Exclusive Interview with writer & graphic novelist Parismita Singh

Exclusive Interview with writer & graphic novelist Parismita Singh
Writer & graphic novelist Parismita Singh

 

Writer and graphic novelist Parismita Singh new book Peace Has Come has been described as a collection luminous and haunting” stories that “come blazingly alive” during an impending “uneasy, purgatory-like time of ceasefire” in conflict-affected areas.

 

In an exclusive interview with The Morung Express, Singh talks about the different layers of ‘narratives’ that has shaped her latest creation.

 

Her earlier publications include the graphic novels The Hotel at the End of the World and Mara and the Clay Cows. She helped conceptualise the Pao Anthology of Comics and has edited Centrepiece: New Writing and Art from Northeast India (2017). She has been working on a primary school education project in Assam with the NGO Pratham since 2009.

 

When and how did you decide to write ‘Peace Has Come’? What is it about?

For the past few years, I have been working on an education project and writing reports and short pieces on issues mainly concerned with primary schools in the rural areas of Assam. At some point, I began writing stories. This was something of a transition because I had mostly worked on graphic novels in the past. But once you set about working on a project, it is easy to be subsumed by the demands of the craft and material, it then feels like the most natural thing, like you were always meant to be working in this element. So the writing came about quite organically. I was also fortunate to have started a conversation with my friend and agent, Shruti Debi about these stories and that helped bring them together as a collection. Otherwise, it is very possible that they would have remained safely ensconced in a folder in my desktop.

 

In the beginning of the book, there is the sketch of a map with places, forests and borders marked out. Some of these are real places like Bhutan or the Kochugaon Reserve Forest, but the world I have constructed is fictional. It is not a map as such, but a fictional representation, the stories of the book, the characters and their circumstances slowly came about and made their home around the various land marks, rivers and fields, markets, forests and border towns of this region.

It was also about a certain time, when active conflict has ceased and certain negotiated settlements are in place. But often, many of the issues of the past have not been addressed, and you have what commentators have called a ‘manufactured peace’. People move on, but the past and its unresolved problems and narratives continue to persist. This is true of many places that have seen conflict over a long period. It is as if the very contours of this landscape are shaped by the conflicts of the past.

 

What kind of research went into writing a book like this? How did you get people to share their personal stories, of overt and covert violence, with you?

 

This is a difficult question because we are after all speaking of fiction. And sometimes, with writing, it’s hard to say where you draw your inspiration from. So at one level, I have these years of classroom observation and interviews focused on the story of education in this region. But so much of life happens in the in-between times, in the interstices of work or research.  Readers in Nagaland and other parts of the Northeast will understand this better – any kind of research or work or life in these parts also includes large spans of time when you are not actively at work, when you are at a tea shop or at home waiting for a bandh to be resolved, for tensions to calm down, for the rains to stop. I would while away these hours with a sketch book, but this is when I had the time to sit and consider things, and perhaps, the seeds of the stories took root then.

 

Also, failure, failure at doing other things.  Failure is underrated, I think.  I would make a terrible journalist, for instance. I wouldn’t be able to ask the right questions, especially in times of trouble, in periods of grief. So fiction, the impulse to write stories may be a result of failure – of my failure to do anything important or useful – to produce journalistic work or academic research, which involves a greater adherence to the rules of one’s chosen discipline. After all, what good do stories or art do in life?

 

Like everybody else, I am trying to make sense of the world, of these snippets of stories and incidents as well as of the inherent injustice and absurdity and despair around us, and at the same time, people’s resilience and their recourse to hope and humour.

 

Are there interesting stories/snippets that you had to leave out of the book? Why?

The word snippet is lovely; it literally takes you to the snip-snip sound of edits!

 

An important aspect of any kind of writing is the process of editing, of wielding a fairly ruthless hand at the draft, to make it as perfect as possible. (Of course, there is no perfect story, but you have to forget that when you are on the drawing board!) So yes, bits and pieces got snipped off, often to tighten the plot or keep the story interesting. With a few stories, the plot and the characters came to me in that precious first draft. But there were the others, where I did a couple of drafts, so yes, there are all the bits and pieces that you do without.

 

What does your book offer to Naga readers?

Very powerful narratives have emerged from Nagaland– both in literature as well as real life initiatives that seek to explore many of the subjects that my book touches upon. The works from Nagaland are a real inspiration and I would be very very interested to see how readers from here engage with the book.

At one level, there are the universal themes of love and life and conflict, and people’s hopes and the force of circumstances. Yet since you mention it, there is also the peculiar situation of this world of the ceasefire, of this very complicated peace, that offers hope as well as real challenges. Sometimes,  and you will know this well here, what conflict does is produce structures and conditions that make a return to peace difficult – the legacies of violence are difficult to unravel.

 

Also, with my stories, you have to keep in mind that there are certain historical and other conditions that lead to the conflict in the first place, and often these issues have not been addressed by the ceasefire agreements and negotiations, which are again, brokered by powerful interests, by Governments and those close to power.  But what happens to the young people who had taken up arms, to those who lost years in relief camps or fighting, how you resolve the mutual distrust between communities, the loss and anger and grief of so many years – I think the stories try to reach those places, explore some of these questions.

 

So I hope that a reader from here will be able to empathise, find more meaning in these stories despite their locale being different, and hopefully enjoy them too!

 

At a time when a whole generation of Naga people has grown up under a ceasefire, what are the ways in which young people can observe and express their narratives more meaningfully?

I will try to answer this question in two parts; one is the ethical difficulty of this kind of writing and the other of course, the practical.

 

This was a concern in the writing of this book. Many of the people I write about, do not have access to power or money or privilege, factors that are necessary to accord you a certain amount of protection, allow you to profit from the new ‘peace’ in the form of contracts for roads or new jobs, in this new post-conflict milieu. They are also vulnerable to political and social turmoil, to the exigencies of Government decisions and policies.

 

At the same time, though I have been working in this region for a few years now, I do not belong to one of the many communities I write about.  Then there are questions of language and class as well, because as someone whose family spoke Assamese and was able to make use of education and other facilities in our home language, my privilege sometimes comes at the cost of another communities’ rights. We cannot wish away our histories, they matter. Yet, I felt this desire and need to write these stories – so there  was a  hesitation and a fear there  – the fear of failing, of going wrong, of being yet another parasitical writer doing rubbish work in the long history of representation. But more than anything, I think this was my own personal way of trying to find meaning and learning a little from their lives.

 

So there is the journalist in A Night in Dadgiri asking the age old questions:  How do you write this story? Why do you write? And is it even possible to write? If anything, most of the characters – journalists, students, farmers – are trying to cope with the legacy of long histories of violence.

 

The second part is of course, the practical business of getting writing done. Whether it is music or academic writing or prose or epic poetry or memoir, creating is always a difficult business. There is very little support, and as someone said, art cannot be created solely from ‘stolen moments’, it requires hard work and patience and time.  It is particularly important for women writers to occasionally let the beds stay unmade and dinner uncooked to get the draft done.

 

Where can we buy the book?

The book can be bought either online or in bookstores. [It is available on online retailers like Amazon.in –both Hardcover and Kindle version, and Flipkart.com.] In Nagaland, among other stores, the book is available at Crossword, Kohima.

 

Could you please share an extract from the book to publish in The Morung Express?

Sure. This extract has been taken from 1. ‘The House by the Highway’ from the title piece Peace Has Come. (pp. 239-240).