The Arts Council of Mongolia occupies the fourth floor of a large office building in central UB. Several young Australians each year make their home in Mongolia on an Australian ambassadorship, and two or three of them have posts at the Arts Council. They waved from their respective ends of the room, since that’s how the majority of the office was laid out—walls and cubicles were gone in favor of a large, bright room with all sort kinds of artwork on the walls and a desk in each corner. It was certainly the most modern layout I’d yet seen in UB. I was there to tell Ariunaa, the director, about my hope for Mongolia to have a PEN center. Ariunaa had beautiful glass earrings on and over tea she admonished me to reschedule next time I was sick from bad dumplings instead of coming in anyway. But I know better; it had been as hard as pulling teeth to get her in the same room as Chilaajav. Accordingly, “Execution and partnership are the two hardest areas in Mongolia,” Ariunaa now warned. Every single organization head I have spoken with about the possibility of opening a PEN center here has been very positive about the idea, but the part where it actually begins to happen is the part with which, I as a foreigner and a relatively short-term expat at that, have the least to do. It’s also the most crucial, that action step, and if what I’ve heard about the culture here is right, it’s the least likely to happen.
There’s a bronze sculpture near the entrance to the Arts Council I’ve thought of more than once since seeing it. It depicts a clothesline with the traditional Mongolian nomad’s garb hanging from it, clothespins and all. Back at Lisa Fink’s poetry reading I had seen my first Mongolian artwork, including a primarily abstract ink pen drawing with shapes suggestive of gers contained therein. I cannot emphasize enough what Jamaa could not emphasize enough to the countries in which she served as Mongolian Ambassador—that Mongolia is home to a people and a culture historically, wholly different from Russia, China, or any other place. Take this assertion from the artwork, if you like. No matter what part of Mongolia you’re looking at, this originality remains steadfastly true to the point of a frustrating lack of words in English with which to adequately describe it.