Thanks to his rich experience, diligent studies and daring explorations, Uygur writer Alat Asem has become an eloquent spokesman for his people, Liu Jun reports.
One midnight in 1994, someone woke Alat Asem at his office. Musa, the powerful leader of a coal mining team, wanted a drink with him. “Brother, don’t go,” adviced the mine’s Party secretary in Ili Kazak autonomous prefecture, northwestern Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region .
“What that man wants is not a drink. He has eyes inside his eyes.”
Alat Asem, a Uygur official at the prefecture government, was sent to the mine to accumulate experience. He soon realized that the centuries-old mine was bogged down in power struggles.
Undaunted, he jumped in the truck and arrived at a pitch-dark village. He chewed on three chunks of fat before touching liquor — a secret that helped him survive, and socialize, in a society where drinking is a matter of reputation.
“Let’s switch to mugs, my heart hasn’t warmed up yet,” he said at dawn.
Upon the third cup, Musa collapsed. “The new Party secretary is like a fridge — a whole box of liquor does nothing to him,” Musa told his followers. “Let it be, stop playing with him.”
With such obstacles gone, Alat Asem was able to fund orphans to attend school, befriend miners and delve into the history of the mine.
Over the years, such anecdotes have enabled Alat Asem to create believable characters across the social strata and become a leading author in Xinjiang.
His eloquence in both Uygur and Chinese has put him in a unique position to introduce the region to the wider world.
In June, the new bilingual literary journal, Chutzpah!, carried his novella, Sidik Golden MobOff, in English, the first of his works to be introduced to an international audience.
Translator Bruce Humes, whose rendition of Chi Zijian’s Last Quarter of the Moon (Harvill Secker, 2011) has won wide acclaim, added a valuable third dimension to the story with his faithful translation of the author’s “earthy Xinjiang Mandarin.”
“It is indeed a somewhat odd sensation to find yourself in a world populated solely by Uygurs whose innermost thoughts are described in a distinctive Mandarin with a Xinjiang feel that occasionally approaches stream-of-consciousness prose,” Humes said in an e-mail interview from Antalya, Turkey, where he is studying Turkish.
The story is about Sidik, an upright but arrogant intellectual who dies of mysterious causes at 75. As his friend, the narrator, queries Sidik’s foes in his search for a possible murderer, the author takes readers ever deeper into “the intestines inside the intestines” of Uygur society.
“I found Sidik a compelling character,” Humes said. “While I didn’t share the narrator’s obsession with getting to the bottom of his death, I truly wanted to read the tale through to the end because Sidik’s mania for calling a spade a spade, in the most public manner that results in massive losses of face, is recounted with great relish, imagination and detail.”
Like many of Alat Asem’s stories, the men all have a peculiar nickname such as Momin Back ‘n’ Front, Father-in-Law Yalkun and Mardan the Steamed Stuffed Bun.
“The names are key because they are uniquely Uygur in sound and meaning, and because Sidik made a name for himself by creating insulting monikers that were too memorable to be ignored,” Humes said.
“My approach was to transliterate the character’s actual Uygur name, and then loosely translate the nickname. Thus were born names such as Sidik Golden MobOff — golden-toothed Sidik who forever powers off his cell phone.”
Even today, when new technology is turning the world’s myriad cultures into a blurry mix, Uygurs have maintained their unique way of life.
Unlike the action-packed narration commonly seen in contemporary Han Chinese writing, Alat Asem habitually breaks into long, poetic and philosophical musing in the middle of his tales.
“In the long history of the Uygurs, literature, especially poetry, has always been essential to our culture,” he said in a telephone interview. “Epics, legends and ballads permeate our expressions of daily life.”
School of life
Born in 1958 as the second of four children in a family where the father worked at Ili Daily and the mother was a primary school teacher, Alat Asem’s road to literary maturity was not smooth.
He spent his early years in Yutian county, Hotan prefecture in southern Xinjiang. In 1976, the junior middle school graduate went to Mengjin Commune in Huocheng county, Ili prefecture, like the urban youths sent to the countryside for re-education.
The team plowed the fields until the sky was starry, then feasted on pilaf, danced and sang as Maria, a music teacher, played the accordion.
“Only when stars are dancing on the night’s curtain and folk songs are adrift, can our soul’s eyes open to see the dark night, which doesn’t have a face,” Maria said, as Alat Asem recalled in a memoir.
Two years later, he became a worker in the pressroom of Ili Daily, where the avid learner translated Uygur into Chinese in his spare time. A writing session in 1979 prompted him to pen his maiden work in Chinese, which was about an old Uygur man.
Sometimes the best critique comes from the most unexpected corner.
“Your language is good,” commented Wali, another worker at the newspaper, as they drank with some friends. “But you must write about secrets in the characters’ souls. Only such things can make a true novel.”
The diligent man grasped every chance to hone his eyes and pen as he worked at various posts, including vice-mayor of Kuytun city in Ili prefecture.
Today, he is deputy chairman of the Xinjiang Writers Association.
While the school of life provides him with ample references for writing, literary masters such as Leo Tolstoy, Victor Hugo and Lu Xun are another source of inspiration.
In his early years as a writer, Alat Asem mainly published in Chinese. This dismayed some locals who questioned his identity.
The criticism propelled him to search for the fountainhead of his Uygur traditions. Modern and contemporary poets Nimxiyit, L. Mutallip, Teyipqian and Utkur, and novelists Zordun Sabir, Akbar Mijit, Muhammat Bagrax, Ahtam Umar and Mamtimin Hoxur all inspired him.
“They all based their writing on reality and formed their own style — witty, humorous, unconstrained and lively. At the same time, they also sought after something profound,” he said.
With 10 novels and seven collections of novellas in Uygur, Alat Asem earned a rightful place in Xinjiang’s literary circles.
However, he has not stopped there.
However, he has not stopped there.
Over the past few years, he has been experimenting with combining the cream of Chinese and Uygur languages.
One typical example: “Time, with grave words and sincere heart, shines upon us.” It doesn’t quite make sense in Chinese, Uygur or English, but it does impress.
“I want to keep the expressions far, far away from what we know, so we will ask, why? If it is too easy for us to understand, literature would lose its value,” Alat Asem said.
“Chinese is not his mother tongue, so his Chinese writing may never achieve exquisite texture, but this is exactly why he is so attractive,” Ou Ning, editor-in-chief of Chutzpah!, said in an e-mail interview.
“Integrated with the Uygur habit of thinking, his Chinese has a unique freshness that gives readers a new experience in reading.
“His narration, sense of humor, poetic appeal, and the ability to control reality and imagination are rarely seen in the Chinese literature we’ve read.”
In June 2012, Shanghai-based Wenhui Press published The Butterfly Era, a collection of Alat Asem’s novellas in Chinese. When in late 2012 Ou compiled the 11th issue of Chutzpah!, with Xinjiang as its theme, he included Sidik Golden MobOff in Chinese.
“We believe his works in Chinese are not in the least inferior to any contemporary Chinese writers,” Ou said.
After reading two other tales by the author, Humes found that Alat Asem portrays the male Uygur mindset more convincingly.
In Sidik Golden MobOff, the anecdotes involving men’s “family jewels” were both realistic and humorous, Humes said.
“So it will be interesting to see if he can move beyond this to create believable Uygur women, as well as genuine flesh-and-blood Han characters of both genders.”