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The following excerpts are from The Gray Earth, the second in Galsan Tschinag's trilogy of autobiographical novels that began with The Blue Sky, translated by Katharina Rout and published simultaneously by Oolichan Books (Canada) and Milkweed Editions (U.S. ) in 2006. As the novel opens, the narrator, Dshurukuwaa (Fur Baby), is eight years old and is taken from his rural nomadic life on the Mongolian steppes in the high Altai region to the district center to begin his schooling. Even though his older brother, Dshokonaj, is the school's principal, and his older siblings, Torlaa and Galkaan, already attend the school, the transition is traumatic for the boy. He is unused to seeing a cluster of wooden buildings—the "square world" of houses instead of yurts—and also speaks Tuvan, a minority language that is officially banned in the classroom. He must learn to write and speak Mongolian, and though he is also a budding shaman, such "superstitions" are suppressed.
The Gray Earth is set in 1951 and 1952. After the Qing dynasty fell in 1911, Mongolian nationalists, with encouragement from tsarist Russia, declared independence from Chinese dominance. The recently established Republic of China refused to recognize Mongolia's independence, and in the ensuing years Mongolia's neighbors fought for dominance in the region. Eventually, in 1921, the Mongolian People's Republic, bolstered by Soviet troops, was created, and in effect, Mongolia became a client-state of the Soviet Union. Though considerable factional turmoil followed, by the 1950s Stalinist-style collectivism and ideology were firmly in place. The Mongolian head of state, Marshal Khorloogiin Choibalsan, emulated Stalin's policies, fostering his own personality cult, confiscating land, and purging all so-called enemies of the State. Choibalsan died in January 1952, an event that is woven into Tschinag's novel.
But the young narrator of The Gray Earth knows nothing of such things; he can only react to their effects on his daily life and those of his classmates, teachers, and family.—Editor