by Sabrina Jaszi, Oakland, CA

Read an excerpt from Dunyoning ishlari in English:

Cyclical time; female-led communities; a Tashkent mahallah devastated by war, and fractured narration to match. These descriptions of O‘tkir Hoshimov’s Dunyoning ishlari (1982) are far removed from the work’s nominal prototype in Soviet literature, the 1913 memoir of childhood Detstvo by father of socialist realism Maksim Gorky. While exploring the transformations and journeys of the Soviet memoir of childhood in Central Asia, I initially questioned whether Dunyoning ishlari fit into the genre at all. However, after looking closely at the work’s prehistory––and tracing how Soviet Central Asian memoirs of childhood became a genre unto themselves––I began to parse the nested generic conventions it embraces and flouts. Sometimes Hoshimov’s choices distance the genre from Gorky’s work, and sometimes they return it, full circle, to that very beginning.

O‘tkir Hoshimov’s Dunyoning ishlari was a literary hit of late Soviet Uzbekistan, which is still beloved today––a widely quoted staple of school curricula. Described by the author as a collection of linked stories, large and small (“Bu qissa katta-kichik novellalardan iborat”), centered on the figure of his beloved mother (“eng aziz odam - onam”), Dunyoning ishalri is on a basic level a memoir of childhood. In this sense, it follows from Maksim Gorky’s canonical Detstvo, a work so widely circulated across the Soviet Union that writing a memoir of childhood became a rite of passage for Soviet authors. But Gorky’s Detstvo was far from the only prototype for Dunyoning ishlari. There were local precedents that long predated Russian and Soviet occupation, including various forms of life writing by Alisher Navoiy (1441–1540), the author most responsible for the formation of Uzbek literary language, and the Chagatai Turkic Baburname of Zahir ad-Din Muhammad Babur (1483–1530). In the Soviet Uzbek and larger Central Asian context, the childhood memoir genre was massively productive, spawning a number of well-known works by Abdulla Qodiriy, Sadriddin Aini, Abdulla Qahhor, Oybek, and others.

Gorky’s autobiographical trilogy narrated the great Russian-Soviet writer’s bildung from young orphan to itinerant radical in the last decades of the 19th century, providing a blueprint for other Soviet writers’ reminiscences against a backdrop of revolutionary upheaval. Central to its first volume, Detstvo, was the young narrator’s emancipation from his viciously dysfunctional bourgeois family, a separation that enabled his figurative adoption by the Soviet state. This narrative dovetailed with early Bolshevik efforts to weaken the family and was interpreted by Soviet critics as a harsh critique of tsarist Russia. Two canonical Soviet Central Asian memoirs of childhood, Sadriddin Aini’s Yoddoshtho (Reminiscences, 1949–1954) and Abdulla Qahhor’s O‘tmishdan ertaklar (Tales from the Past, 1965) adopted the teleological structure of Gorky’s Detstvo but jettisoned its “anti-family” ideology. Attacks on the family had abated by the Stalin and Khrushchev eras when Aini and Qahhor made their contributions to the genre. What is more, Detstvo’s harsh portrayal of the biological family clashed with Central Asian values. For both reasons, Aini and Qahhor’s works follow Gorky’s in condemning the corruption of pre-revolutionary society, but portray the biological family as an essential building block of the Soviet state, rather than its enemy.

Hoshimov’s work of the late Soviet period goes further in transforming the genre. It eschews the basic structural conventions established by Gorky, chronological storytelling and a clear division of backwards past and progressive future. Instead, it embraces fragmentation and cyclicality,  incorporating all-union aesthetics of the post-war period, from Village Prose, to Soviet postmodernism, to the magical realism of Chingiz Aitmatov. It also necessarily depicts childhood in a different period, not before or during the revolution, but in the years after the Great Patriotic War. Set in an Uzbek mahallah where food is scarce and many husbands and fathers have been lost to the war, the state is notable for its absence. Where Soviet institutions seem to have failed, facets of the local environment such as families, community networks, endemic nature, and mystical and religious practices provide a necessary salve. In this way, Dunyoning ishlari reverses the trajectory of Gorky’s work, which cut down familial and local institutions to make way for the state. Subtly, therefore, Dunyoning ishlari looks forward (and backward) to the era of national independence when the Soviet state would recede altogether and a “traditional” national culture would be embraced. Of course, in discussing these two cultures we must consider the processes of traditionalization underway, which remade and glorified the local past in opposition to Russian and Soviet rule, rather than in strict observance of history.

            But the work remains deeply enmeshed in the aesthetics of the genre as Gorky established it, and seems split between Soviet and national positioning. This comes into focus through its depiction of mothers. In the figure of his own mother, Poshsha, Hoshimov defines gender roles in opposition to Soviet-style emancipation and valorizes the very types of local knowledge that Soviet education rejected. While, in their memoirs of childhood, Qahhor and Aini wrote at length about the methods by which their fathers taught them to read, Hoshimov’s “teacher of literacy” is his much less methodical mother. In Dunyoning ishlari’s first chapter, he remembers his mother and imagines the following: “Bilmadim, ehtimol o‘sha oq, oydin kechalarda onam ilk bor qo‘limga qalam tutqazgandir.” (I don’t know, maybe it was on one of those clear, moonlit nights that my mother first placed a pen in my hand.) In the work’s final chapter, the narrator goes so far as to attribute authorship to Poshsha: “Uni siz yozgansiz. Men uni qog‘ozga tushirib, odamlarga tarqatdim, xolos.” (You wrote it. I only put the words on paper and distributed it to the people.) While Qahhor and Aini described in detail how they were taught to read and write, Hoshimov’s choice of words––“bilmadim” (I don’t know) and “xolos” (maybe)––suggest his mother’s more abstract yet essential role in his education. We are not meant to think that his mother would have been capable of writing the book, but that her goodness and dedication formed its essential foundation. Other lessons imparted by Poshsha are likewise spiritual and holistic rather than practical and scientific, opposed to Soviet and Russian knowledge. While Aini and Qahhor’s books highlight or invent rational and scientific tendencies in the Central Asian past, positioning  fathers as intermediaries between typically Western or Soviet forms of knowledge and those deemed Eastern, Hoshimov endorses the latter through the figure of a female teacher.

Poshsha’s lessons are often announced by the chapter titles, and the Arabic loanwords used to name them, such as “Qarz” (Debt), “Xiyonat” (Betrayal), “Qanoat” (Patience), “Imon” (Faith), and “Havas” (Desire). In the early 20th century, many Arabic and Farsi borrowings were purged from Uzbek, first by the Jadids, in their bid to create a more purely Turkic Uzbek language, and then by Stalinist linguists seeking to distance Uzbek culture from Islam and pan-Turkism. In the Soviet period, Arabic and Farsi words were replaced by “internationalized” Russian vocabulary. However with destalinization this trend was halted and then gradually reversed. After independence, a full reversal went into effect: Russian words were cleansed from Uzbek and Arabic borrowings were reintroduced, now viewed as a marker of prestige, as well as of indigenousness. Hoshimov’s prominent use of Arabic loanwords situates the work within Uzbek language politics in the run-up to independence.

Many of Poshsha’s lessons promote family and community cohesion in direct opposition to Gorky’s Detstvo which portrayed the disintegration of those units, and Aini and Qahhor’s, which envisioned their integration into Soviet society. For example, the mahalla is exalted in “Oltin baldoq” (The Golden Earring). In “Opamni topib oldim” (I’ve Found My Sister) Poshsha reunites the family with her husband’s daughter from another relationship, despite the perceived shame of the connection. Throughout the work, Poshsha acts as an apologist for men, putting family unity above female well-being. In “Mening Acha xolam” (My Auntie Acha), she advises the local postwoman to stay with her cheating husband, insisting that he is good, and warning that a divorce would make her son a “living orphan” (tirik yetim). Regarded by the narrator as naive optimism rather than something more sinister, Poshsha’s advice to the postwoman is viewed with amusement, and ultimately validated because it is good for the community. Though out of step with early Soviet rhetoric regarding women’s emancipation, the work’s affirmation of familial bonds is consonant with much of its policy. As Kandiyoti points out, the Soviet regime consistently promoted motherhood as a social good among Central Asian women, for whom large families were already viewed positively. As a result, the Soviet age witnessed a paradoxical rise in birthrates alongside education and workforce participation among Central Asian women.By inhabiting the genre’s trope of learning, Hoshimov reflects a patriarchal and nationalist vision that runs counter to Gorky’s work and reshapes those of his Central Asian predecessors.

At the same time, depictions of unorthodox femininity complicate the discussion. In “O‘ris bolaning oyisi” (The Russian Boy’s Mother) we are told the story of Zebi Xola, the adoptive mother to a Russian war orphan. A single woman who lost her husband and son to the war, she is described as manly in body and demeanor: “Zebi хоlаdаn hаyiqmаydigаn bоlа yo‘q edi. Erkаklаrdek bаrvаstа gаvdаli, qоp-qоrа bu хоtinning yo‘g‘оn оvоzi hаm, uzun qirrа burni, ketmоnni yelkasigа tаshlаgаnchа etik kiyib g‘оz yurishi hаm bоshqа аyollаrgа o‘хshаmаs, hаttо qоrаmtir siyrаk mo‘ylоvigаchа bоr edi.” (The wasn’t a child who didn’t fear Zebi Xola. With her strapping body like a man’s, her dark skin, gruff voice, and long sharp nose, walking powerfully in boots with a hoe slung over her shoulder, she was not like other women and even had a sparse black mustache). Her physical attributes, as well as her facility with the dutar, a stringed instrument which is usually played by the narrator’s father, all convey masculinity. In Zebi’s character, Hoshimov harkens back to the formidable maternal figures of Gorky’s more progressive work and provides a counterpoint to the diminutive Poshsha. (Detstvo’s narrator repeatedly comments on his mother’s size and strength, even comparing her to a horse.) But despite Zebi’s masculine qualities, she is still beholden to men––having lost her husband and son to the war, she feels an intense need to adopt a son and regain her familial role.

And there is another more generally paradoxical aspect of Hoshimov’s portrayal of mothers. Despite the work’s patriarchal vision, it is deeply attentive to women’s experiences, not eliding or polishing them, as Aini and Qahhor’s memoirs of childhood are wont to do. Poshsha is deified, but not varnished, and the depiction of a mother’s life is damning. The work condemns her suffering, while approving of her martyrdom, indicting the system that created the suffering, but insisting on women’s subjugation. Hence the unsettling ending to “Qanoat” (Patience), in which the narrator experiences contradictory feelings of pride and sadness upon overhearing his mother lie to a nosy neighbor about a beating from her husband. Perhaps, as scholars have explored, the seeming regression of women’s rights after Central Asian independence is a simple reframing and continuation of the Soviet status quo. Nonetheless, as hypocritical Soviet rhetoric of women’s equality is sheared away in Dunyoning ishlari, womens’ experiences come through with greater potency. This marks a difference from the works by Aini and Qahhor, more accommodative to Soviet power, in which the plight of women is not viscerally depicted or felt, and a return to more trenchant portrayals of women’s suffering in Detstvo––its grizzly scenes of domestic violence and childbirth. Dunyoning ishlari enacts many small rebellions against Gorky’s model and all it signifies, but this radicality reestablishes a connection with Detstvo. Simultaneously, the work’s quietly revolutionary nature marks the Central Asian genre’s definitive parting from Russian and Soviet culture.


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