Despite efforts to silence independent authors, literature lovers in Azerbaijan are having the last word with the help of RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service, known locally as Radio Azadliq.
For the last six years Radio Azadliq’s “Reading Room,” a substantial section on the service’s website, has provided a space for readers and writers to connect over good literature, unimpeded by government filters.
The webpage, “Okhu zali” in Azeri, includes an online library of Azeri literature, much of which could not be published through other channels, and literary essays and reviews written by independent critics that likely wouldn’t be published elsewhere. It also sponsors an annual contest open to all writers working in the Azeri language, not just those vetted by government-funded literary associations.
“In Azerbaijan we have a government funded organization, the Azeri Writers Union, and people who are not members of this organization have difficulties publishing their work and getting access to literary events,” said Rovshan Gambarov, editor of Reading Room. “So we started this project in order to engage people from all sides, with all political and social attitudes.”
The online library provides a vast resource for Azeri speakers around the world, with over 600 titles and counting. Access to the novels, poetry, and short stories in the online collection is especially important for Azeri speakers in Iran, Gambarov says, as they do not have Azeri schools, and literature is one way of preserving their language and ethnic identity. The collection includes contributions from Azeri-speaking Iranians, in addition to works from writers within Azerbaijan, some of which are critical of the government and were rejected by Writers Union magazines and publishers, Gambarov says.
“For me literature is like air and water. One day, I hope I will see my own name here too. Thanks a lot,” wrote Reading Room reader Sevinj Gadirova in the online library’s comments section.
“As your frequent reader and as an author whose works have been included in the library, I am very grateful to Radio Azadliq. It is very helpful for all people,” wrote Metanet Vahid.
The Reading Room’s literary competition is in its fifth year and draws hundreds of submissions annually, including from Azeri writers in Iran. Politics is rife in government-sanctioned literary competitions, says Gambarov, a situation that in his view both marginalizes writers critical of Azerbaijani politics and society and deprives readers of access to high-quality literature.
“We have a kind of literary hierarchy in Azerbaijan which is based on people’s political views,” said Gambarov. “If you are a government minister, it means that you are a good writer and you can win the award. We don’t have fair ways of determining who the best writers are.”
Submissions for the Reading Room award are reviewed by independent literary critics who are not given the author’s name, so as to avoid bias based on political affiliation, gender, nationality, or ethnicity. A short list of the best submissions is then published for readers to vote on their favorite pieces online.
This year’s winner in the poetry category, Rufat Said, was awarded for his tragic verse about the people whose homes were destroyed in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, as part of a controversial government “beautification” project.
“If you are a poet and you write about these social and political issues, you are not welcome in government sponsored TV channels, newspapers, and magazines,” said Gambarov.
While dissenting voices may not be welcome on mainstream channels, Reading Room judges evaluate submission on their literary merit and authors of all or no political persuasions or are encouraged to submit their work. This year’s winner in the short story category was Shahriyar del Gerani, a writer for the largest Azeri language news website, the pro-government lent.az.
“We don’t censor,” said Gambarov. “So it’s an opportunity for all writers.”