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'Waiting To Be Arrested At Night' is the story of a Uyghur poet's escape

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

One of the greatest living Uyghur poets lives in Washington, D.C. Tahir Hamut Izgil escaped from his native Xinjiang to the U.S. in 2018. At the time, rights groups say the Chinese government was detaining hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and imprisoning writers that Izgil worked with. His new book about this experience is called "Waiting To Be Arrested At Night." NPR's Emily Feng talked to the author about it.

TAHIR HAMUT IZGIL: (Speaking Uyghur).

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: To remember is important. But for those who remember, like Tahir Hamut Izgil, the memories are a painful responsibility.

IZGIL: (Through interpreter) I myself don't like to reread my own book. Every time I read part of it, I feel like I'm going through those events again.

FENG: He's talking about his new memoir. The book of prose is a departure for the celebrated Uyghur poet and filmmaker.

IZGIL: (Through interpreter) In truth, a book like this should never have had to be written. These events shouldn't have happened. But this oppression and injustice had occurred. I had a responsibility to record what happened.

FENG: A responsibility because Izgil is one of the few Uyghur artists and intellectuals out of China and free to speak about the mass detention and cultural erasure of his people. Izgil made his career as a film director in the early 2000s, when a brief and vibrant cultural scene exploded in Xinjiang.

JOSHUA FREEMAN: We spent a lot of time together at Artush (ph). Artush is just kind of a - in Uyghur, it's sort of a dinner party, usually with drinks, that goes very late into the night.

FENG: This is Joshua Freeman, the translator of Izgil's book. Freeman is a Uyghur language expert and historian now at Taipei's Academia Sinica Research Institute. He met Izgil while living in Xinjiang. He explains how poetry is woven through everyday Uyghur life.

FREEMAN: A lot of Uyghur public discourse happens through poetry. Most Uyghurs are familiar with quite a bit of poetry. And even in conversation, people will sometimes use little bits of poetry, sort of idioms that rhyme or a line from a poem that moved them.

FENG: In 2015, Izgil was filming a television series outside the southern Uyghur city of Kashgar, very close to where Izgil had been imprisoned in a Chinese labor camp two decades earlier.

IZGIL: (Through interpreter) Along the side of the road, I saw a newer prison, and my traveling companions explained that this was a women's prison.

FENG: Shaken, Izgil wrote this poem, entitled "Kashgar Women's Prison," about the memory.

IZGIL: (Through interpreter, reading) The body of land was in pieces. The roads were stitching them together. Cold air was leading its kin down from the mountain. A sudden shiver went through me.

FENG: Then, starting in 2017, the Chinese state put at least hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs into internment camps, which the Chinese state said were designed to reeducate Uyghurs to become more patriotic, Mandarin-Chinese-speaking citizens.

IZGIL: (Through interpreter) Sadly, many of my closest friends hadn't had the opportunity to. And in writing my book, to some degree, I felt that. I'm trying to speak on their behalf as well.

FENG: Against all odds, Izgil and his family overcame a ban on Uyghurs getting passports and traveled to the U.S. on the pretext of seeking medical treatment in 2017. This was a chance at a new life but at the cost of leaving their homeland and the people they loved behind.

IZGIL: (Through interpreter) It was very hard to write poetry when I first came to the U.S.

FENG: He did write this poem, called "Somewhere Else," after arriving in the U.S. that is also included in his new book.

IZGIL: (Through interpreter, reading) What is it from far away, from behind the domed water that stayed with me, that came along with me? A weak vow written in a yellowing fog, audacity standing at an angle or the layered dimness passed from hand to hand.

This is a poem of longing for my loved ones and my friends and everybody I left behind.

FENG: And he says the poem is about the longing he has for his homeland in exile. Emily Feng, NPR News, Taipei. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.