The Womanly Face of War

Author: Lika Antadze, Mano Svanidze


Text by Lika Antadze

Photos by Mano Svanidze


Ketevan Gardavadze knew the field was mined, everybody in the village did. But she urgently needed to bring her little brother some milk, so the 13-year-old girl faced two options: either crossing the killing field or walking on the track close to the frontlines where soldiers from the opposing side could easily shoot at her. Ketevan chose the meadow. She anxiously began to run, counting out “Eeny, meeny, miny, mo…”  

Then the milk blew into the air.

The climax of Tamta Meliashvili’s novel Counting Out is an image many Georgians can relate to - war and loss have scarred the country’s recent history and its storytellers have turned to them often, in both books and movies. The seed of the 39-year-old’s acclaimed book was planted in 2008 when the war against Russia over Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia broke out again. It only lasted a few days but it opened deep, new wounds.

“The book is my protest against the [2008] war, but I intentionally did not indicate the location, in the end every war resembles all the others,” explains Melashvili who made her name as a writer of short stories before taking up the challenge of a novel.

Yet, as it depicts the struggle of two teenage girls, Ketevan and her friend Nino Rogava, for survival in a small town, Counting Out brings together conflict and women - an unusual combination in Georgian novels.

Men have traditionally dominated Georgia’s literary scene, and as cliches’ die hard, they still do. The reading list of the national curriculum for high schoolers features 26 writers - only one is a woman, 20th century poet Ana Kalandadze. Melashvili recalls a friend of hers being puzzled by the portrait of novelist Ekaterine Gabashvili in his classroom.

“He told me he has always visualized her as a man. He could not imagine that a writer could be a woman,” Melashvili recalls.

“The Georgian literary scene is open to female poets but the novel genre was always a men’s territory,” notes Tamta Melashvili.
Meliashvili’s debut novel Counting Out is set during a fictional armed conflict but its idea hails from the August 2008 War over the breakaway region of South Ossetia.
In 2006 Melashvili submitted a short story to the now-defunct Tsero Literary Contest. The general public could read the stories and comment on them: most readers assumed the author was a man. She discover afterwards that members of the jury also thought the same. “Back then I took it as a compliment.”

The absence of female voices in Georgian literature inevitably has contributed to defining people’s perception about men and women’s social roles, perpetuating the stereotype of literature as a man’s world - writers were men, just like the leading characters.

As a teenage bookworm, award-winning writer and poet Tea Topuria was certainly affected by this lack of diversity; her literary heroes were men, women were secondary characters. Only as an adult did she start wondering where the women were.

“I’d read and I’d inevitably identify myself with the main character. I was always a man,” recalls the 41-year-old writer and poet. “It took me years to realize that a hero can also be a woman.”

Slowly but steadily her generation of female writers are challenging that stereotype, led by writers like Naira Gelashvili, the only woman who has twice won the SABA, Georgia’s most prestigious literary award, for the best novel category. Melashvili’s Counting Out was awarded the same prize in 2010 for best debut novel.

Melashvili grew up sympathizing with characters like Holden Caulfield and Anna Frank, but missed a model in her native language and she eventually found it in Georgian author Ana Kordzaia Samadashvili. A writer, German-language translator and university professor, Kordzaia Samadashvili took the Georgian literary world by storm in the 1990s with unconventional female characters - her heroes would swear and curse, which was somehow taboo for women, both in literature as well as in real life. Her acclaimed novel “Who Killed Chaika?” is a crime story that delves into the murder of an ordinary woman called Chaika.

“[Ana] showed me how you could portray a real woman. Not an angel or a prostitute, but a woman who stands somewhere in between. As we all do, in reality,” explains Melashvili.

Tea Topuria notes how while the vast majority of novels are a masculine monotone, hagiographical works somehow offer  more diversity.

“Take The Martyrdom of the Holy Queen Shushanik [the earliest manuscript of Georgian literature, dating back to the 5th century)or Rustaveli’s The Knight in the Panther’s Skin [medieval epic poem considered Georgian literature’s masterpiece]. In those books women are so strong. I don’t know what happened to us during Soviet times, why [and how] did we lose the way?”

Works from female writers from the 20th century could be added to the official reading list, she adds, but somehow authorities remain stuck on this curriculum.

“It will take years for a new generation of women writers to be included in schools’ literary programs,” she sighs.

Tea Topuria, 41, was born in Abkhazia, but she considers herself only “partially” internally displaced since she left her hometown, Sokhumi, a few years before the war.
Tea Topuria’s Skipping School, included in the collection of short stories Two Rooms in Cairo, tells the life of children in Sokhumi during the war. Topuria is mainly known for her writing for children and often talks in schools. During one of these visits, she learned that pupils knew this story despite the fact it is not a children’s tale.
War is a life-changing experience. “It brings out everything in you. It makes you see your real self,” says Topuria.
Apart from her books for children, Topuria writes short stories that focus on Abkhazia and the feeling of loss.
Topuria’s collection of poems Ecocide (short for ecological suicide) was inspired by a forest engulfed in flames. “Humans go through the same process of burning when confronted with a tragedy, whether related to love or war,” she explains.
For Topuria “writing is therapeutic, but I don’t want people to feel sad and depressed when they read my work.”
Topuria’s One Long Day on Another Planet is a children’s short story collection where fantasy mixes with contemporary reality in Georgia. Mysticism is constantly present in her work and some critics consider her writing close to magic realism, a rare genre in Georgian literature.
“Lion’s whelps are equally lions, be they male or female,” wrote Shota Rustaveli in The Knight in the Panther’s Skin in the 12th century. The medieval poem is considered Georgia’s literary masterpiece and it features strong female characters. It is so central to the country’s identity that traditionally it was part of a bride’s dowry.

In highly patriarchal societies such as Georgia, women are left with little room to challenge the roles assigned to them, but these writers are taking a stand - including in almost entirely male environments like war.

Armed conflict and sacrifice are centre to Topuria’s work, but, unlike Melashvili’s Counting Out, her war has a name and a specific location.

“I write about Abkhazia, and that’s how war comes in my writing,” she explains.

Hailing from the lush Black Sea region, Topuria left her native city of Sukhumi for Tbilisi with her family a few years before the conflict broke out between Abkhazians and Georgians - she was 14 and never returned.

“We could not visit anymore,” she sighs. “Abkhazia is my childhood, that’s why I write about it. I tried to focus on something else, but I always end up coming back to it.”

Her stories often focus on children, both during wartime or just after the conflict. Her style draws on Georgia’s rich folk tradition and brings elements of mysticism - her short story Home is set in an occupied house in Sokhumi and it explores how its former owners, who fled the house and could never return, haunt those who moved in after the conflict.

Living in Tbilisi during the civil war, Topuria saw dead bodies lying in the streets but she soon stopped being affected by them - like many other Georgians, she developed a coping mechanism to survive those years. This powerful, direct experience is key for her writing, she notes.

Topuria adds that it makes her books about war fundamentally different than those by any other writer, especially Georgian male writers. She notes that she could not go into detail describing different types of weapons, like well-known author Beka Kurkhuli does.

“If I say that I am deeply traumatized by the wars I have witnessed, that would be a lie. I think one has to first get over a trauma and only after that write about it. There must be some emotional distance between the writer and his or her text.”

Known mainly for her children’s books, Topuria often visits schools and believes that adults need to be careful about how books describe war.

“Reading and imagining horrible things can be no less traumatic than experiencing them directly,” she notes. In an odd way, Topuria considers the experience of the war “positive in the sense as it helps you see who you really are [in an extreme situation].”

Melashvili notes that books about war can do more than just describe violence; they can also explore deeper themes in society. Beyond the horrible trauma of war, Counting Out brings a larger message, according to Melashvili: Ketevan’s death epitomizes women’s sacrifice.

“She sacrifices herself for her brother, for the “man” because she is “a good girl.” This is how women [are asked to] live ‘You are a good girl for the benefit of someone else’.”

November, 2018 The Peace - Builders 

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