• Wednesday, December 07, 2022

Frontlist | This publishing co. of Nagaland stands tall amidst pandemic

Frontlist | This publishing co. of Nagaland stands tall amidst pandemic
on Dec 03, 2020
Frontlist | This publishing co. of Nagaland stands tall amidst pandemic

At PenThrill Publishing House, they know books will no longer be sold and read the old way, but they believe the new ways might be better.

The children of Kohima were probably the happiest when Bookaroo, the first, largest and the only multi-city children’s literature festival in India, made its foray into North East India with Kohima in October 2018, bringing 21 speakers from different parts of the country to engage children in several fun sessions and activities. In 2018, the Gordon Graham Prize for Naga Literature was instituted to promote Naga writing. Easterine Kire and Kethoser Aniu Kevichusa were the first winners, for their works When the River Sleeps (fiction) and Politics and Forgiveness: A Contemporary Look at the Theme of Rebirth and Reconciliation (non-fiction), respectively. In recent years, there has been a spurt of literary events in colleges across Nagaland through “literary days” and such like. The Baptist College Kohima initiated the Annual BCK Literature Fest, organised by the department of English, in collaboration with other colleges, generating a lot of interest in literature among college students. I grew up listening to stories from my grandparents, sitting by the fireplace in my ancestral village in Zhavame. I am grateful for all those years with my grandmother, who lived to be 104, listening to the tales which she remembered in such vivid detail. She passed on to me all these precious stories which I later put together in a book, Shoposho, a children’s book of Naga folktales dedicated to my grandmother. This book includes the story of an extraordinary friendship between an orphan boy and a tiger named Paokhadu.
With the passing of Naga elders, the need to document the rich oral literature of Nagaland has been felt acutely over the past few years. But although there have been individual efforts, no collective steps have been taken towards this endeavour.

The birth of PenThrill

Ten years ago, I was a university student in Delhi, writing a weekly column for a local newspaper in Nagaland. The following year, I published a poetry collection with my sister Agnes, thanks to the support of the North East Zone Cultural Centre. The book, Echoes of Spring, introduced me to the world of book publishing and exciting new opportunities. This in turn led to the birth of PenThrill Publication House, a dream come true. “I don’t understand poetry.” “Poetry does not sell.” Traditionally, Nagas have always loved poetry. Since time immemorial, our forefathers have used lyrical expressions for everything under the sun. They sang songs – while working in the fields, in groups or alone, when they sowed paddy, harvested it or carried it home in beautifully woven baskets, when they celebrated festivals, or even when they mourned the death of a loved one.
It was also my own love for poetry which ensured that the first book published by PenThrill was a collection of poems, Four Shades, in November 2013. Written by four friends living in different parts of the world, the 60 poems, located on a spectrum of emotions, were inspired by nature, love, friendship, and life. There are two other publishing houses in Nagaland, Heritage Publishing House and Barkweaver Publications, who also publish poetry. Quite often, poetry is not taken seriously in the publishing industry. Of the 35 books that PenThrill has published in the past seven years, at least a dozen are poetry collections. One of these, Love, Lust, and Loyalty, by the Manipuri writer Yuimi Vashum, has become a primer in colleges for spreading awareness about sexual abuse. One of the most recent poetry collections under our imprint is The Morning Years by Nini Lungalang, published posthumously. Lungalang was born in that turbulent period between Indian Independence and the Naga Nationalist Movement. One of the first well-known poets from Nagaland, her verse sparked a fire in the younger generation to express themselves through poetry. In 2016, PenThrill collaborated with the Naga Heritage Centre to publish People StoriesVolume One. Written by Avinuo Kire and Meneno Vamuzo Rhakho, this book is a collection of documented oral narratives and traditional teachings gathered from Naga elders. The stories range from the early days of Naga history when people lived in close harmony with nature, and the spirit world was considered as real as the physical realm. In May 2017, PenThrill launched a child author, Sochumlo Suki Ezung, who at the age of ten became the youngest and only published child author in Nagaland. Her book, Suki’s Magic Box, is a collection of short stories carrying powerful messages. Her 10-year-old classmate, Yimyanglula Longkumer, worked on the illustrations, which were coloured in by six-year-old Liree Jane Krocha.
The hall we had rented for the launch was packed that evening. Children the same age as the author wandered around joyfully, their excitement floating free, back when there was no need for masks and hand sanitisers. We sold 100 copies of the book that day alone, and over the course of the next two years, we sold close to 1000 copies – a high number for us. In April 2019, we published the same author’s second book, Suki’s Spacecraft, and sold 500 copies within a year.

The year of the pandemic

PenThrill turned seven on 27 November, 2020. Although the books business is yet to boom again, the situation is a lot more stable now. There has been an increased demand for local books, and awareness among readers of the need to support local writers, thanks to the impact of social media. The year 2020 dawned with much promise. We had made elaborate plans for publishing more titles and organising more book events. When we sent two titles for printing in the beginning of March, I could never have guessed it would take months to see those books in print finally. Just as the books were supposed to be shipped out, the first Covid-19 nationwide lockdown was announced. People were dying around the world, and everybody was stricken with fear and uncertainty, and, perhaps naturally, books took a backseat on the list of priorities. But with every new lockdown, months rolled by swiftly. By the time we received the books in August, the whole market situation had changed. With a sense of sadness, we too realised that it would be a long time before we would be able to physically gather for events to celebrate new books. The sudden drop in sales during the pandemic made me wonder about the selling opportunities we had in the past. Sales hadn’t exactly been overwhelming before the pandemic struck, but the business was running smoothly enough.
But as the pandemic continued disrupting lives everywhere, literature festivals shut down like a game of dominoes. Predictably, the literature fest at Baptist College Kohima was cancelled this year. Bookshops were shuttered for a very long time, as were other stores and cafés that house our books. Author talks at colleges, universities, book exhibitions and events came to a complete halt. All of these, I realised in retrospect, had been important opportunities for a small home-based publication house like ours.

A new ray of hope

With the pandemic claiming iconic bookstores everywhere, I wondered how this would impact us in this remote corner of the world, where book publishing is still a relatively new concept. If bookstores started shutting down for good here, where would we sell our books? But amidst the global crisis, I found new ventures such as the Book Home Library for children – a safe and fun space filled with more than 2,500 books collected and curated over the years. This wouldn’t impact our book sales, but it signalled hope for the future of literature and readership in Nagaland. If children don’t grow up reading, it’s because they don’t have access to books. The Book Home Library creates an environment where children can grow up in the company of books. In the middle of the pandemic, I learnt of a new independent bookstore being launched called The Common Room. A quaint little bookshop and cafe, it is filled with personally handpicked books and locally made trinkets. Several PenThrill books found a new home at the Common Room and the bookstore restored my optimism.
Another recently launched store that gave me a sense of hope was A Ra Kezivi, meaning, “The Beauty of my Land”, which houses locally made goods. The owner, Kevizonuo Kuolie, a booklover herself, told me, “There are so many good things that young people can read, but until and unless people bring it to them, they won’t. When you take it to them and also tell them the story behind it, they are even more interested.” She had mulled over the idea of the store prior to the pandemic, and decided not to wait longer. In her view, there are always risks involved, but the Covid-19 lockdown could be turned into an opportunity. And of course, there has always been www.ilandlo.com, a legendary local e-commerce site that has placed our books in the digital world right from the start. Other e-commerce initiatives too went online during this time, such as the Made in Nagaland Centre – which further helped us reach out to more people across the country.

Lessons from Covid-19

If there is one thing that the pandemic has taught me, it is the resilience of humans. As a journalist documenting events for over a decade, I have listened to thousands of tales, but the ones I encountered over the course of this year were different. Despite unprecedented circumstances that have robbed us of the comforts we have always known – jobs, livelihoods, businesses, all the things that matter to us – we will still find ways to begin again.
As for publishing books during the pandemic, it has truly been a challenge. Especially in terms of book sales. But this has not dampened my spirit. One good thing, however, is that the pandemic has given birth to many new writers. Perhaps they have always had the gift but never found the time to write. The pandemic has given many of us the luxury to be home, and I have a feeling that many more fine writers will emerge from these difficult times. And this is valuable for the publishing industry. It’s difficult to say what the future holds. But then again, was it ever certain? As they say, we will have to get used to the “new normal”. Maybe book launches will never be the same again. The kind of crowd that used to gather, the way in which we mingled freely to talk about books and stories may not come back soon. Maybe nothing will ever be the same again. But hope is beautiful and necessary. There will be better days, even for book publishing.

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