Spinning yarns with silk road storytellers

July 19, 2002

Central Asia has a huge hunger for cultural expression and exchange. The UK should do more to satisfy it, says Sally Pomme Clayton.

On tour in April with the British Council Literature Department to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, I began performances with the following story, using as many local words as I could: Once upon a time, Ilgeri Ilgeri , there was a mother mouse, apa chichkan . She was sitting in her nest, uya , with all her babies, when a cat, myshik , walked past. He looked into the nest and licked his lips, "Mmm, delicious, dinner!"

"Oh no!" cried the mother mouse, "you can't eat my babies."

So she poked her head out of the nest, looked at the cat and said, "Woof, woof, woof!"

The cat ran away. And the apa chichkan climbed back into her nest. "You see my darlings," she said, "it is very important to learn another language."

Using Kyrgyz like this is rough, but it built a bridge between me and the audience. Since the audience was trying to understand my language, I felt I should use some of their words. That way we were both trying to get our tongues and minds around unfamiliar sounds. It also meant that the audience could respond directly to me. They often helped me create the right sounds, and sometimes discussions sparked about the correct translation for a word. Frequently an audience would disagree about the translation. Even though members of an audience might speak the same language, each person had their own version of that language and used it in a personal way.

My performances were the first British Council literature event that has ever taken place in these countries. Storytelling is a highly respected art form in Central Asia. Ainura Ashirova, arts manager for the British Council in Almaty, organised the trip. She spoke of how "singing, music, storytelling and textiles were the only art forms of the Central Asian nomads". A hundred years ago Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan were nomadic societies. People lived in yurts (round felt tents) and followed their herds across the steppe. When you live nomadically you carry only what you need. Kyrgyz and Kazakh societies were economical in every aspect of their culture, except storytelling. Stories are light, they shorten the road as you travel, carry your history, and are your children's inheritance. Central Asia is a repository for some of the longest and most elaborate epics in the world. So it seemed especially meaningful that storytelling was the focus for this first literary cultural exchange.

Epics are generally intoned to a syllabic metric pattern. The storyteller moves between prose and poetry, improvisation and formula, dialogue and description, speech and song. Some epics are so vast they would take weeks to tell. The content of the epics has been adapted with the changing political and social situations that Central Asia has faced, and the epics continue to reflect communal questions of identity. Despite the deprivation and upheavals, oral performance remains an important cultural expression. This was demonstrated recently by the Afghan people, who, as soon as they were free to make music, sang their epics.

I have long admired Central Asian oral traditions and have previously travelled there to research storytelling. But this visit was different, I was going to tell stories, in English, to some of the best storytellers in the world. I gave performances in Bishkek, Almaty and Astana, in libraries, universities and the few art centres that exist. The audiences ranged from eight years old to 80, and many had good English. Students from the Kyrgyz-American University in Bishkek bombarded me with questions. One girl said: "I came with butterflies in my stomach, scared that I would not understand. But I understood it all. And I also understood that your stories are not just for children." The students were empowered to discover that they could understand English and be entertained by it. I found it moving that audiences delighted in listening to spoken English. They enjoyed its rhythms and intonations and responded to regional turns of phrase, and when they laughed at a joke, I felt I was flying.

It is astounding that the standard of English is so high, especially in Kyrgyzstan where there is a significant lack of English teachers. English is mainly being taught by American Peace Corps Volunteers. There is little UK presence and VSO is preparing to pull out of both countries. English is essential for the economic development of Central Asia and is something that needs more support.

I found that young people were hungry for culture. I gave a creative writing workshop in Almaty, at Mussaget, a remarkable centre run by a group of writers. Sixteen writers attended, two travelled 30 hours by train from Ust'-Kamenogorsk in the north to attend a rare workshop, the first one given by a foreign writer. They were all talented and innovative writers, but there are few publishing houses in Kazakhstan, and none in Kyrgyzstan. Writers have to pay to publish and distribute their work. Mussaget produces its own journal so their writers can be read. Schools in Kyrgyzstan have few books or teachers, and librarians are doing inspirational work with few resources. Most books are in Russian, few are translated into native languages.

Using Kyrgyz words in my performances was successful, but I discovered Kazakh is not so widely spoken and has become a second language to Russian. The Kazakh government is trying to re-introduce Kazakh by using it as the official language of political administration. But language needs to resonate with our emotional and practical lives to have meaning. It is deeply connected with communication and expression, and functional approaches to developing language have seldom succeeded. Kazakhs might feel more related to their language if they could attend performances and read their own writers and translated works in Kazakh.

The British Council has one centre in Almaty, which is responsible for both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The director of the small and dedicated team is James Kennedy. He says that the emphasis in their programming is "development, along with the larger one-off events". Showcase events introduce new art forms and ideas, but long-term links and exchanges allow local artists to develop their own work. Hannah Henderson, literature officer at the British Council in London, supports this view. The council's programme and approaches are expanding. They are using "new writers and small groups to show the diversity of art that is happening in the UK". Bilateral and multi-lateral projects are being developed that involve artists from several countries who are linked by language, history or culture. "Connecting Flights - New Cultures of the Diaspora" is a co-funded cross-cultural project involving the British Council. One of its aims is to build links between writers in diasporas across the world.

However, one British Council centre in Almaty and a small budget does not go far. The centre can afford only one literature event this year. Russia has 15 British Council centres, while Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, a geographical mass the size of Europe, have just one. I hope this will change and that Central Asia will become a priority in future.

Translation is a two-way process, and the UK needs to learn more about Central Asia. Too often the countries are lumped together as "the Stans" instead of their geographical or social differences being recognised. Cultural exchange can promote learning, build bridges, inspire creativity, develop a sense of worth and the possibility of a future. Translations of Central Asian literature into English would encourage this process. The Silk Road has always connected communities, and the Silk Road of the future might become a route of cultural exchange, where traditions are shared, meanings translated and new stories created.

Sally Pomme Clayton is a writer, storyteller and lecturer on world oral traditions at Middlesex University.

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