This month, the University of Minnesota Press publishes The Way of Kinship: An Anthology of Native Siberian Literature, the first anthology of Native Siberian literature in English. This stunning volume showcases a diverse body of work—prose fiction, poetry, drama, and creative nonfiction—that chronicles ancient Siberian cultures and traditions as well as a dynamic and current literary movement. The works of these contemporary Native writers was translated and edited by Alexander Vaschenko and Claude Clayton Smith, leading scholars in Native Siberian literature.
Part One (Today): Alexander Vaschenko, chair of comparative studies in literature and culture at Moscow State University, discusses how Native Siberian literature is similar to Native literature from North America.
Part Two: Claude Clayton Smith, professor emeritus of English at Ohio Northern University, discusses the anthology’s early beginnings.
Q: What were your goals for this anthology?
I had three main goals for The Way of Kinship. First, as a specialist in American Studies, I have always been dissatisfied with the one-sidedness, misinterpretation, or lack of knowledge of Russian cultural and literary phenomena in the United States. One reason for that is the gap between the primary material in the texts and what is chosen—if at all—to be translated into English. As time goes by, this gap only widens. With The Way of Kinship I wanted to acquaint American readers with one of the lesser-known but important Russian language literary traditions—that of Native Siberian literature.
Second, through my specialization in Native American Studies, I have studied, translated, or otherwise introduced Native American writings to Russia. There are so many similarities between Native Siberian work and that of the Native American/First Nations Canadian writers. It is high time to begin the process of comparative studies between the two traditions.
Finally, by publishing this anthology, I wanted to trigger a direct dialogue between Native American and Native Siberian literary and cultural traditions.
Can you give us a sense of the place that these stories are coming from?
The native seats behind the stories are scattered across the entire expanse of Siberia, from the Ural Mountains in the West to the Chukotka Peninsula (at the Bering Strait) in the east. A huge part of this is called the “Russian North,” the natural environment being taiga and tundra, with many rivers and their tributaries in between. From time immemorial this has been the ancient home of about twenty Native groups belonging to several language families, the larger of these being Nenets and Khanty, the smaller being the Yukagir and the Nivkh. Traditionally, people migrated seasonally with the deer and other game; others, like the Nivkh, fished.
You explain in the anthology’s introduction that Native Siberian literature began in the 1930s, much like North America’s Native writing movements. What are other striking parallels between the two literary movements?
Indeed, there are many striking similarities between the two cross-oceanic cultures. The first one that comes to mind is the value system. This springs from the way of life caused by the environment. For example, Nature is sacred and primordial, and animals are viewed as older brothers of mankind, central to the aboriginal way of life. Certainly, oral and mythological traditions exert a strong influence upon Native literature, and there are strong external factors as well. But these traditions are poorly understood by the authorities at all levels. Bilingualism—sometimes trilingualism—is a characteristic feature of such traditions.
How is Native literature viewed today in Russia? Where is it going?
Here, I believe, are more similarities. Native literatures are poorly understood and currently not very visible in Russia. They are considered regional and are still finding their audience. In the Soviet era, Native authors were cared for financially, as well as any author in the USSR. Slowly, by sheer luck, some of the writers would gain national importance—then as well as now.
Native literatures are slowly but steadily developing. The primary obstacles currently are high levels of bureaucracy and lack of money. However, some oil barons have lately begun to support the Native writers.
Last spring, you and some of the writers included in this anthology came to the United States for a creative cultural exchange with writers Sherwin Bitsui, Evelina Zuni Lucero, and N. Scott Momaday at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Will you share some memorable moments from that exchange with us?
|Maria Vagatova lives in Khanty-Mansiisk.
Her poetry, which she writes in Khanty
and Russian, is included in The Way of
Kinship. She visited New Mexico last
spring as part of a creative cultural
exchange with North American Native writers.
Photo by Susan Scarberry-Garcia.
Although I have tried to bring together Native Americans and Native Siberians for two decades, this was the first literary cross-cultural meeting. As to impressions, I was fascinated by the IAIA as an establishment. It has recently obtained new grounds and new facilities. The students seemed eager to exchange, and I think that this meeting left a deep trace in their souls, as in ours.
I was happy to see a lot of my dearest friends, such as N. Scott Momaday, whom I have known since his visit to Russia in 1974. I have translated many of his writings into Russian. Professor Susan Scarberry-Garcia has been a long time friend, helping with cross-cultural visits and exchanges. Professor Claude Clayton Smith has been a friend of many years, and has many times shared his creative soul with Russia; and professor Andrew Wiget is my friend and alter ego in the Southwest, with whom I have a lifelong connection.
All in all, it was a fabulous time for both sides. We hope the tradition will continue, fostering a better understanding of each other’s cultures. One of the IAIA students, Nathan Romero from Cochiti, wrote a moving triptych of poems in our honor, asking “Shall we meet again?” With this anthology, we feel that the conversation is just beginning.
To learn more about last year’s creative cultural exchange, listen to “Threads of Kinship: Dialogues with Native Siberian Writers at IAIA,” an interview published April 14, 2010, at Santa Fe Radio Café.
Find out more about The Way of Kinship.
This post is published in partnership with First Peoples: New Directions in Indigenous Studies.