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Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty
Date of Publish: 2016-02-11

Of the lesser known

Naga writer Easterine Kire Iralu, the winner of The Hindu Prize 2015, on what has shaped her literary cadence.

Year 2016 certainly began for the genre of writing-in-English-from-the-Northeast with a bang. On January 17, Naga writer Easterine Kire Iralu cornered one of the prestigious domestic awards in the genre, The Hindu Prize, for her latest novel, “When The River Sleeps”.  This makes Kire the first from the Northeast to win the award since its inception six years ago.  “When The River Sleeps” came on the top after competing with “Amit Chaudhuri’s Odysseus Abroad», Amitav Ghosh’s ‘Flood of Fire’, Anuradha Roy’s ‘Sleeping on Jupiter’ Janice Pariat’s ‘Seahorse’ and Siddharth Chowdhury’s ‘The Patna Manual of Style’.

Apart from being the writer to have rolled out the first Naga novel in English (‘A Naga Village Remembered’ in 2003), Easterine is also a poet, short story writer and children’s writer. Way back in 1982, when she published her first bunch of English poems, ‘Kelhoukevira’, it became the first volume of poetry to be published individually by a Naga poet. She has also translated over 200 oral poems from her native langauge Tenyidie to English.

One of the best parts about the literary trajectory of Easterine is that it can also give a reader from outside the State a close peep at Naga life, its history and its independence movement. While her novel ‘A Naga Village Remembered’ entails the last battle between the British colonial forces and the warrior village of Khonoma, ‘Bitter Wormwood’ (2013) is about the long and searing Indo-Naga conflict. Written in first person, ‘A Terrible Matriarchy’ (2007; also published in Norwegian in 2009) is a coming of age story of a Naga girl while ‘Mari’ (2010) is an engrossing love story set against the backdrop of the deadly battle in Kohima between the Japanese and the British forces during the Second World War.  Her ‘Forest Song’ is a clasp of spirit stories.

Though Easterine moved to Tromso in Northern Norway in 2005 fearing harm for her children growing up in conflict-ridden Kohima, she continued to keep alive her umbilicial link to her motherland through her writings. Her latest novel, ‘When The River Sleeps’ brings alive the tradition of hunting in Naga society and twines it lyrically to the traditional belief of spirit life. Having come from a society where oral tradition of stroytelling has a strong foundation, Easterine tells nezine.com in an e-mail interview with Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty that though she doesn’t like to label her writings as shaped by the oral tradition but she certainly takes from life, “largely the life that I have seen around me, and that life happened to include evenings of storytelling with my grandparents.” 

Excerpts from the interview:

How much does The Hindu Prize mean to you considering the genre of Naga Novels in English is still so new?

I think the Prize means as much to me as it does to my readers in the Northeast. Many readers wrote to tell me that they were so happy about it that they danced, jumped and also wept tears of joy on getting the news. These accounts greatly touched me. I am delighted and very grateful that “When the River Sleeps” was selected for The Hindu Prize 2015. Since we live in a world that always needs a yardstick for measuring the worth of literary productions, I trust that the Prize has become a validation for literature from the Northeast. I have also learnt that if you have a story inside you, and in addition have managed to write it down, it’s very important to believe in it. I have often spoken to my book and told it how proud I was of it, and I prayed it would carry its message to many places and people, and it has now.

If you can elaborate a bit for our readers about the genesis of the awarded book “When the River Sleeps”.

Ours is a storytelling culture. Story is very important, as a means of education as well as entertainment. I have many hunter friends. My son is a hunter too and hunters bring back the most wonderful stories from the heart of the forest. The legend of the sleeping river is well known to my Naga readers. In that sense, yes, I have taken from the oral narratives I received from my hunter friends.  The core story helped me to explore the Naga spiritual universe which is something that has always fascinated me. We have also a very rich spiritual tradition and our culture teaches us that the two worlds -- the natural and the spiritual -- coexist. A Tenyimia is always trying to live life circumspectly, aware of and respectful of the spirit life around him.

There is a general tendency among those outside the Northeast to look at the region only in terms of violence. This image also tends to make the region homogenous for the rest of India and the world while the reality is different. Like, clubbing all writers coming from the region as ‘North East Writers’ while each State has its own stories. How comfortable are you with the tag?

I do understand that people have a need to geographically place me as a writer. I certainly don’t object to being called a ‘Northeast Writer’ as we, who are writers in the north-eastern States, are not just fellow writers and poets, bit also share great friendships across space and time. I consider it an honour to belong to that beautiful company.

In the past, I have reacted to the sensationalising and exoticising of the Northeast in national media. And I agree with those who are unhappy about the tendency to homogenise the Northeast cultures, because it continues the stereotypes. However, I do see that a number of research scholars from different Indian universities are beginning to work on writings from Nagaland or from Meghalaya or Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and so on. This is always a positive thing as their research can lead to publications of scholarly criticism on our work and educate the Indian public in turn.

Sometimes, do you feel any pressure on you, perhaps self-inflicted, to choose your subjects only from your society or is it because you write mostly about the Naga society as it is what you know the best?

I began writing poetry when I was 16. The themes of my poetry were varied, though a few of the poems were on the Naga independence movement. I have been writing my novels chronologically in order to give the historical background of my people and their lives. Therefore, the first novels I wrote were historical fiction, centring on historical events. I felt this was important, to chronicle our history in the form of a novel. Having said that I would like to add that don’t feel pressured to write about Naga society and culture, and I don’t believe in limiting myself to writing only about the Nagas. Which is why my children’s books are sometimes set in outer space, or in Northern Norway.

Do you sometimes feel a sense of void as there is no lineage of English fiction writing among the Nagas which your contemporaries coming from other States and languages have? What did you grow up reading?

In childhood, my reading consisted of Hans Andersen’s fairy tales and literature of that kind, and as many abridged versions of novels as I could find. I read the English classics throughout my growing up years, and discovered African writing and what was then called Commonwealth writing at university. I mention African writers in particular because my novel writing was inspired by Nigerian writers like Chinua Achebe, Amos Tutuola and Ben Okri. There is so much cultural affinity between West African writing and Naga writing as well as oral literature. Interestingly a young translator from Kenya once translated my first novel, A Naga Village Remembered to Swahili, but it was never published. He said that he had no problem translating the cultural components as he easily found equivalents in Swahili. I am glad I never knew there was a void: I simply looked to the African writers and thought, Hmm, if they can write a novel on Igbo life, surely I can write a novel on Tenyimia life. The rest is sort of history.

You straddle many literary genres. Does any one of them make you feel the most comfortable?

That depends on the mood. If I am feeling ‘inside’ and don’t want to be social, I indulge the insideness and sit by the harbour watching boats, and poetry comes easily at such moments. Then there are days when I wake up with a children’s story that is just hungering to be told. It all depends on the mood one is in. The mood makes it right to write a poem, or start a novel, or a short story or an article.

You have translated many oral poems from your language to English. Since each language is unique, did you encounter any difficulty in finding a corresponding word or expression in English?

The translation of oral poetry from Tenyidie to English was a project done more than ten years ago. I still enjoy translating when I get the opportunity. But since English and Tenyidie are languages very far removed from each other -- culturally speaking, the translator struggles to find cultural equivalents. This is a problem of cultural untranslatability which many translators encounter sooner or later. When that happens, I introduce the native word and explain what it is. I consider that as a way of enriching the English language by adding a native word to it.

Finally, what are you writing these days? Also, if you can tell our readers what you do for a living in Norway.

I am in the middle of a non-fiction book on the Nagas. I am also about to revise a new book which has had many good previews. I have a poetry band in Norway (Jazzpoesi) and we perform whenever we can.

( Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty is a New Delhi based independent journalist. She can be reached at sangeetabarooah@gmail.com)




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