SPECIAL ISSUE: INTERVIEWS
By Melissa R. Sipin
Nayomi Munaweera is a Sri Lankan-American author and artist. Her debut novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors (Perrera Hussein, 2012), was initially published in South Asia and will be released in the U.S. in Fall 2014 by St. Martin’s Press. The novel has received rave reviews from sources as diverse as Mother Jones and Hyphen Magazine. It was long-listed for the Man Asia Literary Prize, making it one of the fifteen best books coming out of Asia in 2012. It was short listed for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and won the Commonwealth Regional Prize for Asia.
Nayomi is an alumni of Squaw Valley Community of Writers, as well as the Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation and the Intersection for the Arts Interdisciplinary Writer's Workshop. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
You said in interviews that it took you five years to finish your first book—how was that process? Authenticity and authority were concepts you were well aware of: how did these two concepts drive you to finish the book?
I think I had the seeds of this book in my brain long before I started writing. The idea of being a writer was as exotic to me as the idea of being an astronaut. Nobody I knew was either so I ignored the yearning to write for years and went about getting a PhD in English Literature. I got as far as the dissertation before the idea of writing fiction refused to be ignored anymore. I just could not write the academic tone that the Ph.D. required. I wanted (needed?) to write this book instead. I left my program in Southern California and got a part-time job teaching at a community college in the Bay Area and spent all my spare time reading and writing. I didn’t let myself think about publication because that seemed like an impossible dream. The important thing was to write.
It was difficult—there was a lot of research I had to do about some very grim things, the war, suicide bombings, the Tigers, etc. A particularly terrible thing happens to one of my characters. I needed to do a lot of research to know what that would feel like, what the effects of it would be on her. That was one of the hardest parts to write.
I’ve had readers tell me that parts of the book made them cry. I know exactly which parts these are because I cried while I wrote them. But I think this is the most beautiful place, when the words slip under the skin and make us feel deep, profound, sometimes painful things. As you said, it took five years to write this book. It took another five years to find a publisher. It was a long journey but I think that more than anything this is what is required of writers: endurance and some clumsy sort of faith that telling the story (if only to yourself) is valuable in itself.
I remember you said at a LitQuake panel, “You don’t talk about trauma when you’re living trauma.” What can silence do to a community, to an individual, to a marriage, a country trying to heal? How does one counter it?
I really do love silence. I like it to be quiet when I write, no music for me, I spend time meditating, etc. These are the kinds of silences that are necessary and can be deeply restorative. But as you said, silence can also be a killer. When I was growing up in Nigeria, we would go back to Sri Lanka for a month every year and I saw how my relatives lived with the war all around them. They talked obsessively around it, the rising price of food, the bus bombings, etc., but there was no vocabulary around how trauma might be affecting people, how trust and safety were being eroded, what it does to one’s psyche to see the footage of a Sinhala village after a Tiger attack or the remnants of a suicide bombing. I don’t think people could have talked about these things. They just needed to get on with life and try to survive. Talking about trauma, processing grief—these were luxuries they couldn’t afford.
But there are effects to this silence, the damage goes underground, it seethes, it waits, and eventually it will erupt in some way. I think it’s the writer’s particular job to break these silences, to try and articulate what is difficult to articulate. It is absolutely necessary that someone try to tell the story; this is a way those that have gone through the experience can start to think about their own experience and understand that it has value.
I fell in love with the house in the book and that blue room—the house based on your childhood home in Colombo. I would love to talk about that idea of “writing home”: how has living and growing up in different countries (Sri Lanka, Nigeria, and the U.S.) affected your life as a writer? When you returned “home” (both literally, the house of your childhood, and figuratively, your motherland), how was your writing affected?
Home is a funny, difficult, shifting thing for the immigrant. These days my home is very much the Bay Area because I feel most myself here—I have the freedom here to live in a way I create. My life would be way more prescribed in Sri Lanka due to gender, and in other parts of America due to race. Additionally my loved ones live here so this is home now.
The ancestral house I was born into and left in 1976 when we moved from Sri Lanka to Nigeria was the one I was thinking of when I was writing Island. It is where a lot of the first part of the book is staged. It was lost to my family for most of the war years. So I was thinking about it nostalgically while I was in America. The house and the country were in some way equated for me. Both of them felt very far away to me.
Then after twenty-five years we regained the house. When I went back in 2013 for the book launch, I was able to live there by myself for two months. It was also there that I got a phone call from New York saying that my book had sold in America. So there was this absolutely strange feeling of homecoming and a sense of my life arriving full circle.
And yet I was lonely in Sri Lanka, I was separated from my partner and the community I had spent years developing in the Bay and that felt isolating. I think as an immigrant and someone who has spent a childhood living in various places, home is a shifting thing, there are parts of you that are at home in different places. For a writer this is a powerful thing because it lets you take on different voices, different perspectives more easily. Joyce Carol Oates once said something like, “I am a glass of water. I don’t have a personality when I am alone.” I think she meant that she takes on the tint of whatever is around her and this is an important skill as a writer—you can’t be too fixed, in thought or place, you have to absorb what is around
As for how it’s changed my writing, I think the main thing is this book allowed me to come to some sort of understanding of the war (as much as is possible for me at least). I think this is why we write—to work out our obsessions—and my obsession with this particular topic has been exhausted. My next book that I’m in the process of editing is a completely different beast and it’s exciting to have a whole different palette to consider.
I have been struggling with the idea that only “uplifting” stories can heal those lost and broken. After writing this book that dispels the silence, what are your thoughts about writing these kinds of stories?
This is a common muzzle people attempt to put on the artist. If you’re writing about pain you are ignoring the good things about the community, you’re painting a bad picture of “your people” to the world, etc.—this is a response very much connected to the question of silence. But trauma doesn’t go away just because it’s not talked about. It burrows deeper under the skin turning necrotic, infecting the surrounding area and psychically killing the smiling host.
I’ve had a similar angry response to my book. At my launch in Sri Lanka the editor of a government-backed newspaper showed up and lambasted me. He accused me of being from abroad not knowing anything about the country because I didn’t grow up there. He was right—I was from abroad—this doesn’t mean that I didn’t have the right to tell this story my way. He later wrote a review vociferously attacking the book (which it was clear he hadn’t read). He called me a “cheerleader from L.A.” which was rather humorous. He said that I should be handed over to the military to see what they would do with me, which was rather not humorous.
I was living in Sri Lanka alone at that point and I spent that week listening for a banging on the door in the night. Journalist and activists were and are disappeared in Sri Lanka for questioning the government’s version of the truth. It became very clear very quickly that the powers that be were unhappy that the book existed (I very much doubt they had actually read it). I was scared that week but I’m lucky—I have that magic thing—an American passport. I am a writer in diaspora and this gives me a great deal of power. From this position I do think we have to sing the song of pain—it just is way more powerful than the other songs.
Lastly, the book ends on an hopeful beat. This isn’t really a question, but more of a thanks.
At the end of the day for me, the trauma isn’t the end of the story. You learn to deal with it in the ways you can and for me the primary way has been in the writing. It has absolutely saved my life in too many ways to count.
Above artwork by author | Previously printed in 580 Split: Issue 16