Each week, two very different literary events take place in Azerbaijan’s capital of Baku. The first is a meeting of the state-funded Union of Azerbaijani Writers, founded a century ago as a body of the USSR Writers’ Union. It gathers in an administrative, white stone building lined with ornate balconies and shaded by the tree-lined streets of central Baku.
The other is organised by the Free Writers’ Union, a gathering of young writers spontaneously taking over any space they can get, in cafes and underground bookshops. Today, in a hostel hall booked for the occasion, one of the leaders of the Free Writers’ group, Rasim Qaraca, is meeting his readers. He reads poems and talks politics. His views on literature and criticism of the establishment is typical of the Free Writers, and enthusiastically received.
“Rhyming poetry is the same as nepotism. Placing words together just because they look and sound like each other, without any real poetic reason, is the same with favouring your relatives by giving them jobs,” he says. “People love those poets who write in the same ready and expected moulds. The measure of how much you are hated in our country is also the measure of how much you are free.”
“People love those poets who write in the same ready and expected moulds. The measure of how much you are hated in our country is also the measure of how much you are free.”
Literature has always been a matter of national pride in Azerbaijan, with dozens of statues of local poets and writers scattered around Baku. A collective rebellion of writers, however, is something relatively new. The uprising began in the 2000s, sparked by a backlash against the country’s cultural policies and its mainstream definition of literature. Azerbaijan’s writing sphere had long been dominated by the legacy of ancient folklore, medieval Diwan poetry, and 19th and 20th century novelists.
The new millennium, however, also brought a new generation of writers who wanted to radically break with this accepted national norm. They started experimenting with style and narration, new themes and new modes of expression. Perhaps more divisively, however, these writers also started to write acerbic social commentary calling on society to re-evaluate itself. They declared radical disassociation from not only mainstream culture, but also from the past of Azerbaijan. “We are counter-culture,” novelist, poet, and Free Writer pioneer Hamid Herisçi, proudly declares.
At the time, publishing opportunities were limited, so the group were forced to self-publish. When the Free Writers’ first anthology, Time at a Jaguar’s Pace, came into existence in 2003, it came with a victorious foreword, titled: “We Exist!”
On the back cover is the union’s manifesto, “The Oath of Azerbaijani Writer”. Within the text lie two bold statements: “By signing this document, Azerbaijani writers agree that they are not a servant or slave of any political party, be it in authority or opposition, and that from now on, they shall never close eyes to the truth, even if that truth is dangerous.”
Another quote declares: “Azerbaijani writers should forever reject the methods of the Soviet writer — that of using flattery to gain reputation and glory, fulfilling a role as a cog and wheel in the state machine before falling into the landfill of history. From now on, all Azerbaijani writers should make freedom and independence the main principles of their lives as a writer.”
“We are not a closed circle,” says Rasim Qaraca, who prepared the first anthology. “Whoever accepts our manifesto is a Free Writer.”
Younger poets and writers wanted to distinguish themselves from the older cohort with a wide range of themes, forms, and styles. “We wrote in the dark colours of reality in contrast to those who wrote about butterflies and flowers,” says Gunel Movlud, one of the Free Writers’ early members.
The manifesto was followed by Alatoran (Twilight) magazine, the country’s first independent literary publication for avant-garde poetry, new fiction, and essays. The front cover for most issues is made by conceptual artist Babi Badalov, while the title page still carries the provocative note: “We don’t accept materials from members of the Union of Azerbaijani Writers.”
As well as providing a platform for the Free Writers’ Union, Alatoran filled its pages with short stories by Russian post-Soviet authors like Viktor Pelevin, Vladimir Sorokin, translated by Azad Yaşar, and texts that deconstructed and rewrote texts from Soviet-Azerbaijani writers to appeal to the nation’s young readers, often saving only the title or a handful of character names from the original. But the publication is not to everyone’s taste, and backlash can be fierce. Sevinc Parvana is one of writers creating a new wave of feminist Azerbaijani literature. “I write about a woman’s body, her feelings, the most real, ordinary and natural things that a woman can live through. It’s simple,” she says. But even an unassuming text can cause writers serious problems in conservative Azerbaijan. “More than once, I’ve had to face insults, or even newspaper reviews [about my work] filled with curse words,” Parvana says.
Others have faced worse. In 2011, one union member, short story writer, and literary critic Rafiq Tagi, was assassinated on his way home. Police suspect that the murder was a religious extremist who took exception to Tagi, and there has been no confirmed link to his work, but the murder is still yet to be solved.
Such reprisals still shock, but are not unexpected. Even writers who toe the official line are not safe from retaliation. Author Akram Aylisli, a long time member of the Union of Azerbaijani Writers, received death threats, saw his books burned, and had one Azerbaijani politician offer money for his severed ear after publishing his book Stone Dreams: a novel that focused on the clashes betweenAzerbaijanis and Armenians in Baku and Nagorno-Karabakh. (The Free Writers publicly condemned the book burning campaign, but refuse to associate with Aylisli himself, who until recently they say, flattered the state and dedicated his life to promoting the establishment’s “preferred” vision of culture.)
The inhospitable environment has even left some, such as novelist Seymur Baycan, in self-imposed exile. He believes that, “one of the reasons why Azerbaijan hasn’t turned into North Korea is thanks to the Free Writers’ Union.”
“It is much harder to be in cultural opposition than political opposition in Azerbaijan, because the political authority and political opposition have the same opinion on culture,” says Baycan, who writes collections of stories and essays from his home in Tbilisi. Each week he also publishes an essay in independent Azerbaijani online platforms, sparking heated debates. But aside from the physical distance, there are other gaps between these authors and their audiences.
“Readers with good taste and a good aesthetic mind are extremely rare in Azerbaijan,” says Baycan. “But writing just to please the people would be one of those weird forms of conformism.”
“Writing just to please the people would be one of those weird forms of conformism.”
Times are changing for the Free Writers’ Union. Despite all its difficulties, the group has come into its own in the social media age. Writers no longer need funding or other backing to get published: instead they build a social media page, find and inspire their own circle of readers.
Alatoran is changing from a literary magazine to a publishing house, with copies bearing the label “Alatoran Books” finding their way into all of Baku’s independent bookshops. Rasim Qaraca, who once prepared the group’s first anthology, has rented his own tiny office. “All of our self-publishing means that I just found myself turned into a publisher one day, without planning for it at all,” he says. He is in charge of the editing, proofreading, and design for books (as well as any translations) before texts are sent to the prints. Their print runs do not exceed 500 copies, but the ideals which fuel those books remain strong. “We publish books only written by the Free Writers’, and translations from world literature which remain close to our ideas,” says Qaraca.
But in many ways, the Soviet model continues to live on. The Azerbaijani government still hands out free apartments and other awards to whom it deems to be upstanding cultural figures. To break from the country’s official literary apparatus, in a country where much art is bankrolled by the state, can be difficult. “Some of our fellows couldn’t withstand moral and material difficulties, some got sweet offers from the authorities and couldn’t resist,” Seymur Baycan recalls. “They changed their positions.”
But even if the Free Writers have been unable to overtake the clout of the Union of Azerbaijani Writers, then they remain steadfast that they will continue to offer an alternative. “We criticised the Soviet model for a long time. And some of the people who had campaigned vigorously for the change began to prefer the old model as time passed,” says Qaraca. “But there are still some out there who won’t [conform.] Our experience shows that there is another way of being a writer.”