By Kit Gillet
|Jonah M. Kessel for The Wall Street Journal|
Today he is considered the country’s poet laureate, and an important figure in the fight to retain its traditional culture. As its fast-growing economy puts its modernization into overdrive and draws its population away from its nomadic roots, he has his work cut out for him.
“It is a big shame for us that the country is so focused on mining, at the detriment of herders and the traditional ways of life,” says Mr. Mend-Ooyo, 60 years old, sitting behind his cluttered desk in an old Soviet building in Ulan Bator. “It’s really difficult to bring back lost culture once it’s gone.”
Born into a nomadic family, he spent his early years moving across the steppe, herding goats and sheep throughout the day and listening to his elders play traditional music on horsehead fiddles at night. “We would move 20 times in a year,” he says. “Nomads feel the land has spirits and a soul, so we have songs about each new place we move to.”
Riding horses since the age of 3, Mr. Mend-Ooyo grew up when Mongolia was under Russian control. His father taught him the indigenous Mongolia script by drawing it in the snow that fell outside their circular tent, or ger, during the long winter months — “since classes at school were taught only in the Russian-influenced Cyrillic script,” he says. The family prayed nightly in secret, hiding their Buddhist statues in a box during the day.
As a teenager in the countryside, he got interested in writing, thanks in part to Dorjiin Gombojav, a controversial poet and translator who had alienated officials in Ulan Bator. As punishment, Mr. Gombojav had been sent to teach at the rural school Mr. Mend-Ooyo attended.
Mr. Mend-Ooyo wrote his first lines of poetry under Mr. Gombojav’s guidance. “He taught me the importance of Mongolian language and our traditions,” he says.
In the 1970s, Mr. Mend-Ooyo moved to Ulan Bator, Mongolia’s only major city, to attend university. There he helped form Fire, an underground literary group. At the time, communist censors “wouldn’t let groups meet,” he says. “They were always watching us, so we had to be very careful and meet in people’s homes at night.”
He worked at a state radio station through the ‘80s and was allowed to publish some of his poetry after it was vetted by officials. When single-party communist rule ended in 1990, after almost seven decades, he began publishing more of his work, including the writing that espoused his pastoral roots and eventually became his best-known poems.
In them, he describes homesick horses neighing at dawn, saddle studs “sparkling at night” and how sunshine materializes between the gaps in clouds — the observations of someone used to traveling vast distances on horseback.
“The idea of traditional Mongolian culture is paramount to Mend-Ooyo. He is trying to keep the nomadic spirit alive in spite of modernization,” says Simon Wickham-Smith, a Mongolian-literature scholar who has translated several of Mr. Mend-Ooyo’s books into English. Mr. Mend-Ooyo, he adds, “is arguably the most important poet in Mongolia today, and certainly the one with the most presence, though some of the newer generation might say he is a bit stuck in the past.”
Bavuudorj Tsogdorj, 43, a member of the younger generation of Mongolian poets, believes his increasingly urbanized countrymen will eventually appreciate their nomadic tradition. “Younger poets are now writing with European thoughts and styles, but they will come back to Mongolian poetry and thoughts someday. At that time Mend-Ooyo will be really valuable,” he says.
“Mend-Ooyo is Mongolia’s poetry representative — he is a genuine nomadic poet,” he adds.
Mr. Mend-Ooyo is now channeling his energy into rethinking the modern Mongolian way of life. He envisions a 21st-century nomadic community in which schools, health care and markets move with the people, allowing them to maintain their mobility while providing some of the benefits of contemporary society. “It’s my dream to build it,” he says.
“The reason nomads come to the cities is to get education for their children, hospital access. We want to allow nomads to be more modern, to use cellphones and Internet,” he says. “Keep the old life, just make it better.”
He is starting small, beginning in his home province some 600 kilometers from Ulan Bator where he writes in the summer and where much of his family still lives and herds. There, he is discussing his plans with others in the community, as well as experts who can advise on ways to realize it.
“My life is the mirror of Mongolia,” he says. “I grew up in the classic nomadic way of life, then moved to the city. But even after all these years I am not a city person. All my dreams are about the countryside, and I feel like I am living in a birdcage. Now I am planning to move back to the countryside. I just hope Mongolia will too.”