Lost in Smog

Darren Byler on translating the fiction of Uyghur writer Perhat Tursun

From the cover of <em>The Backstreets</em> (Carolyn Drake)
From the cover of The Backstreets (Carolyn Drake)

In 2018, the novelist and poet Perhat Tursun disappeared into a Uyghur detention center somewhere in Xinjiang, China, where he is now serving a 16-year prison sentence for an unspecified offense. Between one and three million Uyghurs, including a number of academics, writers, and cultural figures, have been arrested by the Chinese government on similarly spurious or entirely opaque grounds. Tursun is the author of, among other works, The Backstreets, which never found a publisher in his homeland despite the success of his previous books. This extraordinary novel follows an unnamed narrator, who has left his rural village for a temporary office job in Urumqi, as he wanders through the night, the city smog, and his memories. The book was recently published in English, translated by the anthropologist Darren Byler and an anonymous co-translator, who was last seen in 2017 and is also presumed to be in a Chinese detention center. Byler, an assistant professor of international studies at Simon Fraser University and the author of Terror Capitalism: Uyghur Dispossession and Masculinity in a Chinese City, joins us to talk about Tursun and his mesmerizing work.

Go beyond the episode:

Tune in every week to catch interviews with the liveliest voices from literature, the arts, sciences, history, and public affairs; reports on cutting-edge works in progress; long-form narratives; and compelling excerpts from new books. Hosted by Stephanie Bastek.

Subscribe: iTunes • Stitcher • Google Play • Acast

Download the audio here (right click to “save link as …”)

Have suggestions for projects you’d like us to catch up on, or writers you want to hear from? Send us a note: podcast [at] theamericanscholar [dot] org. And rate us on iTunes! Our theme music was composed by Nathan Prillaman.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Stephanie Bastek is the senior editor of the Scholar and the producer/host of the Smarty Pants podcast.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up