Achingliu Kamei in conversation with Naga writer, Veio Pou
Veio Pou is the author of Waiting for the Dust to Settle (2020) and Literary Cultures of India’s Northeast: Naga Writings in English (2015). Published widely in multiple journals, his writings reflect contemporary concerns that relate to society, culture, and faith. This interview by writer and academic, Achingliu Kamei, focuses on his novel, Waiting for the Dust to Settle, which was recently awarded The Gordon Graham Prize for Naga Literature 2021..
First of all, let me congratulate you on winning The Gordon Graham Prize for Naga Literature 2021 for your debut novel Waiting for the Dust to Settle. How do you feel about winning this award?
Thank you! I’m very excited, of course! This is such a great morale booster considering that I almost gave up the novel midway! But more importantly, I really appreciate the Kohima Educational Trust/Kohima Educational Society for instituting the Prize to encourage writings by Nagas.
Can you share a bit about writing the story and the choice of the title?
Yes, it certainly was worth the wait. It took many years for the book to see the light of day. It’s been quite a journey. When I first wrote the first draft, I didn’t gauge it would be such a long road to publishing. Part of this was because many publishing houses rarely take the risk to publish a debutant. But I’m thankful that Speaking Tiger Books decided to take me on board!
As for the title, it’s very much drawn from the protracted Indo-Naga political problem and the wait for an amicable solution that never seems to happen. Unfortunately, in the process of waiting many other issues have cropped up along the way for the Nagas that peace is such an illusion at the moment. The title is also partly inspired by Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. For quite some years, in my family circle, we’ve funnily referred to the novel as Godot because it was never coming. Fortunately, in our case, the Godot showed up. But bigger issues that the novel deals with are still evading, the wait is getting longer.
What provoked your interest to write the story of your protagonist, Rokovei? At what point did you have the inkling that you might have stumbled on a character or a story you’re going to commit to?
Well, many have also asked me if Rokovei is me! I always say it’s both “yes” and “no”. “Yes”, because many of my experiences of growing up in a small town are imprinted in the protagonist. I suppose every piece of literary work tends to have some components of autobiography to it. But “no” also because I’ve also drawn the experiences of many people I know into the person. For instance, I relived playing around the highway with friends but I never dreamt of becoming an army officer while few of my friends did. For me, the character too developed with the story.
I appreciated the way that your novel undertakes an examination of how people cope with the trauma during the difficult decades of the last century because of the Indo-Naga movement. Can you shed more light on this, especially contextualising against recent events?
The Indo-Naga political imbroglio is considered one of the longest unresolved conflicts in South Asia. Needless to say, for generations, the Nagas have waited for peace to dawn in their land. Growing up in one of the most militarised regions of the world, I’ve seen how intimidating the armed forces can be, especially when you hear so much of atrocities committed by them on civilians. The recent killing at Oting in Mon district of Nagaland is just one of the many high-handed atrocities. Thankfully, we have more alert media to cover the event and our people are more informed now. But as long as AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1958) stays, the Indian armed forces will continue their reign of terror. The Act has only caused more injury than building trust among the public and the custodians of security.
Was there anything, in particular, you were reading or thinking about regarding the events when you wrote the novel?
I was reading though not quite about what I was contemplating to write about. But there were many fragmented stories in my head that I wanted to piece together. And so, one summer break, I wrote down a skeletal framework for the novel. I’ve always felt the necessity of writing our stories because we are going through lots of changes and many things are swiftly lost as the past recedes. For instance, the Senapati town of the 1980s is only faintly visible now. The transformation of its landscape and the people is quite astounding. I think documenting the past helps us remember the place with affection.
Why do you think it is important to know a place through its stories?
I think, as human beings, we all have a sense of belonging, not necessarily to one place alone but it could be many places. And situating a story in a place, helps us find the connection with the people and their culture. Sometimes, it can be quite fascinating to learn about new things and ideas through the stories that help us discover the place, people, and culture.
There are so many realities woven into the novel, making it an interesting read. Would you like to take us through your journey as a writer while sharing the research that went into creating this book? You had mentioned that you relied on the book The Judgement that Never Came: Army Rule in North East India by Nandita Haksar and Sebastian M Hongray for the factual events.
You’re right in pointing out the realities that are woven into the novel. In fact, that was one of my intentions. I didn’t want to write about only one character who would dominate the whole narrative. I wanted multiple stories to emerge. In that sense, I am interested in “writing community memory”. I’ve been to different places talking about this idea. Simply put, “writing” is the way of telling where “community” is the subject and “memory” is the resource. This is nothing new for a communitarian society like the Nagas. This is what makes our oral culture too. So, when I talk about my interest in the community memory, I wanted to see how a community memorialises certain events that impacted them in general. This is where I focused on the impact of the three month-long Operation Bluebird of 1987, the counter-insurgency operation launched by the Assam Rifles following the Oinam incident. The large-scale human rights violation of killings, rape, molestations, and torture continue to mar the memories of the people of about thirty villages affected by it. Even today, 9th July is still marked by the people as a black day. Many of the pains and sufferings remain undocumented even today. The book The Judgment that Never Came was helpful in some historical details. But though the Oinam incident forms a focal point of the novel, it’s not entirely about it. I decided to remove the narrative from where the thick of action was occurring because I wanted other issues to emerge too. For instance, the late 80s and early 90s saw many unfortunate turns of events. There was the break-up of NSCN into Isak-Muivah and Khaplang factions which brought so much bloodshed to the Nagas themselves. Then came the ethnic conflict between Nagas and Kukis, the wounds of which are yet to be healed completely! Most of the stories in the novel are a construct of stories I’ve heard at different points in time and there are not much of interviews involved.
Can you reflect more on the importance, perils, and/or rewards of writing contemporary work that takes up political issues? In writing political fiction, is there a risk of having your characters seem like mere mouthpieces for ideas? How important is the personal story or family history in your writings?
Well, I tend to be a bit sceptical of categorisation because it limits the book from being read otherwise. But, of course, the readers have the freedom to view it from different angles. At the same time, there are indeed a lot of political issues in my novel. It can be risky because it is often difficult to walk the fine line of being politically correct all the time. For me, however, I wanted to write a story like this because there are a lot of things that you can’t speak directly but the form of fiction gives me the liberty to talk of issues implicitly. Sometimes, some truths are better told as fiction. Perhaps, that’s why parables or allegories speak powerfully even today! I think personal or family histories are wonderful story plots because our lives are stories. And who can relate your own saga or the one about your family better than you yourself?
You have written a book on English literature that comes from the Northeast region. Tell us about your research experiences in writing that book.
I suppose you meant Literary Cultures of India’s Northeast: Naga Writings in English (2015). That book was partly a result of my PhD thesis submitted at Jawaharlal Nehru University. When first got interested in exploring writings from the region, particularly Naga writings, it was hard to find stuff. I remember visiting Kohima, hunting for literary works by Nagas, and up ending frustrated because bookstores don’t have them! But it’s astounding how things change in the last 10-15 years! Now we have a vibrant body of works by writers from the region on various subjects, and many academic works to supplement with. The region has certainly become a hotspot of academic discourses of late!
As you said, writings in English from Northeast India are beginning to draw attention from the rest of the country and from around the world. As one of the writers from the region, how do you assess the future of this trend?
I cannot predict what the future will be. All I can say is that this new interest of reading the region through literary productions is certainly a good exercise because for too long there have been multiple misunderstandings about the people of the region and their cultures. Unfortunately, India is too big a country with too many diverse cultures that stereotypes become easy. And for a region that’s so little read, the people from the Northeast tend to fall prey to prejudices so often. Hopefully, this new attention will help re-imagine the region.
Are there other writers whose work feels important to you, both in terms of literary lineage and inspiration in writing?
Well, there are so many actually. But since our discussion is more on writings from the Northeast, I would like to limit my answer to that. As for literary lineage, I’m much indebted to my own culture of storytelling. Being from an oral culture, I understand that stories are embedded with history and cultural anecdotes that they become indispensable to understanding the people. As far as writings in English is concerned, I’m certainly indebted to forerunners like Easterine Kire, Temsula Ao, Mamang Dai, Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih, and a host of others who showed new possibilities with our literary heritage.
Were you always a reader? What kind of books did you read, growing up? Tell us a little more about your growing-up years, education, and family, and how they have shaped your life and writing?
I was not actually. Books were scarce. But the advantage of growing up in an oral society is that we get to hear stories and that keeps our imagination alive. My early formative years were spent mostly in the small but growing town of Senapati. Then I went to Shillong for pre-university years, after which I moved to Delhi for graduation and I’ve been in the capital city ever since. I must say, my real initiation to reading more rigorously started during my college years, having being exposed to cheap used books easily available by the roadsides. But my enduring love for reading and writing springs largely from the literature classrooms as a student and now I teach the same. I’m drawn particularly to the genre of realism from the nineteenth century and the power that literature has to shape the intellectual life of society.
What encouragement would you offer to writers, especially young people who wish to write? Could you take us through some of the processes you went through in your writing?
I’m more of a moderate reader and writer. In the sense, my job and other responsibilities keep me occupied most of the time, and I like it that. As I see it, writing also comes with its responsibility and so, I don’t want to just write for the sake of writing. I also write occasionally in newspapers and other public forums on different issues. Now, of course, writing a non-fictional piece can be quite another challenge. Unlike many writers, I didn’t have an A-Z plan of the novel when I first started. Yes, I did have a rough plot and why I wanted to write the story. But many sub-plots popped up along the way. So, the story grew as I wrote. Like I mentioned above, “memory” was chiefly my resource bank. I did cross-check on some factual stuff. And like all writings, there were lots of personal editing – deletion, addition, etc. But few tips that I can offer young aspiring writers are:
- First, be willing to learn. Being teachable is one of the humblest virtues to imbibe. Sometimes, your attitudes can come in the way of bettering yourself. And I think this is becoming an impediment for young people today, perhaps it has to do with our educational system too. The truth is, however, we don’t know everything.
- Secondly, seek help. This can be sought in two ways. One way is to reach out to friends and family who can offer feedback on your manuscript. I’ve improved a good deal in this aspect, even adding some sub-plots to my novel. And the other way is to seek professional editorial help. No matter how good you are at the language, you’ll realise that editors always have different eyes and offer good suggestions. Also, when it comes to one’s own writing, we always overlook some mistakes. Perhaps, that’s because sometimes we read with our mind and not with our eyes!
- Thirdly, be patient. To be patient is to persevere, not just in writing but also in looking forward to the final product. Anything done in a rush seldom produces quality. For me too, writing this novel also tested my patience to a certain limit. As I mentioned above, I almost gave up midway. But it’s certainly worth the wait. And more patience may be required in an initial project because people are yet to see your work.
Thank you so much for indulging my questions, which I think will benefit, especially young Nagas wanting to foray into the world of writing. What is your perception of the role of a writer from the North-eastern region or a writer of the world?
You’re welcome! I must thank you for allowing me to share my thoughts! I only hope what I shared will be of some help to a few. I think writers, wherever you may be from, leave a legacy behind that is not easily forgotten. The fact that we continue to read many ancient pieces of literatures attest to this truth.
Lastly, but not the least, could you please let your fans know what you are writing at present if you are, and when can they expect to see another story from you?
That’s the question I have been trying to duck at the moment but I guess it can’t be averted. Honestly, I’m not writing anything at the moment. Partly because I’m not under pressure to write one and I don’t depend on that for a living. But I’ve some ideas and plots in my head. I hope to pen them down at the appropriate time. I like to let the idea first find a certain formation in my mind before letting it out. That’s what I did with my novel too. For now, I can just say that I hope to find an opportunity to write one soon.
Dr. Achingliu Kamei is a short story writer, poet, and an ultra-runner, She teaches Literature at Delhi University. She is currently residing in Delhi with her family and Haru, the cat. She has authored Songs of Raengdailu, a poetry book (2021).
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