Interview with Dashdondog Jamba, Mongolian author and literacy advocate

We are delighted to welcome author Dashdondog Jamba to PaperTigers. A few weeks ago I wrote a post about the amazing Mobile Library he founded in Mongolia some twenty years ago and we also featured a reprint of an article he wrote for IBBY’s journal Bookbird. Dashdondog has published more than seventy books, some of which can be read in English on the ICDL; he also has a blog, which includes translations of some of his poems, as featured in a recent Poetry Friday post. I’m grateful to Ramendra Kumar for putting me in contact with Dashdondog initially, and to Dashdondog himself for taking my inability to communicate in Mongolian in his stride – as well as for sending some great photos.

You have devoted your life to making it possible for children to have access to books. Can you give us some background to what Mongolia was like when you started out as a writer in the 1960s?

In 1958 the agricultural collectivization policy, which entailed handing livestock over to cooperatives, was almost completed in Mongolia. And even though my family didn’t like it, we delivered our livestock to the agricultural cooperative. It was a difficult time for rural herders to part from their beloved livestock. I clearly remember the moment when my grandma was crying about the “pitiable livestock”, and breeding lambs and kids were bleating and trying to run back to their shelters. Yet writers had written that herders had given their livestock to the agricultural cooperatives voluntarily. At that time my first book was published by the State Publishing House. I was 17 years old and in secondary school. From my first book you can only feel the heart of a boy who loves his lambs and calves. So I am always glad that I chose children’s literature as a career far from politics.

What changes have you witnessed, and indeed been instrumental in over the years?

For me who has been witness of two different societies there is opportunity to compare their weaknesses and advantages. I thankfully welcomed democracy, which brought us the freedom to think and have our own opinions. The freedom declared by socialism was limited, like wearing tight clothes. I can bear witness to it because I was considered as anti-communist and punished by losing the right to publish books.

What prompted you to start your now famous travelling library?

In 1990 Mongolia renounced communism and chose democracy with a free-market economy. During the privatization of property former children’s organizations were not taken over by anybody because they were considered as profitless and uneconomic. The formerly state-run children’s book publishing house became a private school, the children’s library became a private bank and the children’s cinema became the stock exchange.

Even though I had fought against it, my efforts didn’t work. Then I asked myself what we should be writing for children in this new society to read. It was unthinkable to present them with books written along the lines of the only way we had open to us under the socialist regime.

I felt the only place that could answer my question was the International Youth Library in Munich: so I went there. They gave me their list of the best children’s books. And I started to translate those books and published 108 books with my own money. Then I founded the mobile library and provided the rural children with those books. That is the most suitable activity for the nomadic life.

The mobile library was awarded the IBBY-Asahi reading Promotion Award in 2006. In your acceptance speech you shared something that you tell the children who come to the library: “After eating candies there remains nothing. But after reading a book you will have it in your head.” You said that, in the same way that children like to eat sweets from around the world, you would use the award to make it possible for Mongolian children to enjoy books written and published in different countries. Has that indeed been possible?

The IBBY-Asahi award meant we were able to buy a van for the mobile library, as well as provide actual books. In the Mobile Library’s collection we have about 10,000 books from other countries, such as Japan, the USA, Canada, Germany and India. The Japanese Post Office donated the money for those books to be translated into Mongolian and 400 students worked on those translations for 4 years. Because they are the world’s best books, they attract Mongolian children’s interest very much.

Can you tell us about some of the adventures you have had with the travelling library?

Over the last 20 years, the Mobile Library has travelled a total of 81,000km through all the provinces of Mongolia. Sometimes we travel by camel, sometimes on horseback, and with horse carts or ox carts; we now also have our van.

When we are travelling, we experience many interesting adventures. Once, when we were preparing for the next stage of our journey after the children from a camp of gers (traditional Mongolian dwelling) had finished their reading, I saw a woman holding her child in her arms with a worried face through the open door of a ger. We got out of the van again and went over to them. The child had a temperature. We were all worried and gave the child sweets and toys but he didn’t like them. So then I tried reading him a poem which was written in the rhythm of a horse step and galloping, and the boy’s eyes were refreshed and smiling, forgetting his pain.

I included this adventure in my book I Am a Children’s Writer, which includes a DVD of poems about horses and other rhythmic poetry.

You yourself have translated many stories from around the world into Mongolian. Why do you think it is so important for children to have access to these translated works?

I have translated and published more than 60 books by authors from various countries, not to mention more than a thousand poems. I have also published two large volumes of children’s poetry and fiction from around the world. Soon I am going to publish a children’s literature textbook in order to familiarize children with the diverse ways of thinking in different cultures of the world: I hope that it will be significant not only for children but also for children’s writers.

I think that one of the most effective ways to ensure the availability of books translated into one’s own language is through direct contact with foreign authors. We have translated many books in this way. I translate books in the hope that children in different countries will meet each other and become close friends.

Your recent book Mongolian Folktales was a family affair, with your son Borolzoi Dashdondog and cousin Egimaa Tsolmonbaatar translating your retellings of folktales into English. The stories were then sensitively edited by Anne Pellowski. How did the book come to be put together?

Mrs. Anne Pellowski is a well-known figure in the field of children’s books. She visited Mongolia in 2006, and during her time here she organized training, participated in the Mobile Library’s activities, and helped me in my work. She comes to my mind as a woman of deeply humane character, like you find in fairytales; and she kindly devoted time to editing Mongolian Folktales. For this reason, my son Borolzoi, my cousin Egiimaa and I are eternally grateful to her. It makes us feel proud that American readers can now read and gain some insight into the literature of the Mongolian people.

As well as folk tales, the book contains sayings and word games, including a selection of Triads, which we are told are deep-rooted in Mongolian culture. What are Triads and why are they so special?

The World Folklore Series to which Mongolian Folktales belongs covers a variety of traditions from oral culture. We tried to include as many of the various genres of word art created by nomadic Mongolians as possible. Nomadic Mongolians used to make up brief, precise stories. For example, in “The Three Whites of the Universe” we find:

White-the color of the young man’s teeth
White-the color of the old man’s hair
White-the color of the dead man’s bones

From this you can see the whole span of human life encompassed in the three lines of the triad. It is fascinating that our Mongolian ancestors reflected on the philosophy of life within so few words, and that even children’s wordplay contained such wisdom.

You have written many other books yourself – although most are sadly not easily available in English, if at all. What kinds of stories do you write?

I write philosophical fairytales with characters who think and who make their readers think. But they are very short. Under Chinggis Khan, soldiers used to carry all the meat from a cow stored in its pericardium. I use that method in my word art: in other words, I make everything compact but it’s all there. For example, there are nine folktales my Tales on Horseback and they are retold according to that method: some researchers consider the original stories to be nine separate novels but I have retold them here for children in a single volume.

How does children’s publishing work in Mongolia?

In Mongolia there are no publishing houses that specialize in only publishing children’s books: in fact, even though there are many publishing companies, only a few of them publish children’s books at all. In 2009 Mrs. Rosalind Price, an experienced publisher and member of IBBY Australia came to deliver some workshops in Mongolia, which helped enormously in the development of children’s books.

Children’s book artists in Mongolia are very rare, so over the last few years I have organized a competition of children’s book illustrations, set up an exhibition and established a community called “The artists of children’s books”. Members of this community have illustrated 108 books to date. Sometimes, though, when I urgently need pictures, I illustrate my books myself: for example my book The Camel with Seven Humps.

IBBY, SCBWI and the Soros Foundation have all also assisted greatly in the development of Mongolian picture books. In 2007, for example, the Mongolian Section of IBBY invited a famous illustrator from Argentina/USA Mrs. Beatriz Vidal to Mongolia and she was of great assistance in teaching children’s book illustration to artists.

What projects are you working on at the moment?

I have recently published a few books illustrated with photographs and I have a plan to publish some of them abroad: the lifestyle of Mongolian children might be interesting to foreign children. I am about to publish a book called The White History of a Black Bird, which is a true story. Sixty years ago a now old woman cured an injured raven from the Gobi Desert. The raven has never forgotten the old woman’s favor and has helped her ever since. Once the old woman fell ill and had to spend some time in hospital in Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia. So the raven came from 700 km far away and stayed on the hospital windowsill. Many such interesting things have happened to the raven and the old woman. It is said that ravens bring bad luck and most people used to fear them, but in my book I have written how kind and helpful they are. I hope that the book, which is illustrated with photos, might attract foreign readers.

I also have plans for the future to build a children’s library and found a center of international children’s literature studies in Mongolia.

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