January 2014

Kate Duva

nonfiction

Mongol by Uuganaa Ramsay

Uuganaa Ramsay's third child, Billy, was born with Celtic red hair, "Mongolian blue spot" birthmarks, and, she would soon discover, Down's Syndrome. In a disastrous attempt at reassurance, a doctor told her, "It may not be so obvious that William has Down's because of your ethnic background."

As she hurtled into a new role as advocate and activist, Ramsay found herself fighting racial ignorance in her adopted home of Scotland while reckoning with a different brand of ignorance from her native Mongolia, where disability is often blamed on parental wrongdoing or ancestral ties. As she reports in her lean, spare memoir, Mongol, her fight to keep a fragile baby with a hole in his heart alive would be impossible without a reexamination of her roots: "I needed to look back to my childhood and the very different Mongolian culture in order to move on in life."

Ramsay was born in rural Mongolia during the peak of the Socialist era, a time when posters of "Teacher Lenin" were stitched into wall-hangings and Buddhist shrines were hidden away. She affectionately recalls an upbringing that embodies the contradictions of life in a culture at the crossroads of civilizations. She was raised in a one-room ger, or yurt -- "we didn't know the concept of the word 'privacy' or 'personal space'" -- by well-educated parents who taught her to herd sheep and goats, clean intestines, distill vodka from yogurt, and read like a fiend.  "My parents told me that I 'lost my ears' when I read... one night, I nearly burnt the ger down trying to finish a book."

Most of Ramsay's concise prose is as clear and quick-moving as the streams where she washed clothes as a child, her style a refreshing antidote to that of self-conscious memoirs swollen with emotional detritus. In the Mongolia of her memories, the goals are simple but the work is intense, life is aligned with natural rhythms, and families maintain strong and intricate networks of support. The reader is lulled by the sight of two little girls tending their herd under a cloudless, deep blue sky, waiting for their mother to signal dinner by hanging her red gown outside the ger, and men slaughtering animals by reaching inside them and holding their hearts until they stop beating.  Using a rare metaphor, Ramsay writes of learning foreign languages in high school, "English was the new hot spice in the pot... A few weeks in and I was mixing my P's and F's, calling myself 'pine' and Nasa my 'priend.' My journey in speaking English started with no idea of where I would end up in the world." While Ramsay's growing yearning to go to the West is not quite fully examined, she makes it clear that she was far from alone in her desire: for her peers, "anything would do as long as it was abroad."

Mongol is dedicated to Billy Buuz Ramsay, and yet in his mother's homage to him, she reveals herself as a woman of extraordinary determination who filled her pockets with lists of English words and posted quotes from Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People on her mirror. She showed up to university in Ulaanbaatar every year lugging eighty kilos of goat cashmere to take to market and stretched meager savings by buying bottles of orange juice to sell outside of class. What shines through is always matter-of-fact, never self-aggrandizing: "I used to take a book and a dictionary with me while I was looking after our livestock [on semester break], inwardly annoyed with my parents but unable to say it to their faces. Instead, I'd mutter to myself, 'My friends are speaking English with tourists and I'm speaking baa baa with sheep.'" She got into a teacher-training program in London when she had the good faith to appeal a rejection, and there she met Richard, the Scottish man who would become her husband.

"Richard asked a lot of questions about Mongolia and we had fun dancing until midnight," Ramsay writes of the night she met him. "I felt comfortable around Richard and we were open and honest about our past and our thoughts on life." This lack of detail is the downside to much of Ramsay's prose. In other places, such as a passage about her first childbirth, her understated style lacks affect: "Oh boy, I had never experienced this kind of pain, and I was almost at my wits' end." Mongol avoids all melodrama, despite its serious subject matter, but a bit of exaggeration wouldn't hurt the author's style. Now that the hot debate on memoirists' responsibility to "the truth" seems to have simmered down to lively discussions on what "truth" might be and how to play with it, most readers of memoir expect to encounter fictional techniques. We expect writers to sharpen hazy memories into distinct scenes, to cut unnecessary summary and magnify the tension of more important events by embellishing them with dialogue, action and atmosphere.

When Ramsay does indulge in a scene, the results range from tender -- her shell-shocked husband, upon receiving Billy's diagnosis, offering her a bowl of potpourri to sniff -- to charming and fascinating. Of young men at a party, she writes, "They wore their caps at a jaunty angle, walking as though in a slow dance, dragging their feet across the floor, moving as if they had a hedgehog under their armpits and moving their heads as though they had a neck-brace on. They would compete to ask girls to dance... to waltz music played on the only Casio keyboard in the village." As an expatriate, Ramsay has that special ability to point out the quirks of her own culture as well as her adopted culture, and her exploration of privacy and personal space is especially intriguing. Why should she not let herself into her flatmate's bedroom to vacuum the floor, she wonders? And how, her parents question, can she possibly leave her little girl to sleep in a room all by herself?

These fascinating tidbits leave the reader with many questions. How does Ramsay really feel about British culture? She was shocked by comedian Ricky Gervais's infamous tweet that "two mongs don't make a right," but has she faced other, more subtle forms of discrimination as well? Which paradigms of her own culture does she struggle against, and do those relate to the struggles that she fights within herself? The struggle against nature that opens and closes this book, however, is documented with crystal clarity. While Billy did not survive, his life propelled his mother into a new calling as an activist. The ebook version of Mongol was released on International Human Rights Day, and Ramsay now blogs about preventing the doubly offensive misuse of that word. (John Langdon Down, the doctor for whom Down's syndrome was named, coined the term "Mongolism" himself, although he ironically was seen as ahead of his time for considering this "degeneracy" to be proof of "the unity of the human species.") Ramsay's message is catching on: she appeared in a full-page article in the Scottish Sunday Press beside the headline, "I can think of no other nationality used to describe a disability."

Considering that Uuganaa Ramsay did not begin writing until 2010, her accomplishments have been tremendous, and she is someone to watch, both as an artist and as an activist. She is currently writing her memoir in Mongolian. Given her declaration that speaking in her mother tongue makes her more emotional, one can only imagine the new layers that she may discover in her story as she tells it in the language that shaped her earliest perceptions. To this day, Ramsay also continues to post in a blog that she created in honor of her son: "So yes we did it Billy. You inspired Mummy and the story is being read by people around the world. You will live in people's minds."

Mongol by Uuganaa Ramsay
Saraband
ISBN: 978-1908643414
180 pages