Publisher Hopes Literature in English Can Unite Europe, Central Asia

ASTANA – Publisher Marat Akmedjanov took his first steps in the industry with a magazine intended to draw tourists to his native Uzbekistan. Now he’s at the centre of a literary and publishing movement that brings Central Asian artists together and hopes to connect them with the world.

akhmedjanovBorn in Jizzakh, Uzbekistan, to parents who were engineers, Akmedjanov grew up during perestroika, he told The Astana Times on Nov. 30. “I learned English early on, when I was chairman of Jizzakh’s Youth Union, which enabled me to travel and communicate more widely.” He stumbled into publishing when he set up Uzbekistan’s first modelling agency, Pery, and agency’s magazine suddenly became the country’s most popular lifestyle magazine, he said.

Having seen opportunities to promote Uzbekistan during his travels, Akmedjanov began printing Uzbekistan’s first English-language travel magazine through Silk Road Media, which he set up in 2002. In 2005, he was awarded a scholarship that enabled him to study at the London College of Communications. “This gave me the exposure, experience and contacts within the international publishing industry and gave me the confidence to invest in the right publishing and distribution network in Central Asia,” he said.

In 2012, Akmedjanov set up Hertfordshire Press, the only dedicated publishing house in the UK and Europe printing books with a Central Asian focus.

Silk Road Media, intended to promote tourism in Uzbekistan, began by publishing a variety of travel guides and digests intended to promote tourism in Central Asia. But Akmedjanov’s scope has expanded beyond enticing short-term visitors. He wants to knit cultures together.

“Open Central Asia magazine … is a more general interest magazine trying to rebuild the links between Europe and Central Asia, be that through tourism, culture, business or politics. The aim is to bring together people and forge new relationships through discussion of the region on a broader stage,” he said. Nick Rowan, author of one of the Hertfordshire Press’s first books, “Friendly Steppes: A Silk Road Journey,” is now editor-in-chief of the magazine.

Hertfordshire Press now has 55 titles under its belt, Akmedjanov reported, and is always looking for more engaging, original texts with something to say about Central Asia. “But what it says or how it says this is up to the author. We have books ranging from travel writing to science fiction,” he said.

Akmedjanov does have to contend with market realities, however. “We have to be realistic that in the publishing industry, we need a book that will sell and capture a market that is still relatively small, although growing. Few people have heard much about Central Asia and its authors, so the topics and writing must not be too esoteric or surreal.”

Of course, Akmedjanov hopes to help change this. His path is through English. “I think the difficulty Central Asia has had so far, on the world stage, is that the audience that determines what is great literature are mostly English speaking. Yes, a few Russian and French writers have made it big, but usually that has relied on English translations. This is the world we live in, so publishing houses like Hertfordshire Press need to strive to bring Central Asian authors into the spotlight by printing English translations of great works.”

There is also a need to promote literature and publication in local languages within Central Asia, the publisher said.

“Put these two together and add the rapidly growing electronic access we have, and Central Asia will no longer be regarded as a faraway place to be feared [and] its true cultural heritage and history will be available for all to see,” he added.

With Rowan, Akmedjanov started the Open Central Asia Book Forum in 2012, holding their first event in Bishkek. They saw an opportunity to become the only existing platform bringing writers, publishers and readers together in Central Asia, he said. “It hadn’t been done before and with my connections I knew that I had the support of enough people to make it happen. … For Hertfordshire Press, it was the first chance to actually deliver on its goal and find new talent from the region, which is why we held a literature contest.”

Winner Galina Dolgaya’s book, “Gods of the Middle Earth,” was published by Hertfordshire Press when she won; since then, Abdulla Isa of Azerbaijan and Davlat Tolibšohi of Tajikistan have won the right to have their works published.

Their efforts are beginning to be noticed. “At our recent [third] Open Central Asia Book Forum and Literature Festival, held in Almaty … we had over 2,500 people attending. I met with many people determined to bring their message to an audience, with great enthusiasm for making that audience reach as far as possible. The beauty of starting from a small base is that you can grow very quickly, and that is exciting.” Authors like Hamid Ismailov and Kazat Akmatov are starting to make names for themselves among a broader audience, and more are coming, he said.

“Too many people write off Central Asia as being backward, or just another Soviet relic of little interest and importance,” Akmedjanov says. “Unless readers become more adventurous and explore what is on offer, how can they make that judgement? They need to go and see it for themselves – feel it, hear it, see it.”