Cliterati in Mongolia 202 PDF Print E-mail
Blogs - Cliterati
Thursday, 14 May 2009 16:55


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.
Last Updated on Friday, 15 May 2009 00:09
Cliterati in Mongolia 201 PDF Print E-mail
Blogs - Cliterati
Thursday, 14 May 2009 16:47


Yesterday I had lunch at the French Bistro (one of the places expats routinely have business lunches and my first haunt for good lattes when I arrived here in September 2007, and Gerhardt is cooking there now, oh boy) with Bill and Altangerel, the author of the collection of short stories I'm editing into good English. Altangerel, or "Altai", is a real dynamo, a calm, lovely woman in her 30s who is not only a short story writer but also, um, a lawyer at Mongolia's Department of Justice, currently representing the Mongolian government in one of its biggest cases. She's an extremely competent public servant being actively recruited by every political party in Mongolia; everyone agrees that the future of Mongolian politics will, if it's lucky, have Altai at the helm. She studied in the UK for her law degree and happens also to have had political essays published in Europe to widespread acclaim. Needless to say, it was an honor just to shake her hand and the fact that, starting today, I'll be in close contact with her and helping bring her stories into the wider world is just mind-blowing. I had a wonderful time working with older, male Mongolian writers at the Writers Union last year--and I will of course continue to work with them--but, as I said to Altai yesterday, working with a younger writer, a female writer, and such a kickass female writer at that does my Sarah Doyle Women's Center veteran's heart good. Publishing translations of contemporary Bolivian feminist and socialist Vicky Allyón's poetry in Hayden's Ferry Review last year was just the beginning of what I hope is a lifelong commitment to supporting women as a literary translator, and Altai and her work are another step in that direction. Grrratitude for the chance to support women such as these!

Dinner was at Veranda, across Sukhbaatar Square from the French Bistro and The Asia Foundation, with the wonderful Pete Morrow, CEO of Khan Bank, Ariunaa, queen of the Arts Council of Mongolia (where I would have ended up for my Luce Scholar year if I hadn't been so intrigued by the idea of a Mongolian Writers Union), and Sumati, half-jokingly referred to as "the one Mongolian Jew"--his story is an amazing one, as evidenced by the long New Yorker profile about him from 2001. These folks, of course, know and love Altai, and between Pete and Ariunaa and the lovely spaces at Khan Bank and the Arts Council, there should shortly be a venue for a book release party/reading this summer. Today I'll meet with my old boss Chilaajav at the Mongolian Writers Union, along with Dashnyam, head of Mongolia's Academy of Traditions and the guy who brought me to the inaugural Writers and Literary Translators International Congress (WALTIC) in Stockholm last June, to see how the ole Soviet-minded writer set is feeling about PEN now that everyone's had another year to think about actually working together to make it happen.

I spoke too soon when I said last night at dinner how glad I was to get here for the warm season; it was in the 70s and 80s all week, but this morning I woke up shivering under my one bedsheet: it's snowing!
Last Updated on Friday, 15 May 2009 00:09
Cliterati in Mongolia 2.0: Cliterati Redux! PDF Print E-mail
Blogs - Cliterati
Tuesday, 12 May 2009 04:23
Fittingly enough, my 200th blog post from Mongolia is the first post here on Cliterati Redux, which is basically Cliterati 2.0. Newer, better, shinier? Maybe. Certainly newer. 10 months ago, I was living in Ulaanbaatar as a Luce Scholar, working for the Mongolian Writer's Union as their International Relations Advisor. Cliterati in Mongolia (1.0) chronicles that year--and what a year it was! Mutton Dumplings. Adventure. Romance. Intrigue. And the UNHCR. So as not to bore last year's audience, I'll merely direct new readers (hi new readers!) to Cliterati part 1, and as I go along this time 'round may link back to relevant posts as subjects/themes arise.

Much more to come, dearies, but first, to clear up any confusion, here's what my contract with The Asia Foundation states I am here to do:

"The purpose of this letter of agreement is to engage your services to edit the English translation of short stories by Atangerel that are compiled in a volume entitled “Not Yet Begun.” You will consult with the author and submit an edited final manuscript that will be publication/layout ready. You will work with editors/publishers in the United States or in third countries to place one or more of the short stories in recognized literary and or relevant print media. While in Mongolia, you will sustain your work as a Luce Scholar by advancing Mongolia's candidacy for membership in International PEN: writing articles about PEN for local newspapers; strengthening ties with literary figures in Mongolia; forming new ones with emerging and young writers; and translating the work of both for possible inclusion in an anthology in an effort to continue showing Mongolian writers the kind of benefits inclusion in PEN would provide with respect to translation and publication abroad."

And now that I have made this public information, I'll *have* to live up to it. Seriously, though: WOOT WOOT! It's an honor and a privilege to be working with the fine folk at The Asia Foundation's Mongolia branch (The Asia Foundation's Mongolia Representative, the marvelous Bill Infante, is headed over to Serbia to be the U.N. Representative there in less than a week and we'll miss him dearly!), a gigantic wonder and professional inspiration to get the chance to spend time with the writers here once again, and a total treat for me to be back in the place that, as the one spot I have spent the most consecutive months since college, has become a home to me: Mongolia! Pauline Yu, the esteemed President of the American Council of Learned Societies, asked me in my Luce Finalist Interview how I would manage to make any headway in the field of literary translation with only a year in Asia. "The year would be about studying the language as much as I could and creating the foundation and relationships with writers that would sustain over the long haul, since translating from a language is a lifelong endeavor--so hopefully, it would just be the beginning," I said.

And it was, thanks to Bill Infante and my lucky stars. Glad to be here, folks, and let's get this party started.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 13 May 2009 08:14

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