“Backstreets,” the Novel: The Brutal Life of a Uyghur Man in Xinjiang’s Ürümchi

In Xinjiang Has Produced Its James Joyce, Ed Park reviews the first contemporary Uyghur-language novel to appear in English translation, by an author — Perhat Tursun (پەرھات تۇرسۇن) — now languishing in the Xinjiang Gulag:

If his [the protagonist’s] rural Uyghur upbringing was harsh, his life as a Uyghur man in Ürümchi can be downright brutal. Byler’s own recent bookTerror Capitalism: Uyghur Disposession and Masculinity in a Chinese City, uses The Backstreets as a conversation starter with Uyghur men in similar situations as its protagonist—adrift, marked as minorities. (“We talked about how in the city young migrants needed to develop a new sense of direction; how the geographical features they had used to organize their world appeared scrambled.”)

The people he [the protagonist]  encounters at work and during his lonely, paranoid meandering are nameless grotesques. No one will help him. A madman vows to “chop” up Uyghurs in a certain region; Tursun prints the word more than 200 times in a row. A woman whom he mistakes for a “bundle of clothes” comes at him with a cleaver. A “smiling-faced” office supervisor makes it apparent that “talking to me was not just a waste of his time, but was actually the crime of wasting the time of his entire ethnic nationality”—that is, Han Chinese.

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