“Darren told me about a collection of Uyghur fiction – some already published, some new translations – but it was clear to me from the way he was talking about it, and certainly once I started reading, that Alleys was on another level,” Dunbar said. “We very quickly agreed to focus on it as a standalone work.”
The book was published by CUP in September 2022 to wide acclaim, garnering not only good reviews in media outlets ranging from NPR to The the wall street journalbut also a report in The New York Times. While CUP books are regularly reviewed by these types of media, no one in the press can remember the last time a Columbia book won a Time characteristic.
Dunbar thought the book would get a lot of press attention because of the political situation with the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, an autonomous territory in northwest China. Plus, “it’s just a really good book that grabs you,” she said. Critics have always recognized that the novel is not only an important artifact, but also an important part of world literature. Ed Park, in Atlanticcalled Alleys “Close to a perfect work of art.
A strength in Asian works
Founded in 1893 as a separate entity affiliated with Columbia, CUP is one of America’s oldest and largest university presses. Only recently, in 2016, under the leadership of Jennifer Crewe, the first woman to lead an Ivy League university press, CUP finally changed its status from a separately incorporated company to a full-fledged unit of the university within the provost’s offices.
For years the press occupied a space in McBain Hall on West 113e Street near the Morningside campus, but in 2000 moved to its current location on West 61st Street between Lincoln Center and Columbus Circle. The offices are bright and modern with occasional reminders of the historic past of the press in the form of multi-volume series such as Alexander Hamilton’s papers and Granger Poetry Index line the shelves.
Although more than 50 people work at CUP, its offices, like so many in New York now, are sparsely occupied. Dunbar left town during the pandemic to be closer to family in Norwich, Vermont, and now works full-time from there, where, she noted, “I’m across the river Connecticut from Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, so I still have access to a college library.
Asian books have long been a force in the press, which publishes between 180 and 200 books a year. In the 1950s, CUP began publishing materials for teaching core curriculum courses in Asian Studies. Over time, these anthologies of Chinese, Indian, Korean, and Japanese texts in translation have expanded to include entire works, as well as Vietnamese and Tibetan texts, as well as modern and contemporary fiction.
Today, CUP’s strong list of Asian translations includes other recent books that have received many rave reviews, such as titles similar to Alleys: Ari Heinrich’s translation of a queer Taiwanese science fiction novel, Membranesby Chi Ta-wei, published in 2021, and Immanuel Kim’s translation of Friend by North Korean novelist Paek Nam-nyong.
The story of Alleys
Byler, a leading scholar of Uyghur culture and Chinese surveillance, said that in 2014, while co-translating Alleys in English it sounded subversive. The book is considered the first full-length Uyghur work of fiction to be released in English. Tursun wrote the novel in the early 1990s, and even though it had already been published online in a Uyghur literary forum in 2013, its publication in English would greatly increase its audience worldwide.
Alleys tells the story of an anonymous Uyghur man who, seeking to escape the pain and poverty of the countryside, comes to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, after getting a temporary job in a government office. He finds only contempt and rejection from the dominant Han Chinese, China’s largest ethnic group, and wanders the streets, accompanied by the fog of winter pollution, and reciting an inner monologue of disgust, numbers and madness. .
Tursun wanted his novel to be released in the United States, but Byler was suspicious. The text, which Byler translated in Xinjiang with A., a Uighur who requested anonymity, was ready in 2015. Yet, due to Xinjiang’s ongoing crackdown on predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities – including the Uyghurs – by the Chinese government, Byler waited. He felt that the publication Alleys in English might attract media attention to Tursun and Byler’s co-translator.
In 2017, A. contacted Byler to tell him that he could no longer stay in direct contact. Several months later, a mutual friend told Byler that A. had disappeared and had presumably been taken to a re-education camp. In 2018, Tursun was also detained by Chinese authorities and reportedly sentenced to 16 years in prison. At this point, Byler decided it was time to publish Tursun’s novel and began that process, eventually connecting with Dunbar at Columbia.
Tursun was recently awarded the Swedish PEN 2022 Tucholsky Prize, which is awarded annually to a writer or publisher who faces persecution or has been forced into exile. Although comparisons with other books that are both relevant political documents and powerful works of art are inevitable, Alleys is in a class of its own. “One thing that’s particularly powerful about the novel is its specificity,” Dunbar said. “It’s so visceral, full of smells and fog and honking. Perhat writes in a literary tradition of racial alienation, urban and modern.
Byler added: “It is deeply sad that the work of my co-translator and Tursun is being recognized with such success in their absence. They would have been so happy to see him find his audience and be recognized as a Uyghur narrating existentialist traditions. Alleys lives for them in their absence.