Thursday October 18, 2018

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The following comes from an email interview with Uyghur poet Ahmatjan Osman and translator Jeffrey Yang, on the topic of the upcoming English translation of Osman’s work. Uyghurland: The Farthest Exile (Phoneme Media, 2015) collects over two decades of Ahmatjan Osman’s poetry in Jeffrey Yang’s collaborative translations from the Uyghur and Arabic, and is the first collection of Uyghur poetry to appear in English print publication.

The Uyghurs are a Turkic ethnic group living in Eastern and Central Asia, mainly in the region of Xinjiang. Xinjiang is a historically diverse territory, a former hub on the Silk Road, sometimes referred to as China’s Muslim Borderland. Predominantly Muslim, the Uyghur have occupied a prominent space between China and the Muslim West, though the population suffers from discrimination and colonial violence. Diasporic communities exist in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, as well as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey, Russia, and Ukraine. The July 2009 Ürümqi riots were a series of violent riots that broke out on July 5, 2009 in Ürümqi, the capital city of Xinjiang. The Uyghur have a fraught history and fragmented identity, and governmental oppression and political unrest continue to this day in Xinjiang. As evident merely from the title of Ahmatjan’s collection, the concept of homeland is at the heart of their conflict. -CP

Ahmatjan Osman writes in both Uyghur and Arabic, and has also translated the work of numerous poets into Uyghur, such as Octavio Paz, Paul Celan, Fernando Pessoa, and Adonis. He is recognized as one of the founders and leading lights of the New Poetry movement that emerged in Uyghur literature in the 1980s. His own literary influences range from modernists like Paul Celan and the Syrian poet Adonis to classical Uyghur authors like the eighteenth-century Sufi poet Meshrep. He is the author of eight collections of poetry, published in Syria and East Turkestan.

Jeffrey Yang is the author of the poetry collections Vanishing-Line and An Aquarium. He is the translator of Liu Xiaobo’s June Fourth Elegies and Su Shi’s East Slope, and the editor of Birds, Beasts, and Seas: Nature Poems from New Directions and Time of Grief: Mourning Poems. Yang works as an editor at New Directions Publishing and New York Review Books.


To Jeffrey: When you first came upon Osman’s work, you had never read any Uyghur poetry before. What inspired you to take on this project, which may be the first book of Uyghur poetry to appear in English? Do you see this collection as a political statement?


I had first discovered some quoted lines of Osman’s poetry while editing a folio of Uyghur poetry for the anthology Two Lines. I talk about this in the preface of the book, but the inspiration ignited there — poetry’s magic, in Osman’s case, wormed its way into my inner brain just with those few lines. I was fortunate enough to be able to track him down, and from there, we managed to work out a translation process together, that involved a lot of correspondence. As far as a political statement, personally, no, I don’t see any book of poems like this. Sometimes, it automatically will be taken as such, though, as politics is everywhere, and poetry’s matrix is composed of everything, wherever the lines take you, and politics is just one part of it. I’m aware, though, of the ongoing oppression of the Uyghur people, their culture, history, language, and this injustice is certainly a source of deep sorrow and concern, a call for engagement, which is what poetry is for me. Perhaps it will become a part of a growing body of Uyghur literature in English translation — that would be grand!

To Jeffrey: You worked collaboratively with Osman and Dolkun Kamberi on these translations. I’m curious about that process. Can you describe it? The collaborative aspect of this publication actually seems to resonate a lot with both postmodern and Shamanistic notions of collective authorship, as you allude to in your preface. Do you see your process of translation at all aligning with Uyghur belief or literary tradition? Has this project at all influenced your thoughts on authorship?


Dolkun Kamberi works as the Director at Radio Free Asia Uyghur Service in Washington D.C. I encourage everyone to look at their website. Kamberi also put me in touch with Osman and co-edited the Two Lines Uyghur folio with me, though he didn’t work on this book with us. The translations were done by Osman and myself: as I write in the preface, Osman sent me a kind of skeleton key of each poem, which I then worked on in English (not knowing Uyghur or Arabic), and then I went back to him a thousand times with ten thousand questions, like, “What does this mean?” And you’re right, the shamanistic aspect of writing and translating has deeply interested me for a long now, and part of why I also continued on with this process. So many circumstances coincided for this book, it’s hard for me to believe that I will take on another such project, largely because I’m very much of the school of translation that you need to know the language you’re translating from! Beautiful exceptions are everywhere, though they are still exceptions. In an essay I write about Lin Shu, for instance, who was one of the most remarkable translators of western fiction into Chineset around the turn of the twentieth century, though he knew none of the languages he was translating from. Though he had a very special method that came out of his very particular soul. I don’t claim Lin Shu’s skills, but I think Osman and I together were able to make something special here that channels the ideals of the Thirty-Sixth Chamber.


To Osman: These poems surround ideas of self-knowledge and of oblivion, of identification and of displacement. You conclude your preface with the words from Rimbaud that “I is another.” This sentiment seems to run deeply through your collection. Do you think of your poetry as evoking or addressing an ontological paradox? If so, who’s paradox is this—the Uyghur, the poet, the translator, the child, the exiled?


You are right. It is not just my poetry—but rather, in my opinion, all poetry is about addressing an ontological paradox. One Arabic poet, who lived during the 12ᵗʰ century named Al-Niffari, said (paraphrasing and translating): “if one does not witness what is not said, one disperses into what is said.” I think that this quote defines what poetry is – which is essentially trying to say what cannot be said. This is known as the poet’s paradox which distinguishes the poet from everyone else.

To Osman: Language of the ocean—water, waves, sea, shore— has a strong presence in this collection. I’m thinking of Heather Blum’s dictum that “the sea is not a metaphor,” and wondering: what do you see as the role of the ocean in your poetry, or in the Uyghur consciousness, or in relation to the actual, material landscapes from which you write?


I do not agree with Blum’s dictum, as I tend to lean towards Borges’ idea that every word in poetry is a metaphor. For me, the ocean is the unknown world where we are lost without direction. The shores we find are nothing more than just a resting place for us before we embark on another journey where we become lost again. The ocean is the vastness; it is the boundless; it is, in the simplest form, I. The Uyghur consciousness lacks the concept of the ocean as East Turkestan is not surrounded geographically by any oceans or any seas. As for me, I first saw my first large body of water, the Mediterranean Sea, when I was 18 years old. That is when I started to incorporate the language of the ocean into my poetry.

To Osman: The sun and moon are clearly important symbols in your work. Are there some particular symbolic meanings to the sun and the moon that this collection’s new audience might not be aware of? For instance, what role does astrology play in Uyghur culture or spiritual practice? (Of course, sometimes the sun and moon make strange appearances in your poems that might not link so easily to any allegorical tradition, like in my favorite line: “When the moon left me exhausted, dazed, it forgot its burning cigarette in the ashtray.”)


Astrology does not play a significant role in Uyghur culture, especially not in spiritual practice. They are personal symbols in my poetry. I was born and raised in housings belonging to a coal mine that my father worked at. These housings were neither urban nor rural – they were in the middle of nowhere. The only things that connected me to the outside world were the Sun, Moon and stars in the sky. You could say that the Sun, Moon, and stars comprised my dream world. In my poems, there are no particular symbolic meanings to the Sun and Moon except that they both represent my other selves (the representation is evident in the line you quoted).

To Osman: You have written poetry in both Uyghur and Arabic—(sometimes even alternating within the same poem)—but increasingly in Arabic due to political pressure which made it difficult to publish in Uyghur. Do you find much difference between writing in Arabic and in Uyghur, either in your content or your style? Do you feel any frustration about not being able to publish widely in Uyghur, or, inversely, is there anything liberating about branching out from the Uyghur literary tradition?


As you know, language is the collective consciousness of the people that speak it as it comprises culture and way of thinking. Therefore, with any language you write in, you identify with the collective consciousness. You become a tool for the collective consciousness to express itself through it. With that being said, with every different language you write in, the content and style change. That is because the content and style do not belong to you, but belong to the language you are speaking in (or more correctly, the language that is speaking through you). Of course, I wish that I could write more in Uyghur because I think the Uyghur language is the opposite of the Arabic language where it is less fortunate in expressing itself. That is because it is the language of people that were under occupation for a long period of time where they faced cultural genocide that lead to linguistic destruction. An example of the cultural genocide is my work being banned and me not being able to publish any more in Uyghur.

To Osman: Historians are unsure of the precise history and meaning of the word Uyghur, which has been translated and transcribed many times and seems to still have a fluid definition. Where do you think it comes from? Similarly, your title, Uyghurland, does not refer to a place, but suggests an imagined landscape much broader that Xinjiang or Urumqi. Is there a political or symbolic component to your title that isn’t immediately obvious? What physical spaces and social contexts is Uyghurland pointing to?


I lean towards the theory that the word “Uyghur” comes from the word “Uy” which means unite and the suffix “-ghur” which makes “Uy” a noun, forming the word “united”. As for the title of my book, Uyghurland, it refers to a place (East Turkestan) where I belong to as an Uyghur but at the same time refers to an imagined place where I belong to as a poet. This makes East Turkestan, the country I belong to, a place of exile for me where as the Uyghur language is my real homeland as a poet. I would like to point out a very important issue for me regarding the Uyghur language being my homeland as a poet which is the unfortunate fact that the Uyghur language is under threat of becoming extinct; this is the biggest pain I have to suffer as an Uyghur poet.

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