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Mark Turin

© Mark Turin, CC BY 4.0

The World Oral Literature Series was established to serve two primary goals. First, by publishing in a range of innovative digital platforms, the series would challenge and change the shape, format and reach of academic publishing to connect important scholarship with a distributed global readership. Launched in 2012 with a new edition of Ruth Finnegan’s discipline-defining Oral Literature in Africa, and celebrating its ninth volume with this publication, the breadth and quality of the scholarship in this series has made the study of Indigenous oral literature and oral traditions more visible. Second, a consequence of the approach to knowledge distribution taken by the World Oral Literature Series and our partners at Open Book is the amplification of innovative and collaborative publishing partnerships involving Indigenous intellectuals that more traditional academic imprints have been less able to support. Janet Hujon’s beautiful translation of Soso Tham’s The Old Days of the Khasis—so fittingly entitled Tales of Darkness and Light—realizes both of our goals with a gentle grace and formidable literary power.

Dr. Hujon is a writer and member of the Khasi community, an Indigenous and notably matrilineal ethnic group who have long inhabited what are now the states of Meghalaya and Assam in north-eastern India. Born in Shillong, Meghalaya, Hujon first took a Master’s Degree in English Literature from the North Eastern Hill University and then a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of London. A versatile writer and original poet, Dr. Hujon’s work has appeared in publications across Asia, North America and Europe. A self-identified inhabitant of two distinct if intersecting cultures—England and her original Khasi homeland—Janet Hujon is superbly well positioned to have taken on this ambitious project: conveying the subtlety of Soso Tham’s timeless poetry to a global audience in English.

Described by Khasi writer and translator Kynpham Singh Nongkynrih as the “uncrowned, though acknowledged, poet laureate of the Khasis” in 2006, Soso Tham demonstrated his literary acumen and versatility through an important body of work that is narrated, sung and spoken by Khasis to this day, almost 80 years after his death. Janet Hujon captures the spirit of Soso Tham’s writing in ways that are effortless and contemporary. For example, Soso Tham’s reflection on the natural environment that has nurtured and protected his ancestors could be read as a prescient statement on declining ecological diversity and the dangers of climate change:

Our hills were our guardians in the past

Who will keep us from harm in days to come?

With characteristic restraint and dignity, Soso Tham shines a light on the corrupt violence of colonialism and the coercive complicity that it engenders when he writes:

A flatterer adept at placating egos

Swelling the hide of the sun-eating toad

And when like a leech she measures each step

Souls shrivelled by fear stand mutely and watch

Reading Hujon’s compelling translation in an era of political turmoil and ecological collapse, Soso Tham takes the form of an Indigenous intellectual and thought leader, calling out for action, resistance, hope and decolonial love:

Around the world we search for Light

Yet scorn the light that shines at home

Soso Tham offers us a vision of a more equitable and just world, in which:

No tax from land flows into his coffers

For land is common, land bequeathed

The subjects, you see, are the lords of the land

In Soso Tham’s world—a world for which we must all strive—the rights and traditional knowledge of the world’s First Peoples are honoured. In the sensibility of our current times, I am reminded of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) when Soso Tham writes of:

Boundaries defined, rights respected

Trespass a taboo remaining unbroken

Hujon notes that “Soso Tham came in from the wilderness to carve in words the identity of his people—he made us see, he made us hear, he made us feel and he made us fear”. Using her dexterity in both Khasi and English—“Words ripening to a mother tongue”Hujon’s translation lays bare Soso Tham’s visualization of the human condition and our extraordinary capacity for hope:

Man wanders the world to look for a way

To rebuild restore the Covenant broken

For light to rise from deep in the dark

And for an insurgence of song to break out in his heart

While firmly rooted in the ways of his own Khasi community, the transcendent beauty of Soso Tham’s writing as transmitted through Janet Hujon’s important new translation provides proof of Indigenous resilience and a narrative pathway towards an Indigenous resurgence that is well underway:

Once again will forests roar

And stones long still shake to the core

Days new unknown will surely dawn

And our homeland ripen as never before

Traditional, ancestral and unceded Musqueam Territory, Vancouver, BC, Canada
March 2018

Khasi hills (2016). Photo by Rpsingh34, CC BY-SA 4.0,