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Home > Lifestyle News > Culture News > Article > Janice Pariat Literature and conflict are the only narratives coming out of the Northeast

Janice Pariat: Literature and conflict are the only narratives coming out of the Northeast

Updated on: 15 April,2023 09:59 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Nascimento Pinto |

Pariat who juggles between Shillong and Delhi, speaks to Mid-day Online about her latest book: 'Everything the Light Touches'. She says there is a need to celebrate Meghalaya not only through text but also its tradition of oral storytelling

Janice Pariat: Literature and conflict are the only narratives coming out of the Northeast

Janice Pariat’s latest book ‘Everything the Light Touches’ released in 2022. Photo Courtesy: Jaipur Literature Festival 2023

It has been 10 years since Janice Pariat, a poet and a writer, won the coveted 'Sahitya Akademi Young Writer Award'. The award was conferred to her for her debut collection of short stories, 'Boats on Land’ (2012). She became the first from her state, Meghalaya, to win the award for an English work. The same year, she also won the 2013 'Crossword Book Award' for fiction, among other accolades. Pariat believes a lot has changed since then in Northeast India, particularly for Meghalaya.

She explains, “As post-colonial subjects and ex-colonial subjects, we are so used producing literature in a very particular way as text that we forget that we come from a very vibrant storytelling tradition and culture.” For Pariat, it is interesting to see that acknowledgement in her own writing. Hopefully these conversations, she says, are beginning with other young writers and poets precisely because she thinks the shift from oral storytelling to poetry is a very organic and natural shift.

Meghalaya and an emerging theme
Even as more people are reading about Northeast India today than before, the writer-poet says it is important for them to keep an open mind while consuming the literature and the kinds of stories coming out of the region, simply because there is a stereotype associated with it. "You know they say – 'literature and conflict, I am so bored of literature and conflict' because that is the only narrative that is coming out of the Northeast when there is so much more we have to say about so much else,” shares the award-winning writer. Pariat has written several books over the years. Some of her works include 'Seahorse' (2014), 'Nine Chambered Heart' (2017) and most recently 'Everything the Light Touches' (2022). The writer was at the Jaipur Literature Festival earlier in January to discuss her latest work. Interestingly, the last time the writer was at the festival was in 2019, but a lot has changed since then for her, especially the thought of being in a crowd, but it is still refreshing. 

Incidentally, the Shillong-based writer, who also lives in Delhi – whilst on teaching assignments at the Ashoka University – says none of her work is the same. It has been an exploration of different subjects but over the years, Pariat says she has realised how a theme has emerged out of them. "It is the desire to question who belongs and who doesn't belong. In Seahorse, the categories of gender and sexuality, in 'Nine Chambered Heart', the categories of identity and self, where we have nameless characters living in a nameless world, but we are following their stories, what happens to stories of that kind. With 'Everything the Light Touches', it's at its heart an exploration of the tussle between two ways of seeing - one that fixes and categorises, and one that unifies and frees." It is this insistence, Pariat says, of questioning the categories that we fabricate around us to understand the world but also in some ways to minimise it. "I think it diminishes us to label each other as one thing rather than seeing each other in the abundances that we are," she dishes out some food for thought.

Magical realism and need for oral storytelling
As Pariat goes about exploring a wide variety of stories, her writing has also been likened to that of magical realism; but it is a label that has been 'sweetly' put on her. It is but one that Pariat has never thought herself to be. She explains, "I do acknowledge that I come from a part of the world, the hills of Meghalaya, where the extraordinary and strange co-exist quite easily with the mundane and quotidian. We have stories of water fairies and spirits and giants and people who turn into waterfalls. We have a wealth of folktales that explain and map the landscape around us, and all of these elements co-exist with the very dailyness of our lives and maybe that has been labelled as magic realism – where people talk about water fairies as though they are sort of seeing them." It is what the writer feels others may not identify with but has very much been a part of her rich yet complicated world view. "It is fantastical but also very deeply rooted in a culture," she adds. However, the 'Seahorse' writer says it is not something that has been purposefully put into the narrative but one that is written because the story demands it.

While Pariat is busy writing about the region in text, she doesn’t forget her roots and is easily in love with the tradition of oral storytelling that Meghalaya boasts of like its sisters. The fact that the state boasts of a vibrant theatric tradition, which is an important part of their identity, is what makes her proud as a writer and storyteller from the region.

Literary festivals may focus on text, but the writer believes there should also be another level. It is also the reason why she says, "There needs to be more focus on oral storytelling even at literary festivals around the world". She feels, "We lose out so much in focusing on literature only as text. There is an art to telling stories in the spoken way or in song. Like we talk 'Oh I wish there is more writing coming out of the Northeast' but I feel that completely denies the fact that there are already stories that exist there and that we have not learned how to acknowledge those stories and listen to those stories fully. The problem doesn't lie with fewer writers writing or what they are writing, what expectations are placed on them, but also about us acknowledging the oral history that is around us."

Such is the need to retain the originality and essence of Meghalaya in her stories that she also includes Khasi, language spoken by the ethnic people in the region, in her text. Pariat points out that it appears in one of the sections on 'Boats on Land' and with one of the narrative sections in ‘Everything the Light Touches’, which are geographically anchored to a particular place, Shillong, the hills in Meghalaya, there are Khasi words that make an appearance." The writer reminds that it is not frivolously put but because it felt right and felt like no other word would fit where it was.

However, it is not just about the inclusion of the words but also letting the appearance reflect a sense of mystery in the readers’ mind, that she likes to maintain with her works. She explains, “I don't tend to include glossary or footnotes or explain those words either. Because they are a reminder to the reader that they are reading about a community or culture that they are not familiar with. As much as we may try and understand a culture that is not ours there will be some words that won't quite become clear to us. I think it is really important to live with that not-knowing because I may live with that saying that I may not get this, but I respect it and am alright living with that familiarity," she concludes.

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