Driven from his native Uzbekistan for his “unacceptably democratic tendencies,” the journalist, novelist, poet, and broadcaster Hamid Ismailov has emerged as a unique narrator of late-Soviet and post-Soviet life. His inventive books draw from the vicissitudes and absurdities of his own experiences, at home and in exile.
Now settled in London, he has worked for many years at the BBC Central Asia Service and as the Writer-in-Residence for the World Service. Though his works are banned in Uzbekistan, he has published dozens of books in Uzbek, Russian, French, German, Turkish, English and other languages. His novels have drawn comparisons to the great satires of Gogol and Platonov, as well as the multifarious sagas of postcolonial writers like Rushdie.
The Underground, published by Restless Books in December, is the story of a lonely child, Mbobo, adrift in Moscow as the empire unravels. Half African and half Siberian, he is an outcast who finds belonging only in the faceless darkness of the subway.
Tell me a bit about the place you were born and where you grew up.
From the very beginning my life was nomadic. I was conceived in the Fergana Valley but my mum decided to go visit her relatives in Kyrgyzstan. She gave birth to me there. We moved back and forth and finally back to Fergana Valley. My mother died when I was twelve years old so I moved to my granny’s house. All my life, I have been traveling. All my life, I have been nomadic. Funny enough, London has been the place I have lived the longest.
Did you—as a child in the far, far Eastern corner of the Soviet Union—have an image of Moscow?
Yes, for us, Moscow was the Kremlin. In our kindergarten we used to draw pictures of the Kremlin. But I was a lucky person, because my step-granddad used to work for a railway company and he used to travel. He was a cook in the restaurant coach. He used to travel across the Soviet Union. In 1962, when I was eight years old, he took me to Moscow. That’s when I realized that Moscow was more than just the Kremlin. It was a huge city with lots to see, including the Underground. I had the innocence of a provincial. My perspective was like Mbobo’s.
How did reading and writing enter your life?
I recently started to collect books from my childhood. I only just realized that these were the books my mother used to read. I had only read them in secret. I’ve started to collect the same editions, with pictures in them. These were mostly Russian books. At the same time, my father used to read the Uzbek epics. I used to read those enormous, thousand-page books as well.
When I moved in with my granny after my mother died, I became her reader. She would ask me to read to her from the Thousand and One Nights. I’d spend long evenings reading to her from that book, and I became saturated with it. Now when I read it, I find all sorts of things I am just now exploring in my own writing.
My first novel was in Uzbek. I showed the novel to an older writer who had lived through Stalin’s purges. He told me, “This will never be published. You’ll be arrested. You need to drop this and write in Russian.” I realized that, because of my experience, I was holding an entire civilization in my hands. I knew the Soviet experience, and its aftermath, from so many perspectives. The whole civilization was exploding inside me and it started to come out in the form of novels.
What were the circumstances that led you to leave Uzbekistan?
I went to Moscow as the representative of the Uzbek Union of Writers. It was my job to promote Uzbek literature. Then came perestroika, and we wanted to organize a foundation to support democracy in Central Asia. The Uzbek government considered this to be subversive activity. All the member of these foundations were arrested and beaten and so forth.
As the Soviet Union was breaking up, I returned to Uzbekistan but kept one foot in Russia as a correspondent for a Russian newspaper. But I was under threat of imminent arrest. They didn’t like that I was writing in Russian, for Russians. Anything in Uzbekistan can be politics. Whatever you write, even private things, become political. Freethinking is political. Then there was an attack on my house and I realized just how dangerous it had become. So I decided to leave the country. We hid in Moscow for a while. A friend warned me that there was a bounty on my head. They knew where I was. They knew I was planning to go to France. They knew everything.
It was a dreadful period of my life. We were hiding in different apartments, in different houses. This was before mobile phones, so I would call my wife from different phones to tell her where I was; she would call back and tell me where she would be waiting for me. It was about half a year before we managed to make it together to France. Our daughter was still in Tashkent. She was a kind of hostage—we knew they would use her to get to us. It took another year to get her out of the country. She was twelve years old.
She was separated from her parents at the exact same age as when you lost your mother.
That’s true. You are really formed at that age. The rest of your life is spent on projections of what happened at that age. I have always known there was a void within me, which I try to fill with novels. This void came into my life when I was twelve.
Is that why your books so often describe the world through a child’s eyes?
Something I’ve discovered about myself is that I mostly like to write about children and old men. During Soviet times, the life of an adult wasn’t much to write about. It was formal, institutional, not interesting at all. The only human moments in life came at the entry point and exit points. Children still saw an unspoiled reality. Old people could still remember pre-Soviet life. The generation of my father, though, was a lost generation.
What about your daughter’s generation?
I must make a confession: The Underground is very much about her childhood, as well as mine. I was thinking a lot of her experience and seeing the world through her eyes. Her generation wasn’t spoiled by the Soviets.
What drew you into this story about this half-African child in Moscow? What does his background—his strangeness and exoticness—mean to you?
I have another confession: the idea for the book came all in one night, around 2005. I was in Moscow in the wintertime. I went to visit our old flat. It is occupied by a friend, but one room has been mostly untouched. It was like we had left yesterday. And outside it was snowing, and I was filled with nostalgia.
When I came back to London I started to write. I wrote fifty pages about myself in Moscow, about this nostalgia. But it wasn’t what I wanted to write. Then I remembered a line from Pushkin: “Moscow... how many strains are fused in that one sound for Russian hearts!” And Pushkin was only half Russian, with African heritage. But he saw much deeper into the Russian heart than any ethnic-Russian writer. So I decided to write the story of another Pushkin.