A kernel of inspiration : Q&A with Easterine Kire

1.     The Morung Express (MEx): First of all, congratulations on your latest publication. As a writer, what is the general sentiment when you finish writing a book? 

Easterine Kire: Thanks very much. When I finish writing a book – meaning when I finish editing and revising the book and send it off to my publisher – I feel very light as though I had posted off a big part of me. Then there is the other feeling when one finishes writing a story – a quiet sadness to be bidding goodbye to characters that have shared your life for a brief, intense period. You know you may meet them again, but you will never engage with them on the level that you have done for that brief period when you were remote-controlling their destinies and actions. With works of non-fiction, a great relief comes at the completion of a book.

2.     MEx: Walking the Roadless Road seems to be drastic departure from your previous substantial bodies of works. What prompted you to undertake the project – a broader canvas, at the same time, fraught with risks, given the contested narratives about Naga history?

Easterine: It may seem like a drastic departure, but all my books have the strong link of oral history operating through them. My last novel, A Respectable Woman has taken some incidents from my own life, such as childhood memories of the neighbourhood drunk, school days and my mother’s wartime memories to fill out the book. The protagonist of the book is not me, nor is it my voice, but I have used the first-person narrative as it creates more intimacy. At some point of time, we have to start writing about the places we come from, about the histories we have lived through and about the things that matter as well as those things that we should approach with more wisdom. In my life, I saw men struggling with alcoholism and dying. I saw more alcohol related deaths after Prohibition and that made me think maybe we are doing it wrong. I’m not saying let’s lift prohibition. That is not my prerogative. I’m saying, let us talk: we have to find ways to help our men stop consuming adulterated alcohol. The other theme of the novel is the whole idea of respectability. It throws up the idea that it is a very sad world where some people can decide who is respectable and who is not. In the same book, I have mapped Kohima using memories of older cousins and siblings and Naga elders who helped me. All this is supported by the framework of oral history. 

I brought the same technique to my non-fiction book, Walking the Roadless Road. So the migration narratives are all contributed by the members of the tribe. It is their stories in the way they want to tell them. I am only the recorder. At the same time, I feel a sense of great urgency about the need to record and document our oral history as the carriers of our stories are all disappearing due to old age and death. 

3. MEx: Why is your latest book, Walking the Roadless Road, important? What were your primary objectives in writing the book and what are your expectations from it?

Easterine: Walking the Roadless Road is a phrase I borrowed from an interview with Niketu Iralu who said that we Nagas ‘are trying to walk the roadless road with hope for peace.’ It was such an apt way to describe what Nagas of today are trying to do. 

It is a book that introduces accumulated information to a new reader who is curious about who the Nagas are, where they have come from, what is their cultural life, their history and their presence on the political stage.  I am grateful to all the tribal informants who very graciously helped me with their answers and research findings. I think this book is important in the sense that we now have documentation on many tribes that we did not have before. It is a start. I hope the various tribes will do more research and write more about their rich cultural life. This is just an intro and a summary to their rich cultures which will need volumes to describe. That is one of my expectations from the book. Another expectation is that schools and colleges would use it as a resource book so that our students can learn about the different Naga tribes from one book. Some information in the book is appearing for the first time in print, and other material is what I have culled from already existing books and papers. 

I am grateful to Naga and non-Naga writers and scholars who readily helped me with getting information of an anthropological, historical and political nature. I am deeply grateful for all the scholars, Naga and non-Naga, who have been writing so extensively on the Naga people. I could use their valuable information in the making of this book. 

4.     MEx: The book is described as “a comprehensive history of Naga Tribes within the borders of Nagaland.” Was the geographical limit deliberate? What were the constraints?   

Easterine: Yes. It was deliberate. If one tries to include Naga tribes in other states, a lifetime would not be enough to write about them all. Therefore, the geographical limitation was dictated by time. It was very difficult to travel to different towns and villages within Nagaland itself. Even if the distances appear short on the map, the roads made it very hard to traverse. 

In addition, the constraints in writing the book included getting information from authentic sources. I spoke to headmen, research scholars, folk singers, Marwari traders, retired teachers, vernacular writers, women leaders, students, working people etc. It was nearly impossible to find sources of information on some of the tribes for reasons I cannot disclose here. 

5. MEx: The title –Walking the Roadless Road – is intriguing and appears to be filled with layered subtext. Can you enlighten the readers about its connotation/s?  

Easterine: Walking the Roadless Road is something that Nagas have been doing for a long time. It is, in the simplest sense, trying to do the things not done before by our ancestors. It is carving out peace for future generations. It is making the choice to leave violence behind. It is valiantly trying to preserve our cultural values even while assaulted daily by modernity. It is all these and more – the choices we are making every day and the search for courage to walk out those choices.

6. MEx: The book is divided into four sections. What was the most difficult section for your research? 

Easterine: I can’t pinpoint one section as particularly difficult to write. Each section had its challenges. I must thank my friends on Facebook because they let me use it in the best way possible. One day I was struggling to verify the names of the first Christian converts and wondering how to go about it. Then one post on FB got many authentic responses and I was able to accomplish that task. Many times I have met the right person in the right places and found help, they were God-sent, no other explanation can suffice.

7.     MEx: Given your bodies of work over the years, including books and columns, you can be considered an incredibly prolific and intensely focused writer. Do you follow a definite routine or method? Do you believe in writer’s block?

Easterine: I think all writers work differently and they should. I would not recommend my routine to an aspiring writer. For me, it is very concentrated work for days and weeks and months of staying with a project until it reaches completion. I can work fourteen hours a day but I don’t recommend it.  I have not known writer’s block. But writing is an art that needs much discipline. One must be able to know when to take breaks, leave a manuscript alone and take it up after many months. Hurrying anything will never bring out your best. 

8. MEx: What makes a good story or narrative in your opinion?

Easterine: The human element. What is the human element in this story is the question you should always ask and if that is not sufficiently there, it may not make the mark.

9. MEx: What kind of surprising elements do you encounter in the process of creating your books? Can you share some with our readers? 

Easterine: Mostly in the writing of fiction, a story can take a completely different twist which the author has not planned. These days I make an outline of what I want to write about. But many of my books still grow from a small kernel, an inspiration found in another story, or something narrated by someone in a smoke-filled kitchen. Some characters are mild and obliging, some are feisty and live a life of their own. These are the ones who run off and do unexpected, unplanned things. With non-fiction, writing is much about making the pieces fit. Historical non-fiction tries to answer the questions that we ask down the centuries.

10. MEx: Did you have to make any difficult choices while working with the publisher/editor or other entities pre publication?

Easterine: Not sure if I get this question, but I guess it relates to the act of editing. When I submit a manuscript, it undergoes editing at the hands of my editor. On many occasions, they know better because this is their job. They know the difference between what is superfluous and what is repetitive. I like good editors. At this point, I should say that those who write to the newspapers as columnists, or just the odd article here and there, please never think that editing an article is wasted time. The printed word is unforgiving. You will always profit from revision and editing before you hastily send off your piece to the press.

11. MEx: What is your general overview of the writing landscape among the Nagas? What advice would you give young or aspiring writers, particularly from Nagaland?

Easterine: I think we have come past the time when we keep patting each other on the back and keep praising one another. We should encourage writing by all means. But we now badly need quality control. If you are a writer, be hard on yourself. You don’t have the right to subject your reader to grammatical errors and factual errors, both of which are just plain laziness. Research your subject well. If you are writing in English, but do not have mastery over the language, it is actually a good idea to switch to writing in your mother tongue. It could be that you can express yourself beautifully in your mother tongue. Which brings this to mind: don’t ignore your mother tongue; you will be seriously handicapped without it.

12. MEx:  What next?

Easterine: Well, work is always waiting around the corner. I am excited about the prospect of a sequel to my novel, When the River Sleeps. Hopefully before the year ends. 

‘Walking the Roadless Road: Exploring the Tribes of Nagaland,’ the latest offering from Easterine Kire, is described as “a comprehensive history of the Naga tribes who live within the borders of Nagaland.”
Starting with an overview of migration narratives—of the various tribes, starting in the nineteenth century, Easterine then delved deep into the “origins of the Nagas, their early history as forest-dwellers, how the discrete Naga territories were formed, the written and unwritten history of the villages, the various struggles that have convulsed Naga society down the ages, as well as the sweeping changes that have transformed the community in the twenty-first century.”
 ‘Walking the Roadless Road,’ according to Easterine, is a book that “introduces accumulated information to a new reader who is curious about who the Nagas are, where they have come from, what is their cultural life, their history and their presence on the political stage.”

Published by Aleph Book Company, the Kindle and Hardback versions of the book are available on www.amazon.in  while a ‘Paperback’ version is available on www.flipkart.com as well as offline retailers, including Crossword Kohima.