“I Am Inspired, Not Influenced”
Easterine Kire is one of the very strong voices from Northeast India. Many of her books explore life in Nagaland and give a picture of the socio-cultural, political, and historical background of the region. Her writing supports a peaceful future for Nagaland. Her When the River Sleeps (2014) has won the prestigious ‘The Hindu Literary Prize 2015’. In the past she has written protest poetry on the atrocities and abuse of human rights committed by both the military as well as the National fighters in her state. For the Nagas the struggle has been for freedom against an occupying power, and they did not consider it as an act of secession. Be it in Mari (2010) or Bitter Wormwood(2011), she goes on to trace the root of the problem since the time of British India, reflects on the gruesome effect of the Second World War and provides the reasons for the birth of militants. Her famous work Terrible Matriarchy (2007) highlights the predicament of Northeast women very skilfully. She wrote many influential books starting with A Naga Village Remembered (2003) to The Dancing Village (2015). She has contributed a lot for preserving and reviving the Naga oral literature and folktales. Her publishing house Barkweaver is set for that mission. She has translated 200 oral poems from Tenyidie to English. She is currently settled in Norway. Here Babli Mallick is in an e-interview with Easterine Kire.
Babli Mallick: How are you celebrating the book release of your The Dancing Village?
Easterine Kire: We had a Kohima launch, a Dimapur launch and a Delhi launch where the theme of the book: peace and using your body to celebrate the beauty of culture were the main focus.
BM: Tell us something about this book.
EK: The Dancing Village is a children’s book and it introduces the Zeliang folk dance, because it is one of the most visible aspects of Naga culture. There is a representation of modern Naga society in the book as the protagonist is the product of a mixed marriage. This is very common in today’s Naga society. There is some conflict arising because of the mixed nature of the marriage and the two cultures in involves but all this is solved amicably at the end of the book.
BM: How are you influenced to write and how do you feel responsible as a writer from the ‘disturbed parts’ of India?
EK: I am inspired, not influenced, to write by life and the people who I meet in life. Their life stories inspire me. Many oral narrators have shared many stories with me and all these inspire me to write.
I feel responsible only to a certain extent. When I write about my society, and write about the political conflict happening there, I remain historically and factually correct even when presenting it in fiction. That is what a writer can do: write about the situation in a way that outsiders can understand it.
BM: Northeast comes in the news only at the hours of its violent encounters and conflict. Why does the literature from Northeast India and its people appear so alien to ‘mainland’ India? What are your thoughts on this issue?
EK: It should not be a matter of surprise at all that literature of the Northeast is different from the rest of Indian literature. It is because we have different migration histories and different cultural beginnings. Our world-views are completely different in the main areas and so this causes difference in projecting that world-view. But look at literature from South India and literature from North India: how different they are from each other. So we should celebrate difference, that is my thought. We should welcome any opportunity to learn about cultures from another region through books.
BM: What do you think are the reasons for the apathy of the big publishing house except a few to publish writings from Northeast?
EK: In the past it has been a tendency to look west and revere whatever writing is coming out from the west. But slowly with the success of African writers and Southeast Asian writers publishing houses in India have turned their attention to home-grown talent. Now there is much more interest amongst big publishing houses to look at manuscripts from writers in the Northeast.
BM: What changes do you see from the Nagaland of 1980s when you saw your cousin shot and you lost a school friend to the Nagaland of 2015?
EK: In the 80s I saw more than one friend or acquaintance shot and killed in Kohima. I didn’t mention anything about losing a school friend in 2015 so you must have gotten wrong information.
The changes are that the factional killings have largely reduced by the peace efforts of the FNR; Forum for Naga Reconciliation.
But sadly, AFSPA; Armed Forces Special Powers Act is still in place and as a result many lives are being lost, such as innocent young students and villagers. The absolute power that the military has in civilian areas is not right.
BM: Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya’s celebrated novel Love in the Time of Insurgency and your famous work Bitter Wormwood deal thematically with the same time zone but with very different angles. Which one is to be taken to be the right approach – supporting the birth of militants or to negotiate with the authority?
EK: I haven’t read Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya’s novel.
BM: In your writings the conflict of identity to be a Naga or an Indian are referred many times. Why do you think a Naga cannot feel to be an Indian totally?
EK: I think I have referred to it beyond Bitter Wormwood. Well, there is the big issue of cultural identity. A Naga does not have the same cultural identity as the Indian whether it is Hindu or Muslim. Our history is completely different as we do not belong to the Dravidian or Aryan races that populated India. Our old religion was totally separate from Hinduism or Islam. Our food habits and language are separate from the rest of India and so on. This naturally makes it difficult for us to feel Indian and on top of that when Northeasterners are treated badly and in a racist way in the cities of India, it is even more difficult for them to feel they are Indian.
BM: What inspired you to write Bitter Wormwood?
EK: Bitter Wormwood was written as an act of catharsis. I had to write a novel that followed the Naga freedom movement chronologically in order to make younger generations understand how the conflict started and why.
BM: Many of your novels are bildungsroman. Very skilfully you knit the story of their personal life with the existing social problems, movements and changes. Why are you so interested to this style particularly?
EK: I guess it is because man or woman does not exist in isolation. They live in a society with all its attendant problems and transitions. A bildungsroman gives a panoramic picture of a society and it is interesting for me to sketch the life of the whole community using this method.
BMi: What inspired you to write a children’s book? Is there really any difference between writing a book for adult and for children?
EK: We had no Naga writers writing children’s books when I started. I write children’s books because I want to give them something positive to read. I want to also teach them a bit about their culture in a simple manner using books and stories. At the same time I want to engage their imagination so some of my children’s books are set in outer space and are always about love, friendship and helping each other.
BM: While reflecting on language it seems that the stories written in simple language are often undervalued. A more complicated form of language-play has been seen to be preferred to spontaneous flow of narration. What do you think about that?
EK: Well the readers should be the best judge of that, shouldn’t they? It should not be left to some literary critics. If a reader likes a book because its narrative is simple and uncomplicated, he should have some say in judging it as a good book.
BM: You have translated 200 oral poems from your Native language. What do you think is the importance of preserving oral tradition and folk culture in this era of social media and urbanisation?
EK: many of my oral narrators have passed on since we worked on the poems. This is why it is important to transcribe oral literature because its carriers are dying and we will lose this beautiful art if we do not preserve it from now on.
BM: The literature from northeast is more recognized now than before. Do you think it has a good prospect in future?
BM: A piece of work from northeast to others means it must deal with the political insurgency and the wars or conflict. What do you say regarding the problem of homogeneity in reference to the literature from Northeast?
EK: Here is my answer to a similar question from The Hindu journalist. I think one really gets to know a people only when reading or hearing about their world view. The national media has a tendency to project the Northeast as a region simmering with violence that could erupt at any given moment. But there is much more to the Northeast than just political conflict; there is a whole undiscovered world of ordinary people and their not so ordinary lives. We writers from the Northeast are refusing to be defined by the political conflicts that are an unhappy presence in our lands. We are saying there is more: there is great beauty, not just the breathtaking landscapes of mountains and rivers and cloud covered villages but the beauty of the people who live there and the stories they have to share. The spiritual world is a big part of the Naga world-view and it comes naturally to me to write about it.
BM: What are your views about PM Narendra Modi’s announcement of historic peace deal with NSCN (IM)?
EK: I don’t feel qualified to comment on that.
BM: Can literature be apolitical to talk about Northeast?
EK: Of course! I have written many books which are not about politics at all!
BM: What project is going on now?
EK: I am writing a non-fiction book on Nagaland. At the same time I am writing an imaginary book on a mouse.
BM: You continuously work for the betterment of the youth by attempting to stop the gun culture through your writings. How far do you think you become successful as a writer?
EK: I am not the right person to answer that question. It should be directed to my readers.
BM: Tell us about your involvement and experience with your band Jazzpoesi.
EK: Jazzpoesi is a combination of poetry and free jazz. We have performed in European cities and in cities of Norway and in Nagaland. It is a performance where the musicians take the rhythm of the poems and give it their own interpretations. It has been a very satisfying experience for me creatively speaking.
BM: After settling down in Norway now, do you feel any distance, mentally or psychologically from the people and the problems of Nagaland?
EK: No I don’t feel distanced from my people and my land when I live far from them. As a matter of fact, geographical distance means I get more objectivity to write on my society.
BM: As a writer you have gone through a long journey and a successful one. Is there anything you think you didn’t write yet or could have been written better? Is there any dissatisfaction?
EK: I am still writing. There are many stories that still need to be heard, and additionally I have many stories inside me that want to come out. I don’t feel dissatisfied. I think I still have a lot to contribute. God willing.
BM: Thank you so much for your valuable opinion and time.
EK: You are most welcome.