Q1. Ms. Ruby, please accept our congratulations and admiration for the creation of Adivaani. Also, our gratitude for agreeing to be interviewed. Adivaani is a publisher dedicated entirely to indigenous literature. What is daily life like at Adivaani? What gives you joy? What makes it difficult? What makes it worth it?
adivaani is a very small operation, and continues to be so, despite quickly approaching our seventh year. It hasn’t scaled up or expanded in terms of human resource, because we can’t. We work with limited resources, and funding is far and between. We continue to operate from home, like when we first began, with one full time volunteer, and I, on a daily basis.
Therein lies the difficulty of running a small enterprise: maintaining the continuity of production, with no corpus funds and no social capital as well.
With the home space running into the workspace the demarcations are fluid, and I’m juggling everything that needs to be done for the home and work. There are emails to write and be responded to, books to pack and post, which means a stop at the post office as well as waiting on the online sales pick up personnel to drop by. There are visitors to attend to, manuscripts to commission, authors and artists to coordinate with, preparing for speaking assignments, writing, accommodating event attendance and ideas to think up and execute. All through this, there is housework to tackle, that I do all by myself.
I ever so often deviate from the established publishing industry norms. I may not be in control of everything and things don’t always go my way every time, yet I have been able to find my own way to plough and struggle through the work I do, which is driven by the love for my people, who acknowledge my little contribution of visibility and representation, and that’s what gives me joy and makes it worth the while.
Q2. You began with a vision to celebrate indigenous life and art, one that has been side-lined, misrepresented, stereotyped and romanticised. What are the challenges that you face as a publisher? What are the challenges faced by writers?
While as a publisher, I needn’t explain what I do or what kind of material I produce to my indigenous brethren, I am called on to do so with dominant peoples and audiences. To them the tribal narratives I produce are steeped in mysticism, wonder and of a lower cerebral order only. That I can and publish scholarly works doesn’t surprise them as much as that indigenous peoples can produce intellectual material or any writing for that matter. We are not believed to be thinking peoples and our work is looked at suspiciously. That prejudice itself is a challenge and breaking through it tough. We can’t change perceptions but keep producing material to ensure we exist. Not being erased from memory and public spaces is more urgent than being ‘understood’
Another challenge for us has been fighting through stereotypes and prejudices that define Adivasi being. Our first book was in Roman Santali about the Santals as a people, their history and entity. The base of the cover for it is black. The printers we took the book to strongly recommended we change the black to a cheery yellow or a bright maroon as “Black is too sophisticated a colour for the very backward Santals”. We stuck to black.
The distributors of an online book portal refused to sign us on as “Adivasi books are not good”— that without even looking at our books. The stigmatization of Adivasi peoples and their knowledge systems is so deeply entrenched that any creativity or scholarship is looked at as an exception; a one time, lucky spark of brilliance than not just a norm, but a possibility.
As for indigenous writers, we’re only expected to write about Adivasi/tribal issues or lifeways; and anything else is frowned upon or looked at suspiciously. Everyone else though can write about anything and everything, including Adivasis/tribes.
Q3. What can the Indian literary culture do better to enable Indian indigenous writing to flourish?
Allowing us to co-exist is a fair start; without bias, without terms and conditions, gatekeeping and a patronising attitude.
Tribal literature to the world at large is synonymous with folklore. My concerns are not with the one-dimensional understanding or interpretation of it. My concerns arise from the then derived hypothesis that advanced societies have produced culture, while Adivasis have produced folklore which is a lower form of culture; because it is mythical. Adivasis are thus denied being a people of culture or refused attribution of contributing to Indian culture. In that one premise the importance and urgency of producing Adivasi knowledge and material surfaces.
When I’m approached by book fair organisers or distributors saying they’ll have to look at our books to choose those, which are likely to sell, as they understand readership; that is a kind of gatekeeping. Readers don’t know what they don’t know and unless we place books they’re not accustomed to in front of them, how will they know.
Now we’re even telling our stories in your language. However, I can’t guarantee you will understand.
Our brand of literature may be diverse and distinctive from others that reading cultures have encountered, and in many cases it will require some extra effort, imagination and graciousness on their part to appreciate it.
Q4. You state that there is a fear of the erasure of the ceremonial, ritual, folk and traditional forms of storytelling, and that these are an endangered intangible culture. Could you tell us a little bit more about this?
Our knowledge systems and all it embodies are kept alive through singers, storytellers and family who in their oration and singing preserve and re-create their community’s idea of itself. The oral tradition is a distillation of the shared community and corporal experience that gives language meaning.
The strength of the oral traditions and its inherent quality lies in the ability to survive through the power of collective memory and renew themselves by incorporating new elements. That has come with us beginning to inhabit writing worlds, and beginning to write ourselves as a way to supplement our oral knowledge systems, but it’s not that simple or straightforward.
Changing lifestyles due to the influx of dominant cultures or an uprooting that places us in new spaces and systems, positions us in an unequal equation where to survive, we imbibe and imitate the dominant ways and languages.
This cultural encroachment and takeover by dominant cultures, languages and modes of communication further marginalises indigenous ways and effectively displaces culture.
Writing and literature then become the tools to resist cultural displacement and loss of traditional ways of being, thinking and expression that varying existences — both imposed and circumstantial — have set us up for. Even if and when we are displaced, we still are the owners and carriers of our stories and are the ones enabled to retell them in our non-conventional ways writing cultures expect or are habituated to. But we’re in an emergency to undertake this enormous task and that is what adivaani is responding to —the urgency to record and document, before the ones, our elders, who hold them like our ancestors did, pass on
Q5. The Adivasi identity is not a homogenous one. There is diversity in terms of language, culture and ethos that varies across regions. How does Adivaani showcase as well as work with this diversity?
If we had the capacity and the bandwidth we’d be covering every tribe there is in India, but we do the best we can within our limitations. In our 20 books thus far we’ve published across genres, languages (bilingual, as English is our primary medium of publishing) but also tribes. Adivaani is certainly not Santal-vaani as some seem to believe.
Most of our books have come out of our formal and informal networks of friends, family, scholars, activists, artisans and communities, and ideas have been germinated at chance meetings, planned events, spontaneously and organically.
Q6. We often speak about the literary ecosystem in terms of the “mainstream” and the “others.” Would you think that there is a divisive sociality at play? Or would you perhaps look at the “alternative” as ways to challenge norms and subvert inequities perpetuated by the “mainstream?”
I’m not going to analyse my experiences of what the literary ecosystem offers me, but only share snippets for the reader to deduce from it.I’m always invited to panels that feature of “niche”, “alternative”, “regional”, or “publishing from the margins”. To be on a panel one either has to be really small, distinctive (read niche/alternative/margins) or be really big and known. To be heard or seen on mainstream events I have to continue to be ‘unconventional’. That is the license to my visibility. Having said that the “mainstream” has made me niche, alternative and from the margins, I am as mainstream as it gets for my people.
Ms. Ruby Hembrom is the founder and director of Adivaani (first voices), an archiving and publishing outfit of and by Adivasi (the indigenous peoples of India). A trained instructional designer, editor and book designer, Hembrom’s documentation initiative grew out of a need to claim Adivasi stake in historical and contemporary social, cultural and literary spaces and as peoples. She is the author of Adivaani’s Santal Creation Stories for children and the prize-winning Disaibon Hul, on the Santal Rebellion of 1855–57.