Easterine Kire is the acclaimed poet and author of When the River Sleeps (winner of the Hindu Prize for Fiction, 2015) and Son of the Thundercloud (winner of Sahitya Akademi’s Bal Sahitya Puraskar, 2018). She spoke to Scroll.in with great candour about her life, the traditions that influence her writing, her views on literature, and more. Excerpts from the interview:
Let me start with a straightforward question. When did you decide to become a writer and why?
To be honest, I don’t have a time and date. I wrote my first poem at age 16, my first short story at age 19. But I decided about fifteen years ago that I needed to write full time without the interruptions from a day job. It was a scary risk to take but I am happy I took this turning as I have been able to devote myself to writing.
A lot of your works have a deep personal touch to them – for instance, Mari and A Respectable Woman. How important is the personal story or family history in your writings?
It depends on how interesting the story is. If the story is mundane, then the family factor or the personal factor does not help it. However, when we stop to think about it, there are so many very interesting family and village stories out there. Our people have lived through so much history, and through world events as in the two novels you mentioned.
Both are written around and immediately following the Second World War in our hills. These books belong to the category of historical fiction. They contain a lot of unwritten history that I want today’s generation to know. And the good thing is, they learn it better when history is presented in a novel. Family history helps to give structure and authenticity to the writing. Mari and my own mother helped me a lot by giving me their memories of a Kohima I had never seen – pre-war Kohima under British rule.
I used my older cousins and my mother as sources to write sections of A Respectable Woman. The last part of the novel, “Mapping Kohima”, is the input I received from them. They could describe what kind of shops were there in the fifties and the very interesting trading communities – the big Manipuri traders and the Nepali women selling herbs and chickens.
If I may be allowed to probe a little deeper into the personal realm, could you tell more about your life – the growing up years, education and family, and how they shape your life and writing?
I was born in Kohima, March 29, 1959, Easter Sunday. Since then, my birthday has fallen on an Easter Sunday again just once in my life so far, on my 14th birthday. I can’t figure out how they decide which date Easter should be. I attended the Baptist English School throughout my school years. My two years of pre-university were done at Kohima College, which was in the middle of Kohima town in those days, and I finished my BA at Lady Keane College, NEHU. I studied for a post graduate diploma in Journalism in 1979 and after that, joined MA English at NEHU Kohima campus in autumn 1979. I did my PhD much later in life after 8 years of University teaching.
I grew up in the sixties and seventies in a Kohima that witnessed many changes. In the sixties, the army would clamp curfew on town areas. In spite of all the dark experiences of army occupation, the late sixties and early seventies were a bit more peaceful and there would be concerts, variety shows and school shows in the town hall. There even was a cinema hall which showed both English and Hindi movies.
The hall was blown up in 1973. In the seventies there was no prohibition of alcohol. Sometimes drunks would be seen being led home by their friends. But alcoholic deaths were not as frequent as they are today.
This was the Kohima I grew up in – a safe little town where families were known to each other through school and church. I liked to read and probably my interest in reading has much to do with me taking up writing in later life. But I also think it was the way life was so laid back then. I lived with my grandparents a good part of the year, by choice. Every night, one grandparent would take on the delightful duty of telling stories.
We grew up enriched by stories. Looking back, I can picture my grandfather’s sprawling estate where he had an orchard in the lower garden. It was a magical place of fruit trees and wild flowers and bamboos that grew as a thick fence all around the garden. It was filled with birdsongs, and wood animals which was a rarity in urban Kohima.
Cousins said they used to see spirits in the big house and near the bamboo groves. Growing up in that kind of atmosphere makes you sensitive to the otherworldly in our lives. The house and lands were taken away in a landslide in 1975.
In the novel A Terrible Matriarchy you critically analysed the position of a woman as an individual in the society. What are some of your challenges of being a woman in the patriarchal Naga society?
I feel it needs to be explained that A Terrible Matriarchy is not an attack on patriarchy. If you examine the story closely, it was the grandmother, the matriarch, abusing the structure of patriarchy, and perverting it totally. And gender abuse was happening in the book, within the same gender. I do feel it’s important to see the positive attributes about the patriarchal system: the responsibility for looking after mothers, daughters and sisters is given to the brothers and fathers.
They are to provide for them if they become divorcees or widows. If they are unfortunate in life, and their husbands abuse them, then their male relatives have every right to take them away and provide for them under the ancestral roof. All these are good things.
In the context of the book, the grandmother was citing patriarchy but she was manipulating the situation of the girls in her house, such as spoiling the illiterate Bano’s marriage chances to ensure she could never leave her house. The unnatural nature of the grandmother was the reason for calling the book a terrible matriarchy.
Since I grew up in a Christianised environment, I received many privileges such as access to education, and a comfortable home with the same rights as my brothers. I understand the strictness around ancestral property, but I think daughters should inherit non-ancestral property. There are many things in Naga society that are liberal and positive; education for children regardless of gender, encouragement of girls taking up professions or studies formerly dominated by boys, a healthy acceptance of non-conventional roles and professions. I would like to see a fair work distribution in the home where both partners contribute to bringing up children and sharing the household work. There are some husbands who cook dinner or help with the children’s studies. I think that is very progressive and to be lauded.
You grew up during one of the most difficult periods in the Indo-Naga conflict, the ’60s and ’70s – can you share some of your experiences? Looking back, how do you view the entire movement?
I have written about some of the experiences in my books A Respectable Woman and Bitter Wormwood, where I took from real life incidents. In the ’60s there were lots of curfews, when no one was allowed to go out. Firing would also take place at those times, when the Indian army and the Naga army would exchange fire. My mother’s cousin got married in the ’60s, maybe in 1965. I was not allowed to attend on the grounds that children would get in the way. Halfway through the wedding, the guests heard the sounds of gunshots and everyone left in a great hurry. As a matter of fact, the wedding guests ran all the way to their own homes.
In another incident, my older brother was spending the night in my grandfather’s house. At midnight, there was a lot of firing, so they got up and took the precaution of sleeping on the floor. My grandfather’s house was shot at by the army and my brother and grandfather escaped narrowly. They found the bullets in the morning that had pierced the wall just above their bed. Had they not got up and slept on the floor, they would have been killed.
There were many incidents of firing, but what I remember was one incident when my parents were out shopping and firing took place. My younger brother and I were with the babysitter. We lay on the floor and I put my arm around my brother and told him not to move. Though he was only four years old, he understood the gravity of the situation and we lay on the floor until our parents returned.
Very sadly, a cause that started so nobly was destroyed from within by factionalism, and it suffered the erosion of unity that factionalism always brings. We started well, no doubt about that. But we are not finishing well, that is what makes our story so sad. Disunity and the struggle for power has diminished the aspects that made the struggle noble and worthy.
A significant mark of your writing is the culture specificity, take for example, When the River Sleeps or Son of the Thundercloud. Please help us place your writings in the context of Naga culture and tradition.
I think only a few writers can be authentic without being culture-specific. This is not a negative statement. It’s an appreciation of those writers who are able to do that. Another point is that it is not essential to belong to a culture in order to write about it. What is essential is to have an accurate knowledge of the values, the world view and the history from the perspective of the culture you are writing about.
I say this from my experience of writing a book about a German baroness and her family who survived the bombing of Berlin. I learned it was vital for a writer to get historical verification, and to cross-check facts with the help of editors and publishers who care about accuracy. If we want to write about European history, that is not a problem, but it always has to be accurate and unbiased by personal opinion as far as possible.
For me, my culture is what I know, what I grew up imbibing from what I was taught, what I saw around me, and what I lived and experienced. There is so much beauty in Naga culture. In childhood and youth, storytelling by grandparents was an integral part of my life. Stories are so essential to our spirits. Even after my grandparents were gone, friends of my youth indulged in storytelling sessions. (My hunter friends told me about the legend of the sleeping river.) It would happen around the campfires, and informal gatherings. It would happen after meals in the evening. And the stories would carry cultural knowledge because that is one of the ways how our culture is transmitted. Not the only way, but one of the ways.
So, after many years, one has a treasure trove of knowledge sitting within one’s spirit, waiting to be pulled out. I do use much of what I can recall of cultural teachings in both these stories, such as the rules about hospitality and the courtesy that is practised in our societies, as well as many of the taboos that are considered important to observe.
Some of the characters in When the River Sleeps are from common village narratives. Readers who are familiar with their own village narratives can easily recognise the Kirhupfümia, the unclean forest, hunters’ etiquette, forest etiquette, and the tradition of the weretiger. The widow spirits are a figment of my imagination, as are the spirit-tiger and some other elements in the story. While writing a story, your imagination has to be allowed in to interact with all the other elements that you bring to the story from your cultural background.
At the same time, I maintain that the Nagas are my first audience, because I write things that are familiar to them: we have shared memories, shared story-banks from the past, both from the natural world and the spiritual world. It’s a great pleasure and privilege to connect with readers through using the knowledge that we all share.
I need to clarify that even if I use a folktale as the basis of a story as in Son of the Thundercloud, the story expands and goes in another direction. Therefore, it is simplistic to comment that the story is based on a folktale and leave it at that. People who are not familiar with our folktales would be misled by such a comment. Son of the Thundercloud is a story about love and forgiveness and it points to the world beyond this, which is part of the Christian tradition and also has a place in Naga tradition.
In other books of mine, you will find the characters interacting with each other in a culturally prescribed manner when the setting is a formal one – for instance, between a granddaughter and a grandmother, between aunts and nieces, uncles and nephews, between elders and young people. But in an informal setting such as between good friends and between siblings, the truth comes out when people are their natural selves, and their comments on society can be quite telling at those times. We learn more about society when we look through those lenses.
You’ve also written a lot of children’s books. And a few of them have also been taught in some schools in Nagaland.
The majority of Naga children respond very positively when they can recognise the setting of a book. In 2013, when my book, The Log-drummer Boy was released, responses to the book from schoolchildren were very encouraging. They said it was like reading about themselves, and therefore they could relate to the book. It is increasingly important to write for children, because it gives them a sense of roots and a good sense of identity from childhood. If all that they read is from other cultures, they may be affected adversely. What I mean is that books with Naga characters and Naga situations build in Naga children a sense of pride in their traditions and a healthy curiosity to learn more.
You are a translator as well, mainly from Tenyidie to English, and have also published retellings of Naga folktales. Could you talk to us about these?
For those of us writing in English, remembering the fact that English is not our mother tongue, we are always translating. My characters speak their own sort of English. It is not Naga English. It is Tenyidie in English, which is why some of their dialogues may sound odd and unEnglish. For example, Levi’s mother in Sky is my Father, tells her son, “A man who lets brew drink him instead of he drinking it, is no man.” In Tenyidie it will be understood as the mother warning the son against drunkenness and alcoholism.
I constantly translate the thought patterns of my characters – they don’t speak in English. When I translate their thought patterns, the speech patterns may sound odd, and that is because they do not think in English. But translating in this way is one way of retaining the uniqueness of their thought life and the authenticity of their speech patterns. If we pay close attention, we will catch ourselves participating in this constant activity of translating.
Besides this almost daily activity of translation, I believe it is important to translate our stories initially into English since it is such a global language, and as this will help us share our beautiful stories with many more readers.
Your books have been taught in many universities across India and have been widely read in many parts of the world thanks to translations.
I am very grateful for this development. The risk is there that some readers would not understand the objectives of the books. The books try to represent Naga life chronologically, through the main points of history that they have lived through. It is a way of documenting Naga cultural ways of thinking and living, and the spiritual world of the Nagas. The books aim to help readers access better understanding of the Nagas as a community. I get the impression that my books had some very good translators to Norwegian, German and Marathi. Because bilingual readers tell me the translations were done very close to the original.
The fact that many universities are teaching my books is something that I am thankful about. Hopefully, this will dispel many stereotypes about our people and about communities of the North-East.
Writings from North-East India are beginning to draw attention from the rest of the country and also from around the world. As one of the most well-known writers from the region, how do you assess this phenomenon?
I think it was all a matter of timing. The “phenomenon” was waiting in the wings throughout the ’80s and early ’90s, and then it exploded about eight or nine years later. What I mean by timing is that the talent was there, people were writing in all the eight states of the North-East, but the exchanges were happening only amongst these states. Then when the time was right, writer after writer, state after state, began to be discovered by publishers from Delhi and the mainland. By the time these writers were discovered by the “mainstream” publishing world, they had reached a level of maturity, so that the literature was rich and confident, not amateur, not hesitant. So the timing was right for it, was perfect for it.
At the same time, writers from the region tend to be labelled or are expected to write in certain genres only. And you’ve been quite vocal about your writing being labelled.
I don’t like to be labelled, because labelling puts the writer into a box and readers expect the writer to write only about certain things. I resist labelling. I don’t like certain books of mine being labelled feminist literature. They are not. I am concerned about human rights of both genders, not just women, but any human being discriminated against and being badly treated. Allow me to answer your question by quoting from my article, “Don’t label me”:
“Some Indian literary critics expect the writers from the North-East to write a homogeneous literature; a story of blood and gore soaked in nationalist intrigues with characters that resemble the heroes and villains of folklore. Even so, you can’t spend your artistic life trying to live up to people’s expectations of who they want you to be. You would never be able to fulfil them, you would never satisfy them.
For that matter you can’t afford to spend any area of your life living up to people’s expectations. If you always seek approval by trying to create what is expected of you, you will never be successful. When you start to accept the labels, you put expectations upon yourself. And expectations put you inside a box. And clip your creative wings.
Who uses the most labels? Educational institutions and governments. And the media. And everybody else. They need to because they need to put defines on people. Let them. Labelling is not an innocent process. It is about making you fit in, making you conform.
But as for you, don’t accept it passively when the world around you tries to label you. Resist labelling. Resist being defined. Resist the boxes. Why? Because we are not commodities. Don’t be subject to commoditisation. Our individual selves are many parts that come together to make a whole. We are complex human entities made up of wondrous material, both physical and spiritual. We are more.
We are here on earth to be so much more than to just fit in. We are here to experience life in its most splendid extremities, our minds unshackled by definitions of how we are supposed to think or react. Transcend fact, confound reason. We cannot possibly do that from inside a box.”
Veio Pou is Assistant Professor, SBSC, University of Delhi, and author of Literary Cultures of India’s Northeast: Naga Writings in English.