Byways of Translation

Byways of Translation: Review of The Backstreets by Perhat Tursun, translated by Darren Byler and Anonymous

by Munawwar Abdulla

“I don’t know anyone in this strange city, so it is impossible for me to be friends or enemies with anyone.”

Tursun, Perhat. The Backstreets: A Novel from Xinjiang, translated from the Uyghur by Darren Byler and Anonymous.. Columbia University Press, September 2022, 168 pages, $20.00. ISBN: 9780231202916

The Backstreets by Perhat Tursun follows a single night of a 21-year-old looking for a place to sleep. A youth from a small town in the Altisheher[1] region, he is one of a select few Uyghurs who study in Beijing, and is then allocated to work (and fulfil the “minority” quota) at an office job in Urumchi.[2] The book weaves this foggy night with memories of his current life in the office and his hazy past. This is the first and only fictional novel in Uyghur to be published in English at present.

The translation was carried out by Darren Byler, an anthropologist who has written extensively on Uyghurs, and an anonymous Uyghur translator known only as A. A. In the introduction to the book, the co-translator is described as someone similar to the protagonist; an “underemployed, alienated young migrant who had recently left his job due to systemic discrimination” (p. X), trying to navigate life. Byler talks of how the translations were carried out through talking to A.A. and learning about his real-life experiences. Tursun was also consulted on the translations as he completed the final revisions in the original language. As mentioned in the introduction, he was quite influenced by authors such as Camus, and it felt to me that some of that literary style equipped the English translation as well. A question I would be curious to find the answer to is how the styles, ideas, or literary techniques from the Western canons were reformed in Chinese and Uyghur, how that informed Tursun’s work, and how or whether that is brought back to English now. From my shallow understanding of the works in question, from Kafka and Faulkner to Freud and Jung, the Western ideas of the human experience felt oddly normal when read in Uyghur, but quite interesting to see juxtaposed with Uyghur cultural, political, and religious experiences in English. This could perhaps be something to keep in mind while reading the book.

Perhat Tursun first wrote The Backstreets in the 90s and continued to edit it until 2015. Throughout his career, his exploration of taboo topics often earned the ire of the more conservative circles of Uyghur society. However, in 2018, Tursun was seized by Chinese authorities in Urumchi, and in 2020 was sentenced to 16 years in prison for no official reason. A prolific writer, Tursun had been working on five more books at the time. His conservative critics were also caught in Chinese prison systems. Some speculate that they were jailed for trying to protect the Uyghur language’s constitutional rights, or promote Uyghur culture, language, and ideas.

The valuing of one language or narrative over another hangs heavy in this book as well. The unnamed protagonist is often taken to task for his unconfident grasp of Mandarin. In one encounter he is asked to write a contract promising that he would not request boarding from his workplace. For each error in spelling, he is asked to rewrite the whole thing. With each repetition he loses the will to speak the language for fear of making a mistake. In many cases, those in his workplace who have perfect Chinese elocution are shown to be treated better. Furthermore, the Han narrative takes precedent over the Uyghur narrative, as seen in his fear that a Chinese woman on the street would accuse him of rape. This is reminiscent of a real-life incident that took place in 2009. The false accusation of rape by a Chinese woman resulted in a mob that ended the lives of at least two Uyghur men, leading to the July 5th protests and subsequent heavy-handed crackdown on Uyghur freedoms.

Moving back and forth in time, we see how racism and classism pervade everyday life for the protagonist. At his workplace, his manager outright tells him that talking to him is not just a waste of his time, but is the “crime of wasting the time of his entire ethnic nationality” (p. 106). Despite being homeless, the protagonist is also pressured to give charity to Han victims of a natural disaster in mainland China. When he protests, he is met with shock and hostility until he gives in, knowing that he will go hungry for the next two weeks. In Beijing, too, he and his Uyghur classmates are isolated to such an extent that when a Han man accuses them of a crime, none can be held responsible because the man cannot tell the difference between the Uyghurs in a line-up. Such experiences seem to give way to the protagonist’s projection of murderous intent in people he passes by during the long night. The protagonist takes a deep dive into the psyche of one such passer-by’s violence, shown by Tursun’s repeated use of the word “chop” (about 220 times), and calculating just how long it might take for that man to kill everyone living in Altisheher. Furthermore, as he walks through the foggy night, attempting to ask directions from anyone who crosses his path, he is met only with blank stares or anger.

The examples of racism and dehumanisation are very much a reflection of lived experiences. Propaganda images from the Chinese Communist Party depict rats being killed with axes and farming equipment as a representation of getting rid of the “three forces” i.e., extremism, terrorism, and separatism. These “three forces” tend to be readily linked to any Uyghur grievance or violent act despite lack of evidence. It is interesting, then, that the protagonist uses this descriptor for people in general, as well as a point of comparison regarding things he is and isn’t able to do. At times he describes those hostile to him as rat poison, and later muses that he once believed rat poison was actually medicine to heal rats. While the author uses the rat as a metaphor and symbol throughout the book, I don’t believe he directly refers to the protagonist as a rat. It was all the more interesting to see the translation refer to the protagonist’s hand as a “paw,” which felt like a moment of dehumanising the self. In my reading of the Uyghur version, he uses the word “palm” in this instance. Whether this was done deliberately or not, it continues the theme of dehumanisation of the outsider.

In The Backstreets, the fog is omnipresent, and the protagonist often describes the way in which it seeps into the body, changing it, affecting the mind, the gut, and so on. He also relies heavily on scents and sounds to describe and analyse people and places. If such environmental factors play a large part in shaping a person, then what about the parts of his environment that he pays less attention to, such as racism, hostility, isolation, and dehumanisation?

It is clear, as mentioned in the introduction to the book, that Tursun was interested in exploring psychology and mental illness, and how mental illness can manifest in environments such as the one the protagonist is living through. Based on the protagonist’s behaviours, one may wonder whether he is afflicted with some form of schizophrenia or PTSD. If so, do we believe the protagonist’s analysis of his surroundings? A danger of diagnosing a character with mental illness is that they immediately become an unreliable narrator. Considering the ending of the novel, this becomes a legitimate concern. The fog perhaps becomes a metaphor for a barrier, not only physically in terms of blocking his view of his destination, but also of people seeing him for who he is or hearing his real concerns. As someone who is “ill,” he is treated with a dose of mistrust. Perhaps many Uyghurs feel as though people outside the fog never believe what they are saying and can never seem to see the issues they face. In this fog, the protagonist is also unable to see others until they come right up to him, only for them to dismiss him when he asks for help. As the fog infests his breath and bones, the haziness and murkiness of his mind is exacerbated.

Nevertheless, he doesn’t dwell on these rejections or his fears, instead keeping a matter-of-fact tone of his daily life (sometimes reminiscent to me of Kafka), and philosophising about grander subjects, such as how the universe was created, or what he believes humanity fears the most – the infinite. He focuses on things that make him happy, such as numbers, and compartmentalises away any deeper traumas we might discover later in the book, when his higher faculties weaken with fatigue. We immediately encounter his hyperfixation with numbers, as well as his obsessive-compulsive tendencies related to superstitions drilled into him by his parents and his life experiences. These are driving forces of the narrative and shape much of his character. The protagonist finds meaning, signs, and answers in his analysis of the numbers he encounters. Numbers are the essence of sound and colour and all things that he is being affected by. The association between the infinite, the creation of the universe, and the way he places himself into that cross section through numbers, is an interesting concept the author juggles with as he walks along the tightrope between different conceptions of self. Perhaps the moments where he is thinking of his numbers are some of the only moments where his brain doesn’t seem “murky.”

The protagonist likens his “murky brain” and the “murky city” to “the ambiguous position of [his] identity in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region” (p. 49).The author grapples with the idea of identity multiple times in the book, at one point saying that people “spend their whole lives trying to determine their own identity” (p. 120). The protagonist is “forced to accept the concept of identity that others manufacture” for him (p. 121), because he is human – an interesting phrasing, since it directly humanises him, but the language also feels dissociative. Throughout the book, existence and self-possession are sometimes tied to the existence of an object, which will disappear if destroyed. For example, the protagonist believes that his predecessor at his workplace would simply cease to exist if his belongings in his desk were to be discarded. Perhaps he also believes that if his ties to the world were destroyed then he would cease to exist as well.

And yet, in a world where his sense of self is chipped away by relocation, desertion of his family, aggression and isolation from society and the state, the confines of the backstreets and the fog, in a world where he is starting to feel disembodied within himself, the protagonist has the audacity to live. He believes that his ability to live must naturally be of great value if the fact that he is alive is so frustrating to those around him. He believes it’s the only thing he is good for and the only thing he can possess. This logical leap in the protagonist’s mind is a fascinating observation and instance of defiance. Is a person as good as dead if they have no home, family, or community? Perhaps not. Perhaps their life still has great value.

Overall, Tursun provides a glimpse of a life that many young Uyghur men may find relatable, a story of the outsider in a new context – that of an Uyghur man dealing with the ambiguities of his life in the structure of Chinese colonialism, and the impact that has had on Uyghur society and its overall wellbeing. Within it, we also get to see tendrils of Uyghur culture – albeit through the protagonist’s mental haze – such as the Islamic-beliefs-turned-superstitions, the way some farmers count time, or even which parts of modern Uyghur life were influenced by colonialism. Some readers may find it too heavy, and others may be repulsed by the descriptions of abjection, but a critical reading may unearth themes that are important to understanding the history and psyche of a society that produces such work.

It was an amazing experience to read an Uyghur novel in English for the first time. Such is the way we can begin to look through some of the fog of Uyghur existence. Translation is not only the rendering of one language into another, but an ongoing two-way street and a tool to better understand the author and all the hearts the story throws light on. But that exchange has been prematurely blocked. Around 2017, A.A. along with all the young men who had taught Byler how to read The Backstreets disappeared into camps and have not been heard from since.


[1] The word “Altisheher” is used in the book to mean the southern part of the “Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region,” which has a majority Uyghur population. It’s a historical term meaning “Six Cities,” referring to the oasis cities surrounding the Tarim Basin.

[2] Urumchi (spelled Urumqi in Chinese) is the capital of “Xinjiang” and is one of the few major cities in the region that has a Han majority population. Note: Xinjiang is a colonial term meaning “New Frontier” or “New Territory” and I prefer to use the term East Turkistan.

Munawwar Abdulla holds an MSc from UNSW Sydney and works as an RT and Lab Manager at the Evolutionary Neuroscience Lab at Harvard University. She co-founded the Tarim Network and is an avid community builder, poet, translator, and advocate for Uyghur issues. Her work has appeared in journals such as Modern Poetry in Translation, Asymptote Journal, and Cordite Poetry Review

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, January 10, 2023

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