In conversation with Sentilong Ozukum on writing, life, next novel and more
Morung Express Feature
Dimapur | October 30
A week after the release of the much awaited novel ‘Dreams & Chaos,’ The Morung Express had a chance to ask Sentilong Ozukum some questions about his writing process and the world he has inhabited in his writings.
Sentilong is a civil servant, a motivational speaker and an emerging literary voice from North East India. His debut novel, Campus Blues (2010) has been adapted into a mini television series by Doordarshan. He is also the author of Sincerely Yours (2017), a collection of short stories drawing from the well of everyday Naga life, some of which have been adapted into short films. Dreams & Chaos is the long awaited sequel to Campus Blues.
MExN: Campus Blues was released in 2010. The sequel Dreams & Chaos took almost 10 years. How has the journey been from Campus Blues to Dreams & Chaos?
Sentilong: When Campus Blues came out ten years ago, I had no idea that people would love the novel so much. Initially, I had no intention of writing a sequel to the novel. A couple of years ago, I started to wonder how the young, naïve Moluti would transition into adulthood if he was allowed to graduate from college and face the harsh realities around him. How would he react to the problems of unemployment and parental pressure? By God’s grace I was able to finish writing it in less than a year. The release was delayed a little because of the pandemic. The journey from Campus Blues to Dreams & Chaos has been humbling and enriching.
MExN: For those who do not know can you tell us a little bit about Campus Blues and Dreams & Chaos?
Sentilong: Campus Blues is my debut novel, one that I wrote when I was still in college and published in 2010. It is a satirical novel on the education system of the country where the protagonist, Moluti Jamir, takes the readers on a journey of love, friendship and self-discovery. The novel was adapted into a mini television series by Doordarshan upon its release.
Dreams & Chaos is the sequel to Campus Blues and it takes off right where Campus Blues ended. An original web series is being produced based on the novel by the Dimapur Ao Baptist Arogo Youth Ministry (DABA YM) and is slated for a late November 2020 release.
MExN: Where do you get your ideas?
Sentilong: Honestly, I don’t know. Both my parents are great story tellers with a strong penchant for drama. So at home, I derive my daily quota of ideas and inspiration from their daily discourses on everything under the sun ranging from people to politics to culture and religion. Secondly, I also have a keen interest in observing people and listening to their stories. If we really think about it, everyone’s life on earth is a beautiful book, isn’t it? Also, I day dream a lot.
MExN: In this period of 10 years between the two books, how have you grown as a writer? How did you approach the writing process this time around?
Sentilong: Two years after Campus Blues was published, I wanted to burn the book because I thought it was a horrible novel and I felt embarrassed about it. I thought it was immature of me to publish such a novel without much literary merit. Growing up in poverty during the early nineties in Mokokchung, I was never exposed to the world of literature. Apart from a few borrowed Tinkle comics, I did not have anything to read except my school textbooks. The first novel that I ever read was when I was in my final year in college. Apart from the fire that raged in my belly, I had no idea about literature and novels. I didn’t grow up reading The Hardy Boys or Charles Dickens.
You won’t believe this, but after Campus Blues was published, a friend of mine commented that the plot of the novel was interesting and I didn’t know what she was trying to say. I had to later look up the meaning of the word ‘plot’ in the dictionary. I vowed that I would never ‘put literature in a bad light’ by publishing another immature work. For the next few years, I read a lot, wrote some more immature novels but didn’t publish them. Then I started writing short stories. A friend of mine convinced me to publish some of those stories which in late 2017 became Sincerely Yours. Encouraged by the positive responses I received on Sincerely Yours, I started working on the sequel to Campus Blues and that is how Dreams & Chaos took on a life of its own.
MExN: What is the core message in Dreams & Chaos?
Sentilong: That following your passion often leads to finding your purpose in life.
That you can achieve success in life without compromising your moral principles and values.
That we often look for love in other places without realizing that it was always there with us.
That destiny is when two people find each other without looking.
MExN: The novel has already received many positive responses and feedback from readers. How do you feel about it?
Sentilong: I was honestly a little nervous about the novel, and was not really sure how readers would react to the story. But the response has been positive so far. Every day, I get numerous mails and messages from readers telling me how the book has made an impact on their lives and I really feel elated by it. For instance the other day, a lovely lady whom I had never met, messaged me on Instagram that she was in the university when she read Campus Blues in 2010, and now in 2020 she was reading Dreams & Chaos with her two daughters.
MExN: Generally what is your perception of Naga writers and readers?
Sentilong: In the past few years, we have been witnessing a steady increase in the number of young Naga published writers which is encouraging. There is a new writer publishing a new book every other month. This, in a lot of ways, has happened because of the sacrifices made by publishing houses like Penthrill in Kohima and Heritage Publishing House in Dimapur. This is encouraging because it shows that more and more people are taking writing seriously. However, sometimes I wonder if some of them are publishing their works too early. Writing isn’t like other art. Passion and talent will only hand us a book with blank pages. The art takes decades and decades of discipline and hard work to develop and polish. Having said that, I don’t think we should expect a literary masterpiece from the present trend of writers including me.
The art of storytelling and reading is dying in our society. We urgently need to inspire and motivate the upcoming generation to read more books and spend less time on social media.
MExN: Who are some of your favourite Naga writers in English?
Sentilong: Apart from Temsula Ao and Easterine Kire who have carried on the mantle of Naga literature for decades, the best three contemporary fiction writers in Nagaland today are Emisenla Jamir, T. Keditsu and Avinuo Kire. If one were to expect a Naga literary masterpiece to emerge out of Nagaland in the future, I’m putting my money on them.
MExN: What are some of your favourite books written by Naga writers in English?
Sentilong: 1. These Hills Called Home by Temsula Ao
2. A Terrible Matriarchy by Easterine Kire
3. Loneliness is an Orange by Emisenla Jamir
4. The Power to Forgive and other stories by Avinuo Kire
5. Homecoming and other Stories by Jim Wungramyao Kasom
MExN: Generally, in Nagaland or in Northeast India for that matter, most of the fiction writers are women? Why do you think so?
Sentilong: That’s true. Most of the fiction writers from Northeast India are women. I think it has got something to do with our patriarchal system. Indulging in fancy and imagination was always considered a weakness and our inherent patriarchal system would never allow a man to indulge in it.
MExN: What would be your best advice for aspiring writers?
Sentilong: Read, read and read more. Write every day. It is okay if it is gibberish. Make reading and writing your daily ritual; like brushing teeth. Respect art and literature. Don’t be in a rush to publish your works. Let them age like fine wine. Stay grounded. Never stop growing.
MExN: Campus Blues in 2010. Dreams & Chaos in 2020. Do we see a trilogy in 2030? What is the plan?
Sentilong: As of now, there are no plans for a trilogy. In 2010 Moluti was a college boy, hopelessly in love. In 2020, Moluti has braved through the storms of life and is trying to build a future. Let him grow up more.
MExN: How do you feel about the Dreams & Chaos web series being produced by DABA YM?
Sentilong: I must congratulate the DABA for funding such a project in an effort to reach out to the young generation through the medium of films. Lead by Bendang Walling, they have a very dedicated and professional team working on the web series. The trailer of the web series has been well received by the audience. I am optimistic that the web series will resonate well with the youth of the day.
MExN: How long will the readers have to wait for the next book from Sentilong Ozukum?
Sentilong: I have finished writing a novel set in a village in Nagaland in the late 1990s. It is a horror, mystery thriller. Among all the stories I have rewritten, this is the one I’m most satisfied with. Let’s hope readers won’t have to wait too long for the novel to hit the stands.