Uuganaa is a Mongol living in Britain, far from the world she grew up in: as a nomadic herder she lived in a yurt, eating marmot meat, distilling vodka from goat's yoghurt and learning about Comrade Lenin. When her new-born son Billy is diagnosed with Down's Syndrome, she finds herself facing bigotry and taboo as well as heartbreak.
In this powerful memoir, Uuganaa skillfully interweaves the extraordinary story of her own childhood in Mongolia with the sadly short life of Billy, who becomes a symbol of union and disunion, cultures and complexity, stigma and superstition - and inspires Uuganaa to challenge prejudice. Mongol is the touching story of one woman's transformation from outsider to fearless champion of love, respect and tolerance. It's a moving tribute by a remarkable woman to her beloved baby son, testifying to his lasting impact on a sometimes imperfect world.
Tell us a little about how you came to Britain and how you became a writer.
I used to teach English as a Foreign Language in a language school in Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia. The school sent me to go on a professional development course in London in 2000. The course was only for four weeks and I met my husband then. In December 2000, I was back to Britain celebrating my first ever Christmas in a British style, pulling crackers and trying turkey for the first time.
After I moved to Britain, I retrained and became a Careers Adviser and worked in Scottish towns and villages. I loved the different accents and my ears would tune into them very quickly. I like the Scots language a lot. It has similar sounds as Mongolian. Och, it’s brilliant.
I only became a writer in 2010. I wanted to share my story, and my grief after my son Billy’s death made me turn to writing. I started a blog writing to Billy about seven weeks after his funeral. My blog posts are letters to Billy, telling him what we were up to and how I was feeling. I still write to him and through this process I realised I wanted to do something tangible in memory of my baby boy.
Was it difficult writing about your past in Mongolia? And about the sad loss of your son?
It was lovely to write about my childhood, I revisited the happy memories of growing up in rural Mongolia in our ger (yurt). It made me happy as I was talking to my parents who still live in my childhood ger in Zavhan and finding out more about my childhood life.
On the other hand, writing about my son Billy was cathartic. His short life made a huge impact on many people’s life including my family and myself. My husband would look at the tissues beside my laptop and ask ‘Are you having fun?’ It was hard to relive the memories of Billy’s birth and death but I knew the story had to be told.
Why did you want to write this particular book?
When Billy was dying I promised him that I would make him live in people’s minds. I found out that every published book in Britain has a copy in the British Library. So Billy’s story would be in there archived as a history living on people’s minds in years to come.
Also I wanted to show who a Mongol is through a human story as there are many confusing meanings out there associated with the historical term “mongol” which describe people with Down’s syndrome. It’s a brave and wonderful testimony to your son to do this, Uuganaa.
Do you have a favourite writing place?
At home, at our dining table. With a cup of milky tea and some biscuits.Do you find time for hobbies?
I go to my writers’ club. I like the guest speakers, workshops and meeting new people there. Our kids are still young, so one of my favourite things to do is to watch films at home with my husband. We don’t go out that often, so once the kids are in bed we turn our room into a cinema. Great idea!
What are your current writing plans? Are you writing fiction?
I’m writing Mongol in Mongolian now, so I will be busy for a while. No, I’m not writing fiction in the near future, but I think I have plenty of ideas to write and explore.
Any tips for new writers?
If you are passionate about what you are writing about, go for it. Sometimes people say you have to pick a subject controversial or different, but choose something that you love or that annoys you, so that your passion comes through. Also don’t believe that there is one particular path to be a writer. If you can visualise your book in your head it is doable. Be grateful and be kind to other writers, and be happy for others when they do well.
Thank you so much for those wise and memorable words, Uuganaa. I can’t wait to read your book and I do wish you many readers.
Mongol will be available from the publisher Saraband as well as Amazon UK and Amazon US in January 2014.
Uuganaa Ramsay was born in Mongolia and grew up living in a yurt, eating marmot meat and distilling vodka from yoghurt. After winning a place on a teacher-training course she came to the UK; she now lives in Scotland with her family. Uuganaa was the Mongolian Creative Woman of the Year for Mongolians in Europe in 2012. Mongol won the Janetta Bowie Chalice Non-Fiction Award from the Scottish Association of Writers' Conference.
Just heard Uuganaa featured on a radio interview today where you can hear her talking about the book and story in her beautiful voice: http://radiogorgeous.com/podcast/author-uuganaa-ramsay-mongol-a-mothers-memoir/