Cover Image: The Backstreets

The Backstreets

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Member Reviews

Very much enjoyed this book and appreciated that it highlighted Uyghur culture. I am writing a formal review of this title for Asymptote, which will include more particulars.
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A fascinating read about how people from the Uighur community are being treated in China. I found the book insightful and frightening at the same time. A must read. 

As an educator who teaches in the area of genocide studies I will definitely be recommending this book and using excerpts as examples of personal testimonies.
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Perhat Tursun's chilling novel depicts a banal dystopia, where resentment and indifference linger on the faces of the narrator's neighbors and community members. The pervasive fog--a glimpse of which is given on the novel's cover--serves as an excellent metaphor for the narrator's own alienation and disconnect from the surrounding world. While being exploited in work, and neglected in all other aspects of life, the narrator must still try to maintain a semblance of humanity and dignity as he goes about daily life.

A tough read, not much too enjoy, but more than enough to think about. Unfortunately, the reader may feel about as helpless as the narrator in proffering any hope of changing the conditions of the Uyghur people in China.
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This is the first translation of a Uyghur novel into English and for that alone is worth reading. It is by preeminent  Uyghur author who is currently in prison, apparently serving a 16 year sentence, detained by the Chinese government as so many other Uyghur intellectuals have been in order to wipe out the Uyghurs and their culture, and again this is a pressing reason to read the book and support even distantly the author. But the novel transcends its political importance by giving an unprecedented literary insight into Uyghur reality, a fascinating glimpse into the Uyghur experience through the mind of an unnamed narrator who lives in a nightmare world, shrouded in the literal fog of pollution and the symbolic fog of an oppressive society. Kafka and Camus quickly spring to mind but there is nothing imitative about the writing, with Tursun creating a unique claustrophobic atmosphere as the narrator tries to make sense of an increasingly surreal existence. He arrives in Xinjiang to take up a position in a government office but it soon becomes apparent that he is not welcome. He proceeds to wander through the city trying to find a place to stay, but meets only contempt and rejection. It’s not an easy read with its stream of consciousness narration and the narrator’s obsession with numbers so the excellent introduction is vital in helping the reader navigate their way into the narrator’s mind as he makes his physical journey through the city. Displaced in his own country, he faces loneliness and isolation, the dehumanising effects of urban living, racism and prejudice, a total lack of connectivity with and alienation from others in a world where he meets only suspicion. Although firmly rooted in its time and place, the book nevertheless has a universal relevance. A powerful and disturbing read.
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THE BACKSTREETS: A NOVEL FROM XINJIANG by Perhat Tursun follows an unnamed narrator as he wanders through the streets of Ürümqi, the capital city of Xinjiang, China’s vast northwesternmost autonomous region and the native home of many Uyghurs, a Turkic ethnic group. Most Uyghurs are Muslim and have faced increasing persecution by the Chinese government, including forced sterilization, forced labor, and internment. In fact, Tursun himself disappeared in 2018, with reports that he has been imprisoned.

The novel is an atmospheric journey through the narrator’s mind, the predominant sensation one of melancholy and loneliness, as the narrator describes the constant “fog” of the city. His refrain is, “I don’t know anyone in this strange city, so it’s impossible for me to be friends or enemies with anyone.”

The plot, if one exists, follows the narrator as he tries to find a place to live, facing rejection after rejection. He perseverates about the numbers he sees making patterns, his office job with an uncaring but creepily smiling boss, and the smells and impenetrable pollution of the city.

Darren Byler, who translated this work along with a Uyghur writer who remained anonymous, provides an introduction that is very helpful for situating this book in the sociopolitical context.

This novel won’t be for everyone, as parts of it feel repetitive and dense, and the way women were depicted as sexual objects made me uncomfortable. The prose is reminiscent of Camus; stark and bleak. It’s neither plot- nor character-driven, but rather illuminates the emotional essence of Uyghur existence in the city. I picked this book up because I’m extremely interested in better understanding Uyghur life, but there were still several points where I almost set the book aside.

However, for readers who want insight into the Uyghur world, this is one of the few #OwnVoices books available in English that illuminate life in Xinjiang. I read it to honor Tursun’s life and as an act of resistance against the repression of Uyghurs by the Chinese government.
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This will be for a niche audience, but it's well written and a bit atmospheric in tone. The intro is helpful and would change the reader's experience if it were excluded. Recommended.

Thanks very much for the free ARC for review!!
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I am not sure how to rate this book.  It's all rather sad, starting with the introduction which does a great job of telling the story of the story as well as the author and one the translators both who are Uyghurs and both "disappeared".
The story follows a Uyghur man walking a polluted city trying to find somewhere to stay for the night.  The locals all ignore him.  He describes the small things he comes across, a shoe, a piece of paper, etc.  He also talks about life back in his village, his relationship with the neighbour's daughter, his father, religion and culture.  He also talks about his smiling boss, his only possession in the office which is one single drawer of his desk, and his alienation from his fellow workers.  He says the only thing he knows is how to be alive but really he does not seem to have a life at all.
The book is well worth reading to hear the voice of an Uyghur and of the introduction which provides the background into their plight.
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Written by a now-missing and presumably imprisoned author, the Backstreets is a novel from Xinjiang that talks of a man that lives in isolation in big cities in a constant state of searching -- this through the fog of industrial pollution in cities such as Beijing and Xinjiang

Tursun writes of a stream-of-consciousness novel that is defined more by its atmosphere and musings, rather than any form of plot. We experience a moody atmosphere that would spit out recurring themes on philosophy, sex, violence, isolation — masked with the protagonist’s obsession with numbers.

I’d have to admit this was a tough read — not in its language, but on its transitions in its storytelling as it’s not generally my preference. But don’t get me wrong, the raw honesty despite the fictional nature of the book gave me a better understanding of the inner turmoil that such a helpless situation would cause. The introduction, all the more, with detailed context setting on the Xinjiang struggle and the author’s own experience and disappearance. An important read.

Glad I was able to read and experience this -- and thanks to NetGalley and Columbia University Press for the early copy!
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'The Backstreets' is a beautifully written multi-layered story that invites you into the uncomfortable position of getting lost with the protagonist. His life, like the city he lives in, is wrapped in a fog that threatens to erase parts of his identity. He's living in a big city, but you wouldn't notice it, because people act as if he's either invisible or vermin to be exterminated.

The main narratives take the reader through his daily struggles to form relationships with those around him and find a room to rent. All the space he's allowed is a small drawer at his desk, inherited from someone who retired years ago and hasn't cleared his things. As he wanders the streets, looking for a sense of belonging, for numbers that could offer answers, we find out intimate details about his life. The sentences sometimes feel detached from each other, perhaps mirroring the character's detachment from his community, his longing to belong. 

The welcome introduction by Darren Byler puts the story in a context that helps understand certain aspects and details that would otherwise be lost. All in all a profound read, albeit not always an easy one, with frequent unsettling fragments and imagery. There's a sense of poetry in the Kafkaesque narrative, which opens many questions to ponder upon.

Many thanks to Columbia University Press and NetGallery for an advanced reader's copy of this book.
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"The Backstreets" is a very Kafka-esque read, where nothing really happens, and yet with every page with keep getting more and more lost in the city drowning in fog. There is no proper plot here - a few scenes, jumbled up memories. And yet the prose carries us on, together with the nameless protagonist, who keeps trying to find his way, a place where he could belong.

It can be read as a metaphor of the lives of the Uyghur people, who are on their own land, yet not in their own country. Many are "disappeared" into a network of camps, like the author himself, who vanished in 2018. There is a search for meaning, of understanding, and yet there seems to be none, not in the capital of the country, not in the more familiar places like Ürümqi. The author managed to vividly evoke this slightly suffocating atmosphere without saying anything directly.

What makes this title special, despite the very fact that this is (as far as I am concerned?) the first published translation of fiction from the Uyghur language into English, is the introduction written by one of the translators, Darren Byler. A great background regarding the treatment of Uyghurs by the Chinese government, especially post 9-11. It's a painful read, but so important, especially after getting immersed in Tursun's world. The co-translator, referred by the publisher as Anonymous, was also disappeared. This makes "The Backstreets" all the more crucial a read.
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What a strange book! It is saturated with superstition, and magical significance is attached to all sorts of things like walking with the left or right foot over a line or various numbers. And the protagonist is obsessed with numbers, assigning all sorts of meanings to various apparently random numbers. He is also obsessed with smells. 
There is no real plot to the book. For most of the time, the protagonist is wandering through the fog looking for a house to stay, but not being able to find the address. It is very reminiscent of Kafka's <i>The Trial</i>, with a similar dream-like state, and I was also reminded of Albert Camus' <i>The Plague</i>, although the reason for that that was harder to put my finder one. The atmosphere evoked, I suppose. 
Some of the sentences were hard to make sense of. It is hard to know if that is the translation or in the originals.  For instance, 'the handle of the bicycle'. Bikes don't have handles, they have handlebars. 
Without the introduction, the whole book is also hard to make sense of. There we learn that the author belongs to the oppressed Uighur minority in Eastern China. Then a lot of the book becomes more understandable. But a lot remains a mystery. At least for me. 

The copy of the book this is based on was kindly supplied by the publisher in return for an honest review on Netgalley.
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<i>The Backstreets</i> is a stream of consciousness narrative written by a Uyghur from Urumqi, Xinjiang, in Uyghur . The author and one of the translators of the book are currently missing. The author, Perhat Tursun was first detained and then given a long prison sentence. Details of his detention and sentencing isn't released so its unknown as to why he was targeted. Darren Byler in introduction speculates it could be because of his position as a person of influence in literary, social and cultural circles or it could be that this book in itself, published in an online forum at the end of 2013 using VPN and accessing unfiltered news from around the world. Whatever the reason might have been, the author disappeared in 2018. Along with him, a man named D.M who helped Byler with contacts and provided various resources also disappeared around the same time or just before. A.A - the co-translator of the work disappeared right after. The Uyghurs involved in writing and translating this book are currently in detention and outside world has no idea what has happened to them. 

Darren Byler's long introduction to this book provides a good context to the book - by building the history of the geography starting post 9-11, rise in Islamophobia not just in China but around the world and the politics it influenced everywhere. Byler's introduction is useful in summarizing a decade long of politics, human trauma and the current situation.  

 In the book the narrator goes through life in his town of Urumqi. The interactions he has  with people, his observation and the memories they evoke, is the book's main charm. It is not always easy to keep up with the narrator as the cultural barrier exists but its always welcome to delve more into everyday life in the city. 
Thank you to Netgalley and Columbia University Press for providing me with a free copy of this e-book in exchange for an honest review.
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I found this to be a very tough read. Told in a stream-of-consciousness, memoir-style and filled with similes and metaphors, it seeks to portray the relationship between the Uyghur narrator and his new home, the smog-infested city of Xinjiang, China.  It’s a novel of dirty back streets and no sunshine, of pedestrians and cars made ghostly by a “fog” caused by pollution, and of alienation and anti-Uyghur prejudice.

Don’t look for characters or dialogue or discrete scenes that move the plot forward. It’s all about the narrator and what he encounters and how he feels and what he remembers. And a lot of that is very depressing.

I had trouble understanding some of the ideas expressed. I suspect that part of the problem is my lack of familiarity with the Uyghur culture. Another part may be due to translation. It’s not that this translation is bad. It may just be that some of the concepts the author tries to convey do not translate well into English.  Whatever the case, it’s clear that the life of the narrator is extraordinarily lonely.

Indeed, I found some of the concepts and ideas so foreign, and the story so depressing, that I had to give up a third of the way through.

Nevertheless, my thanks to the author, publisher, and NetGalley for the ARC. The foregoing is my independent opinion.
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Darren Byler’s lengthy introduction in which he introduces currently missing (and presumed imprisoned) Perhat Tursun turned out to be much appreciated. The comprehensive context on the author of “The Backstreets” honestly made me feel quite lucky to have the opportunity to read this work. Also appreciated was Byler’s discussion of the major themes explored in the work, though that admittedly wasn’t nearly as necessary. The nameless narrator’s Camus-esque sense of isolation from a distinctly Uygher perspective shone through as brightly as the sun as I accompanied him in dreamlike wanderings around Urumqi in a fog of pollution and his own thoughts and memories. Overall I found “The Backstreets” to be beautiful in its absurd and eerie way, with its mood and vivid setting captured masterfully from its original language thanks to the work of Byler and yet another missing and presumed imprisoned Uygher translator.
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