Notes from the Field

From Mongolia: International Recognition for Writers

June 4, 2008

It’s happening slowly, but it’s happening: Mongolian writers are taking steps toward forming a branch of International PEN (Poets, Playwrights, Essayists, and Novelists). International PEN, the only international organization of writers, is dedicated to literary fellowship and freedom of expression around the world. It was founded in 1921 by Mrs. C.A. Dawson Scott, a Cornish novelist, based on her conviction that “if the writers of the world could learn to stretch out their hands to each other, the nations of the world could learn in time to do the same.”Today PEN has over 140 Centers in about 100 countries, but Mongolia, a place where schoolchildren memorize poems and the Mongolian Writers’ Union has around 700 registered members, does not yet have a PEN center of its own. Without a PEN center, Mongolia cannot send representatives to the annual PEN World Conference, participate in any PEN programming and fellowship activities, or link in to a sound and talented network of literary translators that would help put Mongolia on the world’s literary map.

Since arriving in Mongolia last fall to spend a year working with Mongolia’s writers, it has been my goal to inform, encourage, and include Mongolian writers and literature in the PEN International family. Each literary figure I have met and asked to help bring a PEN center to life wants to know who would head up this “PEN club”. Mongolian writers traditionally don’t work with people from different literary interest groups than their own, and this is largely why there is not yet a Mongolian PEN center.

It’s getting there, though: on December 5th, 2007, some of the country’s most distinguished writers met and the required 20 signed PEN International’s Charter, which constituted the first step towards the formation of an official branch of PEN in Mongolia. The meeting made the international news wire, and started a conversation that continued this spring at the release of the English translation of “Dog of Heaven,” Mongolian National Library Director Hatagin Akim’s book of wolf legends and traditional folklore. As Bill Infante, The Asia Foundation’s Mongolia’s Country Representative, explained to the packed lecture hall, the book constitutes an example of the kind of cultural exchange the literary community hopes to have with Mongolia once its writers and literature are on the PEN International radar and thereby on the worldwide literary map.

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