Ak Welsapar was born in 1956 in the former Soviet Republic of Turkmenistan. After six years of membership, he was excluded from the Soviet Writers’ Association in 1987 following his publication of investigative articles about major ecological problems in Turkmenistan. He left his home country in 1993 and now lives in Sweden, where he is a member of the Swedish Writers’ Association. He has also been an honorary member of the International PEN-Club since 1993. He has published 18 books and received many national and international awards. He writes in Russian, Turkmen and Swedish.
SJF: You have been living in Sweden, in exile from your native Turkmenistan for over 18 years now. Are your books still banned in your home nation?
AK: My name and my works were comprehensively prohibited in 1991 due to the fact that I thought differently. And in 1993 I was dismissed from the Union of Writers and the Union of Journalists for being "people's enemy." My books were removed from bookshops and libraries and burned. In September of the same year the regime made an "Ahun", a leading religious figure, write in the newspaper "Nesil" against me. He declared me as someone who has gone astray in the path of religion. This was a way of provoking the religious fanatics against me and my family and it was terrifying. As a result of this situation I had to leave Turkmenistan. Unfortunately, nothing has changed for the better since then in Turkmenistan. I am still at the top of the list of proscribed writers.
SJF: You were persecuted because of your journalism, and your relentless and brave attempts to publicise the ecological disasters taking place in Turkmenistan and Central Asia in general. Do you see this pursuit of truth even at the expense of your safety as the necessity of your profession? or a calling? or a responsibility, to write what you see to be the truth?
AK: I was pursued and persecuted in the USSR and later in the independent Turkmenistan for writing to protect the ecology of the country. During the Soviet period agricultural lands were destroyed due to salinity and poisonous situation brought about by the monoculture of cotton in Central Asia, and the Aral Sea was diminishing and drying up. Turkmenistan occupied the first position in the death of mothers and children in the USSR. The rate of child mortality in our country was equal to that of the African countries in the south of Sahara. However, it was prohibited to reveal this fact. I tried to reveal it. No matter how much I have suffered or lost as a result of this, I have no regrets for what I have done. This was my obligation as a writer and journalist. If life begins agin for me, I will do the same without any hesitation.
SJF: Do you feel a similar sense of responsibility as a poet as you do as a journalist, perhaps under a different agency of expression?
AK: Of course, I have the same responsibilities as a journalist or poet. However, journalism and poetry have their own styles, facilities, audiences, relevant duties, amplitude and certain depths to settle in people's minds. Is this not the reason for the fact that one of them has a tendency for rationalism and the other deals with delicate feelings? However, I have to keep a distance with journalism when I write poetry and stay away from poetry when I write articles, I have no other alternatives. In prose however, they both come and help me. This might be the reason for the fact that I have written more than 15 books in prose. All three of them are parts of the art of speech and making them run together depends on the skill of the jockeys. I feel sorry for not being able to draw pictures, If I could, I would have learned another common language of mankind!
SJF: In there value in being a Turkmen poet who is not resident in Turkmenistan, in the sense that while the sense of being an exile or a dissident poet can be an oppressive state of being, it actually allows you to internalise what Turkmenistan or being a Turkmen is into concepts like language and culture, and in fact being away from country itself, allows you to make judgements and conclusions with the mediated objectivity?
AK: Being separated from the native land is a tragedy for a human being. It is even a greater tragedy if one who is involved in the art of speech has to leave his country. For poets and writers deal with daily words. The pain of separation affects even practical affairs. A writer who leaves his country, loses both his reader and publisher. Some time is needed to find them in a new country; it may take many years. But life is limited: would you want to write a new work or learn a new language? Would you want to read a new book or look for a new publisher for yourself?! As a result the writer remains face to face with problems of the simplest life- problems of survival looms over him. Then with the bits between his teeth he has to seek his daily bread. These are your own problems, you have to solve all of them yourself. If you can solve them, you will exist as a writer, if not, you will not. In fact this is the question of "to be or not to be."
However, immigration does not consist solely of difficulties; as is said, God does not shut your door before opening a new one for you. For a person of creative work immigration provides new facilities. If you are capable of taking advantage of the amplitude of facilities, you will find facilities to develop or perfect your creativity and perhaps reach a height in your profession which you might never have reached in your country. Because, your destiny gives you a second homeland and a second language after all!
SJF: Do you think you have been able to maintain this distance throughout your poetry an your commentary, or has the figure of homelanddominated your concern?
AK: No matter how sad I am and how I suffer the pain of separation, I do my best to avoid turning my works into a case of moaning solely about the homeland: I cry in secret and go out to the street smiling...
SJF: Have you embedded yourself in the poetic culture of Sweden, or have you stayed outside that community?
AK: Swedish language, Swedish literature and culture are now my natural assets. I do not think that the number of my friends and readers in Sweden is less than those in Turkmenistan. I feel myself so natural in this country. Of course, a stranger who meets me on the street, may, by assessing my appearance think that I am a newcomer. However, after exchanging a few words, he will be convinced that I am a Swede like himself. Because I do not have a newcomer's complex.
SJF: You studied literature in Moscow... what epoch, or style, or individual poet has had the greatest influence on your own work?
AK: As a writer my ferment is Turkmen folklore and classical literature. But I am brought up in the environment of Turkmen and Russian literature and culture. A number of Turkmen and Russian poets have influence my creativity. I completed two institutions of higher education- first, the Faculty of Journalism of Moscow State University named after M. Lomonosov, later the Higher Literature Courses of the Institute of Literature named after M. Gorkiy. These institutions of higher education have always constituted centres for free thinking. For this reason what I learned there polished my world outlook and laid the necessary foundation for my intellectual development into real free thinking.
SJF: What are your expectations of Poetry Parnassus and its events?
AK: Poetry Parnassus is one of the most important poetry festivals in the world. Although I have participated in similar forums in various continents before, I look forward to attending Poetry Parnassus with much enthusiasm. I am excited about the fact that I will familiarize myself with creativities of my colleagues from various countries and I will have a chance to learn the demands of the British poetry-lovers. I am also interested in observing and feeling the live reactions of the British readers to the originality of the verses of poetry and application of literary styles. As a writer and poet eternally deprived of visiting his homeland, I am longing for conquering new countries and increasing the number of my readers. Moreover, for a poet, seeing the live impact of his creativity is a source of satisfaction. Otherwise, if a man who spends all his life striking on the flint, does not see sparks turning into a fire giving light and heat, would his job not turn into a pleasant pain for him then?
SJ Fowler (1983) is the author of four poetry collections. He has had poetry commissioned by the Tate Britain and the London Sinfonietta, and has featured in over 100 poetry publications. He is poetry editor of 3am magazine, Lyrikline and the Maintenant interview series.