Hisila Yami: The more you write, the more you readAlthough mostly known for her political career, Hisila Yami is also an avid reader and a writer, with many books to her name including the recently released memoir.
A former lawmaker, three-time minister, and one of the politburo members during the ‘people’s war’, Hisila Yami’s political profile and persona is known to many.
Yami is also widely known for her work in academia. For thirteen years, she worked as a lecturer at the Institute of Engineering, Pulchowk Campus from 1983 to 1996.
However, only very few people are aware of the fact that Yami is also a writer. Over the years, she has written books, columns, and opinion pieces. Adhikar: Demystification of Law for Nepali Women, Marxbad Ra Mahila Mukti, and People's War and Women's Liberation in Nepal are some of the books she has already authored.
Last month, her memoir Hisila: From Revolutionary to First Lady was released, and the book has received appreciation from many writers and readers.
In this interview with the Post’s Ankit Khadgi, Yami talks about her new book, the challenges she faced releasing it in the midst of a pandemic, and her love for writing.
This interview has been condensed for clarity.
When did you realise or discover that you have a penchant for writing?
I have enjoyed writing since my childhood days. As a student in Kanpur, India, I often used to write letters to my siblings. As an extrovert, I was very good at expressing things, and my letters were always very descriptive.
I really began to enjoy writing during my architecture student days in Delhi. At that time, I used to write articles and letters for a feminist magazine called Manushi.
But it was only during the ‘people’s war’ that I began writing very seriously, especially in the English language. I was leading the movement’s International Department and I had to do a lot of translation work—from translating Nepali news to English to writing reviews of books I read.
Similarly, our party used to produce The Worker, an annual journal. I would often write articles on issues related to gender, ethnicity, nationalism and so on. As I wrote so many articles every year for the journal, I collected all of them and turned them into my first book, People's War and Women's Liberation in Nepal.
I started writing in Nepali after I joined mainstream politics. But since I mostly studied in India, from an age of 11 to 25, I was more comfortable with English. Even if I was able to speak in Nepali, I would still think in English first and then only write in Nepali. Since my Nepali wasn’t good, many people made fun of me. Rather than appreciating the fact that a Newa person like me can write in Nepali, they mocked me.
These days I don’t care what people say or think. I have switched to writing in English because I am more comfortable writing in this language. My writing is not laced with sophisticated-sounding verbs and words but I can freely express myself in this language.
Do you still remember your first published writing?
I think it was a poem that I wrote in English for Manushi magazine.
My architecture college in Delhi was very apolitical. Even during the emergency rule, we had no clue about what was happening. But one thing we observed was the destruction of the two squatter settlements that were near our college. Seeing that affected our sentiments. Deeply moved by the destruction of the settlements, I wrote a poem about it in English which got published in the magazine.
Your recently released memoir has been receiving praises? Why do you think people are liking your book?
There might be many reasons behind it. In Nepal’s context, we have very few people who write this kind of book in English, especially women writers. Also being published by Penguin brings its own aura and charm.
But the most important thing is that this book isn’t just an autobiography. It is political as well and covers the history of three generations of political events that took place in the country. Both of my parents were into politics. My father was a state minister and he was one of the first leaders in Nepal to highlight the issue of inclusivity. In this book, I have tried to weave both of my parents' perspectives, their ideologies and how it has affected us as well along with my own political journey.
I also felt that it’s my duty to let people know more about what the ‘people’s war’ was actually about. The ‘people’s war’ definitely had good things as well as bad and I have tried to be as honest as possible about the events in the book.
Did you face any challenges in the process of writing and publishing the book?
I am a very spontaneous person. First, I wrote whatever was on my mind. It was only in the third or fourth draft that I went through the text multiple times and began to finalise everything. So writing the book wasn’t challenging but it was a long journey.
Once I was done with the final draft I did go to a publication house. But they told me to change many things, which I didn’t like. Then a friend of mine introduced me to Penguin Random House, an Indian publication house. I was very pleased to meet Meru Gokhale, the publisher of Penguin. She was very encouraging and she even gave me a team of women to look at my book. I wasn’t put under any pressure to add or remove anything. All they did was make the language beautiful and take care of citations.
During the whole process, I felt more like a student as I was learning many new things.
Since the book was released in the midst of a pandemic, that posed many challenges. I, along with a few of the team members from Penguin, got infected by Covid-19. The pandemic has also affected the distribution of the book. We still haven’t been able to get the book to America, Canada and several other countries.
You have been writing for such a long time. In your view what value does writing have?
When you write, it gives you a sense of usefulness. It provides you with an opportunity to impart your knowledge. And that is why I find writing so empowering.
Another thing about writing is the more you write, the more you read. The more you want to know. Writing expands one’s world views.
What are some books that have influenced you the most?
When I went to Russia, I met my student Jiba Lamichhane there. He presented me with a book called Stalin's Daughter by Rosemary Sullivan.
The book is based on the life of Svetlana Alliluyeva, Joseph Stalin’s daughter. The book shows how Alliluyeva was used as a political tool by others and they robbed her of her independence. She wanted to live a very independent ordinary life but she couldn’t.
And that’s why for me that book became an interesting read because as a politician I am aware of how it feels to be on two sides of the fence and how politics can affect a human being on a personal level.
Another book that has made an impact on me is The Communist Manifesto. It’s a fantastic and holistic book. Obviously, in today’s global context, the text might not be enough, but for me, that book had a big influence in shaping my political views.
I found Daughter of the East by Benazir Bhutto very rich as well. I had no clue about the struggles she went through. I am also fond of reading books on gender issues. I enjoyed reading Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale by Maria Mies as well.
What suggestions would you give to aspiring writers?
I would just suggest they first write whatever they want to. The more you write, the more you go into reading as you need materials for your writing. And once you start reading more, your horizon and knowledge start expanding.
That’s why I believe writing is important as it also fosters a reading culture. The two are intrinsically linked.
Similarly, I think it’s high time we as a country focus on developing a reading culture. Populism comes where knowledge is scarce, which is what is happening in Nepal. If more people start reading, populism will find no place in our society.