Burning Books: Akram Aylisli on Literature and Cultural Memory

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:


ON FEBRUARY 9, 2013, the works of writer Akram Aylisli were publicly burned in Azerbaijan because his writing upset the Azerbaijani government. Aylisli watched his books burn via the internet, an experience he describes in a 2018
 essay excerpted in this very magazine. Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev stripped Aylisli of the title of “People’s Writer” and his presidential pension; his wife and son were fired from their jobs, and he received death threats. In 2014, Aylisli was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by supporters from several countries. In March 2016, he was invited to address a literary festival in Venice, Incroci di civiltà; however, the 79-year-old writer was detained at the Baku airport, and trumped-up legal charges were filed against him. Those charges are still pending.

. . . .

MARK LIPOVETSKY: In March 2016, you were slated to deliver a speech at a literary festival in Venice, but could not attend because you were denied permission to leave Azerbaijan. You later published the remarks you’d planned to give. At the start of the speech, you write, “Now we are all defenseless before these inconceivably cruel times. There are periods in history when nothing can fill the emptiness of the human heart: not religion, not science, not literature.” Do you feel the same way now, and what does it mean to be a writer in such times?

AKRAM AYLISLI: I’d like to first of all clarify the circumstances of my situation that not everyone understands completely. They made me sign an agreement not to travel, so I don’t have the right to leave the confines of Baku. What’s more, the prosecutor’s office confiscated my proof of identity. Without that proof, a person has no actual rights — can’t take part in elections or anything. The prosecutor’s office was supposed to investigate my case within a year, according to Azerbaijani law. But to this day, the case that was opened in March 2016 hasn’t been reviewed. They simply aren’t processing it. This all weighs very, very heavily on me psychologically, and all of it puts pressure on me. But I think some people are starting to overcome the anxiety they felt about the fact that part of Azerbaijan’s land was, let us say, under the control of Armenia. They’ve calmed down a bit, and I think [laughs] that calm will in some way make a difference in my life. They’ll calm down and finally say: “So what about this guy? How much can we really cut him off from society? This kind of thing isn’t good for him.” I think this will all pass. I’m sure of it.

In terms of how I live in this difficult time, it seems to me that no matter what the circumstances, no matter what situation a writer lives in, he lives in his own world. For example, I didn’t feel the loss of what was taken from me very deeply, and I wasn’t depressed because I never remembered myself being free. I never felt that: not in school, not at university, not at work. I felt myself to be a little bit free only at my work table, my writing desk. They couldn’t take that away from me. It can’t be taken away from any writer. I live now through literature. It’s possible to live through literature — there’s a lot of air there. More, maybe, than there is even in the street, especially during a pandemic.

From your trilogy Farewell, Aylis, which of these novels — YemenStone Dreams, and A Fantastical Traffic Jam — is the most important for you?

If I think about it, Stone Dreams. I wrote Stone Dreams for Azerbaijanis, not Armenians. I wrote it out of the desire that not all of the bridges between our peoples would be burned. So that there would not be this deep alienation, particularly in terms of culture. We are, after all, a Turkic people, but in point of fact we are people of the Caucasus. Our mentality is of the Caucasus — not Turkish, not Central Asian, specifically of the Caucasus. I wrote Stone Dreams out of the desire to bring people closer, so that people wouldn’t think that we have to revile one another, that we have to kill one another.

Who has supported you? Are there writers, cultural figures, who supported you in Russia and Azerbaijan?

In general, the Russian intelligentsia defended me a great deal — Andrei Bitov, Viktor Yerofeyev. That level of writer — important writers — really defended me. A few Russian journalists, also. In Azerbaijan, my support mainly came from young writers. Among them, many people understood things as I understand them, and in the way people will someday understand.

How can we, readers living all over the world, help you?

You’re already helping me. We’re sitting here, today I’m looking at you, at such good-hearted people. That joy is enough for me, if only for a few days. Sometimes you suddenly remember such good moments, and that helps you live. I don’t know how exactly readers can help. Many organizations wanted to help me. In Norway, they even proposed an excellent situation so that I could move there. I didn’t go, because someday these people will understand that I love Azerbaijan more than they do. I think there are individuals among the Azerbaijani people who know that I love Azerbaijan more than the authorities do. It’s dangerous to say so [laughs], but it’s necessary.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books

PG thinks its a good idea for him and others who live in liberal Western democracies to reflect on those who do not from time to time. Such an exercise helps to avoid feelings of entitlement and nurture feelings of gratitude, at least for PG.

2 thoughts on “Burning Books: Akram Aylisli on Literature and Cultural Memory”

  1. In February 2020, When Harry Became Sally was digitally burned by Amazon because the book upset the transgender movement. The only difference between authoritarian regimes and so-called “liberal Western democracies” is that here in the West, the book burning is much more subtle—and far more insidious.

    • And it gets swept under the rug by the very media companies that were breathlessly promoting it a short while earlier.

      Fear of the mob has reached levels not even McCarthy would have dreamed of.
      Now they’re even trying to cancel hotel chains.
      They’re almost “there” just a bit more and their strategic overeach will hit critical mass.

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