When Chinese author Wang Gang brought a smile to the faces of his Turkish listeners as he recounted how a musician back in Xinjiang had sung him a tune dubbed “Istanbul” just a few days ago, it’s unlikely few in the audience recognized the irony.
After all, the theme of China’s presence at the 2013 Istanbul Book Fair is Ipak Yolu—Yeni Sayfa (The Silk Road—A New Page). One major traditional Silk Road route began in Chang’an, today’s Xi’an, and ended in Constantinople, today’s Istanbul, skirting Xinjiang’s deadly Taklamakan Desert along the way.
Wang Gang was speaking at the closing event of a series of seminars on Nov 3 highlighting China’s role as “Country of Honor” at this year’s Istanbul Book Fair. He was just one of five speakers, because this was primarily a platform for celebrating the translation and publication of two Chinese novels into Turkish, thanks to a project jointly subsidized by Turkey and China: Sonsuz Ne Kadar Uzun (How Long is Forever?) by Tie Ning (铁凝), and Ingilizce (English) by Wang Gang (王刚).
Given the state of translation—in fiction, at least—between the two languages, 2 new novels is not an insignificant contribution. The only modern Chinese novel I’ve seen in any bookshop in Ankara, Antalya or Istanbul is Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum (Kızıl Darı Tarlaları), but thankfully there are a few more Chinese novels in Turkish translation than that (see Obligatory Pretty Face). Meanwhile, thanks mainly to Turkey’s TEDA, a program under the Ministry of Culture & Tourism that subsidizes translations and publication into foreign languages, the number of contemporary Turkish novels already in print or appearing in Chinese during 2013-14 will top 30 (see table).
But back to Wang Gang, the decision to translate his book, and the meaning of his presence at the dais yesterday. Wang Gang grew up in Xinjiang during the Cultural Revolution, and his novel <英格力士> (English), is a moving coming-of-age novel set in Ürümchi during that tumultuous period. This has obvious appeal and relevance to readers in Turkey, both because the Cultural Revolution was a hugely important historical event still poorly understood outside China, but also because Xinjiang is home to something like 10 million Uyghurs, a Muslim people who speak a Turkic language with the same roots as Turkish. Linguists estimate the two languages share 70 percent of their vocabularies.
The Uyghurs and their culture are strangely absent from English, however, even though during the 1970s they still greatly outnumbered the Han in Xinjiang overall. In Wang Gang’s fictional Ürümchi, you may notice certain things are missing. No mention is made of the Muslim faith, the famous mosques of Xinjiang, the halal restaurants where Uyghurs dine, or Ürümchi’s Erdaoqiao district (二道桥), traditionally populated by Uyghurs and other Turkic-speaking, non-Han residents. While one woman of mixed Han and Uyghur parentage does figure, there are no male Uyghur characters at all.
As Wang Gang delivered his brief but winning presentation in Chinese, I couldn’t help but ponder the symbolism of choosing a Xinjiang-born Han author and this particular novel as an introduction to 21st-century Chinese literature. Over the last decade, and especially since the deadly Ürümchi riots of 2009, the Chinese government has implemented a series of hardline policies aimed at re-peopling Xinjiang with a majority-Han population—that threatens to eventually reduce the Uyghurs to a minority within their homeland—restricting education in the Uyghur language, discouraging men from growing beards and women from donning traditional Muslim headware, and banning young Uyghurs from entering mosques and university students from fasting during Ramadan.
Rendering Wang Gang’s speech into excellent Turkish was a crack interpreter, by far the best one I encountered at seminars during Nov 1-2. Born and raised in Turkey, she happens to be the daughter of . . . Uyghur immigrants from China.