Afag Masud – writer and playwright, honored art worker.

A member of Azerbaijan Writers’ Union, the chair of Republican Translation and Literary Correlations Centre, and the editor-in-chief of “Khazar” World Literature magazine.

Her works are translated into the Russian, English, French, German, Polish, Uzbek and Persian languages.

She is the author of the following books: “On the Second Floor” (1976) ”Saturday Night“ (1980), “Subbotniy Vecher” (Moscow 1984), “Transition” (1984), “Freedom” (1997), “Writing” (2005).

Also the plays named “Near death”, “He loves me”, “Getting to leave” has come from her pen.

She has translated into Azerbaijani “The Autumn of Patriarch” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez “The Web and the Rock” by Thomas Wolfe, the Sufi manuscripts belonging to M. Nasifi - “The Truth about being”, as well as “Alchemy of Happiness”, “O' Beloved Son”, “Revival of Islamic Knowledge” by Al-Ghazali and “Meccan illuminations” by Ibn Arabi etc.

A number of TV spectacles and television movies are based on her works such as “Sparrows”, “Banquet”, “Night”, and “Punishment”.

In 2001 a doctoral thesis dedicated to Afag Masud’s work was defended at the Viennese University. (S. Dohan “Women writers and the European Oriental studies”)

She is a winner of “Humay” National Academy Award.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Over Any Obstacle: A Conversation with Afaq Masud

Alison Mandaville, MFA, PhD, Visiting Fulbright Scholar in Literature from the United States met with Afaq Masud, PhD, in her Baku office on May 20, 2008 to find out more about this prominent Azerbaijani writer’s life, work and views on literature in Azerbaijan today. Aynura Humbatova, MA, assisted in translation.

Alison: Where were you born? Can you speak a little about your family and how you got started in literature and writing?

Afaq: I was born in Baku in 1957 into a literary family. My grandfather, Ali Valiyev was a famous writer of novels and short stories. My father was a scholar of literature. During school I read, of course, different works in world literature, but during the summers, to distract from the stuffy heat and idleness, I read everything good and bad—even books above my level. At that time a series titled A Library of World Literature came out in Moscow. I read the works of the authors such as W. Faulkner, J. Cortazar, and M. Maeterlinck, who were still unknown to Azerbaijani readers. To a certain degree, I am obliged to that library for my writing identity. Now, unfortunately, I have only time to read the most prominent published works.

When I was in the fourth grade, I wrote a short fairy-tale called “Why Does the Crow Caw?” But I didn’t really start writing seriously until my second year at University. In my second year I became deeply affected by the dull daily life of a venerable poet who lived in my neighborhood. He had a life completely incompatible with his craft of poetry— his whole life seemed gray. I recall his house was full of mundane things and the reigning atmosphere of that house was a kind of dead life, like the mechanism of a clock. Hasan Ami was performing his “poetry” as a duty. Every single day he would sit at his writing-table, as if he had come to an office, and write as automatically as a machine. All this evoked in me a strange heavy feeling. This perfunctory life of his had such an impact on me that, for a long time I was not able to get rid of that sense narrowness and desperate boredom. I felt that the life he lived, that his existence was literally suffocating me!

One day, in order to save myself from that stifling feeling, I sat down and transferred the boredom that had penetrated me onto paper—and rescued myself. I wrote my first short story called “Uncle Hasan.” I realized that in this way I could get over any obstacle. So, I became a writer. As time went by, the obstacles oppressing me grew; they got older and smarter along with me and didn’t let me quit writing.

Alison: What else have you written?
Afaq: In 1979 I wrote my first novel, “The Curse.” Since then I have written eight more novels, three plays, more than fifty short stories, and many essays. Today I am editor-in-chief of a translation journal, Khazar, making world literature available in Azerbaijani. I spend a great deal of time on this. It is not an easy task to acquaint Azerbaijani readers with World literature. First of all, we suffer from financial problems. Most of the translations we have to do by ourselves, as we cannot afford to pay for the work of an outside translator. Sometimes I also translate. During the last few years, I have translated and plan to publish Sufi manuscripts with explanatory notes. Some of my own work has been translated into German and English and published in the United States [short stories “The Sparrow” and “The Dormitory”] and Austria [The Genius.] A book of mine titled Subbotniy Vecher was published in Moscow.

Alison: With all these activities, do you still have time to write?
Afaq: Since my children were born and perhaps even before that I got used to doing everything so efficiently that I always have time to write. At home I can cook and write at the same time. I can even prepare our national dish “Plov” [a dish of specially cooked rice with meat and fruit sauce which usually takes two hours to prepare] in 20 minutes. It is amazing for most people.

Alison: What can you tell us about the story, “Crash”?
Afaq: If I am not mistaken, I wrote this story in 1987. It is about a woman who imagines her husband has been killed in a car crash and reorganizes her life in a night. A crash has really happened, but it is not a road accident as the hero of the short story thinks. It is a crash between the real life and the one in her imagination, in other words it is a psychological crash.

Alison: In the four years following your publication of this story, Azerbaijan gained independence from the Soviet Union. In the 18 years since independence what has changed?
Afaq: Of course, much is changed in society. Along with political and public fields, substantial changes have also occurred in people’s outlooks. As for me, to tell the truth, I don’t feel any changes—neither within myself, nor in my life. I come from a family that was anti-soviet. My father, Masud Alioglu, was a very free person and a passionate opponent to the Soviet Union. At the time (I mean during the 1960s) when the word “Turk” was strictly prohibited, we used to listen to Turkish folk songs and read works by Ataturk. My father imitated, with his own voice, the melodies heard in the movie “Moonlight Serenade” starring American jazz musician Glen Miller. He used his mouth in such a way that it seemed as if I was listening to a real orchestra. In short, the atmosphere at our house was always free. And the creator of that atmosphere and independence in the real sense of the word was my father.

Unlike my father, who was persecuted for his free nature, I was lucky enough to have the main period of my creativity fall in the 1980’s, on the eve of great public and political changes. But I have also been subjected to different pressures and oppositions. Because of the prohibition against expressing “the inadvisable,” such topics unsuitable for a woman writer were supposed to be passed on through allusions. But I was not able to write in a different way. For instance, in the short story Crash that you have translated, the first lines of the story have disturbed many people for years. Those lines were about the thoughts that passed through the mind of the main character, a woman who had waited for her husband all night long. The woman, who is terribly jealous of her husband in his absence, imagines that it is he who is raping yowling cats out in the yard. Now, let’s be honest. Aren’t there many nasty things that pass through our minds? Why are we so afraid of these being transferred to paper? For a long time I was worn out by the astonishment of the people who were shocked by those lines. They said, “How is it possible that one can think in this way about her husband, the father of her child?” or “Is such a thing possible?” But, of course, it was only my imagination in a story of fiction, the thoughts of the protagonist. I was so strongly criticized—as if I should censor even my thoughts.

As to the changes in the society, of course, right after the independence the situation was hard. You can imagine yourself: People that were deprived of the opportunity to think and live independently suddenly began to feel themselves free. All of a sudden everything changed. There was an inexplicable chaos. It was as I wrote my short story Dormitory. In this story a family tired of close life with nosy neighbors in a dense dormitory-style apartment complex moves to the countryside only to find out that they have lost their ability to live independently.

Today I am not concerned about the socio-political problems that our country has encountered. I am sure that in the near future Azerbaijan will gain a very high level in both political and economic fields. Today I am concerned about the horrible and inevitable processes of moral degradation spreading in our society, the loss of moral values and the lowered status of serious literature. Today serious literature is the only remedy able to cure sick society. And this is a worldwide problem.

Alison: Could the same story [“Crash”] still be written now? Is it still relevant? I teach a story on a similar theme by Kate Chopin that was written more than 100 years ago, “The Story of an Hour,” about a woman who feels tremendous freedom when she hears her husband has died, and when I ask my students if it still relates to women’s lives today, they have mixed answers.
Afaq: Many things have changed after independence, but for women, there wasn’t a great change. Little changes have taken place in women’s social lives. But nothing has changed on a large scale. After independence, as I already mentioned, some things did change for the better, but the family life and the relationship between family members is spoiled. While many things in public changed for the better, after independence it changed for the worse in family life. As life gets more and more materialistic, male-female relations, as well as the relationship between spouses have also moved into that destructive stage and the national-esthetic values are lost.

By the way, most people (mainly Europeans. who I have been interviewed by on this subject more than once) consider Azerbaijan a miserable “Eastern” country, where women are oppressed. Many foreign magazines present Azerbaijani women with the image of a hard- working mother, who is sometimes selling in a market, sometimes cooking “dushbara” [meat dumplings]. More than once I have tried to explain them: In our country women are not oppressed by anyone, the rights of the women are not breached. And thus was their situation even during the Soviet times. It is our approach to women.

I am always asked about the problems of Azerbaijani women. Of course, when talking about the “Azerbaijani woman,” first of all, the social class to which she belongs should be considered. As all over the world, in Azerbaijan there are working class women—saleswomen, sweepers, laundresses and other toilers among women. Of course, their life is hard in every way. But Azerbaijani women do not consist only of those poor people. We have another unlucky army of women, who belong to the wealthy. Their lives are dedicated to the race for fashion and jewelry. But these women are also not “characteristic” for Azerbaijan. For there is yet another class of women with healthy morality in Azerbaijan, who have gained their individual independence and who are confident of their own strength and ability. But their problems are not few either. These women are deprived of the opportunity to express themselves. Living in this society, there isn’t any clear, healthy situation for intellectual women. So we have different classes of women in Azerbaijan—housewives, businesswomen, creative women, women politicians etc. Independence did not make a great difference in the lives of these women.

Alison: Are your daughters interested in being writers?
Afaq: No [smiling]--they are both lawyers. My elder daughter decided to pursue the professional career of a lawyer. But my younger daughter doesn’t know yet what direction to choose.

Alison: What is the situation for young writers in Azerbaijan today?
Afaq: The number of the talented youth is not small. But what is disappointing about them is that they are interested only in getting famous. This concern is usually felt in the low level of their texts and it reduces the value of the work. The excessive and irrelevant use of vulgar words and pornography generally draws adverse reactions from their readers.

Another problem is connected to their Soviet-like approach to literature. The aspiring young writers of today should realize that their works are not going to be published with a great number of copies; there isn’t any ideological machinery supporting it anymore. They will write only for that small number of people who are able to understand and share their feelings, for changing something about those readers, maybe rescuing somebody from a desperate situation. And, in fact, that is how the Great Literature is created.

Alison: I have one or two young women students who want to be writers here. What advice would you give them?
Afaq: (Gestures helplessly towards the ceiling.) It all depends on the Gods. The freedom inside myself, independence inside myself helped me to be a writer. I believed in myself. Here and in Europe it is difficult for a woman to realize herself. A woman has a many-sided life—at the same time she is a mother, a wife, a daughter and an office worker. There is a great distance between family life and the life of a writer. It’s like being in an airplane during turbulence—up and down and up and down—nauseating. I have lived my whole life like that—nauseous. Not every body, especially women, have the ability or occasion to live this way. But I don’t feel sick from this turbulence anymore. Now I feel it as a normal state—I have gotten used to it. Also, now I have a woman who helps me at home—cooking and cleaning. But I always find housekeeping work to do. I peel potatoes or sweep, while writing something in my mind. And I feel strangely delighted with this double life. So, In fact I don’t advise anybody (I mean girls) to be a writer. It is not a woman’s craft. I think that only the woman who just cannot live without it should become a writer. If I hadn’t been a writer, I would have been destroyed. I live inside my computer!

You know, I had a play produced for the National Theater, “Yugh,” Near Death. The play is about an old civil servant, who is on his deathbed and a woman writer who comes to his house in order to interview him, intending also to use the opportunity to write about the scene of his death. Although the woman is awarded with the most prestigious award in the world, the Nobel prize, still her passion for writing won’t let her live in peace. This woman is my prototype.

Now, nobody in our Azerbaijani literary environment had even thought about wining that prize until the play was produced. It had not occurred to them. And yet, strangely, after this, many people began to talk about it, about the possibility. And I realized that I could deeply influence society with words. It is an indication of my victory as a writer.

Works Cited:
Chopin, Kate. “The Story of An Hour.” First published as “The Story of a Dream” in Vogue. December 6, 1894.
Heyat, Farideh. Azeri Women in Transition: Women in Soviet and Post-Soviet Azerbaijan. London and New York: Routledge Courzon, 2002.
Masud, Afaq. “The Sparrows.” Tr. Shouleh Vatanabadi. World Literature Today; Summer 1996, Vol. 70 Issue 3, p505-508.
———“The Dormitory.” Tr. Aynur Hajiyeva, Ed. Betty Blair. Azerbaijan International. Spring 2004, Vol. 12 Issue 1, p76-79.