Malsawmi Jacob’s debut novel Zorami is perhaps the first Mizo novel in the English language and as Nabina Das says ‘in the backdrop of stunning Mizo lore and volatile politics, is complex and incisive.’
Author of six books – poems, short stories and narrative non-fiction, Malsawmi has taught English Literature for twelve years and has been a freelance journalist for regional publications in Northeast India. Her new book of poems is titled ‘Four Gardens and Other Poems’. We recently spoke to her about her work and influences:
Please tell us a little about yourself and what inspired you to be a writer?
As my father was serving in the Indian Army, my family moved a lot during my childhood. My initial schooling up to Class 2 was in Mizo medium. Surprisingly, those few years gave me a good grounding in Mizo folklore and poetry. My interest in literature was aroused right there, which continues to this day.
After that, for a couple of years, I studied Hindi in a school in the army quarters in Dharmsala, now in Himachal Pradesh, where my dad was posted. After moving around for a few more years, I finished high school to masters in Shillong, Meghalaya. Then I went back to Mizoram and taught English in Aizawl College for nine and a half years.
I started writing poems in high school, and later took up writing stories. Much later still, I began to write articles on different subjects and freelanced with several publications of the Northeast. One of the factors that urged me to write was a concern about social issues.
Who are your literary influences?
In Mizo poetry, earlier poets such as Lalmama and Nuchhungi. In English, the traditional greats like William Blake, John Keats, WB Yeats, TS Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Emily Bronte. Those are poets and novelists I greatly admired. Whether they influenced my writing as such, I don’t know.
Tell us more about writers writing in English from Mizoram?
Yes, there are many writers in Mizoram who write in English. Quite a large number of poets – Mona Zote, Dawngi Chawngthu, Zualteii Poonte, Debbie Rinawmi, to name a few. Two teenagers – Suzanne Sangi and Sarah Aineh had produced Young Adult Fiction in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Thara Tlau published a mystery novel in 2015, a little after my novel Zorami came out, in the same year. Cherie Chhangte brought out a book of Mizo folktales and myths in English recently. Books on specific subjects have been written by several persons – I can’t quite count or name them right now.
What about writers who write in the regional language? Is there any effort to translate them?
Several Mizo novella, folktales and poems have been translated into English. Two professors from Mizoram University, Margaret Zama and Margaret Pachuau, have done a lot of work. Mafaa Hauhnar has translated a good number of poems. I too have translated a few poems and a short story.
Most literatures of the world seem to have started with poetry. People from oral traditions express themselves through songs and poems. Mizo has been an oral language till the late 19th century CE. Even our folktales often have songs. So, I suppose it was natural that I started with poems. Poetry is close to my heart. Though, ironically, it’s only the last two years or so that I’ve worked seriously at it. Until then it’s been only a hobby.
Any favourite writers from the Northeast?
Some of my favourite poets and writers from the Northeast are – Mona Zote, Mamang Dai, Nabina Das, Nitoo Das, Robin Ngangom, Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih, Anjum Hasan and Mitra Phukan.
Why do you think there aren’t enough writers from the Northeast? Do you think publishers need to make an effort?
I think the Northeast has a decent number of writers, especially in the vernacular languages. But their works have not been exposed enough. It’s a welcome change that many academicians and literary critics are beginning to get interested in the region. Publishers too should find goldmines there.
Several options are suggesting themselves, but I’m yet to decide which bait to bite. So far, I’ve been writing more in English than in my mother tongue. I kind of feel a responsibility to work at this.
Interviewed by Sanskrita Bharadwaj