You are in a panopticon, but you can’t see those who are watching you. They are invisible, though they can monitor your every move. As a punishment for existing, you can be randomly detained or even disappeared altogether. And you can also be humbled by the threat of punishment alone: you see others get disappeared, and their disappearance serves as a repeated warning that influences your every action. Xinjiang in the northwest of China, the homeland of the Uyghurs, an ethnically and culturally Turkic Muslim group, has become one such panopticon, controlled by the Chinese government.
In 2014, China launched the “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism” in Xinjiang against Uyghurs. According to the Uyghur Human Rights Project, since 2017, between 800,000 and two million people have been imprisoned. Some of the worst crimes against humanity are occurring there on a systematic basis, fueled by a state’s desire for control and obliteration. Uyghur writer Perhat Tursun, whose novels are considered controversial, was disappeared in 2018. He was detained by Chinese authorities and, it is believed, sentenced to sixteen years of prison. The first draft of Tursun’s The Backstreets was written in 1990-1991 in Ürümchi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China. Tursun finished the last revision of the book at 12:30 a.m. on March 7, 2015, after the Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism began.
Tursun’s novel forges delicate links between madness, social invisibility, and social control. It is the people the unnamed narrator, an office worker, encounters in Ürümchi, rather than the state, who serve as the source of his deep alienation. At the government office where he works, the narrator fixates on the perceived unpleasantness of his colleagues, including a boss with a sinister smile who is angry to learn that he slept in the office overnight. He is regarded as a diversity hire; his boss and coworkers are Han, part of the majority in Ürümchi. As he wanders through the foggy, soulless backstreets of the city, alone and anonymous, searching for a house with a number he’s seen on a scrap of paper, he mulls his rural childhood and encounters people who repeatedly reject him. He is intensely vulnerable to strange happenings, that may not, in fact, be happening. A tree appears out of nowhere. A rope is actually a twisted electric wire. In his psychotic state, the narrator hunts for signs of meaning where there are none. He feels inescapably intoxicated by numbers, certain that they carry special meanings: “Numbers weren’t only of essential significance for the universe, but also of essential significance for me.”
This fog makes both seeing others and taking personal action arduous for the narrator. He—and we as readers—drown in the predatory fog. He recedes deeper and deeper into his mind and the strange patterns it conjures as he goes mad. Nothing, including reality, is quite in focus, but the emotional strength of what that blurriness evokes is striking. What Tursun seems to capture with greatest vividness is precisely a lack of certainty, the haunting unsteadiness of the gaslit. His narrator ruminates on the minutiae of his body’s response, and its powerful slow-down of his awareness:
The fog was submerging every part of it, sinking it into unconsciousness. As if I were the last living cell in that body, I walked sluggishly. I felt I was experiencing how this city slowly froze in place and the last bit of warmth in its body was slowly snuffed out. I tried to sense the last faint shudder in this delicate body, but I couldn’t feel it.
Shifting focus away from his own body, a conduit for unstable meanings, in the last two sentences of this passage, he figures the city as a body that becomes stable. But more interesting, perhaps, through its juxtaposition of internal monologue and slightly hallucinatory invocations, is how Tursun’s text consistently positions the intense social rejection the narrator faces as the source of his psychosis.
The implication here is astute; researchers have found that chronic psychosocial adversity, of the sort experienced by those who migrate, and for that matter, those in cities, increases the odds of schizophrenia and depression. In the narrator’s sluggish consciousness, the visual world and its seeming capacity to produce stable meaning for those who travel through it is almost entirely lost to an existential foreboding and psychosis.
While Tursun’s visual descriptions are barebones, the text is rich and alert to the narrator’s other senses. Smell, the narrator announces, is “the only thing that can bring sense to my life,” and oversensitivity to it gives him “the courage to live.” But here, too, there is an abject instability. The smell of burning garbage evokes complex mixed sensations, both the urge to vomit and the scent of a woman’s desire. Many of the smells are ones you could choke on. Manure emanating from the narrator’s sister’s husband. The “sour smoke of cigarettes”—whose is not revealed, but he says his whole life has been filled with it. A swampy smell like bitter grass permeates his memory of the scrubland near the village where he grew up.
Shifts in the qualities of the fog and pollution more accurately inform readers of how to feel about the narrator’s experience of rejection than the hostile actions of onlookers. The fog is poison, blood-stained, suffocating, slow. Its ability to be many things at once, all of them oppressive, is crushing. The novel’s approach to psychological disintegration, which mirrors the loss of stable language and meanings in real-life psychosis, leans a little toward the visions of modernist author Anna Kavan’s Ice and Olive Moore’s Spleen—it should be noted the narrator’s loutish, essentialist thoughts about women as gentle beings feel almost counter to the latter’s outlook—though Tursun’s word choice, perhaps due to difficulties translating from Uyghur to English, is not as nuanced as Moore’s.
While the narrator can’t quite provide an orderly account of what is happening in reality, we receive enough in his bodily response to the city to draw inferences. He is paranoid about viruses—but a reader who knows of the abuses Uyghurs face at present might wonder, are you paranoid if they really are out to get you? There is light, he claims, glowing from moisture on the ground. People glow as well. A cursing man with blood-filled eyes. Meanwhile, other humans carry no more subjectivity in the narrator’s mind, he admits, than “chairs, shelves, a typewriter, or a mop in the corner.” Tursun makes the right aesthetic move, bringing us in direct communion with how the narrator has come to perceive his world, one in which he is not in relationship to others, without telling us what to feel or how to think about the ugliness of that. This is a disturbing, socially vital work of literature, but not, by intent, a pretty or soulful one. Still, I toggled between competing aesthetic desires as I read, the first for alignment between shape and substance, which is what Tursun aims for here, and the other, revolting but also perhaps basic, for harmonious, balanced narrative design and a little more linguistic privileging of certain experiences over others, even though I understand psychosis to be, definitionally, anything but organized.
China’s desire as a nation-state to control people in regions outside its own boundaries, and to stamp out, through genocide when necessary, those that dissent, is not new. In the aughts, Tibet’s freedom struggle was mainstreamed among liberals through activism by, among others, actors like John Cusack. We encountered ugly, disturbing images of social and state punishment from interviews with refugees about abuses of children by teachers—here were electric shocks with cattle prods, here were heartrending treks through the Himalayas to escape that burned the feet of refugees and left them black. But to raise funds in a celebrity-oriented America, activists also had to cultivate a dazzling aura of spiritual glamorousness.
The Uyghurs’ narrative, on the other hand, remains largely without a champion. The mass surveillance is disturbingly intimate. Families have been required to bring officials into their homes for extended stays, so they can be better monitored. Some mosques have been transformed into centers for Communist propaganda. Yet the Uyghur struggle has remained largely invisible to the mainstream West, and perhaps will remain so, as Hollywood makes quiet concessions to the Communist government in China.
What intrigues about Tursun’s fog imagery is that it reflects not only possibilities in how we look at the invisibility of state actors controlling the panopticon, but also the sense that what happens to Uyghurs in Xiajiang remains largely impenetrable and unseen by anyone within the society, let alone by those outside the state borders. The panopticon is closed. As in Kafka’s anxiety-fueled nightmares, preserving one’s own sense of agency in the face of domination, not only by the state, but also among those living in the state, is unlikely.
What does it mean for the state to disappear you as Tursun has disappeared? It means you lose process utterly—you go beyond Kafka, where the process is a trap, and enter into simply not being. But suppose there is a long period of soul-crushing social crisis experienced by many marginalized members of society before this happens. When you are at the fringes of society—the backstreets where the fog is denser—but still are enclosed within its boundaries, where dominant society members have the social power to require you to jump through hoops nobody who belongs must go through. No, no, no, the others say. Or as Tursun describes one assault-intending man the narrator encounters, a long string of chop chop chop.
A surveillance state doesn’t simply become out of nowhere. For years, the violence may be enforced interpersonally, and your acts within this emotional prison may be meaningless. It is from that social invisibility and isolation that the state draws its own gleaming power to abuse.
Under our watchful eye, Tursun’s narrator is attacked and brought to his knees, crawling toward one kind of incarceration—that of a psychiatric facility. Noticing the number on the door, he is shocked to realize that this facility is what he had been “so desperately looking for.” The word disappear comes from the early fifteenth century “disaperen,” which means to cease to be visible, but also to no longer be seen as an actor. The tragedy that Tursun’s novel embodies in both voice and substance is one of being invisible not only inside the panopticon of state surveillance, but also to others, and most distressingly, perhaps irrevocably, being lost to oneself.
© Anita Felicelli. All rights reserved.