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Book Reviews

Absorbing Tales from Nagaland

By EMN Updated: Feb 10, 2021 7:30 pm

In her engrossing and insightful book “The Last Light of Glory Days: Stories from Nagaland” Avinuo Kire- Writer, Teacher, Poet and Storyteller- unspools absorbing tales of family, history, tradition and intergenerational trauma. Published by Speaking Tiger, the book contains ten short stories structured in two parts with circling themes of strength and beauty, loss and resilience, identity and land.

The first part of the collection, entitled The Disturbance, is a series of three stories that follow the interwoven storylines of three generations of Angami women and are set against the historical background of the Indo-Naga armed conflict and the period of insurgency around the 1940s to 1990s. The title story recalls and retells key moments in the tumultuous era of Naga nationalism when violence ravaged the land and uprooted the lives of the people and when an entire generation lost their youth to the dream of nationhood only to inherit a history written with blood, tears and heartbreaking betrayal. The second story, ”Flower Children,” records the lives of the people of Kohima in the 90s and the terror of living amidst gunfire, uneasy truces and the ubiquitous presence of the Indian armed forces. The story gives credence to how a concept like “terror lore” came to be used as a term to describe such narratives of violence associated with the Northeast and how itis itself used as a leitmotif, to reflect the experience of entire generations of people who grew up under the shadow of violence which affected everyone, including children. In such a milieu, innocence is easily lost and life itself is as transient and ephemeral as the flowers of the Hutuo and Teguo trees. In the last story, the narrator looks back on her life and examines the intersections of history, family, race and gender that brings her to the current moment— to a decision that changes the trajectory of her life and her relationship with her beloved grandmother who was the central narrator of the first story. The author articulates difficult but essential truths as hard-to-broach subjects such as unresolved generational trauma and injustice, deep-seated prejudices, racism, identity politics, and historical and cultural amnesia are brought to the fore.

Readers looking for gritty stories of bloodshed and violence would be disappointed for Kire is more interested in uncovering the lives of “ordinary people who have quietly lived extraordinary lives” and to give her readers “an insider glimpse of the Naga story” as she herself tells us in an interview.  Telling one’s own stories in one’s own terms is a political act – one by which Kire obviously stands. For it is not a coincidence that her stories are woman-centred featuring as they do, a multigenerational household filled with strong women negotiating their relationships; women who, despite their harsh reality, hold onto their sense of home amid countless hardships; informed women who through their storiespass on their history, cultural values and traditions to the next generation. In unraveling the stirring ties that bind Naga women across cultural and generational chasms, the author herself, as a woman, takes her place as one of these women committed to the task of exploring this inheritance and communicating it to generations of readers.

The second part of the book contains several standalone stories woven out of oral tales and old stories the author must have learned growing up. These are stories that blend with local history and memory; where myth, religion, indigenous culture and colonial politics merge and swirl into utterly unforgettable tales. In these tales, the author highlights the notion that Indigenous people recognise that many unseen forces are at play in the elements of the universe and that very little is naturally linear or two-dimensional. Hence, her spiritual terrain in these stories from the Old World is filled with references to Naga indigenous knowledge systems and belief structures, to dreams, visions and omens in a Naga context. Here, the reader will enter a world of weretigers [thekhumevi] and mythical demon-warriors [kamvüphi], female healers and conjurors, forbidden love potions, magical forest creatures and other inexplicable phenomena. It is not difficult to suspend one’s disbelief for Kire brings to life this alternate worldview through narrators who have not known anything but this world.

Among the stories is “Longkhum”- a bittersweet love story, strange and beautiful, that will stick with you for a long time. “Forest Spirit” is interesting, not only for the story, but also for its stunning rendering of landscape and vegetation and a way of life few people know. A personal favourite is “When the Millet Fields Flower”-a story so fierce and tender, it pulls at the heartstrings and so heartbreakingly beautiful, it is unlike anything you have ever read. “Jakieno with the Dark Eyes” is a dark, edgy story that uses an unusual situation in the story as a confronting metaphor for what all humans need—love and acceptance. What is appreciated is how Kire’s indigenous characters are not “types”: their indigeneity is part of who they are and is fundamental to the challenges they confront. At the same time, they are also “universal” in that they are needy, flawed characters who muddle along, just as the rest of us do, in the lives they find themselves. Through this presentation of varied portraits of a spiritual system that exists outside of orthodox Christianity, the supernatural in Kire’s stories becomes a space for resistance, a way of opening up to other ways of seeing and knowing, of creating an ongoing dialectic between the seen and the unseen, the knowable and the unknowable, as a trope on reality.

It is not lost to the reader that reading this book evokes a feeling that one is listening to the author speak. This is not surprising, given the author’s focus on orality and the predominantly oral form of her literature. More than a stylistic choice, this form represents precisely women’s role in the community as tale teller and instructor and reflects a tradition in which the telling of the tale is paramount to the survival of the culture. Trinh T. Minh –ha tells us that the “world’s earliest archives or libraries were the memories of women.” It is therefore fitting that Kire’s storytellers are always the women from whose memories and accounts of the past the story flows. The past is not reclaimed for its own sake but because without a recognition of it, there can be no understanding of the present and no future. Through the telling of these stories then, Avinuo Kire underscores the primary role of her foremothers as well as her own role to her community of readers –in keeping those traditions alive.

Avinuo Kire is a compelling storyteller, steeping her narrative with a forward momentum that keeps the reader engaged and curious. In these pages, she has gifted her readers an exquisite and brightly written narrative about all of life. It includes the spiritual and otherworldly beings, as well as a terrible period in history and its tragic and traumatic repercussions that continue to this day. It is about aging as it is about childhood. It is a memoir placed within the context of a large and complex history of a people and their world- a world that her characters try to comprehend and navigate as best as they can. As the stories eddy through time, she explores the liminal spaces between strength and weakness, depth and surface, past and future, life and death- through which her protagonists move. Each page brims with engrossing imagery and gripping syntax. An assured writer, she is unapologetic when using words in Tenyidie, flatly refusing to bend to any bias in language, such as the othering that occurs when words of an indigenous language are written in italics. These little challenges to western linguistic habits crack and glitter on every page marking the emergence of a major storyteller.

 Dr. Kevileno Sakhrie, Associate Professor (Retd.)

By EMN Updated: Feb 10, 2021 7:30:06 pm