A Conversation with Nayomi Munaweera
Nayomi Munaweera’s debut novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, was published in South Asia in 2012 and in the United States in 2014. The book, longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, went on to win the 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize for Asia. The novel follows three generations of Sinhalese and Tamil families—the two opposing groups in the civil war that raged in Sri Lanka from 1983 to 2009—and examines the fates of families who stayed in Sri Lanka as well as those who left during the war.
Born in Sri Lanka, Munaweera moved with her family to Nigeria when she was three years old and resettled in Pasadena, California, eight years later. She pursued an academic career and had nearly finished a doctorate program when she dropped out to write the novel. Munaweera supported herself by teaching and tutoring for the five years it took to write the book.
Freelance writer Marianne Lonsdale first met Munaweera in 2011 at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. They reconnected at Marianne’s home in Oakland, California, to conduct this interview. They talked about why Munaweera writes, how she creates her novels, and about the reaction in South Asia to her first novel.
Marianne Lonsdale: How did the story of Island of a Thousand Mirrors come to you?
Nayomi Munaweera: Ideas that led to the story percolated inside me for years. The war always obsessed me; the conflict was the backdrop to my life. I’m Sinhalese and my family left Sri Lanka. But I have cousins who stayed and supported the war while I spent my teen years in Pasadena, California. I felt guilty sometimes. I’d ponder what my life would have been like if I’d stayed.
Across the hills from Pasadena is a community of Tamils, considered enemies by my Sinhalese family. When I was 16 years old, I fell in love with a Tamil boy, and I’m still close with his family. Those relationships provided me access to what life on the other side of the war looked like.
I’m an avid reader but could not find fiction that expressed my experiences. I needed to create the story of those who stayed and those who left.
ML: In the first chapter, the reader learns much about the values and history of one family through a dramatic birth scene, and the theme of maternal ambition surfaces. During my first read, your writing and the story captured me. When I read your book for a second time, I was amazed by how much information and stage setting is packed into those opening pages.
NM: I wanted to show the importance of mothers in South Asian culture early in the story. To show what these mothers are willing to do to ensure that their children succeed. The reader glimpses key conflicts in that first chapter: class differences that include a hierarchy of skin color, the influence of years of British rule, the beauty and danger of the ocean. The mothers are the key to the children navigating this complex world. The depth of that maternal love cannot be understated; they will do anything for their children. These matriarchs are crucial to my novel.
ML: Your lyrical language and the beautiful rhythm of your writing add tension and despair to scenes depicting atrocious acts, such as the rape of young girls by soldiers invading their homes. I was close to tears reading those pages.
NM: Rape was used as a weapon of war, but in Sri Lanka almost no one acknowledges that rape even occurred during the war. Rape is viewed as the fault of the woman. It was important to me that I depict these girls as victims. Some of my writing is based on first-person interviews that I recorded of those who lived through the civil war, but I could not find anyone willing to discuss being raped. Denial on this topic is so strong in Sri Lanka as well as in the immigrant communities in the United States.
ML: One of the female characters in the book is groomed to be a suicide bomber. This scenario was a huge hook for me. Following a young woman considering this action kept me turning the page.
NM: I was consumed with how a girl could grow up and become a suicide bomber. What would drive a woman to do that? My character’s identity develops over the course of the story as a reaction to her deep family ties, the violence inflicted on them, and a thirst for justice. I wanted to create a fictional account that layered in the emotional content in a way that history books cannot.
ML: Can you talk about your publishing journey? How did you come to be published first in South Asia and later in the United States?
NM: I finished Island of a Thousand Mirrors in 2007, and signed with an American agent, but the book did not sell. In 2009, the civil war in Sri Lanka ended, which prompted me to rewrite the conclusion of my book. But I was still unable to sell it, so I went on to start my second novel.
In 2011, a dear friend from my childhood in Nigeria found me on Facebook. She had contacts with a publishing house in Sri Lanka—Perera Hussein Publishing House. These publishers, a married couple who worked out of their garage, took on my book and printed 1,000 copies. They worked hard promoting my book and submitting it for awards.
Also in 2011, I met agent Peter Steinberg at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. He liked my book but did not think it would sell to American readers. I went back to him in 2012 after my success in South Asia. He took the novel on, and the book sold quickly.
ML: This is your first novel and the recognition has been significant. How does it feel to be published by St. Martin’s Press—a major publisher—and to be reviewed in the New York Times? What has the experience been like for you?
NM: Many incredible things have happened since my book first sold. The story of where I was when my book finally sold in the United States still gives me chills. I was in Sri Lanka, in my childhood home, for the first time in 20 years. Although my family visited Sri Lanka almost every year, we had not been able to go back to our house because a Tamil family squatted in our home for many years, a takeover sanctioned by the government. When the war ended, that Tamil family had their land in the North returned to them, and ownership of our home reverted back to my family. I never imagined that my family would get our house back. I had been in that home for one day when a bidding auction started in the U.S. on the book. Unbelievable.
ML: Has the reaction to your book in South Asia been different from that in the United States?
NM: Reactions have been quite different. The book does not take sides in the civil war. But in Sri Lanka, the government has written that the book is untrue. At readings there, I was confronted several times by people who told me I should stay quiet. I am grateful for the safety my American passport provides me.
Many people in India are very critical of the Sri Lanka government and interviewers wanted me to be also. Interviewers were aggressive and I felt attacked, a feeling that I had not anticipated. I ended up having my editor join my interviews so that she could redirect the conversations away from politics and back to the novel.
In the United States, readers are often unaware and surprised to learn that Sri Lanka engaged in a 25-year civil war that killed over 80,000 people. The United States Press covered the war very little, even though that civil war’s primary source of funding was from Sri Lankans on both sides who migrated to this country. The war would never have gone on as long as it did or had such high-end weaponry without this influx of money.
ML: You posted pictures on Facebook of your photo shoot for Vogue India. Not too many authors are asked to pose for Vogue. How did that experience come about?
NM: Wasn’t that wild? I was invited to be on a panel of authors at the 2014 Jaipur Literature Festival, which is a fancy festival, very glitzy and glamorous. Audience size at readings and panel discussions ranges from 1,000 to 2,000 people. Can you imagine? The Jaipur Lit Fest hosts the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.
A journalist from Vogue India covering the festival wanted to produce a spread on authors. Three of us were whisked to a nearby royal palace—a real palace that was home to one of India’s princes until the 1960s. And like in the movies, trunks with clothes were brought in, makeup applied, and jewelry choices made. The photo shoot took about eight hours and resulted in three photos in Vogue India—a surreal experience.
But when the magazine was published, my photos had been altered. My skin had been lightened and my nose made smaller. The duality of this amazing experience in the palace and the subsequent sexism and racism reflected in the pictures caused a great deal of conflict within me. The photos are a total illusion.
ML: Can you talk about your process for constructing a novel?
NM: The first thing that happens is a character shows up. I get some sense of context from that appearance and then I read everything related to the topic.
I don’t outline much. Instead, I write out problems and questions and wait for answers to come to me. I end up with many many pages and notes that do not end up in the book. My first drafts are a big jumbled mess.
Then I start moving things around. Think of it like cooking—I stir and stir and stir. I can write a paragraph ten different ways until I figure out which one works best. Almost every sentence is edited two or three times. I don’t think most people understand how much editing happens. Writing is not effortless.
ML: What is the Write to Reconcile program and how were you involved with it?
NM: When I was in Sri Lanka for my book launch, my publisher asked if I’d work with the founder of Write to Reconcile, Shyam Selvadurai, author of Funny Boy. He’d gathered 24 Sri Lankan youths from different regions of the country and some whose families had left during the war.
The workshop was two weeks long. We spent one week in Colombo, a major Sinhalese city and the second week in a northern city that is home to many Tamils. None of us had been to both areas. We’d been to the city of our families but not to the cities of those who’d opposed us. We took tours of militarized zones and saw burned out homes.
These youths told their stories during the two weeks: they spoke their stories and they wrote their stories. These were young people who lived what I’d imagined and written about. To say this was a powerful experience for all of us does not begin to describe the workshop.
ML: What’s next for you?
MN: I have a two-book deal and am editing my second novel. It’s about a woman who is pursued by the dark demons of her past and commits a terrible and possibly unforgivable crime. I’m thinking about it as a meeting point between Beloved and The God of Small Things. The major themes are maternity and migration. It will be published by St. Martin’s Press in February 2016.
Oh, and I’m getting married this summer!
Read more about Nayomi on her website.