Lit­er­ary leader

Uygur writer Alat Asem be­comes an elo­quent spokesman for his eth­nic group.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE -

One midnight in 1994, some­one woke Alat Asem up at his of­fice. Musa, the pow­er­ful leader of a coal min­ing team, wanted a drink with him.

“Brother, don’t go,” ad­vised 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 cen­turiesold 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.

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 school, be­friend min­ers and delve into the his­tory of the mine.

Re­fresh­ing writ­ing

Over the years, anec­dotes like th­ese 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 in 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 streamof-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 cul­prit, the author takes read­ers ever deeper into “the in­testines in­side the in­testines” of Uygur so­ci­ety.

“I found Sidik a com­pelling char­ac­ter,” Humes says. “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, Madame Mu­nir and Fa­ther-in-Law Yalkun.

“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 says.

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 writ­ers, Alat Asem ha­bit­u­ally breaks into long, po­etic and philo­soph­i­cal mus­ings in the mid­dle of his tales.

“In the long his­tory of the Uygurs, lit­er­a­ture, es­pe­cially po­etry, has al­ways been es­sen­tial to our cul­ture,” he says. “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, to the north of the gor­geous Kun­lun Moun­tains in south­ern Xin­jiang. Over the years, his work took him all over the vast re­gion.

In 1976, the ju­nior mid­dle school grad­u­ate chose to go to Mengjin Com­mune in Huocheng county, Ili pre­fec­ture, like the ur­ban youths sent to the coun­try­side for re-ed­u­ca­tion in the coun­try.

The team plowed the fields un­til the sky was star-lit, then feasted on pi­laf, danced and sang as Maria, a mu­sic teacher, played the ac­cor­dion.

Two years later, he be­came a worker at 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 about a Uygur old 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 young 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.

Dar­ing ex­plo­rations

While the school of life pro­vides him with am­ple ref­er­ences for writ­ing, lit­er­ary masters like Leo Tol­stoy, Vic­tor Hugo and Lu Xun were 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 seek af­ter some­thing pro­found,” he says.

With some 10 nov­els and seven col­lec­tions of novel­las in Uygur, he earned a right­ful place in Xin­jiang’s lit­er­ary cir­cle. How­ever, he did not stop there.

Over the past few years, he has been ex­per­i­ment­ing in com­bin­ing the cream of Chi­nese and Uygur lan­guages.

“Chi­nese is not his mother tongue, so his Chi­nese writ­ing may never reach the ex­quis­ite tex­ture, but this is ex­actly why he is so at­trac­tive,” Ou Ning, edi­tor-in-chief of Chutz­pah!, said in an e-mail in­ter­view.

In June 2012, Shang­hai- based Wen­hui Press pub­lished The But­ter­fly Era, a col­lec­tion of Alat Asem’s novel­las in Chi­nese. When Ou com­piled the 11th is­sue of Chutz­pah! themed on Xin­jiang in late 2012, he in­cluded Sidik Golden MobOff in Chi­nese.

“We be­lieve his cre­ation in Chi­nese writ­ing is not in the least in­fe­rior to any ac­tive con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese writer,” Ou says. Con­tact the writer at li­u­jun@chi­nadaily.com.cn.

Alat Asem’s novella col­lec­tion The But­ter­fly­Era is pub­lished in Chi­nese.

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