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Russia’s Young, Exportable Writers

By Chad W. Post

Back in 2000, the “Debut Prize” was established by the Pokolenie (Generation) Foundation to support Russian writers under the age of 25. Ten years later, the best works generated by this competition will be made available to English and Chinese readers.

According to Olga Slavnikova, winner of the Russian Booker Prize and director of the Debut Prize, “The Debut inspires young Russian writers to complete that first book. The Debut prompts them to commit to literature their unique experience, what might be described as the shock of their first encounter with grown-up life.”

By setting the age limit at 25, this prize is helping engender novels by authors who were children when the USSR collapsed, who escaped the Cold War, and are coming of age in a world that their parents could never have predicted. In the words of Ms. Slavnikova, “One may say without exaggeration that this is the most ingenuous and honest literature in Russia since 1917, the year of the deplorable October coup.”
Although tens of thousands of manuscripts are submitted for the award every year, virtually none of these “ingenuous” works makes it out of Russia. To help promote this new generation of Russian authors, the Pokolenie Foundation is launching an international program. This year anthologies of the “Best of the Debut Prize Winners” will appear in both Chinese and English.

GLAS — one of the most successful and well-respected English-language publishers of Russian literature — recently published Squaring the Circle, which includes pieces from Aleksei Lukyanov, a two-time Debut Prize finalist; Gulla Khirachev, who is mostly known for her avant-garde children’s tales, but won the Debut Prize in 2009 for her first work of fiction for adults; Polina Klyukina, who was a finalist in 2008; and Olga Yelagina, who was a finalist in 2005, among others.

These pieces have been selected from all of the winners from the past decade. The 30,000+ entries are first whittled down into a 100 author “shortlist,” and the 20-25 Debut finalists are brought to Moscow for “Debut Week” — a week of lectures, classes, talks, and an award ceremony in which winners in various categories receive 200,000 rubles (approx. £4,000 or $7,500).

In addition to GLAS’s Squaring the Circle, a Chinese anthology will also be produced. And over the next few years, collections will appear in French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Japanese, in addition to annual anthologies in English. Along with promoting Russian culture, an underlying hope is that these anthologies will entice more foreign publishers to bring out translations of contemporary Russian authors.

(This story originally appeared in the Publishing Perspectives show daily at the Frankfurt Book Fair on 8 October 2010. Download the complete show daily here or click on the image to view the online version.)

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