ALISA GANIEVA: Welcome to the Deep Vellum Family!!

Continuing our string of book signings & announcements, welcome Alisa Ganieva to the Deep Vellum family!

Ganieva Photo

Alisa Ganieva is the first debut author we have signed at Deep Vellum (a debut debut, we’ll never forget our first!); I can’t begin to tell you how excited I am to publish her debut novel The Russian Wall next summer in Carol Apollonio’s translation. Ganieva is an author who will dazzle you with her storytelling prowess as she expands our understanding of Russia’s complex multiethnic composition.

Ganieva was  born in Makhachkala, Dagestan, the capital city of the predominantly-Muslim province in the mountainous and restive Caucasus region of south Russia, next to Chechnya and the Caspian Sea. Soccer fans might know of the city of Makhachkala from the FC Anzhi soccer team (which made a big splash on the international soccer stage when the team was bought by billionaire Suleyman Kerimov, who spent a ton of money to get star player Samuel Eto’o and rockstar coach/manager Guus Hiddink), but I don’t know how many American readers are familiar with the ethnic, linguistic, and cultural diversity of Russia’s Caucasus region. Ganieva is your window into a new world, a fascinating glimpse of what daily life is like in Dagestan today, with its people trying to live and love as authoritarian politics from Moscow collide with fundamentalist Islamic separatist movements, as her literary Russian narrative voice is interspersed with conversations in Avar and other Northern Caucasian languages of Dagestan. And interestingly, this will be the first novel to ever talk about real life in Dagestan ever published in English. The only other work of literature from Dagestan ever published in English, “My Dagestan,” is by Rasul Gamzatov, the most famous Avar poet of the Soviet era, and a People’s Artist of the USSR, published in English around 1970. This is the first novel ever from Dagestan to be published in English. That is a huge deal.

An unbelievable writer with infinite talent, Ganieva studied at the legendary Gorky Literature Institute in Moscow, and was a resident in the 2012 International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. Ganieva caused a huge controversy and gained legendary status in Russia when her long story “Salam, Dalgat!” was awarded the Debut Prize in 2009 (the same prize was awarded to Deep Vellum author Mikhail Shishkin in 1993 for his first-ever published work, “Calligraphy Lesson,” the title story in his collection we are publishing next year). The story of Ganieva winning the Debut Prize and the controversy is recounted in a Washington Post story about Ganieva from 2012:

Raised in a nonreligious household in Dagestan, a mountainous republic in Russia’s North Caucasus region, Alisa Ganieva has aimed to write in clear-eyed fashion about her homeland, a region that has been racked by violence fueled by criminal and clan elements and an Islamic insurgency. Her long story “Salam, Dalgat!” aims a merciless lens on a Dagestani town roiling with drug gangs, Islamic fundamentalists, water-supply breakdowns, burning garbage cans, abusive police officers and women fawning over Gucci knockoffs.

She used a male pseudonym — Gulla Khirachev — for the story, published first in a Dagestani newspaper, then in a literary journal. The pseudonym was a device reflecting the “male-dominated world of today’s Dagestan,” she says. She also wanted the story to be judged on its own merits, rather than in the context of her reputation as a literary critic and editor. (She works at the literary supplement published by Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a daily). The world learned her real identity when she collected the Debut Prize for “Salam, Dalgat!” in 2009.

The exceptionally gritty portrait of Dagestan in “Salam, Dalgat!” earned Ganieva death threats. “They accused me of betraying my society,” she says calmly in slightly halting English, explaining that Dagestani literature has long favored facile romanticism—texts “about snowy mountains and eagles in the sky.”

You can read a long excerpt from Ganieva’s Debut Prize-winning story “Salam, Dalgat!” in Squaring the Circle: Short Stories by Winners of the Debut Prize, compiled by Olga Slavnikova, published by Glas New Russian Writing in 2010.

For those curious about how I found out about Ganieva, it’s one of those beautiful publishing industry stories where recommendations came from multiple sources, and my passion for Russian literature (and ability to read Russian) came in handy…I was originally pitched The Russian Wall at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October 2013 by Petra Hardt, the legendary foreign rights director of Suhrkamp (the most prestigious German publishing house). I had met Petra in Frankfurt the year prior when I was taking meetings for Chad Post of Open Letter, who couldn’t attend that year, as well as for my then-planned publishing house in Dallas. Petra was gracious with her time at that first meeting with me, asking me a lot of questions about myself, my academic background, my favorite types of books both personally and professionally, and what I hoped to accomplish with Deep Vellum. She recommended a few titles that year (including one, Indigo, by Clemens Setz that I was super interested in, but which got quickly signed by Norton/Liveright for the US & Serpent’s Tail for the UK, and is finally coming out in translation next month, this book is going to be amazing), but nothing really panned out. But in 2013, in our second meeting, I sat down and Petra said, in her unmistakable forthright and unique way, “Will Evans, I have a book for you. By a Russian woman. Alisa Ganieva. Do you know her? No? Well you will. Read this book. I will send you the Russian text. Read it. You must publish her.” I said I would read it, and asked what else she had for me. And she replied, “This is the only book for you right now. But it is the right book.” I love when foreign rights directors, agents, translators, anybody in the industry, can get to know a person to recommend the one book to consider, rather than sifting through dozens of pitches and samples and submissions trying to find that ever-elusive gold (and making my eyes so so bleary in the process), because it shows a commitment to understanding what I am trying to do with Deep Vellum, to doing homework on publishers, to get to know us as individuals with different tastes and affinities. To pitch a book that makes sense…but not just a book, but the book that makes sense. Of course, not every book pitched is the one, but Petra was 100% right–it was the perfect book to pitch me. And to let you know a little bit about how the global publishing business works, in its infinitely unique ways–Ganieva published The Russian Wall in Russia in 2012 with Russia’s biggest publishing house, AST, under the original title of Праздничная гора. Suhrkamp signed the book and published its German translation in 2012 as well, and in the course of the signing assumed worldwide rights for the text. So instead of dealing with a Russian publisher or agent (or the author herself), any foreign publishers would deal with Petra Hardt and Suhrkamp for the rights to publish Ganieva’s novel around the world. Not a bad idea at all, since Suhrkamp is so well-respected and well-connected. And Petra is good about placing her novels (if not the best at it, honestly, she did write a book about rights that you can get through Seagull Books). After Frankfurt, Petra sent me the Russian text, and I read through it over the next couple months…I wasn’t ready to sign any debut authors, or so I thought, I wanted to keep the first list more established authors, even if I was publishing their debut works in English, I wanted them to be award-winners or prominent authors I could market and contextualize with American/English readers accordingly–basically, I wanted to wait until Deep Vellum was established more before signing a debut novel so that I could ensure it would reach the right readership, so that I could treat the book right, give it the push it needs, and to have the patience necessary to work with a debut author to grow their reputation over time, and of course hoping to get the next book down the pipeline (same idea I had behind signing Fiston Mwanza Mujila, who was the second debut author I signed…Ganieva’s book will come out as part of Deep Vellum’s first list of books; Mujila in the second list). So I read the Russian version of the novel and really liked it, right after Frankfurt. But I needed to do my homework on the book, to make it fit in context, so that I could envision the readership and the ways to pitch it…And so I took a look at Suhrkamp’s foreign rights page for the novel and noticed that Gallimard, France’s most prestigious/legendary publishing house, had signed it as well, along with the well-respected La Nuova Frontiera in Italy. That meant something was going on with this author and this novel that was commanding international attention…I asked around about Ganieva. Marian Schwartz was one of the first I asked, at the Texas Book Festival last year, just two weeks after I got home from Frankfurt, and she is a huge advocate for Ganieva, having translated Ganieva’s story “Shaitans” for the Read Russia anthology that came out around BEA 2012 when Russia was the guest of honor (and which you can read here in PDF form), and which Ganieva attended…and crazy enough, I remember watching her talk at one of the Read Russia panels, but I was still so new to the publishing game in 2012 that I didn’t think twice about her, I was, admittedly, more fascinated at the time by Zakhar Prilepin (he is an imposing figure in person), and spending every moment I could talking with Russian translators I admired and was meeting for the first time, like Marian Schwartz and Liza Espenschade, as well as walking around NYC with Mikhail Shishkin and his wife, getting to know them better. BUT how I wish I could go back in time to speak with Alisa in 2012! But fast forward again to October 2013, I’m in Austin staying at Marian Schwartz’s house, and I ask her about Ganieva, and she says, breathlessly, “She is a remarkable author. Publish anything by her.” That’s the type of recommendation that gets my pulse racing, feeling like I have to sign a book right then and there. Marian was busy for the foreseeable future with translation projects, so I sent the Russian text to my mentor in graduate school at Duke University, Dr. Carol Apollonio, asking her if she would like to read the text and, if she liked it, if she’d be interested in translating it. Needless to say, she was fascinated by Ganieva’s novel, and she volunteered to translate it. So I sent in an offer to Petra at Suhrkamp for the book and was lucky enough to receive worldwide English rights to the book (so should any of you UK/Aussie/South African presses be interested in this novel, let me know!), and I signed on Carol to translate it. In more good business news, I applied for and received a generous grant from the Prokhorov Foundation’s Transcript program to cover the cost of the translation and the rights acquisition (Deep Vellum also received a Transcript grant to cover the translation and rights costs of Shishkin’s Calligraphy Lesson). So now that Carol is back from a summer teaching at the Monterey Defense Language Institute and a trip to Moscow (where she got to meet with Ganieva and talk about the translation!), she is settling back into Duke, getting ready to translate the novel, and I’m starting to lay the groundwork for this book to be published in June 2015. It’s a long but wonderful process, publishing is, but it is so worthwhile, and so fulfilling an endeavor. I cannot wait to share Ganieva’s remarkable novel with you all!!!!!!

Die russische Mauer Cover Праздничная гора обложка

The Russian Wall will be released in June 2015, and Ganieva will be in the States all next summer doing readings after teaching classes for a couple weeks at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, so be in touch if you want to host an event with her.

For information on The Russian Wall and its plot, check out the information below from Suhrkamp’s foreign rights page and get excited. Preorders will be up for this amazing novel soon, and be prepared to have your mind blown as you start to think about Russian literature in an entirely new way:

The literary debut of a promising Russian author from an unknown country

Shamil, a young local reporter, arrives at the paper to find his editors in a state of great agitation. There is a rumour going around that the Russians are building a wall to cut off the Caucasus. Unrest is spreading through the city on the Caspian Sea, with new assemblies being held daily. Pro-Islamic Kumyk demonstrators debate the drawing of borders with the supporters of a ‘united Lezgistan’. The atmosphere is tense. Fear hangs in the air. But Shamil tries to go on living as if nothing had changed. He goes to his martial arts classes, goes for joyrides through town with his friends, gets his rocks off at the local disco. He is in a daze when Madina, his fiancée tells him she is going to take the veil and follow a Salafist fighter into the mountains. Even after the first people have been killed and his well-educated cousin Asya tries to convince him to flee with her to Georgia and from there on into the West, Shamil cannot overcome his hesitation. But then events catch up with him.

»It is no longer possible to describe my book as fantastic or anti-utopian. It is a work of realist literature, dealing with something that might very well have happened.« Alisa Ganieva in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

With a fine sense for mounting catastrophe, Alisa Ganieva tells the story of the decline and fall of a society torn apart by its inherent extremes. But like a vision in the midst of this nightmare, the image of a ‘Mountain of the Feast’ appears, a refuge for all those who are tired of the intolerance and violence. 

»Never before has Russian literature produced such an honest and complete picture of today’s Caucasus.« Kommersant Weekend


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