The Backstreets: A Novel from Xinjiang

Translation: Darren Byler


The Backstreets its a very Kafkaesque read – nothing really happens here, and yet with each page you get more and more lost in the maze of the city drowning in fog. There is also no orderly narrative here – a few scenes, some tangled memories. And yet, the language of the book pushes us forward, just as it pushes the main character through the foggy Urumqi, who is looking for a place where he could feel at home.

You can read The Backstreets as a metaphor for Uyghur life – supposedly at home, but not really. Many of them are “disappeared” in the network of camps – just like the author himself, who disappeared in 2018. Along the main character, you are looking for the meaning of this situation, but it cannot be found – neither in Beijing nor in Urumqi. The author did a great job of conveying this suffocating and claustrophobic atmosphere without really saying anything outright.

What makes The Backstreets special – aside from the fact that it’s the first (that we know of?) translation of the book from Uyghur into English – is the great introduction by one of the translators, Darren Byler. It’s a great introduction to how the Chinese government treats the Uyghurs, especially after September 11th. It is a painful text, but an important one, especially to get some context before you get lost in the world of Tursun’s words. The co-translator – listed as anonymous – has also been “disappeared” by the Chinese regime. It all makes The Backstreets such an essential read – both on a literary and political level.

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