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Photo of a fresco - Central Asian Buddhist Monks

“Central Asian Buddhist Monks.”  Photo from Wikimedia Commons of a 9th century fresco from the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves near Turfan, Xinjiang, China.

First the nuts and bolts:  I came across an interesting Asian lit contest.  The Open Central Asia Book Forum and Literature Festival 2013 has announced a deadline of October 1, 2013 for their 2013 literary contest. There are three categories: literary works, translations, and illustrations. According to a news article from Azernews, work may be submitted in English, Russian, or any Central Asian language. The contest website doesn’t specify exact language requirements, but indicates preference would be given to work in English. First prize is publication by Hertfordshire Press in London. Winning entries are chosen by public vote (the work is posted online) and committee. For more information, check out the entry requirements.

Wait… you may be thinking. Russian? And Azernews, as in Azerbaijan? I thought this website was about Asian literature.

And now what I really want to say: This brings me to why I chose to blog about this particular contest. Of course, I always like to highlight events that promote Asian literature, but this contest is a good opportunity to discuss Asia with a capital A. Asia is a huge place with hundreds of languages and cultures. But for many Americans, unfortunately, Asia = China, and China = chopsticks, paper lanterns, and geisha (which, if you didn’t know, are Japanese).

If you fall into this category, don’t fret. I wasn’t in much better shape before I started traveling. And feel free to blame this astonishing shortfall of knowledge at least partially on our educational system. I hope things have changed, but when I was young, “world” history meant European history. African history meant a discussion of the slave trade (which is important, but surely there’s more). And I don’t remember covering Asia, aside from the Vietnam War, at all.

Fortunately literature and travel are both threads that, once pulled, continue to unravel. It can be messy as you find each knot connecting with another knot, one you might not have known existed. But I for one have never been able to leave anything uninvestigated. If there’s a thread leading somewhere, I simply must give it a tug. This is how living in Japan leads to travel in China and SE Asia. It’s how reading Robert Hass leads to reading Issa and moving to Japan in the first place. It’s how reading Hass also leads to reading Czesław Miłosz, which leads to a study of North American Indians (Miłosz developed an interest when he moved to California).*  The world is getting smaller, but the threads are longer, complicated, and extraordinarily interesting.

So, to get back on topic: Central Asia. First a disclaimer: I’ve never traveled in Central Asia, and I haven’t read any of its literature. That might be the next thread I pull. In the meantime, here are a few maps to get us started (all from Wikimedia Commons).

The first is greater Asia —

World map with greater Asia highlighted.

Are you surprised? Would you have included the Arabian peninsula in your definition of Asia? I dare say most wouldn’t. For a more detailed overview, check out the map at worldatlas.com.

And now here’s Central Asia —

World map with Central Asia highlighted

And a close-up —

Map of Central Asia, showing different borders as defined by UNESCO, the former Soviet Union, and a common definition.

Various defining borders of Central Asia

The CIA World Factbook map defines Central Asia as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, but as you can see from the map directly above, some definitions reach well into mainland China and the Indian subcontinent. Azerbaijan (just west of Turkmenistan and the Caspian Sea–see this map) isn’t included in the maps above, but is geographically nearby and seems heavily involved in the Open Central Asia Book Forum and Literature Festival.

Defining Central Asia is a little complicated, but I think we’re starting to get the idea. Not to oversimplify things, but think east-meets-west, former Soviet states, the Silk Road, Marco Polo.

Okay, thanks. I know where Central Asia is. What about the literature? I’m afraid I’m not much help when it comes to Central Asian literature. Perhaps the best-known entry for Westerners is Christopher Marlowe’s play Tamburlaine the Great, loosely based on the life of Timur Lang (“Timur the Lame,” altered in European languages to “Tamerlane”), who conquered a sizable area north of the Arabian Sea (map) in the 14th century. I’m quite embarrassed that, when it comes to Central Asia, I can only offer a play written by an Englishman over 400 years ago.  If you can recommend any Central Asian lit, please do so!

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*For more information about Robert Hass, Issa, and Czesław Miłosz (in no way related to Central Asia but interesting all the same), please see below. There are a ton of other resources as well, but these are ones I’ve personally read/listened to/viewed.

PBS’s Poetry Everywhere – Robert Hass reading his translations of the Japanese haiku poet Issa.

The Essential Haiku:  Versions of Basho, Buson, & Issa – by Robert Hass (links to amazon.com).

Provinces – by Czesław Miłosz, translated by Robert Hass (links to amazon.com).

Poetry Lectures – Podcast discussion of Polish poets, including Miłosz.

Poetry Off The Shelf – Podcast tribute to Czesław Miłosz.