Literary Mongolia: Word on the steppe

Mend-Ooyo was raised in the southeast of the country, where he encountered the traditional vertical Mongol script when his father traced the letters out in the snow, and poetry in the stories and poems told by the elders in his community, and in the enthusiasm of a teacher named D. Gombojav. Gombojav was a poet and translator whose attitude had displeased Party officials in Ulaanbaatar, and whose punishment was to teach at the rural school which Mend-Ooyo attended. Gombojav instilled in Mend-Ooyo a love for the Mongolian language, and it is this that has guided Mend-Ooyo to produce literature that speaks of the endless undulations of the steppe, the pacing of horses and camels, glowering thunderclouds and brilliant sunshine, and the stories and warmth of family and the wider nomadic community.

Mend-Ooyo came to Ulaanbaatar in the early 1970s to study education, and immediately gathered around him a network of poets. They would meet where they could, sharing and critiquing new poems. They called themselves Gal, which means “fire”, signifying the fire around which nomads sit and share stories and poems. They were not against the government, as Choinom or Gombojav had been, but rather they encouraged as open an expression of literary art as possible: they read foreign literature, translated into Mongolian – sometimes into Russian – and wrote everything from modernist and surrealist works to verses styled on traditional Mongolian epics.

Gal disbanded at the end of the 1970s, at about the time Mend-Ooyo was putting together Birds of Thought. Its members, young men and women who were experimenting with literature and who wanted an end to Mongolia’s social and cultural isolation, had barely any influence at the time, but eventually many of them became important cultural and scientific figures. Mend-Ooyo became one of the most successful poets of his generation and – along with O. Dashbalbar (1957–99), a poet who became a controversial and popular politician in the 1990s, and D. Nyamsüren (1949–2002) the son of a monk, whose poetic brilliance was matched by his wild spirit – he was recognized as a representative of the culture of the Gobi desert on the border between Mongolia and China.

Over the twelve years that I have known him, Mend-Ooyo has been a powerful advocate for the place of books, book design and book production in Mongolia’s literary world. He publishes not only his own work, but frequently the work of other, younger, writers, both in Mongolian and in translation. He also promotes the Mongolian script, replaced in the 1940s by the Cyrillic script, but revived after 1990, and mandated – albeit for only a few years – in Mongolian schools.

We might say that Mend-Ooyo’s mission began with Birds of Thought in 1980, but his trajectory has also, on perhaps a more mundane level, become the trajectory of Mongolia’s literary publishing. Without “In the Lenin Museum”, his first book would not have made it past the censors and out among the public: such was the fate of his contemporaries, too, and for every Mend-Ooyo there were others whose potential could not, for whatever reason, take wing.

In the almost three decades since the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Mongolia, Mend-Ooyo’s work has flourished, together with that of many of his friends and colleagues. Mongolia’s international literary presence is quietly spreading, and the growth of its small publishing industry, placing books in the hands of tourists as well as of Mongolian readers, is hard evidence of these developments. In his poem “A Lesson from the World”, written in 1978, when he was twenty-six, and included in Birds of Thought, Mend-Ooyo offers a positive, transcendental image of globalized humanity, and a new way of understanding the world of the imagination, carried around the world between the covers of books:

While I have been alone by myself in the world,
I have placed the sphere of the world before me.
I have sat holding it in my hands,
full of wonder.

“The world revolves around the sun,”
my teacher said,
“and we revolve together with the world,”
and I was glad.

No doubt about it, the hills of thought are shaking,
a sweet song’s melody sounds,
the bells ring and ring.

In this way the earth gathers in my mind,
eternally rotates through wisdom,
the fate of the cosmos belongs to me.

Simon Wickhamsmith is a translator of Mongolian literature and teaches in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures and the Writing Program at Rutgers University.