Naga Scholars’ Association on ‘Why Write for Children?’

Lhütü Keyho, Ph.D. Scholar, North Eastern Hill University (NEHU)

THERE HAS always been an awkward relationship, if not an obdurately inflexible one, between texts that encompass children’s literature and those considered mainstream literature. Consequently, having had to constantly explain itself in terms of conventional models, the tricky “sub-genre” that children’s books find themselves categorised as, does not seem to come together very well. As the literary critic Peter Hunt puts it: “…their narratives are often novellas and not novels; their verse is doggerel rather than poetry; their drama is improvisation rather than mediated text.” It is then, not surprising that they are often perceived as subsidiary to other forms of literary studies. They are, more often than not, relegated to seek a home in those subjects outside of humanities, for instance, in the School of Education, only to find themselves, once again, merely outlining the vast corners of those subjects. Wedged, as it finds itself, between seemingly incompatible interests, this form of writing continues to be shadowed by questions such as: Are they to be employed to attain skills? Or do they merely signify a figure of entertainment?In an attempt to de-clutter these persistent questions and others that beleaguer writings and writers of Children’s books, and to understand the occurrence of a naissance of literature written for children in the emergent Naga Literature in English, the Naga Scholars’ Association (NSA) initiated a virtual in-house conversation on Why Write for Children?, as its Monthly Talk Series 2022 on 23rd September.

The recently published Naga authors of children’s books, Achingliu Kamei and Nzanmongi Jasmine Patton, both seminal in their own rights, were invited to respond to queries and share opinions on the significance of writing children’s books. Kamei is an Associate Professor from the Department of English, Atma Ram Sanatan Dharma (ARSD) College, University of Delhi. She is an accomplished poet, short story writer, and ultra-runner. Headspace, The Mind’s Realm, was very recently published on 24th September 2022 and her other engagement, entitled Naga Tales Morning Blush is forthcoming in the later part of 2022. Having already published several books, Liangtuang Pu, Illustrated Novella for Children (2021), is her first venture into writing for children. Patton is an Associate Professor in the Department of English, Gargi College, University of Delhi. Besides having contributed notable publications such as A Girl Swallowed by a Tree: Lotha Naga Tales Retold (2017) to Naga writings in English, her most recent one, The Adventures of Little Zeno (2022), is an important addition to the slender collection of writings for children in the Naga literary scene.

Responding to Dr. Veio Pou, the moderator of the conversation, Kamei expressed that her decision to write for children was partly influenced by the conspicuous absence of cultural representation in the writings that Naga children were exposed to in the past, as well as in recent times. Observing that stories, wherever they come from, play a vital role in the formative years of all humans, informing them of the opinions that they are to have about people from their culture as well as outside of it, she stressed the significance of cultural diversity in children’s books. When such is lacking, the knowledge inculcated is not wholesome, she emphasized. This new literary venture was further influenced by her maternal instinct, and her own longing to see her children find themselves – the Naga and its culture – in the stories they read. As a result, one finds in Liangtuang Pu a going back to the oral narratives of her lands, rather than to the fairy-tale-like accounts that euro-centric children’s books are embedded in.  An instance of this from her book is a deliberate insertion of the Rongmei people’s practice of Rihchuk — a Forgetness ritual initiated by the victorious — after the war had been won, in order to usher in forgetting so that there might be lasting peace.  Kamei’s achievement lies in her experiments with tropes, traditions, family, and cultural values, and this foments a persistence to return to those narratives which are closer to home. Convinced that both young and adult readers are lamentably quite deficient in culture-based knowledge nowadays, she uses distinct cultural motifs with the intention of implanting cultural knowledge — the ways of the old, agricultural practices, sense of the community, etc. — in her readers. In this context, she elucidated how, in her book, the motif of a person being spirited away, and the community search that ensued, serves as a reminder to young people of their perennial need for the community and its need for them.

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Concurring with her fellow speaker, Patton stressed the pull that stories can exercise on children’s perceptions about themselves and in their acts of decision-making. Citing impressions from her own childhood, she maintained that images created by vastly circulated domineering narratives influence the behaviour of children, oftentimes in damaging ways. Subsequently, she felt the need to purposefully create inclusive stories in which the values of equality would be ingrained. Patton’s contemplative reflection comes from the belief that it is often the nature of stories to communicate those principles or truths that the author/teller wishes to pass on. The Adventures of Little Zeno, therefore, is not only devised to entertain but is also an effort to dismantle stereotypes and labels on the Nagas, often brought about through misrepresentations and misinformation. Echoing the Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s words, she contended that stereotyping poses the dangers of creating “. . . a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again”, until at last, they become the very thing they are labeled as. In a telling statement, she opined that such authoritative approaches that children’s books had taken in the past had disallowed people from looking at, or, searching for the truth through different lenses. Little Zeno’s story is refreshing as it tells the stories of a world that has until now been sparingly engaged with. Considering the dearth of writings for children in the Naga lands, Patton plants in her book, accounts which “you really want to read but [which] hasn’t been written yet”. With the blending of the contemporaneous and the traditional, the autobiographical as well as fictional elements, the author creates information-based stories in Zeno’s tales, and thus manages to tactfully create a balanced view of the world we live in, without being overtly prescriptive.

Writing for children, by an adult writer, in particular, has its own challenges. Has there been a smooth execution of the envisaged idea as it gets transmitted into a storyline without the interference of the adult voice? Where and how does one negotiate or draw the line during the whole process of writing in this matter?  Patton responded to these questions by agreeing that the act could be challenging. Nevertheless, she appears to have found her way around this difficulty. Coming to her aid are her own children, with whom she often runs through her drafts, bringing her thus into contact with the needs and the limitations of the targeted readership even before the book could reach them. This, it turns out, allows her to gain fresh perspectives and to make necessary revisions as and when required.  For Kamei, the endeavor to write for children can at times be limiting as the author must always be conscious of what “landmarks” to include and what to exclude. Debunking popular assumptions, she observed that children could be as aware as adults are of the struggles and realities of the community. This realization calls forth the responsibility of portraying the spectrum of reality even in children’s literature so that moral transformation amongst young readers may take place, she added. She also stated that the insertion of morals, even when done unconsciously at times, is an act that cannot be escaped, for  we must take cognizance of “our ancestors’ habits of honesty, and integrity since that is our life and our culture”.  To substantiate her point, Kamie poignantly remarked: “The west has thousands of written stories . . . we don’t even have hundreds . . . we need to choose motifs, plots, and storylines which are required at the moment”. Echoing this, Patton also commented that it is no easy task to separate the political from stories- stories of/for children even as it may be.

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What places the two authors in a unique place is the absence or lack of roadmaps in Naga writings for children to model their own writing for children. Patton had, however, taken this lacuna to her advantage as it accorded her the freedom to follow through with her own ideas. Kamei also expressed the opinion that the lack of predecessors had in some ways allowed her to explore, experiment, and take more liberties when she wrote her first children’s book. Echoed very strongly by both writers was the belief that there is a dire need for more authors writing for children in the Naga community. Patton lucidly summarised this concern, and remarked: “if we don’t write on our own behalf, others will.” Reiterating this thought, she cautioned that other people writing about us could very well be misrepresentations.

Even as both writers brought into the conversation varied ideas and opinions, their thoughts converged in more areas than they differed. A recapitulation of the discussion can therefore be arrived at in the four pertinent points Kamei stressed early on in the conversation: the need for moral formations in children’s stories, rather than writing them with an intention to merely entertain; a reinforced vigilance, on the parents’ part, about books that come into the hands of the children, primarily on those that do not represent the Nagas correctly; the requirement for conscientious scholars/writers to write more for/about children given how crucial the need is, notwithstanding that such a venture might fetch them no points in the academia; and, the immediate need to set up libraries and reading spaces in all nooks and corners of our lands, seeing how libraries are the new hospitals – the place where cures can be disembarked upon before catastrophes even occur.

Shimreisa Chahongnao, who dispensed the Vote of Thanks, echoed the sentiments of the second and the third generation of educated Nagas, in his admittance that as a child, he did not have access to children’s books that resonated with his culture. Expressing hope, he affirmed that today, because of the initiatives of the resource persons, children from our community would in the end have the fortunate opportunity to learn of their people and their ways very early in their lives.

In-house conversation on Why Write for Children? organised by Naga Scholars’ Association on September 23 as part of their monthly Talk Series.

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