The Backstreets: A Novel from Xinjiang

  • By Perhat Tursun; translated by Darren Byler and Anonymous
  • Columbia University Press
  • 168 pp.
  • Reviewed by Emily Walz
  • February 3, 2023

A young Uyghur man struggles to find something in this disorienting Kafkaesque tale.

The Backstreets: A Novel from Xinjiang

What happens to someone pushed to the edge of society? Are there environments so inhospitable and unforgiving that encountering them is enough to send a person over it? Marginalization to the point of insanity — or even oblivion — is the subject of Perhat Tursun’s The Backstreets. The story spans one long night, following a young man on a twisting and disorienting journey through a smoggy and unwelcoming metropolis. Here, life imitates art, or art imitates life: The novel’s main character, author, and publication are all caught in a web of state-sponsored repression.

Lauded as one of the most prominent contemporary Uyghur writers, Tursun is renowned beyond his home in China’s remote and contested northwest. The Atlantic refers to him as Xinjiang’s James Joyce; Foreign Policy called him China’s Salman Rushdie. Other writers compare him to Camus, to Kafka. Like theirs, Tursun’s work is known for pushing boundaries both in form and content, sometimes verging on the grotesque.

The Backstreets, which last fall became Tursun’s first fictional work released in English, centers on Urumqi, the capital of China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. To many abroad, the city is known for pollution, for the government-supported settler colonialism rapidly changing its demographic makeup, and as the frontier of China’s surveillance state.

Into the city has dropped an unnamed young man raised in the region’s more rural parts, now searching the streets for a room to rent. He is obsessively superstitious about crossing thresholds right foot first and fixated on random patterns of numbers and the prophecies he is convinced they contain but cannot decipher. The novel’s prose swirls with the confusion of his thoughts, doubling back to refocus on one idea:

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

Despite this repeated self-assurance that he has no foes, every encounter he has is some flavor of baffling, disheartening, or violent. Lost in an unwavering sea of hostility, his certainty about his own identity, his own existence, slips. The kindest strangers are those who ignore him.

Perhat Tursun vanished in 2018. Was disappeared, most say. “When they search the streets and cannot find my vanished figure / Do you know that I am with you,” read lines from one of his poems, “Elegy.”

Tursun’s biography parallels his protagonist closely enough that the two are easily entwined. A fellow Uyghur poet called The Backstreets a description of Tursun’s inner world. Post-disappearance, discussion of his fiction and his fate inevitably bleed further into each other.

Like its author, the novel’s main character — really its only character, moving against a churning backdrop of nameless, unrecognizable faces — is Uyghur, a member of an ethnic minority the Chinese state has gone to increasing lengths to suppress. At least 1 million are estimated to live imprisoned in hundreds of jails and what the Chinese state calls “re-education” centers. This out of only 11 million Uyghurs living in China.

Those outside the detention centers aren’t free from the state’s grasp, either: Uyghur families have been forced to host more than a million party-state minders dispatched to live in their homes to better report on their behavior and suspected sympathies.

In the novel, the city of Urumqi is inseparable from its fog, the word the protagonist uses for the smog that chokes the streets and erases the buildings. The narrative never leaves the protagonist’s mind; the external world filters in as a harsh, violent light:

“For an instant I could see the reddish glow of the lit windows, but in the next instant they seemed to disappear. They didn’t look like lit windows, they looked instead like the spit of a man whose teeth were bleeding.”

The Backstreets is not a fun read. It’s neither light not easy, and I found its churning prose at times difficult to follow, but this is by design: disorienting, disturbing, evoking a swirl of feelings in the reader.

Translator and anthropologist Darren Byler’s introduction describes Tursun’s voracious curiosity and pursuit of experimental thinking. Most searingly, he relates how many young Uyghur men felt the protagonist’s voice could be their own. Byler’s interviews with these men showed how the novel helped them place their own stories inside what he calls “a larger shared experience of social violence.”

Byler worked with a co-translator, unnamed because of the danger the project posed. The translation was finished in 2015, the same year Tursun finished the book, but they held off on publishing it, watching warily as the Chinese state cracked down on the Uyghurs. In 2017, its anonymous co-translator was also disappeared, part of a sweep of Uyghur cultural elites.

The Chinese state knows the power of culture, of narrative, of messaging. An expression of profound angst and alienation — let alone one that resonates across a population — becomes inescapably dangerous. It extends outward to illuminate the very thing that subsumed its writer.

Emily Walz is a writer based in Washington, DC.

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