Last Wednesday saw The Hindu Lit for Life back in the capital, and not only was the evening one of invigorating and thought-provoking sessions, the shortlist for The Hindu Literary Prize was also announced. Easterine Kire’s Bitter Wormwood, published by Zubaan Books, made it to the list, and the author from Nagaland shares her thoughts with Swati Daftuar about the current literary scene in India, and gives a little insight into her life as a Naga author writing in English.
How does it feel, to have your book shortlisted for The Hindu Literary Prize?
It’s wonderful to have my book shortlisted for such a prestigious prize as The Hindu Literary Prize. I’m very touched by the emails and good wishes pouring in from readers I have never met, besides friends and well-wishers.
For years now, you’ve been one of the most powerful voices to come out of Nagaland. How has the journey been? What are the changes you have witnessed and what are the stories you still think need telling?
Trying to put Nagaland, and for that matter the North-East, on the literary scene has been a tough fight.
Towards the end of the 1990s, the North-East Writers’ Forum was formed, which helped us meet other writers and poets from these States. That was very encouraging and inspiring as we began to bring out the NEWF journal and published some really good writing.
I remember the beautiful poetry of Mamang Dai and Robin Ngangom’s robust and romantic verse, and Kynpham Nongkynrih’s playful lines as well as Dhruba Hazarika’s earthy prose and Anjum Hassan’s delightful stories in some of the editions of the journal. The solidarity that NEWF offered made us feel the importance of documenting and chronicling our stories.
I think it also made mainstream publishing houses sit up and take notice of writers from the North-East.
The stories that still need telling are what I call the people stories.
There are still so many stories in the land waiting to be shared. Not all of them will find a place in world literature, but the telling of individual stories is so important to the teller. It is part of his or her healing, and particularly amongst my people who have stories of deep pain and also wonder. I hope that younger writers will get the opportunity to gather and tell these stories from their own villages.
In the wake of this shortlist, could you tell us your views on Indian writing in English today? How inclusive do you consider the Indian literary culture to be?
Certainly Indian Writing in English has become much more inclusive today than it was 20 years ago. I don’t know if there was a bias for it back then.
But now, poets from the North-East are included/published in volumes on Indian poetry.
The media is paying attention to novelists and writing from the North-East. It’s good, it’s all good. But I think that we could go a step further. Indian universities could include writing from the North-East in their syllabi and initiate reading the North-East writers amongst their students.
I know that Hyderabad University encourages its research scholars to work on North-East writers, so does IGNOU. And, of course, Nagaland University and NEHU and other universities in the region. The effort on the part of the universities would help dispel many stereotyped attitudes towards lesser known regions and help create healthy social awareness.
How has moving to Norway affected your writing? Would you say that the distance adds a sort of perception proximity cannot afford?
It is good to be geographically removed from the context of one’s writing. For one, I feel I have become much more objective writing about my land and culture while living away from both. It is easier to see the abuses of our cultural practices without needing to be paranoically critical.
Give us a little insight into the conception of Bitter Wormwood?
Bitter Wormwood is about real people and their lives. I interviewed several people and used their experiences and insights. I wanted to write a non-stereotypical book about Naga political history, and the story of the two grandsons of the two soldiers meeting up and striking up a deep friendship is not untrue. It’s also a book that questions political ideologies, and their solutions and offers a human solution instead.
Bitter Wormwood was not an easy book to write. I did not want it to be about taking sides. I threw away the first manuscript and started afresh concentrating on the characters and their lives.
I am so glad I did that because the characters became real to me in the new manuscript. I wept with them and rejoiced when they discovered truths that helped them live their lives in the best way possible. The two friends, Mose and Neituo, with their Angami humour are typical of the men of my tribe. Mose is based on the life of my uncle who was a soldier in the Naga Army.
Harivallabh Joshi [who was posted to the Naga Hills in the early 1960s] gave me his account of serving there, and he appears in the book as Himmat, the noble old Indian soldier. The Vandanshan family graciously allowed me to use their tragic family story.
As a Naga writer, it has been cathartic to write about the Naga political conflict. It is something that sits deep within most Nagas of my generation and to be able to catharsise it in fiction has been a great personal liberation.
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