“Easterine Kire’s writing evokes the hills of her birthplace, the peaks and valleys sharply etchingthemselves in the reader’s mind. Her books have a strong sense of place, allowing one to easily imagine the vibrant places in which they are set. The reading experience becomes an exhilarating expedition into fascinating lands and diverse cultures. Her stories have a magical feel to them,straddling the line between the real and the fantastical, a shadow-world filled with possibilities. She frequently uses allegories and parables, but never gets didactic or heavy-handed. Kire is deeply attuned to her history, frequently exploring indigenous Naga past of the 20th Century. She expertly integrates Angami Naga socio-cultural traditions with her narratives, highlighting the oral literature lineage and folklore as a way of showcasing the identity of her tribe. Her writing has a universal appeal. Individuals of all ages and backgrounds can find something to their liking within the pages of her enriching and enchanting books.”
Most of your works are set in Nagaland and explore the rich cultural heritage and tempestuous history of the state. Now that you have been living in Norway for quite some time, has Nagaland lost its sense of immediacy? Has the shift affected your writing and do you feel the need to change gears?
This is a rather frequently asked question. Indeed, geography affects one’s writing to a certain degree and for me, distance has created more objectivity.
However, I would also like to express to readers that it’s important to write what is on your heart and not what is expected of you. When you write from your heart, dil se direct, you can produce good and authentic writing. I have learnt to choose what I want to write and stick to that. If a time comes, where there is a need ‘to change gears,’ my heart will tell me.
Many of your works such as Son of the Thundercloud and When the River Sleeps are filled with supernatural and mythological references. For you, how permeable is the boundary dividing the real and the fantastical?
For Naga people of my generation, we have no problem in accepting the co-existence of the spirit world with the natural world. In fact, it is arrogant to presume that there is only one reality - the natural world of the senses. Some people say there is a very thin veil dividing the two worlds. I believe that is true. I have no problem in embracing both realities and I feel richer by it. And in turn, I try to give my reader that experience.
In a previous interview, you mentioned the need to preserve Naga literature in written form as oral narratives are slowly dying out. Do you think that is the only way to preserve them? Does the increasing popularity of forms like spoken word indicate a revived interest in oral storytelling?
Most cultures lend themselves to being reinvented. College students in Nagaland have been writing and performing plays based on folktales. That is one very creative avenue for keeping the oral narratives alive. I’m sure other avenues as suggested by you will be able to fulfill this function in a vibrant and fresh manner.
When I give talks to students, I urge them to spend time with their grandparents during their holidays and document the stories they share. In the interview you mention, I was focusing on the importance of the present moment for documenting and recording oral narratives while the narrators are still with us. Fortunately, the written form is not the only way to preserve oral narratives. There are Naga artists and musicians perpetuating it in the art forms of their choice. These are all very creative examples.
Do you feel applauding female authors for having works centering around women also puts them in a box wherein they can only credibly talk about female experiences and struggles? Have you ever encountered this in your career? Why do you think men are not limited similarly?
Unfortunately, society seems unable to understand literature, art, music et al, if it cannot put it in boxes and label them. It’s not necessary to categorize a book or a piece of art in order to enjoy it. Let us just enjoy it! We limit a writer if we insist on putting labels on him/her. I am very amused by those literary festivals where they club writers from the Northeast and Kashmir together. Or club women writers, no matter what their interests, into one panel. It’s very sexist, isn’t it? If you are organizing a festival, you really should avoid this trap. It commodifies people and can’t be good for anyone. Applaud writers if you like their work, irrespective of what gender they are.
Do you think that placing an unspoken responsibility on Northeastern writers to represent their communities as well as educate others about their culture through their work is fair? Does it end up having a detrimental effect on their writing?
Who places the responsibility on them? Is it the publisher? Is it the public? Or is it the writer himself/herself? The writer can ask himself or herself these questions and choose the path he/she wants to tread. Writing under any kind of pressure cannot possibly produce quality results. By and large, I think the Northeast writers are creative enough to make individual decisions on how much of their cultures they want to write about, and how. Alternatively, if they want to write about something completely different, and taking such a choice has its own beauty.
Do you think coupling music with words makes it appeal to an entirely different set of people? Is there a significantly different audience when you perform jazz poetry as compared to your reader base?
If we have to consider the market every time we work on a literary project, it would reduce art to a consumer item, wouldn’t it? I think that would seriously diminish it. When I work with musicians, we rehearse and enjoy ourselves during rehearsals, checking out what works and what doesn’t, and when we like the results of the rehearsals, we share it with small audiences. And we do find audiences for jazz poetry. I haven’t looked in to whether it’s a different audience for poetry performances than my reading public.
The theme for this issue of our journal is “Dissent”. What meaning, if any, does the word have for you, especially with respect to you and your writing? Do you feel that spaces to voice differences of opinion are shrinking? Does it have a discernible impact on how art is being produced?
In other words, in today’s India is there room for dissenting voices? If dissent is applied to writing, I would interpret it as writing with a definite agenda. I don’t write with an agenda. I think anything that brings an agenda into writing is in danger of destroying the writing. At the same time, if you want to write about something you strongly feel for, do it courageously. But be sure to be good at what you do. Work that is true, and brave and excellent will not be suppressed for long. It will find an outlet, somehow or other, somewhere, someday.
Has your work seen a positive response from people who aren’t exposed to the community but are actively trying to learn more about it? Apart from engaging with new people, do you think your work has encouraged other Northeastern people to come out with their own stories? Finally, any word - of advice, caution or general note - for young writers?
A number of research scholars from different Indian universities are working on my books. I guess that means they are seriously interested in the cultural background of my books. I feel very encouraged by that.
I think, without my having to inspire them, the Northeast writers, poets, musicians have always had it in them to be able to express their creativity in beautiful ways. It was just a matter of timing that my books were among the first batch of Northeast writers to be published.
Young writers – prepare to work hard. Nothing comes your way without very hard work. Be solitary and be focused. Be humble, receive corrections, follow your heart of course, but take lots of good advice along the way. Statutory warning about writing as a profession: it is a brutal and demanding art, leaving little time for social life. Choose wisely.
Easterine Kire was born in Kohima, Northeast India. She studied at the North East Hill University and received a doctoral degree in English Literature from the University of Poona. Easterine’s works include poetry, novels, short stories and children’s books. In 2003, She wrote the first Naga novel in English, entitled, A Naga Village Remembered, which has since been reprinted by Speaking Tiger (2018) as Sky is my Father. In 2013, she was awarded the ‘Free Word’ prize by Catalan PEN, Barcelona. Her novel, When the River Sleeps, won the Hindu Prize for Best Fiction in 2015, and the next novel, Son of the Thundercloud, won the Tata Book of the Year (2017) and the Bal Sahitya Puraskar in 2018. Her latest novel, A Respectable Woman was awarded Printed book of the Year by Publishing Next in 2019.