Interview with Anungla Zoe Longkumer, editor of ‘The Many That I Am’, an anthology on Nagaland

The collection of short stories, poems and essays chronicles the tales of Nagaland’s layered realities

Updated - July 24, 2023 08:56 am IST

Published - July 21, 2023 09:15 am IST

Anungla Zoe Longkumer wants to chronicle the stories of Naga women for posterity.

Anungla Zoe Longkumer wants to chronicle the stories of Naga women for posterity.

In an anthology on Nagaland by women, short stories, poems and essays reflect a present shaped by the past. It’s a State where women are at the centre of everything but have been kept out of the political arena. The writers, both debutants and veterans, want to chronicle their stories to preserve their living memories for future generations, says Anungla Zoe Longkumer, who edited The Many That I Am: Writings from Nagaland (Zubaan Books). Edited excerpts from an interview:

You mention Naga traditions, like tattoos, for instance, which sometimes are in conflict with Christian teachings. Shouldn’t it be possible to be connected with one’s roots but also welcome new ideas?

The art of tattooing among some Naga communities belongs in our traditional past, a culture that was banned after Christianity came to our land. Through time, only some of our material culture have survived, textile and accessory-making in particular. Naga tattooing was done using only organic materials, plant thorns and fibres, tree resins, antiseptic leaves, cotton, earthenware, and tattoo patterns were inspirations from designs found in nature. Tattoos were given to girls as rites of passage and for boys as an initiation rite and or associated with the practice of head-hunting. Now the contexts have changed and Nagaland is a Christian State and people are living as modern a life as the rest of the world. But conserving our traditional ways would go a long way to help us regain the attentive relationship with nature our forebears had. We would then honour and value our land and biodiversity, and expand our artistry and humanity. How wonderful if it could be holistic like that, to be moving forward but shaped by our rich culture.

Nagaland is a patriarchal society. Two women MLAs were elected for the first time in 2023 — it became a State in 1963. But women are at the centre of everything otherwise. What needs to be done to get them into the political space as well?

Naga men encourage their daughters to get educated in any field and have no problems with their wives having jobs and contributing to keeping the home fires burning. But they put up fierce resistance to their womenfolk entering the political arena. I think this resistance stems from a fear of ‘losing their place’ so to speak, because after all it has always been a patriarchal society. Now with two women MLAs, perhaps a change has begun to happen in Naga men. Working women in Nagaland still come home and have to play roles, looking after the children’s needs, taking care of the house and garden etc. But I am hopeful that in two or three generations’ time, mindsets will have undergone a complete change and our menfolk will accept that women can be as creative and capable in the political field as in any other. There is a vacuum in governance, which only women can fill, because their contribution is unique and it makes things whole.

Seen in this backdrop, why is it important to chronicle women’s journeys?

I think the reason there are more Naga women authors than men is because our women have found writing as a way to speak their minds without incurring censure from menfolk and traditional society. Even in the publishing world in Nagaland, there are more women than men. It is through their stories that the reality of life as a woman living in Nagaland is mirrored. Women’s journeys must be chronicled. In the future, our children and students will need these stories, of our history, our quiet revolution, even our catharsis. It is worth preserving these memories for the future.

How do you see yourself continuing a process started by your mother, the great poet and writer, Temsula Ao? 

My mother’s shoes are too big to fill. In her quiet way, she expressed herself so well. She wrote with honesty but no bitterness about her own life, and had so much empathy for her home and culture, her people, womankind, the earth, and creatures of nature.  

With no literary background to speak of, I cannot see myself coming anywhere close to what one might say would be ‘continuing a process’ that my mother started. She was a folklorist, an ethnographer, a feminist, an environmentalist, a humanist, and she had such a strong voice but was such a gentlewoman, never strident or in your face about anything. I read and re-read the treasure she has left behind, feeling awe each time I discover more layers and depth in them. For now, I can only honour her legacy in this way, by staying inspired by her. 

How does the title represent the many layers of reality in Nagaland? 

The theme for the anthology was self, identity, belonging. When the submissions from Naga women writers, poets and artists started coming in, I sensed the multiplicity of stories in each of the women written about, no matter the context. While compiling the material, a line that I had once written from some distant memory kept popping up in my head, “the many that I am”, which refers to how a woman has to bear so many heads and hands just to deal with the challenges life throws at them. To my mind, it was evocative and perfectly represented our intricately layered reality.  

There is a wave of translation in the world now — how will it benefit Naga writers?

Translations of literary works are essential for bridging the divides of language, and Naga women too would greatly benefit from their own works getting translated, as well as having access to translated works from around the world. I think having access to tools that enable you to relate to and empathise with other writers gives you a deep sense of your place in the world and instils the confidence to remain true to yourself. 

Due to our conversion to a European style of education, Nagas mostly write in English. If these works were to be translated into the languages of our own tribes, it would be wonderful for the conservation and preservation of our indigenous languages, and for the empowerment and growth of literature from our land.

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