying to eliminate the Soviet lifestyle, but they’re not truly Dagestani either. They’re trying to be Arabs or, I don’t know, general Muslims, and they are, as you see from the novel, rooting for the erasure of any ethnic identity.
Shamil is just one of the pieces of history that is swept around. Sometimes there’s an illusion that he doesn’t have any will at all. He’s just drifting. He comes across different strange things, including this mountain, but he can’t feel what it really means. He’s given this miracle of revelation, but he doesn’t contemplate it much, so it’s up to readers to derive some conclusions, to ruminate on these symbols, because my character himself doesn’t do it. He’s too passive. He’s just an instrument in the author’s hands.
Nick: Much of the novel’s structure seems to be based on an idea of lineage. Whether in discussions of their familial backgrounds, geographical origins, or the more general history of Dagestan, the characters in your novel make sense of their current situation from myriad sources from the past.
AG: Right, the Mountain of Celebration is the symbol of this disappeared culture—archaic, traditional culture—which is still alive in elderly women’s stories, for example, or in poems, in folklore, in verses, in humor, in some glitters and glimpses of the lost reality. People are abandoning their villages for planes, for towns, for an urban lifestyle. Everything is mingling, and the reality itself is so shifty that I felt a sense of duty to catch this reality. I was impassioned with a strange desire to catch this reality before it melts down, to seize the changing time itself.
“Tarkv Urbs Tartaroum in Dagestan ad mare Caspium.” An engraved folded birds-eye view of the city of Tarki in Dagestan, Russia on the Caspian Sea (1663) by Adam Olearius.
Grace: Your book was the first Dagestani novel translated into English, and you are, for better or worse, closely linked to the region through your writing. How do you feel about critics’ tendency to describe you in such terms?
AG: The more you write, the stronger your literary reputation is. You are attributed to a certain shelf or a box. You are labeled, you are earmarked by critics, and you are perceived as belonging to a certain compartment of literature. I was expected to raise certain problems or to write in a certain style, because I was perceived as this new author who is revealing terra incognita, which is part of Russia, technically, but which has completely different passions and ways of life and mentalities. The language spoken there is also Russian, one of the versions of Russian; it’s sort of a pidgin language. I also work with this language … thing, clashing my narrator’s neutral language with local expressions and phrases in Turkish languages, in Arabic, in Persian, and, of course, in Dagestani languages. There are more than thirty languages there, so this is a melting pot of stories and delusions.
Grace: The linguistic diversity in the region and how you introduce it into your work is fascinating on many levels. Given that we’re reading this text in translation, I was wondering how you approach the prospect or the process of having your books translated, especially with this need to keep different languages and their influences present in some way.
AG: That was a really heroic deed on my translator’s [Carol Apollonio] part, because my novel was fraught with different words and terms that are, on the one hand, Russian, but on the other hand, sometimes they have a different local meaning, or they are slang expressions, and sometimes they just belong to another language.
In the original, I had to use footnotes to explain what something means from time to time, but the English translation inevitably has many more footnotes, because there are two thresholds you have to pass. I know that sometimes it’s difficult for readers to surpass these precarious footnotes and that it takes time and patience, but at the same time, it’s like a journey into the ethnological jungle of a completely unknown world that turns out to be quite familiar.
Jinny: How do the topics of language and writing in the novel reinforce and strengthen Dagestani identity?
AG: You know, when I was writing the novel I thought that maybe the readership would be confined to people interested in the Caucasus specifically—people who lived there, or people who work in the field as linguists, or maybe journalists—but it turned out that the topics raised there are quite universal. The concepts of walls being built around us, of isolation and alienation between people and races, and of nationalism started to thrive right after this novel came out in Russian. There was Brexit; there was Trump’s election. There were so many things. The immigration crisis in Europe. Real walls started to be built. That was so bizarre to witness, especially when the so-called Islamic State was created. In my novel, I was just thinking about this virtual state being erected and the Caucasus being a part of it. It’s interesting to me how local things turn out to be universal, and language barriers turn out to not be as insurmountable as they seem.
We switched the title, by the way, because the Russian title sounds like “festival mountain” or “mountain of celebrations.” The English title presents the contents of the novel more clearly than “The Mountain of Celebrations,” which is quite a blurry title. By the way, the German title sounds like “The Russian Wall.” They experienced the Berlin Wall, of course—another overlap of local contexts.
Elizabeth: Returning to the characters, was there anything specific you were trying to convey about gender roles?
AG: For several months after the publication of Salam, Dalgat! there was a literary hoax going on, because people thought it was written by a man from Dagestan. My true identity was revealed only during the awarding ceremony [of the Debut Prize], so it sparked a discussion about the way we distinguish between female literary style and male style. There were experts saying it’s possible, and they argued that women use adjectives and are more attentive to details and to relationships, and men are more concise, and their style is more dynamic than ascetic. So, my fiction, from their point of view, is very male. It’s dynamic; there is almost no love theme. As if I wanted to play with this preconception and prejudice, I dedicated my second novel, Bride and Groom, exactly to “female” matters such as marriage and weddings. Even the title sounds soppy and even banal, maybe, as if it’s some pop fiction, but it has been done on purpose. There, I take two perspectives, and each chapter alternates. The first one is from the woman’s point of view. The second is in the third person, but the main character is the groom.
The Mountain and the Wall is much more “male” in this sense. I give more space to male characters, especially when it’s linked to political matters, to the future of the region, to the wall that is being built (or not being built). Relationships and family are in the background of my narrative. It’s a reflection of what’s really seen in the republic. There are many spaces and zones and pieces of reality that are tabooed for women. I can’t present some conversations without them being held only by men, and that was the restriction that was put on me by life itself. The reality, the history that is done only by men as if we’re living in a patriarchal society a hundred years ago, that was something that was going on in Dagestan when I was writing that novel. That was in some respect a return to the Middle Ages for me, because it was a big gap between this newfangled Muslim, patriarchal lifestyle and what used to be the Dagestani lifestyle. Of course, it was traditional and archaic, but a woman’s place was much bigger. There were still some remnants of a matriarchal worldview. Land, for example, the most precious property for mountaineers, was inherited only by daughters according to Dagestani oral laws. These laws are always more powerful than Russian laws or Sharia law, which hasn’t been in place in Dagestan except for the short period of the war between Russia and the Caucasus in the nineteenth century. This substitution of true, authentic memory by this false memory, an imposed memory of Saudi Arabia, is a phenomenon that I found very interesting from an artistic point of view, because it presented a coexistence of so many layers, so many time zones, on one page. In one family you see people living in different centuries.
Quite often, the older generation—those who are in their forties or fifties—are more progressive than those who are in their twenties. Maybe it depends on the environment they grew up in, when all the social institutions were falling apart, when their education system was deteriorating, and it influenced their ability to be impressed by radical ideas.
Ben: Madina seems to me a perfect case study of this trend. She’s almost a Job-like figure in that, despite what her faith costs her, whether it’s her fiancé or a more peaceful Dagestan, she retains this extreme faith in the radical interpretation of Islam featured in your novel.
AG: I think that’s one of the faces and features of bigotry and fanaticism, the devotion to just one idea and an inability to see alternative ideas. This zealotry may be impressive, but it’s a primitive way of existence. It also provokes intolerance in people if they are sure that they are leading the only right way of life. Then all the others are sinners and so on. So, this shift of a normal girl, so to say, into a machine of ideological phrases and slogans is a rather interesting thing. In the case of Madina, I was trying to talk about this strange shift in women’s roles in Dagestan, from a bigger position to a passive one. The conflict in families between a girl wanting to wear hijab and her mother being against it, on the one hand, or else one wanting to lead a more open way of life, drinking wine with her peers and sitting at a table with men and being freer with her life, on the other, is a ubiquitous thing.
What is driving these young women? Why do they want to be in the shadows of men? Why are they abandoning their rights and powers they had, that their mothers still used to have? Maybe this is the way that the generational gap is being solved in Dagestan. The younger generation always has to fight to find its own place in the world. If their parents are traitors of religion, as they put it, then they have to be true defenders of religion. It’s a simple formula.
Madina and Asya, the other major female character, are these two typical figures. Asya can’t find her place in this turmoil of forces and ideologies, because she’s not traditional enough, she’s not religious enough, but at the same time, she’s not torn from this society. She’s inside it, and she has to play by its rules. It’s a “semi” position. Women, in this respect, are much more vulnerable than men. Of course, both genders are very much restricted by local traditions, by matrimonial traditions as well, but girls face many more taboos, as I’ve mentioned. If you see a smoking woman, this would be a big scandal, and her reputation would be in tatters. There are so many things that are changing, that are taking women’s rights away, and women themselves are giving them away willfully. This is the process of self-enchantment, I think, self-brainwashing. This desire to belong to somebody. Madina decided to be someone’s property. That was her idea, but at the same time, the way they present this reality, it sounds like giving women more power and more rights. It’s a contradictory thing. If you listen to their words, Madina’s and her peers, you can think that they’re living in some sort of paradise, that all their desires are provided for, but in fact, they are also isolated from the world by their male counterparts.
Annie: In the novel, substance is overcome by ideology: The Russian patriotic ideology and the subsidies that are supposed to be coming from the government don’t really do anything. The mujahideen don’t know Arabic. Posters that say to burn that’s everything written left to right are written left to right themselves. And the supposed Islamic authority can’t keep the city’s infrastructure running. The path forward seems to be presented in Shamil’s dream of the mountain—a return to tradition and unity. But the dream of the Mountain of Celebrations also lacks substance. This is hinted at by the mysterious stranger who knows Shamil’s name without being told, the stranger who says that a man may go up to a mountain, thinking there’s a village, but he will find nothing but ruins. And it’s also expounded in Makhmud Tagirovich’s utopian novel. What does this say about the possibility, or impossibility, of building substantive, durable institutions and forms of authority in Dagestan? Where can substance come from if not from Russia, from the past, or from ideology?
AG: This is an eternal discussion. It’s a complicated question because the Caucasus have always been the place where different empires vie for control. Turkish empires, the Ottomans were trying to conquer this place, and also Iran when it was bigger. Since earlier times, the seventeenth to eighteenth century, there was a whirlwind of battles, agreements, truces, and wars, but the local people didn’t feel it very strongly, because they were living in their mountain mazes. Sometimes they didn’t even know that part of Dagestan, for example, formerly belonged to Iran. Nothing changed in their everyday life because the leaders of these countries didn’t bother to delve into these faraway provinces and to deal with local lifestyle.
Everything changed in the nineteenth century with Russia’s involvement. There was a reaction. For twenty-five years, there was a very bloody war. Dagestan turned out to be a difficult region to incorporate into Russia. A deadly region. Maybe that was why it inspired so many writers. It was considered a patch of freedom where honor and all these romanticized, idealistic features, like dignity and self-respect, are truly implemented.
But, of course, reality is much more filthy than these lofty slogans. Afterwards, in Soviet times, Russia became a big experimental front with all these utopian ideas of collective, socialistic societies with no property, with everything becoming common; even wives and husbands were proclaimed to be common, and jealousy, for example, was claimed to be some outlived remnant of the bourgeois. The reality consisted of resettlements, dispossessions, Stalin’s gulag camps.
This identity of being Avar or Lak—local ethnicities—it really was erased. Nowadays, all these languages are disappearing. People are forgetting their local traditions and their law and their literatures. Everything is unified and globalized, and it started in Soviet times under the very powerful slogan of the “Friendship of Nations.” Under this slogan of liberation, mountaineers have been resettled from their own mountains with centuries of culture, maybe primitive from certain points of view, but rather developed from other points of view.
In any empire that is collapsing there are always moments of civil war and hatred and people drifting apart, and it was all happening in the former Soviet Union. Suddenly, people from the Caucasus were labeled aliens, pariahs, strangers who aren’t welcome in Moscow, for example. If you came to Moscow without a ticket back—you had to carry a ticket back to prove that you would be out of Moscow in a couple days—you were dragged to the police station, though you are a citizen of this country. So, it was a very discriminatory policy, but this policy was based on some facts like the war in Chechnya and Islamic missionaries coming from the Middle East and disseminating their propaganda there and some terrorist attacks. It was all mingling together.
Only five or seven years ago it started to subside, because Russia found a new enemy—Ukraine. They launched a war in 2014, and suddenly, the news propaganda shifted. It changed, and people from the Caucasus are now being presented as good fellows. Many tourists are coming from other Russian towns to Dagestan. Only ten years ago it was considered to be dangerous. They thought that some kind of war was going on in Dagestan, that people are killed there and put into slavery. But the preconception against the region has changed so rapidly. Everything changes depending on presentation in media. People tend to forget their old prejudices very easily, internalizing new ones.
Chris: How “realistic” do you consider your wall? Is it more important to analyze the wall’s symbolism instead of the purpose of its construction or its real-world parallels?
AG: Of course there have been many voices saying that it would be more profitable to cut the Caucasus off, so this scenario of isolation was actually discussed by different fringe groups beginning with white supremacists and ending with liberals who were saying, “Give the Caucasus freedom!” The truth is that Dagestan was never truly independent. It always consisted of different feudal princedoms or of free alliances, proto-democratic minor states, like ancient Greek states, each with their own laws. They even had changes in power every few years so they were quite progressive states sometimes, but in an archaic way. And, of course, they can’t coexist with the modern state of affairs. We can’t turn back the machine of time, so it’s impossible to regain that state of innocence. This identity is now partially secular Russian, partly Arabic-style Muslim, and there is this thin layer of local authenticity, mostly linked to culture like dancing and cuisine and sense of humor.
There are certain reasons why writers write dystopias, I think. One of the reasons is to enchant the future. When you are making some scenario real in your fictional world, then it might not happen in the real world. It must be this sort of magic game I was trying to play. I was proclaiming in this novel that if a secular state goes away, the so-called Islamic State can come. That was a very realistic option, unfortunately.
Many teenagers with passionate worldviews were easily brainwashed by the propagators of this conception of “returning to our ancestors.” “Let’s return to the Prophet’s lifestyle. Let’s abstain from this filthy, corrupted state, and then we’ll achieve paradise on earth.” But you can’t abide by Sharia law if you’re living in a secular state with a secular constitution. The only solution would be independence with strict Islamic rule. It’s very good on paper, in the imagination, but in fact, we saw how it all went in Syria.
Chris: Perhaps a kind of counterpoint to this isolation and the drive toward uniformity can be seen in the way your novel also incorporates several excerpts from made-up literary works within the main storyline, which both complicate and deepen the historical record. What did you aim to achieve through this multiplicity of voices?
AG: I couldn’t really present Dagestan in just one way, just one style, or in one voice. This is a part of the general polyphony of the novel. My fiction looks even cacophonous, not only polyphonic, because I perceive the world as a patchwork and juxtaposition of different voices and attitudes and standpoints. For me, nothing is complete or absolutely undeniable except certain scientific facts, of course, and laws, as well as moral taboos inbuilt in us. You need to cross-check and look from other corners. That was something I was trying to do when presenting Makhmud Tagirovich’s poems or the Soviet novel that my character reads. Every character may write in his own way, and that is why sometimes I present characters whom I don’t agree with; I present excerpts from Islamic newspapers, for example, to show the realities surrounding my characters and to introduce these different voices I needed.
Here, there’s also a source of humor. I’m trying not to make my novel a tragic, gloomy, catastrophic narrative. In Dagestan, in this non-harmonic society—where tradition, modernity, fundamentalism, superstition, obscurity, and a pursuit of fashion are all mixed up along with a sense of humor, both lofty and vulgar—they often coexist on the same plate.
Liam: One of the more striking elements of the book, amidst the polyphony and chaos, are the symmetries in language and situations that repeat. For example, the line, “At last the room fell silent and everyone looked at the bald chairman, who stood with his plump fingers pressed firmly onto the polished tabletop,” repeats twice. Once, it refers to a man at the newspaper office (Sharapudin Muradovich), the other to a character (Gadzhi Muradovich) in the Socialist Realist novel that Shamil picks up by chance. What does it mean that this quote is repeated in two separate contexts? What does it say about history or the relationship between fiction and real life?
AG: It’s brilliant to notice this symmetry. I think it’s all about the repetitiveness of the world and about the dreamy nature of the reality they are living in. Though my novel is realistic, at the same time it has some postmodern features. We have this Mountain of Celebrations, which may be a dream or hallucination, or it may be a reality. And the ending of the novel, where on the one hand, everybody dies, but on the other, everybody meets somewhere in heaven on this Mountain of Celebrations. When we see this repeating phrase, if we notice this phrase, then maybe we’ll think about the unreality of some of these passages or scenes. Maybe some of them were just dreams or illusions, or maybe the reality is a third person’s dream, and it’s repeating itself. So it’s a postmodern game, and it’s also about the absurdity of our reality. Maybe it’s a reflection of the way we exist. We’re always moving in a circle in historical terms, especially in Russia, where sometimes we repeat our historical mistakes and find ourselves in the same place we used to be a hundred years ago. This is just a symbol of this spiral or a metaphor for the uncertainty of reality.
I always write about something contemporary, but contemporariness is something very unstable. News, fashion, slang, urban landscapes, political situation—everything changes so rapidly, turning any of its extra naturalistic descriptions into a historic account. So, one may say that here lies a big danger for any art that strives to stay sophisticated and advanced, and any good literature that survives always aims at the future, but at the same time, it doesn’t prevent a classic novel from being very connected to its own time, its own jokes, and its own disputes.
When I was talking about the shifting reality I was trying to catch and conserve in my novel, I also meant that the first ten or fifteen years of the twenty-first century happen to be a turning point for Dagestan, when the last generation of its authentic, archaic culture passed away. This left the field open for a new generation of new Muslims with their globalized agenda, values, and tastes, substituting the former image of the place with a totally new one. This rapid destruction, this extinction, this disappearance, combined with the rapid construction and emergence of something new, gave me such a turbulent reality that I couldn’t help but plunge into it as a writer. I think it’s a hodgepodge where you can see the wreckage of the irreversible past together with sparkles of something absolutely unprecedented.
Alisa Ganieva grew up in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan. Her literary debut, the novella Salaam, Dalgat!, published under a male pseudonym, won the prestigious Debut Prize in 2009, and Ganieva revealed her true identity only at the award ceremony. Ganieva works as a journalist and literary critic. Her subsequent novels have been shortlisted for all three of Russia’s major literary awards, and translated into several languages.
José Vergara is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Russian at Swarthmore College. He’ll be joining the Bryn Mawr College Russian Department in the fall as Assistant Professor, and his first book, All Future Plunges to the Past: James Joyce in Russian Literature is forthcoming from Cornell University Press (NIU Series in Slavic East European and Eurasian Studies).
Student participants: Sarthak Harjai, Elizabeth Hohn, Jimin Lee, Benjamin Rosenzweig, Grace Sewell, Nick Urick, Jinny Yoon, Annie Zhang, and Chris Haochen Zhao.