Mother Tongues

Víctor Terán and David Shook’s Like a New Sun: New Indigenous Mexican Poetry and Ahmatjan Osman’s Uyghurland, the Farthest Exile.


(The section below on Uyghurland is preceded by Like a New Sun and it’s really good! Click the link above to read)

If at least some of the blame for linguistic extinction can be placed at the feet of international media outlets, then Jeffrey Yang’s account of how he first chanced upon the work of the Uyghur poet Ahmatjan Osman is an exception that proves that rule. While researching a folio on Uyghur poetry for Two Lines, the annual anthology of world literature, Yang learned that his coeditor Dolkun Kamberi, the director of Radio Free Asia’s Uyghur Service, not only knew Osman but had helped him find asylum in Canada. This connection led to years of collaboration between Osman and Yang, the fruits of which have now been published in what is the first collection of Uyghur poetry to ever appear in English.

Osman was born in 1964, into a Muslim Uyghur family in Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang, China’s largest autonomous region, in the country’s Northwest. He was raised in a housing complex owned by the coal mine where his father worked. As he later recalled:

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.

Like many of his generation, Osman’s father was a victim of the Cultural Revolution and was dispatched to a labor camp for “re-education,” only to succumb to lung disease a few years later. As a result, Osman’s mother became the family’s sole provider. That time in Osman’s life clearly left its mark, as evidenced by these lines, excerpted from “As One Who Walks in a Dream”:

To this day
your sad lullaby, Mama,
echoes in my ears
like caravan bells
To this day
the taste of your bitter labor
is still under my ungracious tongue
I was born into this world
bearing your wishes on my shoulders
Did I feel this way in the cradle
as my mouth tightened around your nipple?
I am your son, Mama, your son
who grew up counting the stars.

Osman achieves a delicate balance between naked sentiment and self-pity, never allowing his lyrics to spill into outright laments. The poem is charged with an acute sense of responsibility — “I was born into this world / bearing your wishes on my shoulders” — while simultaneously infusing a great deal of humility and gratitude into his lines by declaring himself the unworthy recipient of his mother’s “bitter labor,” which his “ungracious tongue” is unfit to praise. At his most confessional, Osman’s language is both tender and exacting, aspiring to a sensual directness that borders on the erotic.

In the early eighties, Osman was one of the first Uyghur students after the Cultural Revolution to attend a university abroad, and he elected to study Arabic at the University of Damascus. In Syria, as Yang tells it, he “became one of the central figures of what came to be known as the new poetry movement, or gungga,” roughly the Uyghur equivalent of the “Misty Poets” group centered around such figures as Shu Ting and Yang Lian, among others. Osman began immersing himself in international literature, which led to translations of Celan and Pessoa; he was also introduced to Adonis, who seems to have had a marked influence on Osman’s work. Like Adonis’s, many of Osman’s poems marry lyrical descriptions of the natural world with the human need to ask metaphysical questions. There is no better example of this than “Nights that Pass from Scheherazade’s Mouth,” where the poet sits in a park in Ankara thinking about “the possibility of committing murder” until a fortune-teller appears and just as quickly vanishes, leaving Osman to muse:

What I wanted to know
was if she could really determine
the unknown, a human’s will
that which is impossible for even gods and demons
to discern, as we wander leisurely in public parks.

Osman also seems to have adopted Adonis’s use of the qit’a (or fragment) as one of the primary vessels for his poetics, juxtaposing images to create a vortex of sights, sounds, and ideas that always circle back to raw emotion. Take the brief ten-section sequence “Strange Sense of Familiar Things,” which takes everyday objects or activities — such as “Tobacco,” “Hat,” “Book,” “Dance,” and “Song” — and drains them of their mundanity to restore the link between perception and emotion. “Guitar” is a case in point:

Nostalgia wears a crown of thorns
and leads a convoy of camels
through the desert of the body …
I am its homeless string.

Osman didn’t linger in Syria and chose to return to Ürümqi. However, it didn’t take him long to realize that his growing literary reputation would present him with considerable obstacles, not least of which was finding steady employment. He spent years juggling various jobs, during which time his poetry increasingly attracted the censors’ ire, as “the Chinese authorities intensified their cycle of harassment, arrest, imprisonment, and release,” as Yang puts it. Thus, Osman decided to move back to Syria in 1994, at which point he began publishing his work in Arabic, at first translating it himself from his native Uyghur, but as a result of the near impossibility of seeing his work published in Uyghur, he began to write directly in Arabic — bringing the pain of his geographical and linguistic dislocation to bear on lines like: “My faraway home / is surrounded by a fence of words.” After a decade in Syria, Osman was forced to exile himself even further, this time to Canada, but it was halfway through his second stay in Damascus that Osman penned the title poem of this selected, Uyghurland, the Farthest Exile. While many of Osman’s poems can seem dominated by a passive sort of nostalgia, this one brims with hope:

In my early isolation, I’d often withdraw
homeward into my heart. Then, as my grief
subsided, my eyes would quickly close
not giving me a chance
to say, “I am alone … ”

After days of staring
at lit candles (the flame
no longer burns in the corner
of the old house in the land of memory)
a strange feeling woke me up
to the time of searching
for the birds
who pronounced the words of the Wandering Angel
between lines of buried books,
the farthest exile!”

Now I wish to forget
what emerged from the tongues of birds
and accept a land of darkness
where my feet bleed. To stop
thinking of the ancient things I’ve heard
for the voices have shifted direction in me
so that am I indeed what the birds pronounced?
Here, the mysterious moon
falls, heavy twilight on my shut eyes
as if embracing a stray thought
in the springtime of reincarnation
“Come toward me,” the candle beckons,
“you must leave this extinguished land
to shout freely with a vital voice,

In answer to an interviewer’s question about whether Uyghurland suggests “an imagined landscape much broader that Xinjiang or Ürümqi,” Osman answered:

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 whereas the Uyghur language is my real homeland as a poet…. The Uyghur language is under threat of becoming extinct; this is the biggest pain I have to suffer as an Uyghur poet.

Like the Tibetans, the Uyghurs — a Turkic ethnic group that has far more in common with the peoples of the Central Asian “stans” than with China’s Han majority — have watched their region undergo radical economic changes over the past couple of decades, while being increasingly shunted to the sidelines and forced to endure a great deal of discrimination. As a news report in September 2015 noted, an official from the Political and Law Enforcement Office of the Township Party Committee — a Kafkaesque mouthful if ever there was one — informed local parents that they would henceforth be forbidden to give their children certain names — even going so far as to provide them with a list, which despite including such bizarre choices as Bin Laden and Saddam, mostly featured fairly common names, such as Abdul’aziz, Asadulla, Hussein, Aishe, and Fatima. What’s in a name? Everything, it seems.

Yang concedes that because he speaks neither Uyghur nor Arabic, he was able to translate these poems largely thanks to Osman, who sent him “a kind of skeleton key in English” and also answered all of his questions. Yang makes a good point about the need for such an approach in certain circumstances:

It should go without saying that a translator’s base-level responsibility is to know the language of the original. However, as we weren’t able to find someone who knew not only Uyghur and Arabic but also American poetry, and as there is some remarkable historical precedence for good, if not exceptional, translations rendered under the guidance of a knowledgeable 
informant, we pressed on.

We should feel lucky that they did; translations produced from cribs are better than nothing. Besides, Yang and Osman clearly make a good team: throughout their work, both poets deftly shift gears from the intensely lyrical to the epic, from the personal to the historical, from the grand scale of the objective to the minutiae of the subjective. As Morrison’s old woman said, “a dead language is not only one no longer spoken or written, it is unyielding language content to admire its own paralysis.” Luckily, the Uyghur language appears to be in safe hands:

The first time I met the mountains
and saw their snow-capped peaks
I imagined Grandfather’s white hair
The forests also read me the books of autumn
Birds migrated to the stream of human existence
Clouds without shelter spoke to me
as I listened to their silence
besieged by the lightning of poetry.
—From As One Who Walks in a Dream


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