Perhat Tursun (1969-) is one of the foremost living writers in the Uyghur language. Born and raised in Atush, a city in the southwest of China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, he began writing poetry in middle school and branched into prose as a young college student in Beijing. From the late 1980s, his day job was a research position at the Xinjiang People’s Arts Center in Ürümchi; but his real vocation was as a writer, in which capacity he gained increasing fame and notoriety.
Having begun his writing career as a poet, Perhat turned increasingly to prose in the 1990s, publishing a succession of short stories and novellas. In 1998, he brought out a well-received poetry collection, One Hundred Love Lyrics, as well as a volume of novellas, Messiah Desert, which attracted some amount of controversy for its unconventional themes and imagery.
This was only a prelude, though, to the massive uproar generated by the publication the following year of his lengthy novel, The Art of Suicide. One of the most widely discussed and debated novels ever published in Uyghur, The Art of Suicide combines a modernist prose style with themes of sexuality, suicide, and mental illness that had hitherto been largely taboo in Uyghur literature.
When I first met Perhat Tursun more than a decade ago, the controversary around The Art of Suicide had largely died down, but Perhat remained a controversial figure, not least because he continued to tackle Uyghur society’s most sensitive subjects in his work.
I got to know Perhat quite well, and we shared many cups of baijiu (Chinese liquor) at innumerable dinners in the late 2000s and early 2010s when I was living in Ürümchi. Perhat Tursun is an utterly unique character: brilliant, stubborn, wickedly funny, thoroughly unpredictable. He is fiercely loyal to his friends and unsparing to his rivals, most notably various conservative intellectuals in the Uyghur community. I don’t think he’s ever had an opinion he didn’t voice, often in shades of the darkest sarcasm.
Last year, as news filtered abroad of a sweeping, unprecedented campaign of mass extrajudicial detentions in Xinjiang, I started to worry about Perhat. With nearly all electronic communications between Xinjiang and the rest of the world cut off, I had little means of learning how anyone there was faring during this latest campaign; but I worried in particular about Perhat, given his prominence and outspokenness.
This February, my fears were confirmed, as a mutual friend who managed to leave Xinjiang informed me that Perhat had been detained in late January, joining hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and other minority citizens in Xinjiang’s expanding network of internment camps. As of midsummer, Perhat was still in confinement.
After hearing the news in February, I found myself repeatedly recalling lines from Perhat’s poem “Elegy,” which speaks of the individual buffeted by the harsh winds of history. I published a translation of the poem in 2011, but revisiting that translation this February, I felt I hadn’t done the poem justice. A couple days after I heard the news about Perhat, I prepared a new translation, which can be read below.