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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Matthew Davis Talks About Mongolia and His Book When Things Get Dark

Posted By on Tue, Feb 23, 2010 at 9:30 AM

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In the summer of 2000 Matthew Davis, a recent graduate of the University of Missouri, moved to Tsetserleg, a small town in the Mongolian countryside, to begin a two-year hitch in the Peace Corps. Now, nearly ten years later, he's written a book about his experiences there, When Things Get Dark: A Mongolian Winter's Tale, that he'll be reading from tonight at Left Bank Books in the Central West End.

His arrival in Mongolia was near-accidental. "I was on the phone with the Peace Corps recruiter," he recalls, "and he told me I had two choices, Mongolia or Romania. I had no idea about either place. How could I choose? So I just blurted out 'Mongolia.' He said, 'Good choice.' I think he had done his service in Nepal."

Among the things that Davis learned in Tsetserleg: How to chop wood. That the Wall Street Journal makes better kindling than the New York Times. That Mongolian women are more sexually free than one would expect (which led to some awkward questions about his sleeping arrangements). That airag, the national drink made from fermented mare's milk, causes certain, shall we say, intestinal difficulties.

But Davis' time in Mongolia also coincided with an interesting period in the country's history. The rural herding culture was slowly disappearing as more people moved from small towns like Tsetserleg to the capitol, Ulaanbaatar, known simply as The City. From there, many left Mongolia altogether.

"My friends from there, who were in their early to mid-twenties when I lived there have all left the country," Davis explains. "They've gone to Europe, the U.S., Japan." In some ways, When Things Get Dark is a chronicle of a vanished way of life.

What remains a constant in Mongolia, however, is the undercurrent of violence, exacerbated by the long winters, the large quantities of vodka required to get through those long winters and increasing political turmoil.

"Mongolia was held up by the U.S. as a model of the transition from communism to democracy," Davis says. "There were successes. But in the elections of 2007, five people were killed because of protests."

Tsetserleg was relatively peaceful when Davis lived there. But the long winter and the drinking culture took its toll on him, too, culminating in a drunken fight with a carload of Mongolians that landed him in the hospital with two bruised kidneys.

Davis remained in Mongolia for a third year after his Peace Corps service in order to travel through the country. Back in the U.S., he got an MFA in nonfiction writing at the University of Iowa, where, after a few false starts, most of the book got written. He intersperses his own story with travel essays about significant places in Mongolian history and culture, like the birthplace of Chinggis Khan and the monastery where the first Dalai Lama was appointed.

"I feel that in the U.S. we have a rich history, but we're not reminded of it all the time," Davis says. "In Mongolia I became attuned to how the past has a huge effect on how people live their lives. It's striking. There were so many moments where I'd be standing somewhere and be blown away by the immensity of history.

"Mongolia is so underrepresented," he continues. "Most people think of horses and nomads and exotic festivals. And that's all Mongolia, too, but it's also people living their lives."

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