When the written word heals

Jan 24, 2012, 06:48 IST | Fiona Fernandez

Naga author-poet Easterine Kire's new title, Bitter Wormwood, paints a true picture of her state, as she reiterates the kindled hope and optimism of her people

Naga author-poet Easterine Kire's new title, Bitter Wormwood, paints a true picture of her state, as she reiterates the kindled hope and optimism of her people

Did a gradual build up or a sudden event spur you to write Bitter Wormwood?
There was a gradual build up. All my life I had seen the violence of the independence struggle of my people and its complications from the '80s. It had a tremendous effect on anyone living in the region. When I was sixteen I wrote poems about it romanticising it because in the '70s there were real heroes, who left their villages, their sweethearts and their parents to fight for Naga freedom. After the mid-seventies, that romantic idealism changed when the factional infighting began. Factionalism and infighting turned the freedom struggle into an ugly power game. I wrote protest poetry in the late '80s and early '90s. I felt the injustices very deeply, as most people in my generation did, and wanted to express it in story. But it was only four years ago that this book was begun, and from a very different perspective than if it had been written in 1990.
Now, it looks backward objectively, at the faults of history and the human failings and the areas where human beings, not politicians, have had small victories of connecting and bonding in spite of the history of inflicted pain that tries to separate them.

Naga tribesman perform a traditional folk dance during the Tokhu Emong, a post harvest festival of the Lotha tribe in Dimapur, Nagaland on November 7, 2011. The post harvest festival celebrated by the Lotha Naga invokes the blessing of god for an abundant harvest and mark the end of harvesting of crops. PIC/ AFP

What was life like as a teenager in Kohima? What were your initial views about mainland India?
I have written a bit about that through the life of my protagonist in A Terrible Matriarchy, on life in Kohima in the sixties and seventies. There were two levels of existence. Growing up in a small town, we were fashion-conscious and churchgoing. We listened to popular music by the Beatles, The Osmond brothers and Jackson 5, Creedence Clearwater Revival, ABBA, Osibisa, Smokie, Deep Purple, Eagles and Elton John. Ibegan writing poetry at sixteen. My mother discouraged it because she had seen one of the greatest Angami musicians die in poverty (not very romantic in those days). So, I veered towards journalism and a teaching job.
The other level was the life that was only spoken of in whispers. We could not avoid seeing and hearing of Army and police brutality. There were relatives of ours tortured in the villages or killed. In Bitter Wormwood, I wrote about my grandfather's kinswoman who was raped and killed and dismembered. I was seven when this happened. We lived in an atmosphere of fear, and of course hatred of mainland Indians because the military atrocities were inhuman and now that I reflect on it, they had a large racist element in them. As an older person I have had to exercise careful judgment to differentiate between the bad actions of a few Indians and the good intentions of the rest who are extending a hand of friendship. It is a balance many Nagas struggle with. Bitter Wormwood deals with it at length.

Easterine Kire

How did you become a writer and poet?
I was a bookworm. At school and in college I loved English poets and devoured them. At University, I read African writers including Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Chinua Achebe and Ben Okri as well as Australian poets and writers, especially their native writers. It's clich �d to acknowledge that the works of native African and Australian writers resonated in me, but it did: it inspired me to think that it was possible to begin Naga writing in English. I published my first book of poetry at 22, and it was also the first book of poetry to be published by a Naga in English. I shall always be however, grateful to my cousin who didn't ridicule me when I showed her my first poem. Many writers are made or destroyed by the crucial first reactions to one's writings by an adult. Oral literature has been integral since ours is a story telling society; I grew up with my grandparents who had an amazing stock of stories. It was a natural progression to transfer to the written medium all that I had heard through the spoken medium.

Bitter Wormwood, Easterine Kire, Zubaan Books, Rs 295.
Available at leading bookstores

How much of a challenge is it for you,  whenever you write as a representative voice for your land and its people?
Goodness if I let myself be governed by the idea that I am a voice for my people and my land � I wouldn't be able to lift my head up from the burden because it burdens one to carry such a responsibility. We have many tribes and as many cultures and languages (not dialects) as there are tribes. Therefore we have a multitude of voices and we have several voices within the tribe . I encourage the youth to write because it is important for their voices to be heard. When my books are published and well received in the mainstream media, it makes me believe in what I am doing writing the stories of my people so they can find healing by reading about it. It's been a long period of silencing of the narratives of my people by the meta-narrative of war.
So, finding a voice through books is a communal healing experience for
my people.

After all that has happened here, what can the common, peace-loving Naga look forward to in the coming years? Is there an end in sight?
There is hope. There was such a good atmosphere of joy and fellowship at the night market last Christmas.  People want peace and are supportive of the peace-making movement, Forum for Naga Reconciliation and its leaders. Of course, we are still struggling with crime, a natural fallout in areas immersed in long conflicts. But the primary feeling now is hopefulness for a peaceful future. I also believe people are feeling more empowered to shun divisive politics and nationalist parties.

Today, how does the bright, inspired Naga youth remain positive?
I love this question. Young Nagas are a creative and brave generation. There are bright, young filmmakers including Liyo Kikon, Sesino Yhoshii and Sophy Lasuh. There are good artists and I have collaborated with a few like Amenuo Miachieo. Music is another arena where Naga youths are doing very well. Alobo Naga, the Tetseo Sisters, Ledilhounuo, Nise Meruno and the several choirs are creating awareness and imbibing musical excellence be it in Classical, Pop or Folk music. Atsu Sekhose is a name to reckon with in India's fashion industry. Europe held two exhibitions on the Nagas in Zurich and in Basel (Switzerland) that introduced Naga art, culture, music, food and films to European audiences. I wish that the rest of India would sit up and pay attention to Nagaland's talent and encourage our youngsters by investing in them.

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