Lately in Literature: Eastern traditions from a Western perspective in Quan Barry’s newest novel

Nov. 1, 2022, 11:56 p.m.

“Why do we need to believe that our lives add up to some grand narrative?” writes Quan Barry. I find myself wondering if she’s criticizing the “main character moment” I was having while reading her book on a bench in an empty park. There’s a sense of beauty in how Barry writes from a Mongolian monk’s point of view, yet how relatable that distinct perspective is for all readers. The line reminds me there is no need to add meaning to every small experience we have — while these moments won’t lead to anything significant, they are still worthy moments spent happily.

“When I’m Gone, Look for Me In The East” is Quan Barry’s third novel published last February. Her latest work is a fresh perspective combining whimsical elements with history and culture. The book is set in Mongolia and is centered around twins, Chuluun and Mun, who set out on a journey around the beautiful country to find the reincarnation of a Buddhist spiritual leader, a tulku. Despite the Eastern setting of the book, I felt it was particularly targeted towards a Western audience, particularly an audience in the Global North raised in cultures distinct from Eastern traditions.

The characters of Chuluun and Mun represent a notorious duality, that of the East and the West. When he was eight years old, Mun was declared the reincarnation of another tulku and taken to a monastery where he was raised in lavish treatment while also burdened with responsibilities. Chuluun was taken along with his twin brother to the monastery where he did not have responsibilities like his brother, but eventually adapted to the daily routine of meditations, becoming a Tibetan Buddhist monk. Mun eventually moves to the capital, Ulaanbaatar, to pursue more material needs and interests and the brothers grow apart until they have to meet again for a long journey spanning routes in Mongolia where they find a chance to reconnect.

Barry’s unique prose does justice to the natural and cultural beauty of Mongolia. Describing a monastery, Barry writes: “Several are topped by ornate green-and-gold Chinese-style roofs, their peaks adorned with tiles like the scales on a dragon, the roofs sweeping downward, then rising coyly at each corner the way a woman initially averts her eyes only to glance up at you as you turn from her.”

The lyrical use of imagery and Mongolian words immersed throughout short chapters are simply beautiful to read and reflect Barry’s poetry background immediately. For instance, among several Mongolian words, the novel introduced me to aaruul, a common source of nutrition for nomads made from milk that has been left to curdle. Although the novel deals with complex themes and is packed with cultural anecdotes, Barry explains her religious and historical references, making the book accessible for readers unfamiliar with Mongolian and Buddhist culture.

However, the overwhelming informative tone of the book makes it more suitable for a Western audience, new to the intricacies of the West versus East conflict and subsequently the tradition versus modernity conflict. Barry feels the need to explain certain details about the country that would be very obvious to readers from Mongolia or from Turkic and Balkanic countries that were once under Soviet occupation. Explaining how most cars in the country are left from the Soviet occupation times, or pointing out the facts about the largest lake in Mongolia, reads like a fashioned history or geography textbook.

Nowadays, people from the Global North are prone to relate modernity to the West, not because they  view Eastern countries, such as those in the Balkans peninsula to those in Central Asia, to be any less modern, but because our definition of modernity in the West is built upon capitalism and the extent of market growth, which is intrinsically a Western ideology.

Throughout the book, Mun represents this modern and Western outlook in a post-Soviet occupied country, which separates him from his brother’s loyalty to Eastern traditions dating back to Buddhism’s first origins in Mongolia in the 13th century. Mun lives in the capital, the biggest financial district of Mongolia, and is occupied with this-worldly ambitions, unlike his brother who has no interest in living what many would consider being a normal life, entranced with consumerism and technology. Chuluun witnesses his brother abandon the ways he was raised, and he has to accept his brother’s different way of life. Ultimately, this act compels Chuluun to reflect on his place in the world and remind himself that perhaps his life is not any likelier to lead to “a grand narrative” than his brother’s life is, that perhaps that is not the point of living anyways.  Rather, the point becomes free will, Chuluun’s ability to consider living a life like his brother’s and to proceed to make decisions for his own faith.

The clash depicted between the brothers is not just between two individuals. It is a conflict between individuals and society at large. Barry delivers how an individual experiences grief over watching their country modernize and, along the way, forget the beauty of its traditions instead of cherishing them. Barry also comments on how tourism and foreign occupation can alter one’s true culture and lead to this misleading modernization.

However, her delivery does not go beyond an informative standpoint on the struggle many people face trying to immerse Eastern tradition in today’s Westernized zeitgeist enhanced by capitalism. While the novel adequately presents this struggle to a Western audience who might not have had to think about it directly before, it does not present anything new to an Eastern audience who has grown up with this conflict. 

Growing up in Turkey, I had Turkish literature lectures dedicated solely to books about the East versus West. Lessons on social change in Westernized times and the harmful ways of Westernization in an Eastern country were common. After World War I, as empires collapsed in the east and rising countries from that collapse had to catch up to modern times, many took the West as an example. This gave rise to the challenge of maintaining Eastern traditions while following the lead of the West in areas such as economy and law.

Years later, a similar trend is seen in post-Soviet countries following the union’s collapse in 1991. Reading Chuluun’s observations of his brother and internal debate which made him question whether he was suited for being a monk or if he’d ever want to resort to a lifestyle more like his brother, I found myself reimbursed in the tradition-Westernization conflict I had read about countless times. I found myself wishing that Barry would have taken a more emotive approach to describe Chuluun’s struggle or have presented a clearer character development for both of the brothers to add new perspectives to the East-West conflict in literature. Instead, Barry had unnecessary paragraphs describing Mongolia’s size with a Texas comparison or writing about monks who use Facebook. I felt as though the book targeted a Western audience who are outsiders to Mongolia and unaccustomed to reading about the East.

Despite not getting a new perspective on the conflict, I enjoyed the novel and appreciated Barry’s research on and devotion to Mongolian culture and Buddhist traditions. Barry’s dedication to the culture as someone who is outside of it was an admirable part of the novel and I have so much appreciation for an author raised in a Western country, yet choosing to use her prose as a vessel to represent a completely different culture and outlook on life.

Poetic language, Buddhist teachings and short yet action-packed chapters made “When I’m Gone, Look for Me In The East” a dazzling read despite not matching my expectations. In the hands of a Western audience, I believe the book will leave a more lasting impression.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.

Leyla Yilmaz '25 is a writer for the Arts & Life section. She is from Istanbul, Turkey and a prospective Biology major who enjoys frequent trips to the bookstore and collecting cacti. Contact the Daily's Arts & Life section at arts ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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