Natsagdorj, Mongolia's touchstone poet
October 15, 2007
The Arts Council of Mongolia occupies the fourth floor of a large office building in central UB. I was there to tell Ariunaa, the director, about my hope for Mongolia to have a PEN center. Ariunaa had beautiful glass earrings on and over tea she admonished me to reschedule next time I was sick from bad dumplings instead of coming in anyway. But I know better; it had been as hard as pulling teeth to get her in the same room as Chilaajav. Accordingly, “Execution and partnership are the two hardest areas in Mongolia,” Ariunaa now warned. Every single organization head I have spoken with about the possibility of opening a PEN center here has been very positive about the idea, but the part where it actually begins to happen is the part with which I, as a foreigner and a relatively short-term expat at that, have the least to do. It’s also the most crucial, that action step, and if what I’ve heard about the culture here is right, it’s the least likely to happen.
October 29, 2007
I was tired of waiting for my boss, Chilaajav; my Mongolian translator/teacher Tuya, and Mend-Oyoo, the head of the Mongolian Academy of Culture and Poetry, to be in the same place for a meeting. So today on a lark I just went into the Academy office with the translated PEN center formation guidelines and a name card in my hand and I handed them to Mend-Oyoo. I figured that's who he was. He was talking on his cell phone. He hung up, looked bemusedly at me, and was like (in Mongolian), "Who are you?" By the end of the meeting, when his bilingual assistant had gotten back, he'd enlightened me a little more as to all the infighting between literary orgs, and emphasized that first building some friendship--or at the very least, civility--before setting up a PEN Center was a good idea, and then having democratic votes between everyone involved to determine who'd be president, etc.
I'm going to a different writer's union than the one I work for soon. I'm also meeting with he head of the Mongolian National Library. EVERYONE is getting the same document, the guidelines for setting up a PEN Center. So far I've met with three org heads and been all, dudes, dudes. Get along. All Mongolian writers know that not enough Mongolian literature is being translated and published abroad. All Mongolian writers know that Mongolian literature and writers deserve to be part of the international literary conversation. Regardless of disagreements within different schools of writing, everyone can agree on that fact and it's that fact that will drive the formation of an effective PEN center, if it ever happens.
November 20, 2007
One sunny morning I set off to find Baigal Caixan, the sworn rival of my boss Chilaajav. Mend-Oyoo, head of the Academy of Poetry and Culture, had encouraged me to do so, stressing that before the creation of an institution there should first be a feeling of friendship between the actors I'd like to see cooperating. Trouble is, Mongolians arguably more than people in other cultures have based their identities on what they are not, and their history is one of constant feuding, even more wretched, brutal struggles for survival against natural and human foes than usual. Life for most humans throughout history has been brutish and short, but for the Mongolians perhaps even more so.
So. Chilaajav heads up the Mongolian Writer's Union, and Baigal Caixan heads up the Freelance Writer's Union. What precipitated the rift between the heads of the two organizations, that there are two organizations in the first place--these remain mysteries to me. But it's a feud, and they are writers, which means you can basically assume that said feud persists for the sake of persisting, and in this case, is doing far more harm than..well, anything else.
The ace up my sleeve is that I am a young blonde from California and not a little ditzy, so they don't take me seriously at first. I also sound like I am three when I speak in Mongolian, so they try to steamroll me until there's a translator in the room. Then, inevitably, once they hear my argument--that the refusal to cooperate at least enough to form a Mongolian PEN Center is hurting Mongolian literature, and its chances at being translated well and published abroad are directly ruined by this inability to be civil--and realize that my argument is actually kind of cogent, they sort of smile at this upstart little white hippie chick with the big blue eyes stomping her foot and telling everyone to get along; snurf yellow tobacco; and say sure, they'll come to a meeting about a Mongolian PEN center.
I first tried to find Baigal Caixan at the Mongolian National University. He was waiting for me at Ulaanbaatar University across town. My taxi driver studied computer technology for 7 years in Germany, but now he can't find work, so he drives a cab and goes home at midday to feed his hundred pigs. The meeting I had with Baigal Caixan is encapsulated by the above paragraph (plus a moment where he insisted I try his tobacco and it made my head ring and I sneezed violently and he laughed), as is the following meeting I had with Chilaajav, wherein his stubbornness surprised me. I'd never seen him puff up like that. Good grief. Once again, people: you don't have to agree on anything but the fact that Mongolian literature deserves to do well. Chilajav protested, "We do things differently than America here." "There are over 140 PEN centers in over 100 different countries and I suspect the thousands of writers associated with those centers fight too," I told him, "so don't give me that."
Naturally it was a wonderful thing to speak with Dr. Akim, the head of the Mongolian National Library. He's a very kind, spritely man with white hair, spectacles, and a bowler hat, and he could not agree with me more about the need for Mongolian writers at this point in time to stop squabbling at least long enough to promote Mongolian literature. I was sick, of course, and he insisted on pouring vodka in my tea and also drinking some himself. We went to lunch, and he hailed a taxi. "I am sorry," he told me, "I have a car but I am drink." Akim gets along with everyone I met before him, and he also is the author of, among other things, a short book about wolf myths whose English translation--clearly that of a Mongolian non-native English speaker--is audaciously bad. I'll be taking on the project of doing a "second translation" for that manuscript. Should be a fun winter project, especially if the writers all kill each other at the PEN meeting and I have no one to work for.
December 9, 2007
Well, folks, the first meeting about a Mongolian PEN Center took place on Wednesday.
To recap, I have been in contact with PEN about the possibility of a PEN center in Mongolia since learning in March that I would be a Luce Scholar for the 2007-2008 year. I chose to work with the Mongolian Writer's Union as their International Relations Advisor, and this past week we had the first meeting about the possibility of creating a Mongolian PEN center, a meeting that I have been running around asking people to come to since I got here.
The meeting was incredibly successful. I brought copies of the International PEN Charter, which needs to be signed by 20 starting members of a PEN Center-to-be as part of the PEN Center application process.
Over 20 writers signed the PEN Charter. Watching that piece of paper go around the table, being signed, was the most exciting thing.
Mongolian Writers at PEN meeting
Mr. Ayurzana headed a former "PEN Club" that was never an official branch of International PEN and that was also made up of only a small group of people. He voiced a preference for a more inclusive PEN for Mongolia that would be much more active and inclusive (another thing I had insisted on to him and was unsure of his feelings about until that moment); to that end, the Mongolians decided to post advertisements in the paper and a website application so that any Mongolian writer could apply. They looked over the PEN Center formation documents I handed out and came up with a list of questions, which I'll posing on their behalf to International PEN in London.
All went well, no one brawled, and I am pretty damn excited about what looks like a strong possibility for a Mongolian PEN Center in the near future. I get my kicks where I can find them, since mostly things happen like the other night when I slipped and fell hard on my ass on some frozen marble steps.
March 25, 2008
The following is a letter the kind Mr. Dashnyam is helping to translate and put in a major Mongolian newspaper, along with the International PEN Constitution and other information about forming a branch of International PEN:
Open Letter to Mongolian Writers
I arrived last fall for my year in Mongolia with information and guidelines about the formation of a branch of International PEN and contacts at International PEN headquarters in London, and I have tried to disseminate the same information to all writers I know of in Mongolia. Early on in the conversations I had with writers about the possibility of forming a Mongolian branch of International PEN, I came into contact with a misunderstanding that has plagued the effort to form a Mongolian branch of International PEN for six months: “PEN club” is a phrase familiar to all Mongolian writers from times past, and it connotes a closed club of writers who almost always agree with one another...The difference between a “PEN club” of yore and a Mongolian branch of International PEN would be that this branch connects to the worldwide association of PEN centers across the world, and Mongolian writers would send representatives to vote and participate in the annual International PEN congress.
The next argument I always hear is that this kind of PEN branch in Mongolia would be impossible to create because if two Mongolian writers do not agree on who the best writer is, they will never work together. I respect Mongolian culture, and also the right of Mongolian writers to have aesthetic differences, and I do not believe that writers have to agree on everything to do something like create a Mongolian branch of International PEN, because PEN Centers number above 145 centers in over 100 countries around the world, and I know for a fact that writers in those centers do not always agree on everything...Mongolian literature is not translated, published or read abroad to the extent that it should be around the world. Every Mongolian writer I have met agrees with that fact...That is what this effort to create a Mongolian branch of International PEN is about: to give Mongolian writers and Mongolian literature the worldwide recognition, inclusion, and representation it deserves.
May 6, 2008
Ayurzana, the young, accomplished 40 year old writer who spent last semester at Iowa's International Writer's Program, is firmly in the camp of Chilaajav, my boss at the Writer's Union. He was nominally in control of the nominal PEN club which, he admitted more that once, existed in name only and was never an approved branch of international PEN. Because you his modernity, his youth, his worldliness, he was the best bet for a non-old-guard feel to the meeting in December that he led, where he stated for all the reporters to write down that PEN would become open to the public for writers to apply.
We got drunk in the cold January at Brauhaus and I handed over the list Mend-Oyoo had given me of people he'd like to see involved with PEN who were not part of Chilaajav's and Ayur's particular interest group or clique. He did not say anything at the time except that they were all Mend-Oyoo's friends.
Just two weeks ago he wrote that he could not work with "them who are not real writers" and who "slandered" him; namely, the people on Mend-Oyoo's list. So, after heading up the nominal PEN club and heading up the meeting in December, he's out. He still has the Mongolian translation of the charter, and the signed charter itself. I told him once again that there simply is no way to have a branch of International PEN approved without opening the process up--it's not a suggestion, it's a rule.
When I told this to Ariunaa (Arts Council head), specifically the part he said about other writers, she clucked and shook her head and said "terrible." But then she said what I felt: that the movement was not dead in the water. I'm so glad that there's been enough buzz about it among enough people that it has its own momentum apart from one person or association.