A practitioner of the exhausting Art of Memory, Easterine Kire goes back to her realist self to write again about her past, the place she comes from and—caressing things and people gone—on the essence of women like herself, her mother and every female in between (grandmothers, aunts, friends and neighbours). This time, though, the novel she presents is not a heavy weight on the eyes and soul of the reader like her other novels of the past. A Respectable Woman flows like a small river in front of you, incessantly, at a pace that lets you distinguish clearly what lies on the riverbed or what is carried away somewhere else by the current.
Mixing facts and places in a map with fiction and stories heard, Kire puts down her characters on a stage she knows too well, Kohima, the town she grew up not long ago. Constantly changing, like people’s lives, Kohima is like a tattoo over the skin of the writer’s being ... the image fades as years pass, and mutates, but at the same time becomes more and more a part of her. And in this matter, Kire mirrors Karen Blixen in her peculiar obsessive way to bring memory to the pages of a book.
Enters war once again, like a scar taking a long time to heal (right in the middle of that old tattoo). And also ghosts appear, because we share this world with them as well. It’s with all these elements, brought up to life in kitchens and over tea, that Kire builds a narration where getting old is just a pretext: evolving reality is the central character here.
Or maybe, since History is not an exact science, this novel reads more like a report, a long lost letter written without any pretentious aim to inform some distant relatives (in time and space). In it Kire weaves the different threads she’s been holding in her hands. An almanac somehow, made of snippets of the past but casually pointing to the times to come.
‘Ours is a generation that has seen the devastation of war. We are people who know what it is like to lose everything almost overnight, homes, loved ones, and life as we knew it before the war’, says a mother in this book, just to be clear.
Worlds in transition
Made of strong direct sentences, chiselled by that need of clarity, Easterine Kire’s new book has not a place for adjectives sometimes. There’s pointy straightforward lines produced over a long women’s chat. A conversation lifted to its more noble end: remembrance ... something that might only happen in the absence of men.
The chapters are little sections dealing with life, history and great events, everything is told simply by women views. A chronicle here, a brief sociological explanation over there, short bios to accompany it all. A collection of short texts where women grieve, dream, accept and feel pain (and tenderness). This is a novel of verbs. Space evolves as well, people grow in it and change. The plasticity of this movement relies then in Kire’s craft to let the narrative flow with actions, with events we must understand. Dynamics and imagination are therefore key: one captivates you, puts you inside the plot, the second is a tool for you to see what the Angami Naga author writes about.
The first part of the book shows the world just before our narrator is born. The longest part, the second, begins with our protagonist’s birth. Then, in the middle of it all, a vignette with a drunk man in the neighbourhood: sad, funny, scary, tender and sad again. In a few pages, Easterine Kire introduces a social problem she will keep writing about, men drinking. The drunkard of the book , a widower, is nevertheless part of the landscape. So much so that nobody would punish him for his antics, especially knowing the history of his pains. No fight, no jail, since ‘Prison is for criminals, not social nuances’, an aunt will wisely say, showing that a community sense can be above the law. But the world in Kohima, for these women in the novel, is moving on after the Second World War that nearly destroys the place and affects their lives also in imperceptible ways. Villages and traditions are getting lost, schools are built there. Coming of age is in fact just a way to tell it: a woman, a town, an entire people ‘grow’ and metamorphose.
What women are and can
Finally, just after the first half of the book is over, comes what this story is about. The reader will learn about respectability and gender to be precise: what is expected from women there (and here, too many times). With it, comes death (another part of a life cycle that can take so much from the living) and resistance in the form of aspirations.
English shows its sharpness all the time. That is, the way colonized peoples all over the world have with the language of their conquerors: rough on the edges but revitalized by our ‘clumsy’ tongues and ancient roots. This is what gives any character not just colour (depth) but a sense of belonging too. In A Respectable Woman it helps create a sense of intimacy too while a mother remembers for her child what life has been.
This heritage passed on from woman to woman is the deepest point of Easterine’s novel. But traditions and knowledge are not static and abstract, as you can read in this book. In fact, the validity of tradition, for example, can only be set by its bearers. No culture should oppress its members ... so many things our author wants to tell (to her people, and the young women among them). Let’s just quote one:
He has no right to beat me
One scene after the other, Easterine Kire is dealing with love, responsibility and other senses dear to women. The way she shifts her style might be looked as a homage to the women she dedicated A Respectable Woman to: calm and candid, fierce and honest.
Pushing the limits, changing the roles means only one thing in the end: the boundaries of a woman’s life need to be established again. The political economy of marriage is also at stake. You can feel their pain, you can read about their agony, not just in a linear way; sometimes a chapter is just a continuation of a previous one but sometimes it is a distinct perspective on the main subject: a woman’s transit on Earth.
Then something will crack, breaking before the reader. A woman’s skull, perhaps; just the last step on a trail that crunches women time and again into dead pulped meat: patriarchy. No matter who, or even how and when. A feminine lineage will always end up fractured in these transitions after wars (sometimes forever). Easterine in consequence, in the third section takes us to a close present, writes more and more as the narrative is actually an appeal to us:
I think we should find ways of reforming cultural practices so we can ensure justice for those who are truly in need of it.
No one should at this point believe violence and submissive women are the matter of indigenous peoples and the ancient traditions held by them. Any woman anywhere would tell you it’s not. Kire is whispering through all her book a tale of love too. And sharing with her readership the inside of her people’s lives. She’s also trying to tell, in a sensitive way, women choose to love and to move on. That is not an act of forgiveness or erasure. They know how violence shapes their lives, the author and her elders know. Her whispers are, all the time, like a spell for young girls: ‘you have a choice, you can choose love (to love yourself) and put pain in its right place’. So this almanac of the past is somehow an inheritance written by a Naga writer to her people, by a woman to her equals. Don’t get it wrong: it should be read by them and all of us (men too) just so we learn and feel whatever we need to move on and grow.