For the first time, a Uyghur novel is translated into English

From The Economist:

Perhat Tursun was a precocious teenager.

He published his first poem when he was 11 years old and started university in Beijing at the age of 14. Back then, in 1983, few books by foreign authors were available in Uyghur, his native tongue. So Mr Tursun mastered Mandarin and gained access to troves of translated foreign works. He devoured the writings of Camus, Dostoyevsky, Joyce and Kafka. When other Uyghurs arrived in the capital to study, he advised them to do the same.

Through reading, young Uyghurs could explore a world that was off-limits. As members of the predominantly Muslim, Turkic-speaking ethnic minority, acquiring a passport was difficult and they faced bitter prejudice in Beijing, a city dominated by ethnic-Han Chinese. Despite these obstacles, the group of Uyghurs nurtured a passion for literature and philosophy and would go on to become some of the leading intellectuals of their generation. Mr Tursun made a name for himself as one of the most influential modernist writers in the Uyghur language. He chafed against convention and despised obsequiousness, recalls Tahir Hamut Izgil, a renowned Uyghur writer and film-maker living in exile in America, who was among the students Mr Tursun mentored.

Years later, in 2006, Mr Tursun finished writing “The Backstreets”, a book which echoes his life. The narrator is a nameless Uyghur from rural Xinjiang, a region in the far west of China, who is hired by a company in Urumqi, the regional capital, to fill their diversity quota. The protagonist grapples with racist superiors and callous strangers while searching for a place to live. Published in America and Britain on September 13th, “The Backstreets” is the first Uyghur-language novel to be translated into English.

Written as a stream of consciousness, the book exemplifies Mr Tursun’s unconventional use of form and style. At one point the Uyghur narrator imagines the murderous rage of a Han bystander and the page is filled with 215 consecutive repetitions of the word “chop”. Visceral and often disorientating, “The Backstreets” illustrates the painful effects of racism and exclusion. It is a strange and devastating novel, a portrait of what it means to become a second-class citizen in your homeland.

Darren Byler, an anthropologist at Simon Fraser University in Canada, discovered the novel while conducting fieldwork on Uyghur migration in 2014 and felt it “deserved a broader audience”. To decode the book’s dense language and cultural references, he relied on his co-translator, a Uyghur migrant living in Urumqi, credited only as Anonymous. They met daily in a teahouse, often in the company of friends—and, they suspected, informants.

Link to the rest at The Economist

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