Published by Highlander Press (2023)
Review by Kevileno Sakhrie
With its wide variety of readings and unique thematic groupings, Keeper of Stories: Critical Readings of Easterine Kire’s novels offer a highly original and meaningful opportunity for critical thinking, comparison, analysis and even pertinent classroom discussion. Published by Highlander Press and recently released in May 2023, the book represents a comprehensive collection of the best current criticisms of one of the most widely read authors of Nagaland and acts as a critical guide to her most vital and influential works. A single volume can represent no more than a small collection of critical opinions as its editor KB Vieo Pou takes pain to point out, nevertheless, it is an extremely important and highly appreciated and timely step taken to meet the “increasing need for critical materials on literary and cultural studies from the region” and one hopes that more such volumes will follow.
This critical anthology creates a space for collective engagement on the significance of Easterine Kire’s fictional works to the social structures, cultural practices, and communal self-understandings that characterise the multi-faceted and multi-dimensional ways of Naga peoplehood. It interweaves her novels to assert the vital significance of literary expression to the political, creative and intellectual efforts of the Nagas. With the belief that these themes would be appealing and relevant to readers, scholars and students, the book is divided into three main sections with helpful subheadings that encourage further explorations. The first section presents Kire’s works “from an insider perspective” as a guide to “understanding culture and tradition” with links to the oral tradition. The second section explores the role of memory in “shaping our perception of history” which become the site of alternative, subjugated narratives that oppose and resist the dominant narrative. The final section looks at the idea of “shared memories and shared story banks” to explore themes of identity, locations of home and culture and ideas of tradition vis-á-vis modernity in Kire’s fiction.
The selections for each part have been chosen according to content, style and relevance to their thematic grouping. The criteria is that all works represent diversity while providing stimulating possibilities for juxtaposition, comparison and contrast. Some of the contributors are respected and widely recognised authors themselves while others are newer, less familiar names who nonetheless, offer scholarly, sensitive and valuable readings. Within each section, chapters are organised to create a dialogue between those that precede or follow. Each thematic grouping is carefully sequenced to reveal both connectedness and difference within each subject matter—the exploration of multiple views being one of the strengths of this book. Not only do these selections encourage cultural literacy, they also enrich and deepen the reader’s understanding of the roots of Naga literature and the profound links between the oral tradition, life, ritual and literature. They allow the contributors to focus on how a modern writer such as Easterine Kire has created texts to reflect current dilemmas and concerns. They also offer both contributor and reader alike, the pleasure of discovering the continuing relevance of myth and folklore today. Literature, as seen through Kire’s creative works is not just an abstraction, but rather a part of cultural survival.
The book opens with a brief note on the contributors followed by an all- inclusive introductory essay by its editor KB Vieo Pou, himself a well-known author, scholar and academic. He begins with charting the career and reputation of the author and her works, highlighting her most important contributions to the development of Naga literature. One such contribution he mentions is Kire’s writing of historical novels using an “insider’s voice” to “document unwritten history”; the other is her incorporation an exposition of the Naga world view and spiritual terrain in her fiction. These and other significant themes and tropes deployed by the author have been instrumental in establishing her well deserved prerogative to be called “Keeper of stories” in the truest sense, as Pou points out. He concludes with an overview of the contents of the book giving a brief but helpful summation of each contributor’s piece. More than that, he makes it possible for us to see where the field of Naga literary studies is now and where it might go next.
Drawing upon Kire’s comment (quoted in the book’s preamble) about the requirement for “the insider voice” in the writing of one’s own history— perhaps one could consider what might an indigenous approach to literary criticism look like if the same principle were to be applied to criticism. Naga writers and intellectuals for whatever reasons, have always been hesitant to assume the role of literary critic. But literary self- determination needs to have a moral and ethical base to theory, a description of the underlying principles/tools by which we attempt to understand the literature. Naga scholars and researchers need to develop a true "insider" approach, a native internal criticism or theorising that confronts colonisation—both past and present, one that is also inter-disciplinary in order that Naga literature may be better understood in its full historical, sociopolitical and cultural context. In such a context, it would be most beneficial to approach our literature through the lens of an indigenous perspective. This would possibly produce an "inside" position and approach to Naga literature and to the writings of authors such as Easterine Kire. As Kire herself shows, when she chronicles the everyday life of Naga men and women writing of their lived experiences—native literature is "out there" in the communities, in the realities of their everyday lives. Indeed, it may be difficult to apprehend these realities by applying theoretical models derived from Euro-centric paradigms or abstractions to minority works of literature, while at the same time exploring new interpretive strategies for understanding the traditions of racial groups that have been historically marginalized by dominant cultures. This is why an indigenous literary criticism is necessary.
Perspective is also important when considering responses to reading literature. A reader’s first response to literature is usually, ‘personal,’ but the truth is that literature is often very much more. There are certain facts that we need to know if we are to understand properly the work/s of an author. We need historians as well as critics to help us with this. And there are also more purely literary factors to take account of. In all these matters, critics can inform and enrich our individual responses by offering imaginative recreations of their own. Recalling CS Lewis’s famous proposal that the quality of books should be measured not by how they are written, but by how they are read, Keeper of Stories shows us how to read the works of Easterine Kire: it shows how a good reading of her books can shape us, rearrange us, inform us and if we allow it, even transform us. And it is not as if all the contributors are cut from the same cloth—they are different. Each writer brings a unique expertise and perspective to the group that collectively broadens our individual reality. At a time when so much of how we measure cultural value is in flux, this book is a solid guide to understanding some of the most influential works of an indigenous Naga author such as Easterine Kire, from the right perspective.
Ultimately then, the life of a book is not, after all, merely ‘personal.’ It is more like a tripartite dialogue between the writer, the reader and whatever forces link the two. Criticism is the public manifestation of this dialogue. It illuminates the possibilities of this dialogue, pushing ‘interpretation’ as far as it can go. But the question is, how far can it go? When does interpretation end and nonsense begin? Why is one interpretation superior to another, and why does each age, each society, each cultural group need to interpret for itself? Critics know that their insights have value only in so far as they serve the text, and that they must take into account views sharply differing from their own. The critical forum is a place of vigorous conflict and disagreement, but ultimately, what is attested is the complexity of human experience and the richness of literature. The effect of good criticism is to convince the reader of “the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors,” to quote CS Lewis once again. This is the great debt we owe to authors of books- the immense power they have to expand our inner worlds. In this sense, Keeper of Stories will be justified, only if it helps to promote the same end regarding the novels of Easterine Kire.
It was an honour to read this provocative volume which challenges readers to critically consider and rethink their assumptions about Naga literature, history, culture and politics and to consider the emotional connections of our shared humanity and the power of story to effect personal and social change. I believe Keeper of Stories will be of enormous value to teachers, scholars and students in college and university, to Naga and Northeast studies and northeast literary studies courses as well as to a host of other communities who stand in indigenous ethical relation to this book.