The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2022

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JUL-AUG 2022 Issue
Books In Conversation

Simon Wickhamsmith with Tony Leuzzi

Suncranes and Other Stories: Modern Mongolian Short Fiction
Translated by Simon Wickhamsmith
(Columbia University Press, 2021)

It’s been decades since I first read Frank O’Hara’s iconic poem “The Day Lady Died,” though I can still vividly recall chuckling over the following quatrain: “I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun / and have a hamburger and a malted and buy / an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets / in Ghana are doing these days”. “What a punchline” I thought: “A writer, who is as the previous stanza tells us, expected later that evening for dinner among well-heeled socialites in Easthampton, muses briefly about Ghanaian poets!” In that moment, I considered the irony one among many of the amusements O’Hara enjoys on his trek through Manhattan prior to the poem’s devastating turn. The hamburger, the malt, Ghana’s poetry scene—it all seemed part of his playful consumption of the ephemeral whereby quotidian reality chances with the incongruous. Several years and dozens of re-readings later, it did occur to me O’Hara might have genuine interest in global awareness, but given the waggish tone of the language around it, I was uncertain as to whether this possibility negated or co-existed with my prior assumptions.

I’m not here to cast aspersions on O’Hara, a poet I happen to love and respect. However, I do believe that passage from “The Day Lady Died” and my reactions to it allude more broadly to a patronizing curiosity many Amer-Eurocentric audiences are predisposed to express for the cultural production of “exotic” (i.e., ethnic) others. I’ve kept this predisposition in mind when reading Suncranes and Other Stories: Modern Mongolian Short Fiction, a groundbreaking collection of translations published last year by Columbia University Press. As the first book of its kind, Suncranes illuminates the perspectives of a place and its people largely unknown to English-language readers.

Although ancient Mongolia once held a prominent position on the world’s stage (it was, after all, home to the largest empire in human history) the last several-hundred years tell a more modest story of Buddhist monks, desert horses, and steppe-wandering caravanners. This pre-industrialized world of gers and shamans was seemingly subdued (though not erased) in 1921 as the nation embraced communism and Soviet-based models for education and collectivization. When, seventy years later, Mongolia experienced a democratic revolution, formerly-suppressed beliefs began to resurface, and now its current cultural climate is one of ongoing discovery and change. Due to numerous paradigmatic shifts in the nation’s political, economic, and socio-cultural spheres, its fiction echoes the people’s ongoing search for ways to assert voice and identity. Those literary critics who have bothered to acknowledge modern Mongolian letters in world surveys usually characterize the literature as immature or, worse, “primitive.” While contemporary models and themes still may be in development, a cover-to-cover reading of the stories in Suncranes argues persuasively for a serious, sophisticated tradition of short fiction, one that springs from idioms and sources distinct from those in Euro-American literatures. The style and texture of many of these stories (written between 1925–2008) resemble the land out of which their authors were born. What occasionally may seem arid and monochromatic is, upon careful inspection, undulating with nuance, color, and detail.

The collection’s existence is due to the work of one man, scholar-translator Simon Wickhamsmith. Through his prodigious efforts, he has become the chief medium by which we encounter the imaginative literature of one of the most uncompromising landscapes on the planet. As is clear in the discussion below, Mongolian politics, history, and culture are deeply intertwined. Thankfully, Wickhamsmith has a substantive knowledge of all of these areas and contextualizes where appropriate. What is more, his sympathetic translations in Suncranes are forged from his receptiveness to Mongolian values and traditions. As grateful as I feel to have access in English to the collection’s contents, I am equally thankful Wickhamsmith expressed willingness to collaborate with me on this extensive discussion. For him, such conversations are essential, for they “encourage potential readers” and may entice a publisher to take a chance on a niche project. This isn’t merely wishful thinking, as he believes “there is always change in the air, always potential…”

Tony Leuzzi (Rail): Hello, Simon. Thank you for agreeing to this conversation. What I have gleaned from several internet searches is that you are one of very few persons translating Mongolian literature into English; and you may be the only one to introduce English-speaking readers to modern and contemporary Mongolian fiction. Additionally, ten years ago you completed a Ph.D. in Mongolian Studies and have since written scholarly texts on Mongolian literature and politics, including Socialist and Post-Socialist Mongolia: Nation, Identity, and Culture (Routledge, 2021) and Politics and Literature in Mongolia (Amsterdam University Press, 2020). Your Rutgers University Faculty page claims you have been studying and translating Mongolian Literature since the mid-nineties. That is quite a commitment. What drew you to Mongolian studies? 

Simon Wickhamsmith: Thanks for this opportunity to talk about Mongolian literature, Tony. What you describe as “quite a commitment” is really something I fell into by chance. I arrived at Mongolia by way of Tibet: I became a Buddhist around the age of seventeen or eighteen, and started practicing in the Tibetan tradition soon thereafter. I thought I should learn enough Tibetan so that I could properly (semantically at least, if not in terms of philosophy or practice) understand what the prayers I was reciting actually meant. I became, over time, relatively fluent in reading Tibetan and, when I became a monk and entered a long retreat in my twenties, I did some translation from, and teaching of, the language to help my fellow retreatants. When I came out of that and, eventually, returned my vows and became once again a layperson, I continued researching and translating, eventually alighting on the weird story of the sixth Dalai Lama and his (possibly) fictitious life in the four decades following his “official” death in 1706. Anyhow, one of the sources I read mentioned a nineteenth century Mongolian monk named Danzanravjaa (1803–1856), who, like the sixth Dalai Lama, was a poet and tantric practitioner, which (at least in his case) included the use of alcohol and sex (both of which are acceptable within the context, although their misuse has, as one can imagine, has caused problems over the centuries).

When I had first learned Tibetan, I had also explored Mongolian, and had a relatively good understanding of the grammar. So I managed to borrow Danzanravjaa’s complete poetic works from a very kind Mongolian scholar living in the US, Munkh-Amgalan Yumjir, who sent the book to me (a random Brit whom he didn't know) and suggested I xerox and return it to him. I will forever be grateful for his trust and kindness. I made a copy, returned the book, and set about painstakingly translating every one of the poems. That’s how my vocabulary and understanding of grammar grew. But when I finished the translation, I went back to the beginning and discovered that, really, everything needed to be either heavily edited or else completely retranslated. So I did it again. This was a slow process, roughly between 1998 and 2005.

I wanted to tell someone in Mongolia, even if simply out of courtesy or interest, that I had done this work. I found the name of a Mongolian poet, G. Mend-Ooyo, and wrote him an email which said, basically, that I had translated Danzanravjaa and I just wanted to let someone—anyone—in Mongolia know, since they might perhaps be interested. He responded quickly, and most generously offered to publish the translation in Mongolia, and to fly me out there to meet with him and with the larger Mongolian literary and cultural community. This was 2006. I’ve been translating and studying and thinking about Mongolian literature ever since. Without the kindness of Munkh-Amgalan and Mend-Ooyo, I doubt very much that I would have taken the path that I have.

It’s indicative, I think, of the importance with which Mongolians view their literature and literary heritage, that they place such value on having their work translated into English—especially into English, but translations into any foreign language are valued—and disseminated. This was one of the lasting lessons which I learnt very early on, and perhaps it's one reason why I have kept going, why I did graduate work on Mongolian literature, and why it’s now become my focus. It’s a tremendous blessing to be trusted, not only with the work of individual writers, but with being—as you suggest—the only portal, at least for now, through which the literature is being offered to English-language readers.

Rail: Wow, Simon, your path to this point has been fascinating. What can a Western audience learn from studying the modern and contemporary imaginative literature of Mongolians?   

Wickhamsmith: I think translation gives us the chance to meet another culture head-on, through the voices of writers. It’s like a vacation of the mind, with the author (and translator) being your dedicated tour-guide. In the particular case of Mongolia, it’s a country where livestock herders still move nomadically, where shamanism and Buddhism define and support the society, where seventy years of Soviet influence has left its mark, where the spirit of Chinggis Haan and the world-conquering Mongol Empire which he established is a visible and vital part of the society, and where the arts (at least in their traditional form) function not just as entertainment but as channels between the present and this mythical, mystical, nostalgic, but also very real, past.

So when, for instance, we read a story which deals with nomadic herders in the 1960s (such as S. Udval’s “He Came With A Spare Horse”) we can think that these herders, notwithstanding that they had been collectivized and that their way of life had been redefined by socialism, were also living lives which were very similar to those lived by herders in the centuries before, that the actual process of herding, the relationships between humans and non-humans, the keen and vital observations of weather patterns, and the apprehension of spiritual forces in the landscape had fundamentally not changed since the time of Chinggis Haan. Now, remember that Udval was a member of the Politburo, and the Chair of the Writers Union, and yet she was writing not about socialism (although she did write about this too) but about regular people in the herding community doing regular things—in this story, falling in love and celebrating the traditional New Year. 

But also, of course, the fact that we humans write books about (mainly) human behavior means that we can also observe, through these stories, the way Mongolians live. It’s a kind of anthropology, I guess, and we can relate what we are reading to our own experience in similar circumstances.

Rail: You have translated Mongolian poetry and fiction. Presumably, each has its distinct tradition and history. Although the focus of our discussion will be about Suncranes: Modern Mongolian Short Fiction, I’m wondering if you could take a moment to discuss the ways in which the nation’s current poetry and fiction is an extension of and/or departure from its pre-modern literary traditions. 

Wickhamsmith: Literature immediately before the 1921 revolution was beginning occasionally to touch upon what we might call “modern” or even “modernist” themes, such as social justice and mechanization, but in the main it was a literature based upon traditional oral literature and Buddhist literature. The first consists of poems—songs, repartee poems, religious poems, incantations and blessings, praise songs and teaching poetry, sardonic and sarcastic critiques (often about monks)—and plays, while the second is based on the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and includes stories and poems for teaching, but also prayers and commentaries, as well as original texts by Mongolian practitioners like Danzanravjaa.

Danzanravjaa, in fact, is an interesting example of how Buddhism was expressed in literature during the nineteenth century (he remained popular even after the revolution). Unlike many monks—and, specifically, unlike the majority of reincarnated lamas—he didn't go to Tibet and was educated exclusively in Mongolia (albeit by monks who probably had received some education in Tibet). He seems to have been especially popular with his local community in the Gobi because he tried to incorporate into his teachings—and into his poetry—aspects of the day-to-day lives of Mongolian livestock herders. He spoke directly to his community, but the fundament of his teaching was his own idiosyncratic reading of standard Buddhist teaching.

After the revolution, the traditions were gradually modified to reflect socialist ideology. The scurrilous attacks on malfeasant and libidinous monks became harsher, traditional oral literature became directed to socialist ends (so what might have been a poem praising Chinggis Haan was transformed into one praising the Party or Lenin), and plays were written (or rewritten) to reflect the current situation. Moreover, the influence of Soviet socialist writing, such as the work of Gorky and Mayakovsky (the ladder form of poetry developed by Mayakovsky became the poetic standard for a while), became pervasive, and the discourse and themes used by Mongolian writers were sometimes indistinct from those used by Soviet writers.

Rail: Given Mongolia’s close political relationship with the Soviet Union, most of us in the West tend to forget that Mongolia chose communism. Given your comments earlier, as well as the themes explored in many of the stories in Suncranes, it is clear that various models of Soviet literature and culture were Mongolia’s gateway to the modern world. In your estimation, has this enormous influence been beneficial to the growth of modern Mongolia’s literature? In the post-Soviet period, what new spaces have been explored now that a good deal of the weight of that influence has lifted?

Wickhamsmith: Mongolia was an autonomous state from the end of the Qing dynasty in 1912 until 1919, when the Chinese installed a military general named Xu Shizheng with the intention of incorporating once more into the Chinese polity. The revolutionaries who went to request Lenin for help (and there is a whole artistic and literary tradition which developed during the Soviet period surrounding this meeting) were a combination of social progressives, wanting to bring Mongolia into the modern world, and nationalists who simply wanted to get rid of the Chinese. So in part, they wanted the kind of liberation from repression that they had seen played out in the 1917 October revolution in the Soviet Union.

I often wonder how Mongolian literature, either in a free and independent state, or subsumed into China, might have looked, how it would have developed in the modern world which we have today. But as it is, I think that given the experimentation in Russia prior to, and to some extent after, 1917, Mongolian writers—who were a largely open-minded and progressive group, and excited to explore new ideas and new themes—got a good deal, and used the influences which came from the Soviet Union well. They also benefited during the 1920s from the Mongolian government's interest in European artistic and social thought, and some of the most important writers of the time—D. Natsagdorj and D. Namdag are represented in Suncranes—had the chance to study in Germany at the end of the Weimar period, and to explore the artistic and literary developments in Europe at the time (Natsagdorj’s “Dark Cliffs” is a really cool response to Jung’s psychology, which I have no doubt he encountered).

I mentioned Mayakovsky earlier, but there is also the importance of blank verse, which developed in the 1940s as a parallel course to the more traditional “head-foot” style, common to much traditional Turkic literature, in which the same syllable—occasionally the same word—begins each line in a given verse, and the same word ends the line.

Of course, Socialist Realism was a very powerful influence right up into the 1950s and 1960s, but however crass it might seem, we should not forget that the benefit of Soviet models was that it gave writers a framework in which to develop their own styles. Mongolia was, in 1921, a largely illiterate society and, while the writers themselves were not illiterate, they still had, as a group, to move a predominantly oral literature quickly into a modern world in which sophisticated narrative writing was expected. That’s clearly one of the reasons why Mongolia started, in the mid-1950s, sending its best (and/or its most ideologically safe) writers to the Gorky Institute in Moscow, where they not only studied Russian literature in Russian and learnt from writers from around the (communist) world, but also met writers from Asia and Africa, as well as from Eastern Europe and the Soviet republics. So, while perhaps from our privileged historical point of view, we can say that because the Soviet project ultimately failed it would have been better for Mongolia to have remained independent and develop accordingly, I think that what the Mongolian literary scene received from the Soviet Union was actually pretty good, and helped in many ways to improve the quality and reach of Mongolian literature.

Since 1990, of course, Mongolia has opened up to other literatures and other cultural influences, and many foreign novels have been translated into Mongolian. One of the difficulties during the Soviet period was that what we might call “dark” issues—sexuality, violence within the society, economic and social problems—were not acceptable themes. Now that is quite different, and writers are exploring these questions in Mongolia as much as elsewhere in the world. I think, however, that the spaces which the transition to democracy opened up are primarily mental and emotional spaces, spaces in which writers can investigate memory and dreams, Mongolia’s history and religious culture, and to push at the boundaries of what is socially acceptable. For instance, S. Anudar’s “Everything” was written in a period of economic collapse in the years following the Soviet withdrawal, and deals with the problems of disaffected youth in this new capitalist-leaning society. Anudar was highly influenced by the chernukha movement in Russian literature at the end of the 1980s, and by Russian rock music, and especially by the songwriter Alexander Bashlachev. You can find a similar feeling, if with rather more surreal humor, in L. Ölziitögs’s “Raul & Raul.” Theirs was the generation which had to find the spaces you mentioned in your question, and work out how to fill them. I get the feeling that Mongolian writers are still trying to work out how exactly to fill these spaces. 

Rail: Could you elaborate on some of these “dark” issues that have yet to be worked through? Most, if not all of the stories, in Suncranes represent normative sex and gender roles, so I suspect LGBTQ+ based themes and other forms of behavioral difference are among the issues still considered “dark.” From your knowledgeable, outside observer’s perspective, what may be some reasons the nation’s imaginative literature still reflects a hesitancy to explore these subjects? Or are such themes being explored in yet-to-be-translated literary production?

Wickhamsmith: Well, I think the main dark issue is actually the legacy of the Soviet period. There is still a lot of reticence about talking too much about what happened, and about what individual people did or did not do. Writers are not, of course, immune from such things, and you’ll notice that a brief biography (not a book) will not generally touch much on a subject’s personal life, but on their education and the works they produced. This was a very hard time, and I suspect that there will be many things which we’ll never know for sure...

As for these diversity issues which you mention, Mongolia is definitely still on a transformatory path, coming to terms with LGBTQ+ issues, domestic violence, alcoholism, and suchlike. One of Anudar’s stories is about a highschool student who shoots someone on a bus. The kind of literature which he and writers like him (Ölziitögs for instance) were writing in the 1990s really raised questions of what Mongolia was at that point, and where it would go, focusing especially on their own generation, educated during the final days of the Soviet era, but coming properly into adulthood in the chaos which the Soviets left behind. 

More than ten years ago, I translated some LGBTQ+ poetry for an exhibition put on by a friend of mine, who was in Mongolia on a scholarship. There were photographs of members of the LGBTQ+ community, many of whom he had become friends with, but the majority of these photographs showed people with their faces masked or somehow obscured, such was the stigma at that point. The poems were likewise almost all anonymous. At about the same time, there was a demonstration in Ulaanbaatar by the country’s blind community, demanding that the sidewalks be easier to negotiate (at that time, there were frequently large, deep random holes, unprotected, into several of which I almost fell, and which were dangerous to the elderly and the drunk, not only to the blind or to hapless foreigners). These social issues are becoming more and more central to Mongolian society, as they are in many countries, but there are not generally—so far as I am aware—many pieces of writing dealing with them. There is no “gay” writer like Edmund White or Armistead Maupin in Mongolian, for instance, or at least they do not yet feel safe to come forward.

Rail: In your introduction to Suncranes you discuss the enthusiasm you felt when, in 2006, a friend presented you with a worn, disheveled volume of the collected works of M. Yadamsüren, and particularly the impression Yadamsüren’s story “The Young Couple” made upon you. In your own words, the story was “sharp and fresh, and somehow both traditional and very modern, a love story set among Ulaanbaatar’s urban laboring class, but with elements of surprise and friendship and a modernist view of nomadic life seen through the eyes of the country’s new and revolutionary urban youth.” Having read the story, I am especially impressed with the tail end of your observation. While the story’s central focus is a rather sweet love story between two idealized, hard-working youths named Jaltsan and Adilbish, and while the elements of surprise and friendship do animate the story—including one comical misunderstanding Jaltstan’s courtship of Adilbish awakens in another couple—the story’s most moving moments are when Jaltsan is forced to travel the countryside to find his lover. In those moments, Jaltsan’s anxieties about Adilbish’s safety are tempered by his wonder at the serene beauty of the land and its people. His travels through the terrain have a profound effect on his psychology, as is seen in his observations of it. There are moments when scene descriptions read like prose poems. So even though the story ends with an old herder named Tsogzol glorifying modernization and the communist state, that speech feels tacked on, like a kind of excuse for the story’s existence, when the real energy comes from a celebration of nature and the traditional people Jaltsan encounters on his journey. I found this to be the case in a number of stories in the collection.

Wickhamsmith: Yes, I think that’s a very astute observation. I also get the feeling that one of the primary motivations of the literature is to present Mongolia to its people—and, during the Soviet period, to reinforce the traditions, even as socialism sought to modernize the country. “The Young Couple” is a very modern story, though, and I get the feeling that Yadamsüren was probably someone who really enjoyed being modern and living in a developing urban area, rather than out in the countryside. He uses chess and cars and factories and cigarettes (remember the note left by Adilbish on a cigarette carton? That’s one of my favorite moments in the literature of the 1930s, so poignant and so very modern), and he has the action move from the crazy hustle and bustle of the city to the peace of the countryside (the first piece of writing that I can find which presented this narrative direction). But then yes, there is the countryside and the herders (who seem strangely other to Jaltsan, as I read it). 

Remember though that for Mongolians, the landscape and livestock and the weather are very quotidien, very normal, and probably only necessary for an effect. In Yadamsüren’s story it's the change for Jaltsan from his safe life in UB. In Natsagdorj’s “Things That Had Never Been Seen” (written at about the same time), the landscape, and the River Ider in particular, a motif which, at the beginning and the end, reminds the audience that, despite the horrors of the civil war between the government and some radical monks who wanted a return to the pre-revolutionary situation, which they had lived through, nothing really changes. It’s like that line in George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss after the floods at the end of the book“Nature repairs its losses.” I suspect it’s that continuity, rather than the beauty of the landscape per se, that is being foregrounded here.

At this stage, also, I get the feeling that writers are still trying to write in a more European style, but within the loose (but ever tighter) ideological framework. The political aspect is not always elegantly handled and, as here, seems to have been added almost as an afterthought. I know that writers got together to critique one another's work, and much of the critique would center around the presentation of ideology—for instance, there's the case of Ts. Damdinsüren, who was castigated for giving a rich noble in one of his stories too nuanced a character (that is, the nobleman is portrayed as not sufficiently wicked and anti-revolutionary)—so this could, I guess, be the result of Yadamsüren being advised to add a more ideological, uplifting ending to encourage faith in, and support for, the new socialist system.

Rail: I too loved the detail of the cigarette box! It reminded me of another film I saw a couple decades ago called Himalaya, about a Nepalese caravanner community who needs to transport their salt over the mountains each year to trade for much-needed grain. Their annual trek is an ancient tradition, and so much of the film is steeped in the old ways, including the language and clothing. So I was startled when, one-third of the way through, one of the caravanners is found drunk with a bottle of beer by his side. I thought, “Oh, this is taking place in the current age!” I often get that sense with some of these stories, that there’s an ongoing, fluid conversation taking place between ancient customs and contemporary concerns.

Wickhamsmith: Yes, absolutely right. I sometimes think that some Mongolian literature is constantly negotiating between those two, much in the way that medieval romance seems to have been self-consciously nostalgic while also dealing with modern (or timeless) concerns. I think part of it is that the background of herding culture is indeed pretty timeless, and that whatever gets superimposed on that creates a greater or lesser dissonance between the ancient/timeless landscape and the modern narrative. The stories by S. Erdene (“Suncranes” and the Hulan trilogy) seem to embody that idea rather nicely. They’re very modern, but you forget sometimes exactly when they are taking place. I think that’s one of the most powerful and strange aspects of these stories: I am sure this is found in the writing of other cultures, but I haven’t myself found it so consistently in any other literature.

Rail: Earlier you mentioned writer G. Mend-Oyoo, whose Altan Ovoo provides the source material for my favorite story in Suncranes. I’m talking about “The Ballad of the Unweaned Camel,” in which the central character of the tale is Nosepeg, an unweaned camel whose primary ambition is to die where he was born, among the saltmarshes. Nosepeg’s wandering brings him into contact with humans, and the orbit of their concerns does have a direct effect on his journey, but this is a true beast tale in which the animal familiar to this culture is given all the dignity and grace a human might possess. Nosepeg achieves an “incomparable clarity” and, upon returning home, “sees the great iridescence of the world sink into his body.” Mend-Oyoo exalts the animal but does not sentimentalize him. In your years of study and observation of Mongolian culture, how are their attitudes towards animals central to their views of life?

Wickhamsmith: For nomads, the animals they herd are the center of their lives, for without them they would (potentially) starve. It’s an existential question, but I think it’s also a question of how we think of animals. For Mongolians, on the whole, especially the herders, humans and non-humans are coexisting under the blue sky. The sky is the main traditional pre-Buddhist deity, and nature is a whole. It’s a holistic, organic network of being, not dissimilar from the native American framework. Non-humans and humans have a relationship of mutual care: the herders care for their livestock, and in return the livestock provide what is necessary for human survival. Perhaps this seems a little one-sided, benefiting primarily the humans, but it fits too into shamanic/Buddhist schema of karma and cyclical relationships and mutuality. 

You’re right about the lack of sentimentality. There is nothing cute about Mongolian herding culture. But there is a genuine respect for the autonomy of non-human animals, and an honest observation in much of the literature about their behavior and feelings. Damdinsüren’s “Two White Things,” for instance, is a story about a man who beat his horses so badly it cost him—and the horse he was riding—his life. There’s a message there, clearly, but Damdinsüren was criticized at the time (this was the mid-1940s) for portraying a Mongolian as being so cruel to his horse. After all, Mongolians have traditionally had a very powerful and close relationship with horses, and they are still a common—and the easiest too, not requiring waiting in line or paying for a ticket—means of travel on the steppe. So we could characterize it (to use a current jargon term) as posthuman society, in which the bond between non-humans and humans is very tight, but also very non-sentimental.

Rail: Another outstanding story from Suncranes is Perenlein Luvsantseren’s “Blue as Water”—which chronicles the last days of Jantsan, an old caravanner who chooses, part of the way through his journey, to remain behind in the mountains (“wearing hats of snow”!) as the younger caravanners continue on. Like D. Natsagdorj and D. Namdag, whom you mentioned had studied in Germany, your author bio on Luvsantseren states he had the opportunity to study at the Gorky Institute in Moscow. This surprised me a bit because the story is infused with such a dense, lovely lyricism I do not normally associate with “social realism” or other accepted Soviet modes of artistic expression. Whatever the case, “Blue as Water” is a finely-crafted story by any standard. Its seamless narrative shifts from present to past, as well as the subtle change in perspective (when one of the young caravanners regards Jantsan’s movements as the old man loads the camels) are so sophisticated and cinematic. I also found it ironically moving how Jantsan’s father’s violent methods of discipline are ultimately mitigated by the genuine care and concern he has for his son. There is so much complexity here. Can you tell me a little bit about this writer and the influence this story has had upon Mongolian literature?

Wickhamsmith: I don’t actually know much about Luvsantseren. He was born in 1933 and died, I am told, in a plane crash in 1972. He was, though, a member of the generation of writers who came of age during the 1950s, when Mongolia—following the deaths of Stalin in 1953 and his Mongolian counterpart Choibalsan a year earlier—underwent a period of ideological relaxation. There was a sense of creative openness, a loosening of censorship, and writers wrote without the constant need to inject Socialism into their work. I think that “Blue as Water” is a really good example of this: Jantsan is an old man, coming to the end of his life and keen to remain relevant, but the way in which he is portrayed is so sensitive and so subtle, his memories so clear and told with such feeling, and this story is one of the best-loved and most anthologized of the 1960s. 

It’s sometimes hard to tell what influence individual writers and individual stories have had. But I think that this, and Luvsantseren’s work as a whole, is representative of the period—between about the mid-1950s and the late 1960s—which was a transition point between the old and the new, between the first thirty years of the revolutionary period, in which Mongolia began to put socialism to work in what was still a pre-modern herding society, and the new industrialized (or at least industrializing) Mongolia, in which collectivized herding, more effective medicine, and even Mongolia's contribution to space exploration led the way. This was also, though, the time of the Cold War, and it as especially cold in Mongolia, as we can see in stories such as S. Dashdoorov’s “The Cricket.” So Luvsantseren’s story likewise looks back nostalgically at a period which, while not perfect, was warm and—this word again—timeless, and perhaps it is this kind of nostalgic feeling that is the legacy of Luvsantseren, but also of others writers of his generation, such as D. Garmaa and S. Erdene.

The relationship between Jantsan and his father is similar to that of the father and son in Garmaa’s “The Wolf’s Lair.” It’s another example of the lack of sentimentality which characterizes Mongolian society. There is a great deal of warmth and loyalty and genuine care, but it’s hardly—if at all—sugar-coated as such relationships often are in American or European society, and children are given a great deal of freedom, but are not wrapped in cotton wool: I doubt that there are any helicopter parents in Mongolia.

Rail: Based on a number of your responses, I get the sense that you have read and occasionally translated a much greater range of Mongolian literature than an anthology like Suncranes can accommodate. What criteria did you use for deciding which stories would be included in the collection?

Wickhamsmith: I chose the ones I liked. I have, indeed, translated far more than this collection—poetry, short stories, and a few pieces of longer fiction too. I wanted to show with these stories the broad range of Mongolian fiction over the century since the revolution, but I also wanted to have readers feel what was distinctive about Mongolian society, and about the Mongolian worldview, as well as what was simply human. I also felt that it was important to give a flavor of the ways in which socialist ideology and, latterly, western influences, impacted the literature, both thematically and stylistically. That said, these really are the stories that I had fun translating and, most importantly perhaps, reading too, and the writers I believe best represent the literature. 

There are a few things which are missing—sci-fi from the 1960s and 1970s, which I started to read after the collection was finalized—and the work of several writers whom I had not known until perhaps the last few years. Hopefully, should there be a follow-up volume, these would be the writers and stories which I would want to include.  

Rail: A little while ago, I was talking to a good friend of mine about our upcoming conversation. This friend (also a poet) makes frequent trips to Mongolia. I asked him if he wanted me to pass along a question or concern he might have. I’ll paraphrase what he said: there is a thriving visual art scene in Mongolia in which artists critique and respond to a number of contemporary issues with astonishing originality. The music scene, also lively, accommodates a number of genres, including hip-hop and punk. By comparison, the literary scene seems slower to assert itself. What do you make of this observation? Would you agree?

Wickhamsmith: Yes, I wholeheartedly agree with this assessment. Fine art and popular music for sure are far more innovative and open to experiment than literature.

Rail: What about other kinds of music beyond popular?

Wickhamsmith: On the whole, the “art music” scene (for want of a better term) also lags behind (although I did once hear of someone who was working with computer music, and who had been studying in Europe; alas I never met him). But about literature, I really don’t know. There are a few writers who occasionally use innovative forms (such as pattern poems), and there are some, like Anudar, who push the envelope on what might be considered acceptable. But there really is nothing truly “experimental”—no B.S. Johnson, no Lyn Hejinian, no e.e. cummings, no Aram Saroyan, no L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, etc.

Rail: Why do you suppose this is the case?

Wickhamsmith: I used to think it might be because misreading (alternative readings) language during the period of censorship held the potential of personal danger, so that it would be important not to allow for too much leeway in interpretation, but then writers from other countries in the former Soviet bloc have developed more innovative work since the late 1980s. Perhaps it’s the deep tradition of oral literature, which I think can be heard and felt still in Mongolian writing, and which (we’re not talking about slam poetry, after all) is quite traditional and meaning-focused. The oral tradition, of course, included highly influential poets who wrote epics and praise-literature and incantations (among other forms), and in writing pieces which either communicate important ideas about society or communicate directly with the world of spirit, you don’t want to be playing with language or with forms. Those are just my ideas, but your friend’s question is really interesting, and one that I’d really like to explore more.

Rail: I’m wondering if part of the reason might have something to do with most Mongolians’ relationship to written language—as opposed to visual and musical languages. Is there an understanding that words are primarily functional, meaning-based tools resistant to the kind of nuance and plasticity one might encounter in experimentation and highly-conscious formal innovation? Is there distrust of high aesthetic practice in writing? Alternatively, might a Mongolian’s sense of the word be connected to the sacred and therefore highly guarded? I have no idea and am merely theorizing…

Wickhamsmith: Certainly there is a recognition that language has spiritual power beyond an immediate and mundane understanding. I think it’s well-summed up in the idea which Mend-Ooyo frequently references, that words create waves which, as they move away from the speaker (or the writer), at various degrees of speed and force, resonate with what they touch. In this way, yes, language is a sacred force, and—for people who think like him—one which should not be used in a way which somehow weakens the efficacy of that force. In a way, this would preclude a lot of the experimentation with language which I, for one, find exciting in modernist and postmodernist poetry. So, when I mentioned the work of a poet called B. Galsansuh, from the same generation as Anudar and Ölziitögs, Mend-Ooyo’s primary critique (as I would translate what he said) was that his work wasn’t grammatical. And yes, I can see that Galsansüh does take liberties in a way which Anudar, for all his darkness and disaffection, does not. (This is why I believe that Anudar’s work will survive in Mongolian letters, whereas the work of Galsansüh—a self-proclaimed “post-punk poet”—will, I suspect not.) So Mongolian literature—and perhaps you’re onto something here—doesn’t appreciate the abstraction of language in literary (post)modernism. Even Mayakovsky’s lesenka form was turned towards meaningful Socialist poetry.

But then there’s a really strong tradition of calligraphy in Mongolia, and (interestingly) Mend-Ooyo is a talented calligrapher and promoter of Mongolian book arts. So words can be abstracted—indeed, as I said before, there are some very cool pattern poems—but in a formal way. And the terminology is important. I don’t think, for instance, that if I showed Mend-Ooyo a book of visual poetry from the 1960s and 1970s, he would identify it as poetry. He might not even think of it as creative art. 

I know Mend-Ooyo very well, so I’m talking a lot about him, especially because his is quite a traditional perspective and because he is also super-enthusiastic about preserving Mongolian language, nomadic traditions, and calligraphy. However, I really don’t know of any writers who would disagree with the fundamental tenor of what he’s saying. There would seem to be, according to Mongolian thinking, a primal force in language which cannot (or at least should not) be used in a way which opens up too wide or uncomfortable a space between the page and the reader’s understanding.

Rail: Twenty-three writers were included in Suncranes, only three of which are women. I am assuming the comparative dearth of women writers in the collection is down to a pronounced imbalance in the number of women writing in Mongolia. Would this be a safe assumption? If so, what are some of the reasons for this? And, if so, are there similar imbalances in the musical and visual art scenes, too?

Wickhamsmith: Yes, I think that has probably historically been the case. There has been an attempt in recent years to produce anthologies of women writers—this is not necessarily the way we would do it in the west, but it’s in many ways an important step for Mongolia—but in the main, there would seem to have been what we’d call a systemic privileging of male writers. That said, the determination with which the government pursued equal opportunities, right from the time of the revolution, at least shows that there was an acknowledgement of imbalance and an attempt to do something about it. In the first post-1921 literary anthology, published in 1929, there are works by two female writers, D. Ishdulam (1871–1937) and D. Tserenlham (1900–1986)—about the same proportion as in Suncranes—which we can read either to suggest that not much has changed, or that right from the beginning this very small group of committed writers (perhaps fifteen or twenty at this time) was explicitly open to everyone. I don’t think that there is such an imbalance in music and visual art, although I have no real evidence for that statement.

Rail: There are so many genres explored in Suncranes, especially in the contemporary period. I’m thinking of “Room for Rent,” which is a classic ghost story that culminates in the young protagonist’s descent into insanity; and “Wings,” the penultimate story in the collection is terrific little parable in a magical realist idiom, a story in which only the town’s old vagrant and prostitute do not wake from “their festival of good dreams” with wings and the ability to fly, a boon that becomes a curse, leaving the remaining two outcasts to reflect from a position of wisdom about the limits of human ambition. These are not the only examples in the collection, and I’m wondering what other kinds of genres might be up-and-coming or in-vogue at the moment, and why?

Wickhamsmith: My feeling is that Mongolia, as it always has, stands at the intersection of many strands and trajectories. It has China and Russia surrounding it, and its so-called “third neighbors” Europe and the US, and from all these directions there come creative and social forces. South Korea too (and the North, but that's perhaps for another time)—K-pop and K-wave are really popular in Mongolia. So it’s really a fondue of culture, mediated by a powerful and largely beneficent traditionalist nationalism (focused on Chinggis Haan and the unity of the Mongol people), an openness to new things (Ulaanbaatar, remember, was originally a trading center along the Silk Road), and the mindset of a liberal capitalist economy. There is tremendous potential. But then, as I said before, literary experimentation is constrained. There is a strong magical-realist energy in Mongolia, but I think that it's rooted in the deep spirituality—Buddhist and Shamanic—in which non-human entities such as demons and ghosts and local deities are very present, and in which shamanic spirits and the deities of Mongolian Buddhism are likewise capable of intervening and being perceived in the so-called “real world.” My feeling is that the more foreign literature gets translated into Mongolian, the more writers will be able to explore what is happening elsewhere. I suspect that given the fact that the observable aspects of climate change are now appearing more and more across the world, Mongolia—with its exceptional landscape, and given the fact that traditionally the landscape is the literal (not figurative) dwelling-place of the ancestors, ready to advise through prayer and to intervene when requested to do so—will soon produce some very Mongolian ecoliterature. Mend-Ooyo is one writer who has already done so, and the stories in Suncranes by B. Baast and Ch. Lodoidamba give a hint of how this was tackled when the country was being "encouraged" by the Soviet Union to industrialize and to treat the landscape as something to be fought and overcome, rather than a part of the whole of which we too are part. 

Rail: As someone who read Suncranes with a lot of enthusiasm, I am sad now that further opportunities for reading Mongolian short fiction and novels are limited. Earlier, you mentioned plans for shopping around other collections you have translated. Is it difficult to find publishers for such work? If you cannot find a publisher, what are other avenues you might explore for disseminating your translations?

Wickhamsmith: Well, we have to persuade publishers (in their symbiotic relationship with readers) to take a chance on Mongolia. I am extremely happy that, now, there are two books of Mongolian literature commercially published in the US (the other is my translation of poetry by Ts. Oidov, The End of the Dark Era, published by Phoneme Media in LA back in 2016), and now I just have to compile another volume and find another publisher willing to explore what is very new material for most readers. I am utterly hopeless at self-promotion and marketing, so to your second question, I have no answer. Perhaps print-on-demand could be the way to go, or even a website to which translations could be uploaded and read. But don’t be too downcast, Tony… this kind of interview, I think, encourages potential readers for sure, but also perhaps a publisher might read this and put some feelers out. There is always change in the air, always potential.

Rail: Simon, thank you so much for consenting to this interview. You have been so bountiful with your responses. As we end this week-long discussion, I am wondering if you wish to say anything that you haven’t yet had the opportunity to voice.

Wickhamsmith: It’s been really fun to think with you about Mongolia’s literature and to find out what I’m feeling about it right now. I do a lot of research and translation and very rarely come up for air and talk about it as literature, so this has been a real joy. So thank you, Tony. One thing I would say is that anyone who feels moved by these stories and who has the time and the budget to visit Mongolia should do so. I’ll be honest: it’s not always an easy place to be, but it’s a place that lifts the spirits and makes me at least, still, after sixteen years visiting, look at the world more deeply and from a different perspective. Nowadays there are not many places, I suspect, of which you can say that.


Tony Leuzzi

Tony Leuzzi is an author. His books include the poetry collections Radiant Losses, The Burning Door, and Meditation Archipelago, as well as Passwords Primeval, a collection of his interviews with 20 American poets.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2022

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