Wednesday, 2 April 2014

'Mongol' by Uuganaa Ramsay

I finished Uuganaa Ramsay's memoir 'Mongol' the night before last night. Uuganaa, who is Mongolian, and grew up in a  'ger' (yurt), is now in her mid-thirties, and lives in Scotland with her husband and their three children. Four years ago, she had a baby boy, Billy. Billy had Down's Syndrome and, tragically, because of heart complications, died at just three months old. In writing his story, and her own story, Uuganaa has turned her precious boy's short life - and her grief - into something beautiful.

She has become passionate about educating others about Down's. She's certainly in a unique position to comment on the misuse of the word 'mongol', historically used to describe people with Down's Syndrome. I learned that it was actually British doctor John Langdon Down  -  who had coined the term 'mongol' in 1860. Of course, conflating a disability with an ethnicity is both offensive and unhelpful.  The word mongolism was officially dropped by WHO in 1965.  I don't recall the word mongol ever being associated with my wee aunt, certainly not within our family. It's not uncommon, though, to hear people still using the word 'mong' pejoratively. I imagine it is heard in playgrounds. In 1970s/80s, when I was at school,  'spaz' was the word most likely to be used.

I enjoyed the honesty and simplicity of Uuganaa's prose: there's a certain clarity, I think, that comes with writing in a language that is not your native tongue. The final chapter made me cry (I don't often cry at books). And the early and middle chapters describing Billy are compelling and moving. I also enjoyed learning about Mongolia, gorgeous details like the pale blue paint behind the goats' horns to identify them as her family's herd. When we were kids, we would refer to somewhere very far away as being in Outer Mongolia, with little or no idea of where Mongolia actually is. This book is an education. The only yurt I have ever been in is the hallowed writers' yurt at the book festival, and it was fascinating to learn of lives lived in yurts, the daily routines. The strength of (extended) family bonds is very much highlighted.

'Mongol' is, as memoirs are, necessarily time-driven rather than plot-driven, and while I learned a lot about Mongolia, I felt there were some sections, where we perhaps get too many 'facts' and not much story. It can feel a *little* dry at times. However, halfway through, the narrative takes an unexpected turn and feels almost novelistic - I couldn't put the book down after this.  And, as I said above, the final section, which deals with Billy's passing, made me cry. I read towards the inevitable event and I felt my throat tighten. I'm glad that Uuganaa and her husband had lovely hospital staff to support them through this dreadful time, though the image stays with me of an insensitive young doctor who came to Uuganaa's ward, earlier  in the story,  to see the 'floppy baby'.

I saw  Uuganaa launch her book at a packed event a few weeks ago in Edinburgh. I was struck by her poise and grace when she read. I highly recommend her memoir, which is published by Scottish indie press Saraband. I'd love to read what she writes next.


Crafty Green Poet said...

I'll need to make sure i read this at some point. And I love Mongolian films....

nmj said...

Happy to lend my copy!

Unknown said...

Dear Nasim Marie Jafry,

I just finished reading The State of Me and wanted to tell you how much I liked it. I particularly admire your intelligence and sense of humor and your commitment to advocacy. I enjoyed the story (you are a born novelist), and you did a good job explaining the illness ME. I have been ill for more than 45 years. My mother was also ill; I have no memory of her as well. Sorry to write all this in a comment to a blog post. I tried to email but got taken to Google which insisted I set up a gmail account. By the way, I liked this blog post. I, too, had an aunt -- a wee aunt -- with Down's Syndrome.

Merry Speece, Columbus, Ohio, US

nmj said...

Thanks so much, Merry, glad you enjoyed the novel! Wishing you better health. NASIM