Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Quest Interview

This interview in The Quest, print literary journal, of December 2016 issue is uploaded with permission from the Editor, Dr. Ravi Nandan Sinha.

Malsawmi Jacob and Zorami: The Novelist and the Novel
D. Yogananda Rao
Dept. of English [PG]
Jain University, J C Road Campus,

“Zorami” the first Mizo (literary) novel in English, tells the story of a Mizo woman, after whom the novel is titled, who is subjected to rape and displacement during a time of violent political upheaval in Mizoram and her journey towards personal healing and discovery of a new identity via a spiritual encounter. The novel takes the reader through Zorami's traversal of her zones of darkness and shades of grey to a final explosion of the 'colours of acceptance and love'. At the same time, it vividly describes the Mizo culture and ethos.
Ms Jacob tells her side of the “story” and shares her views and experiences that went into writing the novel in this interview.

DYR: Ms. Jacob thanks for accepting to spare some time for this interview for the journal The Quest.

Could you introduce yourself to our readers by giving a brief background about yourself, your education, upbringing etc….?

MJ: My siblings and I grew up mostly outside Mizoram as our father was working in the Indian Army. For a few years during my childhood, we were in Mizoram, where I joined school in the vernacular medium. I studied there up to Class II, and imbibed a love for Mizo folklore and poetry that we were taught. Our family moved to different places. But I finished high school and studied up to MA in English in Shillong, Meghalaya. Then I taught in Aizawl College, Mizoram. Since then I have lived and worked in different cities – Guwahati, Mumbai and Bangalore.

DYR: I must begin the interview proper by saying that working with you, though for a very brief period, was a rewarding experience for me and more importantly congratulating you on the publication of Zorami : A redemption song,  the first novel in English from Mizoram. That leads to my first question: why has it taken so long for a Mizo writer to publish a novel in English?

MJ: Thank you very much, Sir. And thank you for deciding to interview me for the esteemed journal. Working under you was a very good experience for me. As the HOD you were a good guide, but never breathed down my neck. I really enjoyed working in the department.

As for the question, why a Mizo novel in English only now, there can be several reasons. (Incidentally, two young women had written Young Adult Fiction before me, though they may not be classed as ‘Novel’ and a young man working in Gujarat produced a mystery a few months after my novel was out). To begin with, we Mizo people have been literate for only about 120 years, in our own language. English education came even later. Besides, novel writing itself is quite a recent thing. So I should say it’s not surprising that we’re only beginning to produce novels in English.

DYR: One of the problems that the early Indian novelists in English such as Mulk Raj Anand, R K Narayan and Raja Rao had to deal with was the anxiety concerning the choice of the English language. Do you think Mizo novel writing in English could also be going through that sort of an anxiety, considering that Mizo novel writing in English is in its infancy stages?

MJ: That anxiety is probably there, in two ways. The first one would be the writer’s own command of the English language. The second anxiety would be about readership. For serious writers – by ‘serious’ I mean those making it their main occupation – living within Mizoram, since the majority of readers there prefer to read in the Mizo language, to write in English must be quite a difficult decision.
The few writers who choose English as their medium have mostly been educated, or living, outside Mizoram, and are actually freer with English than with the mother-tongue, at least for writing.

DYR: Could you tell us how the scene has been in other genres like poetry, drama in English from Mizo writers? I do know that you had published poetry and short stories quite extensively in English before you published Zorami in 2015.

MJ: Poetic compositions in the form of songs are the oldest form of Mizo literature. So when we started writing in English too, poetry was the first genre that we took up. There is a good number of Mizo poets writing in English today. Mona Zote is a widely known name among them. I have published a collection of poems and short stories as well. But the drama is yet to take off as far as I know.

DYR: People in general and writers in particular from the Northeast have been complaining about the reluctance of the Indian academia and media to accept them into the “mainstream” Indian politics, literature and culture. Indeed, various reasons have been attributed to this reluctance. What in your opinion is the reason for this reluctance?

MJ: This seems to be a fact, but I really can’t see the reason. Perhaps it’s due to the chronic human tendency to always create an “other” to be prejudiced against, either mildly or violently. But I do see a healthy interest coming up too, and this is encouraging. Easterine Kire winning the Hindu Literary Prize, hopefully, will pave the way for the rest of the Northeast writers to be regarded as part of Indian writers without the regional tag.

DYR: It is a common critical practice to club all writing that comes from the seven “sister states” under the broad category of ‘writing from the northeast’. Surely, the experiences that shape the literature of each region are different and hence the writing too, no matter how geographically proximate these regions are. How different is Mizo writing from the writing of other states of the region?

MJ: This clubbing must be purely a geographical convenience, as you have suggested. There is no homogeneity among the peoples of the Northeast as such. The only access we have to writings from other states and language groups is through English, whether written in it or through translations. From what we can see through these, our writings, our tales and our outlooks are all quite different. But I don’t feel capable of making a large scale comparison of Mizo writing with other writings of the region here. It would require a careful study, which I haven’t done yet.

DYR: In one of the interviews you gave, I am referring to the MUSE INDIA interview; you say that the reception of the novel has been good. I am extremely happy to hear this. Would you please elaborate on this and tell us how the reception has been in other parts of India apart from Mizoram and the Northeast?

MJ: Let me clarify that statement; when I said the reception of the novel has been good, I meant in terms of comments by readers, not necessarily sales. And these feedbacks came from different parts of India. There’s the opposite response too; some people can’t even bear to read it through. These probably dislike the non-linear form and my ‘native’ style of story-telling. Those who have appreciated it are mostly, though not exclusively, people associated with art or literature as students, teachers or writers. And they are from different parts of the country. Besides, a few newspapers and magazines from different regions have carried write-ups and reports, or included it in their book racks. And Ambedkar University in Delhi has prescribed it as part of an elective course on Northeast Literature.

DYR: In a write-up on the novel published in The Indian Express recently, you say that you broke down frequently while writing the novel. Clearly you must have been passionately involved with it. Could you tell us something about the kind of the research that went into the writing of the novel?

MJ: When the trouble started, my family was outside Mizoram and I was in school. My father was terribly upset when we got the news. So we knew this was a grave matter. Later, we kept hearing about the horrible happenings there, so we were always mentally involved. After finishing my studies, I went back to Aizawl and worked there for over nine years, getting further exposure to the situation. When the MOU, popularly known as ‘peace accord’ was signed in June 30, 1986, I was out of Mizoram again. In May, 2004, I went back to do the research for the novel.

In Aizawl, I visited a friend whose family member had died a few weeks before. There were several other visitors. As we sat chatting, I asked them to recount their memories of the early days of the insurgency movement. One by one they all narrated their experiences. I recorded them in the cassettes I had brought. I did the same in Lunglei, where a relative had died some time back. In this way I got diverse stories.
Next, I made an appointment with two writers, well known thinkers, in the home of one of them. They discussed Mizoram issues, past and present.

Finally, I interviewed some persons – former MNF officers who were now political leaders, and a pastor who started the process for peace-talks between the government and the undergrounds. I also read books and documents. Yes, the research was quite intense.

DYR: As I read through the novel I couldn’t help being reminded of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Just like Achebe, you make an attempt to force the language to accommodate the native rhythm interweaving it with Mizo oral culture. And let me not forget to add, in the use of proverbs and the folk songs too. Moreover, just like the protagonist’s (Okwonkwo) destiny in Achebe’s novel is meant to be an allegory for Umofia, the novel’s protagonist Zorami too is meant to represent the whole of Mizoram. And the patriarchal nature of Umofia also finds a parallel in the Mizoram of the novel. How influential, if at all, was Achebe’s writing practices on your own?

MJ: Now that you mention it, I see the similarities with Achebe’s novel, and it’s very interesting! But there’s an explanation for it. Starting from the last point; the Mizo society is strongly patriarchal, I just portrayed it as I saw it. The idea of making the protagonist Zorami represent Mizoram was conceived way back in 2004, long before I read Achebe’s novels. Employing songs is a traditional Mizo story telling style, the folktale characters often speak in songs. And quoting proverbs to strengthen the speaker’s point is a common practice as well.

However, I now suspect Achebe may have had a deeper, more subtle influence on my writing, though I was not conscious of it. This leads to your first point. I read the trilogy Things Fall Apart, Arrow of God and No Longer at Ease around the same time that I was working on Zorami. I remember thinking of how he tells the stories in a unique way, in his own style. He must have emboldened me to tell my story in my own way, with all its rough edges, and “force the (English) language to accommodate the native rhythm.”

DYR: Yet another thing that struck me about your novel is the way most chapters end. Events in the chapters are narrated almost like an eye-witness account striving for a conscious dispassionate objectivity. However, they end with a one line comment which sounds as if the narrator is consciously stepping in to remark. This is almost like a choric intervention we come across in the classical Greek plays…

MJ: Each chapter ending with a kind of toll was my editor’s idea. He made me do it.

DYR: While the novel is ostensibly about Mizoram at the macro level, it is also about a woman who has been subjected to a sexual violation. When a reading of the novel foregrounds this aspect – as a feminist reading would – I think it is an attempt to dent a patriarchal society by raising the question very subtly: if a woman has been violated by one man, why should she seek succour from another man? The conclusion of the novel is indicative of this. I mean, Zorami’s problems – psychological and marital – are seemingly resolved – when she accepts the prevailing nature of patriarchy. Would you like to comment?

MJ: Whereas the novel is critical of the unjust and prejudiced practice of patriarchy, it does not advocate a toppling of it. There has to be a healthy, fair balance. Zorami’s biggest problem is internal, though brought on by the sexual assault. When she finds inner healing through a spiritual experience, she is able to fully accept her husband’s love, not necessarily the prevailing nature of patriarchy. Her husband, who is also psychologically wounded, finds relief and joy in her new-found state of mind. So it’s a mutual, not one-sided, giving of succour.

DYR: One of the observations made in the context of “literature of real conflict” – a genre to which Zorami doubtlessly belongs – is that it treads a thin line between fiction and non-fiction. Do you think this opens up a possibility of reading and understanding history in new ways?

MJ: This is true of Zorami. It does tread a thin line between fiction and non-fiction. Several of the characters and incidents are taken from real life, though fictionalized. And yes, I would say this kind of conflict literature is part of history in a sense, recording deeper human experiences beyond dry facts. The official history records only external occurrences, whereas fiction of this sort deals with what happens inside people’s minds as well. History is incomplete without an understanding of the inner stories of people.

DYR: And, again in the context of trauma induced by the painful events, it is a general opinion that trauma results in repression of suffering by internalizing it in memory leading to the silencing of it. Were you at any time of the writing of the novel aware or conscious about this? And would it be right to say that your novel is a conscious attempt to break out of this trauma induced silence?

MJ: I was not aware of that in a theoretical sense, but found out that people had been keeping their pains locked up inside. When I asked questions during my research, they came out with their overwhelming stories. And I do regard my novel as a voice of the Mizo people, where their so far untold stories are narrated to the outside world.

Note: The MUSE interview alluded to in this interview can be accessed at:

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