Cliterati in Mongolia 202

Posted by: ming

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I'm sitting in Cafe Nayra, another old favorite haunt for weekend writing, a little orange building where I've met many a backpacker. The shy boy who works here recognized me from when I used to frequent the place and seemed glad to see me. A child is here, begging, and some of my favorite prints of the Ecuadorian painter Guayasimin adorn the walls, including the 6th "Mother Holding Child," while Nina Simone plays in the background.

"I live a very European life here in Ulaanbaatar," Dashnyam told me yesterday with a smile. We were in his gorgeous apartment, which constitutes the top floor and attic of the same building whose middle two floors house the Mongolian Academy of Traditions, of which Dashnyam is President. I hadn't eaten yet that day and he fried up some rice with eggs and meat for me, insisting that I take three shots of whiskey along with the coffee I asked for to alleviate the lingering jet lag headache. I'd wanted to talk about PEN with him and Chilaajav, head of the Mongolian Writer's Union, but Chilaajav was off at his other, paying job as, you know, president of Mongolia's National Broadcasting network being busy and important, and besides, I forgot that with these guys one isn't allowed to get down to business without some visiting first. Dashnyam's wife is in Seoul for the arrival of their latest grandchild, and all was quiet and still and polished in the house, down to the hanging mobile of wooden birds near the staircase. The way Dashnyam walks with me is endearing and a little odd: he puts his hand on top of my wrist and pulls forward to direct me. Tumen Ulzii, the exiled Inner Mongolian writer I worked with last year, is my Mongolian dad, and Dashnyam my Mongolian grandfather. It was in the large conference room adorned with bright paintings of the Mongolian steppe at the Academy where we had the first public meeting about PEN in December of 2007 and the writers present passed round the copy of the PEN charter I brought and signed it. It's another, larger, longer step altogether for Mongolian writers to go from signing a document for a PEN center and working together to create one, but it was an important start. Now the middle of the conference table is a nest of books: Dashnyam's workstation as he culls entries for a Mongolian short story anthology. Altai's book is in front of me. I just finished the first round of editing a story about an old woman whose soul is tied to a portrait of herself in younger days. If I could live any life, I think today, it would be doing this. Going to developing countries, meeting and connecting writers, and contributing to intercultural exchange and development work by bringing good translations of world languages into the English-speaking world. Perhaps I'll send an introductory email to different development organizations offering my services--literary translation must be at the top of their list of priorities these days! Seriously, though, omg. Does it feel good to be using my admittedly narrow skill set to do something tangibly good for someone else. And hey, an introductory email to World Wildlife Fund-affiliated offices around the world is what had me being paid to come to Siberia and do freelance editing work for a sustainable forestry NGO when I was 18, so you never know.

The child who was in here earlier was unusually quiet. During my year here I met many expats who work with Ulaanbaatar's street children, and one of them was a Peace Corps volunteer who handed them card with the names of shelters instead of money. While working for Mobile Libris as an event bookseller over this winter in NYC, I sold Paul Singer's new book, "The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty," at a lecture he gave at All Souls Church on the upper east side. The book mentions Paul Farmer, and Tracy Kidder's description of Farmer's angst over the idea that he could love his own child more than any child.

Mobicom, Mongolia's premier cell phone company, sent me a text message I *think* I understand. The cell phone is The Asia Foundation officer Davaa's, and his daughter Poshko texted that she got 100% on a quiz. Eggii, TAF's executive administrator, was reluctant to let me take the charger home; he wants me to charge it every morning at The Asia Foundation, where he takes off his shoes to watch basketball online and eat cup'o'noodles occasionally but still reserves the right to shake a finger at me if I get there after 9am. Outside it's 34 degrees, the snow falls steadily, and my homeland of Santa Barbara county burns.
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