A Uyghur Author and Translator Were Detained. Now, Their Novel Speaks For Them.
Perhat Tursun was eager for his novel, “The Backstreets,” to come out in the United States. It would be the first Uyghur novel to appear in English, and he considered the grim tale of one man’s struggle within an oppressive environment one of his most consequential works.
But Darren Byler, who translated the volume and is a leading scholar on Uyghur culture and Chinese surveillance, was reluctant to go ahead. The text was ready by 2015, but the crackdown on Uyghurs living in China’s far western region of Xinjiang left him concerned for Tursun, and for his Uyghur co-translator. Publishing the book in English, he feared, might heighten their exposure.
Hundreds of Uyghur intellectuals were detained in China as part of a repression campaign targeting predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities that started in 2016, then escalated. Researchers say that as many as one million or more Uyghurs and Kazakhs were sent to indoctrination camps that the government called vocational training programs. Expressions of cultural identity or faith were heavily restricted. The United Nations said that the detentions could be considered “crimes against humanity.”
By 2018, Tursun and Byler’s co-translator, a Uyghur man who asked to remain anonymous, were among those who disappeared into the camps. The New York Times confirmed the co-translator’s identity with Byler and with the book’s publisher, and is withholding his name to protect him from retaliation from the state.
With the two men in detention, it was time to publish the book, Byler said.
“They deserve to have their voices and their work recognized,” he said.
“The Backstreets,” which Columbia University Press published on Tuesday, takes place in a smoggy provincial capital where an unnamed narrator trying to escape rural poverty finds work as a token minority hire in a bleak government unit dominated by Han Chinese, the largest ethnic group in China. Alienated and left to roam the streets alone, he slowly descends into mental illness, seeking solace in a reservoir of memories, rituals and dreams.
“It describes Perhat’s inner world,” said Tahir Hamut Izgil, a prominent Uyghur poet based in the United States who has known Tursun since their university days in the 1980s.
The oppressive atmosphere of the novel transcends fiction.
In the 1950s, thousands of Han Chinese flocked to Xinjiang to develop its large reserves of oil and minerals, heeding Mao Zedong’s calls to “open up the West” in China’s version of Manifest Destiny. By 2020, according to the census, 10.9 million of Xinjiang’s 20 million residents were Han. But as these settlers accrued wealth, state policies and widespread racism precluded many Uyghurs from owning businesses or finding jobs; many were limited to low-income labor even as living expenses soared.
Born in 1969, Tursun spent his childhood in a village near the city of Atush, in Xinjiang, Byler wrote in the book’s introduction. At 14, he joined the early cohorts of Uyghur students to enroll at the Minzu University of China in Beijing, which trains students from regions with large ethnic minority populations to become party bureaucrats. “The Backstreets” was informed by his experiences in Han-dominated environments as a student and, later, as a government worker, Izgil said.
In his first meeting with Byler about the translation of “The Backstreets,” Tursun said that five of his Uyghur classmates had suffered mental breakdowns while in university, prompting him to draw connections between alienation and mental health in his writing. According to Byler, he also cited Albert Camus’s “The Plague,” with its depictions of fog, as a major influence: A miasmatic fog looms in “The Backstreets,” and the frosty treatment of the protagonist by Han Chinese added to the inhospitable surroundings in the novel.
“Fog symbolizes various related things in the novel: obfuscation, mystery, dreams, confusion, death, and failed salvation as eternal punishment,” wrote Mamtimin Ala, a philosopher and author of the essay collection “Worse than Death: Reflections on the Uyghur Genocide,” in an email. “It is a metaphor for vagueness and uncertainty, capturing the essence of Uyghur reality.”
Like the protagonist, Tursun found work at a government institute after graduating. His favorite part of the job as a researcher of ethnic arts, Izgil said, was the ample time it allowed for literary pursuits. Tursun published poems, essays and fiction exploring subjects such as sex and suicide, running afoul of Quranic teachings and making him a gadfly in the majority Muslim Uyghur community in Xinjiang.
In Tursun’s 1991 novella, “Messiah Desert,” published in Uyghur, he delved into the teachings of Jesus. His 1999 novel, “The Art of Suicide,” also published in Uyghur, contained frank passages about sex, mental illness and suicidal thoughts. It drew the ire of Yalqun Rozi, a prominent Uyghur writer and critic who branded him a heretic in scathing reviews.
Tursun had trouble finding a publisher in China in the years that followed. “The Backstreets,” which he wrote in the early 1990s, was among the works he first published online in a Uyghur literary forum, in 2013.
Reflecting Tursun’s experience of feeling invisible, the protagonist in “The Backstreets” repeats the line, “No one in this city recognizes me, so it’s impossible for me to be friends or even enemies with anyone,” to himself like an incantation.
Byler, a professor at Simon Fraser University, in Canada, first heard about “The Backstreets” when he was in Xinjiang doing ethnographic research in 2014. He was particularly interested in the experiences of Uyghur men who had migrated to the city from the countryside.
Ethnic violence had been on the rise in Xinjiang for years. State news organizations frequently reported on attacks by Uyghurs, many of whom resented policies imposed by a Han-dominated government. After riots in 2009 during which the authorities said nearly 200 people were killed by Uyghurs, and two attacks on a market and a train station in 2014 that left about 40 people dead, the state’s crackdown on Uyghurs intensified.
The government put the region under surveillance, removed signs in Arabic script, destroyed mosques, pushed birth control measures for Muslim women and sent their children to boarding schools. The measures also included collecting DNA samples from members of the ethnic group.
Byler didn’t want to silence Tursun, but the vast campaign of surveillance and oppression left him wary of publishing “The Backstreets.”
“It has all these postcolonial, decolonial, anti-racist themes,” he said of the novel. Appearing in English, he said, it would “bring much more scrutiny to Perhat than there was before.”
The fate of the book’s co-translator was also at stake.
The co-translator, Byler said, is from a village in southern Xinjiang, and enjoyed reading Western literature and accessing uncensored news and American films through a VPN. In “The Backstreets,” he recognized his own pain, Byler wrote in an essay for Words Without Borders.
To avoid unwanted attention from the authorities, who were routinely searching Uyghur neighborhoods in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, Byler and the co-translator worked in a cafe. They parsed the novel’s winding sentences over cups of sweet tea and bowls of hand-pulled noodles and rice pilaf, Byler said. The co-translator explained the references to Uyghur village customs, such as the practice of using song to measure the time it takes to travel from one place to another. Over time, Byler wrote, he also opened up about the harassment he had endured as he tried to find work in the cities.
In 2017, two years after Byler left Xinjiang, the co-translator reached out saying they could no longer contact each other directly because of the scrutiny it would bring. The authorities had begun sending intellectuals to internment camps. Tursun and his critic, Rozi, were both targeted, despite their opposing views.
“Their imprisonment is a further example of the fact that the Chinese government’s targeting of Uyghurs has nothing to do with individuals beliefs, ideologies and actions,” said Joshua Freeman, an assistant research fellow at the Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica, in Taipei, who has translated several of Tursun’s poems into English. “Perhat’s crime was being born a Uyghur.”
Around the time Tursun disappeared, Byler heard through another researcher that the co-translator had been taken away to a camp, though it remains unclear whether he was charged with a crime. In 2020, Uyghur advocacy groups and news outlets reported that Tursun had received a 16-year sentence.
On hearing the news, Byler decided that it was time to publish Tursun’s book. “There’s no reason to delay anymore,” he said.
Izgil, Tursun’s longtime friend, said that if the novelist survives detention, he will be very pleased to learn that his words had reached readers around the world. Tursun had always cared deeply about the treatment of Uyghurs, Izgil said, but he hoped that his friend’s novel would be read primarily as a work of literature.
“There’s not a lot of need to look for political meaning,” he said. “He is a unique and unparalleled writer. He writes in Uyghur. This is already enough.”