The Phenomenal Woman- An interview of Mamang Dai by Ananya Guha

“I am tribal, and the geography, landscape, our myths, stories, all this has shaped my thoughts”… Mamang Dai

Mamang Dai Poet, novelist and journalist, is one of the exciting new voices in English to emerge from North-East India. She was a correspondent for the Sentinel, The Telegraph and the Hindustan Times. A former member of the Indian Administrative Service, she left it to pursue a career in writing, traveled extensively and has published numerous articles, poems and short stories in various journals.  She is the author of Arunachal Pradesh : The Hidden Land which received  the State’s first annual Verrier Elwin Award, 2003, Reprint 2009 (Penguin).  Her other books include The Legends of Pensem, Mountain Harvest – the Food of Arunachal Pradesh, River Poems and two illustrated books of folklore-   The Sky Queen and Once upon a Moon time.  Dai currently is the General Secretary, Arunachal Pradesh Literary Society and Member, North East Writers Forum (NEWF). Dai lives in Itanagar, Arunachal Pradesh.

An interesting interview taken by Ananya Guha follows-

1 When did you start writing? You started as a journalist right?

Yes, I started as a journalist for the Sentinel newspaper, Guwahati, and then worked as Arunachal correspondent for the Hindustan Times, New Delhi, and The Telegraph, Kolkata.  I also worked with radio and TV-AIR and DDK, Itanagar –anchoring and taking interviews.

2 How was the ” switch ” from journalistic writing to creative writing?  Were there any major, shall I call them- ” hitches”?

I would say it was kind of imperceptible. In press conferences I could be thinking about poetry or writing something else while covering legislative assembly, all sort of simultaneously. – You know how it is, a stray remark, or even something heard wrong can start off a slew of ideas or point you towards a new perception.   And journalistic writing is also about creative writing, I think, – how to convey so much in the space of a few paragraphs while keeping the ‘self’ apart. The immediacy of political/ news coverage with investigation, interviews, deadlines, is what got me in the end.  I felt it was cutting into my time and space to concentrate on other things.

3 You started by writing poetry. Now you mainly write prose fiction. Any ” reasons” as such?

I think with the publication of a first novel a second one- the next- is expected.  I am still writing poetry but it is a longer process working on a poetry collection. I feel it is never ready -! Then an idea comes for a second novel, and so on.

4 To what extent does politics ” influence” your writing? What space does politics have in the culture of creative writing?

Politics to the extent that it is about representation and governance is an ever present influence. We are writing about the times and I think many writers are strong writers because they are political and have a political voice. Even if not overtly the political is embedded in the fictional.

In my case I thought I was quite vocal as a journalist. I was also quite active in state politics, but somehow this has never had that kind of impact on me that I ‘felt’ I wanted to write a political type of novel. Now I would prefer to turn it around to portrayal of characters, society, environment, beliefs; and see if this kind of writing can exert a little influence on, or at least highlight aspects that touch our lives.

5 What are the ‘ tribal’ influences in your work?

Oh so much is derived from the tribal.  I am tribal, and the geography, landscape, our myths, stories, all this has shaped my thoughts. I feel fortunate that I never forgot my mother tongue- Adi; one could easily have lost it during the years in school, being away, etc; as so many tribal children don’t speak their mother tongue these days.  I have learnt a lot travelling through different parts of the state, from talking with miri –shaman healers as mythology and spiritual belief is an area of interest for me.  I am particularly influenced by our oral narratives dealing with creation myths.  This is like an archaic, intricate, sparkling epic poem that opens up another world like the branches of a living tree.

6 Arunachal Pradesh has a rich storehouse of cultural narratives. Do you seek any parallel of such narrative in your prose and poetry?

The Adi language is said to be euphonious. Endings change all the time to make the spoken word musical. Maybe this has crept into the way I write. It is a matter of opinion, of course.  I am uncomfortable if a sentence doesn’t ‘sound’ right. I don’t know if this can be drawn as a parallel with Arunachal cultural narratives that are chanted along with a chorus of singers who repeat certain lines for emphasis and rhythm. There’s also the tribal narrative technique that is a public performance. The audience is carried forward by the music and chanting and I feel like this sometimes— maybe the syntax is open, but the focus is movement, an upsurge of feeling and the language of song; never mind the chronological order etc, belief, or disbelief, magic or science.  Things happen, and there is no need for explanation.

7 Folk tradition, the oral word are today recognized as literary archetypes. What efforts have you made for a transference of these from say the oral script to the written, in the context of the languages of Arunachal Pradesh?

In Arunachal today there are very few speakers left of the original literary language used in classical oral literature that is different from the language of current usage. Currently tribal languages are being introduced into schools but we can’t gauge the success of this yet. Until it is spoken at home I think mother tongue will be fighting a losing battle against the onslaught of TV- Hindi and English. However, there are several organizations taking up the issue of language and promoting writers writing in tribal languages, and English/ Hindi or Assamese. For me, writing in English, writing is a process of transference all the time. Currently I am working on historical fiction and I have to think what the imagined character might have said or done in such and such situation to attempt an honest representation.  In this, English works better for me because I have tried translating some poems back into Adi— and it sounds funny. I can’t get the metaphors, etc.; perhaps if I knew the archaic literary style it would be better, but I am not fluent in the language of the shamans.

8 Tell us something of your major publications?

There is really not that much. The first publication after the poetry volume was ‘Arunachal Pradesh- the hidden land.’ It is non-fiction and grew out of travel notes, journeys to my ancestral village and sort of rediscovering the land and people. At the same time I was also writing ‘Legends of Pensam’ which is also based on such journal entries and stories I heard from people I met. At the back of my mind I wanted to write about life in the bowl of the hills and record all its hidden histories, the beautiful landscape and way of life, even if only for myself.

The second novel Stupid Cupid was meant to be a short, snappy take on life in the city –about romance, tenderness, desire, and starting over.  It was a short story of the same title that expanded into a book.

9 Your views on the culture of literary festivals? We have a plethora of them nowadays. How do you think they can positively impact on the mind-set of young writers?

Sometimes I think they are really good. It can get the reclusive author out of their closely guarded privacy, and travel and interaction can be enriching. Sometimes I think it can be too much of a good thing, quite disorientating what with the travel and time out from what you are working on. To get back to the writing then takes months, weeks. Also, with a plethora of sponsors, publicity, cultural performances and parallel sessions Lit fests are mega events. With so much going on I miss just being able to sit down quietly and actually listen to an author speaking.

For the young, yes, it is a good way to celebrate books and writing. There is a flow of ideas and energy, and the opportunity to hear and meet authors from different parts of the country and the world; as long as one doesn’t get the notion that writing is about fame and glamour.

10 How does it feel to be a Padma  Shree?

Of course I feel honored by the award; it is a milestone. But what was more overwhelming was the response of people here to the news of the award. This just makes me ponder a bit on the vocation of ‘writer’ and social responsibility. Otherwise I don’t feel any different, and no one is treating me any differently!

11 What is your opinion of the expression: ” Indian Writing In English?”

One sees it so often I forget to respond. There is also ‘Northeast writers writing in English,’ or ‘north East literature,’ which are very general terms used because one doesn’t know enough of the regional diversities, or for convenience sake. On the other hand there is no need to be ultra specific like ‘Arunachalee writer from north east India.’  I don’t know what the best way to put it is.

12 One last question- your take on the new generation of writers in English, in and from North East India?

There is definitely a body of new, wonderful work in North East India today.  New generation writers from all the states, Sikkim, Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram — are being published and receiving great acclaim. The writing also covers all genres- poetry, fiction, novellas, short stories, children’s books, translations, memoirs. Here I can also include journalistic writing. There is also more writing coming up in mother tongue, illustrated comic books with local heroes, cartoons and folklore animation. The Readers Forum is also getting livelier. This is a feel good trend.

Read Mamang’s Work here!

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