The Rumpus Interview with Nayomi Munaweera
Nayomi Munaweera’s Island of a Thousand Mirrors begins in Sri Lanka in 1948, with the departure of the British, and ends in 2009, the year Sri Lanka saw the the cessation of its bloody thirty-year civil war between the Sri Lankans and the Tamil Tigers. The novel is set in both Sri Lanka and the US, among the Sri Lankan diaspora, and is narrated by Saraswati, a Tamil village girl, and Yasodhra, a well off Sinhala girl, their stories running parallel.
Island of a Thousand Mirrors has old world elegance even as the story is firmly lodged in contemporary matters of terrorism, identity, and justice. Munaweera has that elusive gift of being both a storyteller as well creator of dazzling prose. Her sentences stun, and she is able to take something as mundane as the leaves of carrots and beetroots and transform them into “blue-green plumage of tropical birds.”
Munaweera was born in Sri Lanka. She spent the early part of her childhood in Nigeria but had to leave in 1984 during the military coup, when all Asians were expelled. Consequently, the Munaweera family moved to Los Angeles, which is how Munaweera came to call America home. In 2001 she began writing Island of a Thousands Mirrors. The novel took her five years to write, and she shopped it around to publishers for another five years. Unable to find a publisher, she finally she put it away in a drawer.
In 2011, Munaweera joined Facebook where she happened to reconnect with her best friend from Nigeria. It was a fortuitous reconnection, for her friend had friends who were publishers in Sri Lanka, and, once introductions were made, Perera Hussain Publishing House brought Munaweera’s novel out of the drawer and onto the bookshelf. Island of a Thousand Mirrors was subsequently published in India, where it was long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize and won the Commonwealth Regional Award. St. Martin’s Press published it in the US in September.
The Rumpus: Where did you get the idea for the novel?
Nayomi Munaweera: There’s a great Toni Morrison quote, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it,” and that’s what happened with me. I was a voracious reader growing up and, as a post-colonial child, I read Enid Blyton and then Little House on the Prairie, that kind of material, and so I did not see myself in print. As I grew older I started coming in contact with South American writers like Gabriel García Márquez and the Europeans and then graduated to the Indian writers.
Rumpus: Anyone in particular?
Munaweera: Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Anita Desai, Ruth Prawar Jhabwala, and I thought, okay, so this is where I fit, but I still couldn’t see myself.
Rumpus: So no Sri Lankan writers?
Munaweera: It took a while to find them, but there was Shyam Selvadurai and Michael Ondajatte and these were “oh my god moments” in that it’s possible to read about people and families like your own. I didn’t start writing ’til years later but this was a very important moment of self-discovery in that I realized that families like mine can also be the subject of fiction.
Rumpus: You see yourself mirrored and then you fashion your own mirror, so to speak.
Munaweera: Yes. And also because I grew up in Los Angeles and away from the Sri Lankan war I was extremely curious about it. My family would holiday in Sri Lanka every year and I would get to see how my family and friends were actually dealing with the war as a daily reality. I mean, you know, you could get on a bus in the morning and you wouldn’t know if you would make it back, or whether your kids would make it back. So it was an obsession of mine to understand what the war was about.
Rumpus: So being part of the Diaspora community had a lot to do with writing this novel as opposed to if you had actually been living there?
Munaweera: Definitely. When you’re in it you’re trying to survive, it’s your everyday reality and I don’t know how much that helps in viewing it in literary terms, but for me the distance was very helpful.
Rumpus: Island and mirrors are so symbolic in the novel. Did you always know the title?
Munweera: Actually, the novel had a completely different working title for many years, which the Sri Lankan publisher was not very happy about. So we embarked on a gigantic search. I came up with about seventy titles and the publishers came up with twenty and I believe there were literally three months of back and forth. It was terrible. I was in despair because I thought we’d never get a title. Then my long-term boyfriend came up with “Kingdom of a Thousand Mirrors” and it I liked it but Kingdom has this colonial context and then Island came to me.
Rumpus: You’ve had no formal training in writing so how did you learn to tell a story? You have such a firm sense of pacing and craft—how did you develop this?
Munaweera: From reading, which I started at a very early age, and so I can say I’ve been training my entire life. Reading remains the most enjoyable thing I still do—I suppose instead of taking a creative writing class I just naturally immersed myself in reading.
Rumpus: That reminds me of Francine Prose’s book Reading Like a Writer, which is a excellent guide to immersion-learning. A lot of writers immerse themselves in reading but they don’t necessarily know what they should be looking for, or even pick up technique as you seem to have done. Would you say there is some benefit to an MFA?
Munaweera: Writing is such a personal journey. I think that if someone believes they need an MFA then that’s definitely the route they should take, or perhaps they just want the time and discipline to be able to concentrate on their writing. For me an MFA would have been a complete disaster, because I don’t like to show my work until it is as perfect as I can make it so the idea of having to write stories and then get them workshopped would have destroyed me. I probably would not have kept writing.
Rumpus: How did you know when the novel was done?
Munaweera: I had worked it so many times, just written it over and over again over the course of five years or so it took to write, until I felt I just couldn’t make it any better.
Rumpus: Who are your literally influences? Any books you found particularly helpful towards your writing?
Munaweera: Milan Kundera and Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje, and what I think of as the Holy Trinity, which is the Salman Rushdie novels: Satanic Verses, Midnight’s Children, and The Moor’s Last Sigh. If I was on a desert island I could be happy forever with just these three. They’re just so rich and the way he uses language is so rewarding.
Rumpus: Islands of a Thousand Mirrors could not find a US publisher for five years and now, in retrospect, your publishing journey sounds like a fairy tale—reconnecting with your best friend who just happened to have friends in Sri Lanka who just happened to run a publishing house. Of course having written a lovely novel helped, but do you believe in fate? A time and a place for everything?
Munaweera: It certainly did not seem like a fairy tale. Do I believe in fate? I definitely think things unfold when they have to. You know I’m a dual citizen of Sri Lanka and the US and these days that is rare since the Sri Lankan government has to approve you, but back then my parents made the decision to become dual citizens and it has been most serendipitous for me. Because I carry a Sri Lankan passport, when my novel first came out there I was eligible for a bunch of Asian literary prizes. I mean after my novel had been rejected in the US for so long, to suddenly have a doorway in because of randomly having a Sri Lankan passport, which my parents held on to for their own nostalgia, and wanting to retain ties to the country. It was their nostalgia that allowed me access to the prizes which in turn brought me attention from the US. A part of me believed this novel would never get published but then another part of me believed it would get published. I suppose there must have been some sort of faith on my part to have continued writing. Writing in general is such an act of faith because you just never know if your words will find a home anywhere. I think you can’t even think about publishing while you’re writing—you just have to do it.
Rumpus: Writing a book is like walking a very fine line between hubris and humility—you must believe in yourself, but you can’t be arrogant.
Munaweera: That’s a really great way to put it—it’s a constant balancing act. Even with rejection, a writer has to have such a thick skin.
Rumpus: How did you deal with the initial rejection? Of having to put away five years of work?
Munweera: When my novel did not sell I just started writing another one. Not to say putting it away was not terribly painful but what else is there to do? Of course, then there is the South Asian community, which has no idea about the writing life and considers you a sort of a loser because you didn’t go to medical school or law school.
Rumpus: How did you parents feel about your writing?
Munaweera: They’re incredibly proud now but when I first started they were very worried that I did not want to do something practical. I was actually in a PhD program in South Asian Literature at UC Riverside but I could not get myself to write an academic paper and this novel was starting to come to me so I left the program, got a job in a community college and wrote Island of a Thousand Mirrors instead. I think as Sri Lankan parents it was hard for them to understand what I was doing initially. They were very supportive and paid for my college no matter what major I chose, and they trusted what I was doing, but they were concerned that I wanted to study English, and when I dropped out my father said it was the worst day of his life. Then I spent years writing the novel and supporting myself through part time jobs and they were worried about what was going to become of me, that I was going to end up poor. I think once the novel came out in Sri Lanka and there was a lot of good press, they realized that I was not a lost case after all. My father says, “Oh so and so read your book.” Now they’re so proud of me even though they are still wrapping their heads around the fact that I can have a career writing. My father actually gave my first diary so, in effect, he can say that he started me off on writing. It was 1989. A big fat red diary with a different day on every page.
Rumpus: Do you still keep a diary?
Munaweera: A journal now. I have a terrible memory and so I use it to record everything. In a way, writing pins down a moment in time. I’m completely obsessed with time and death, and writing is a way to at least hold onto a moment whereas in life moments pass. You write a book and its going to remain the same as long as it has a life.
Rumpus: Talking of memory and times gone by, you open Islands of a Thousand Mirrors with a British couple about to sail out of Sri Lanka for good. It is a powerful rendition of cutting the colonial-post colonial umbilical cord.
Munaweera: Who we are as post-colonial people is wrapped up in our colonial history, so it seemed like the natural place to begin because the roots are there. But then I was interested in the stories that unfolded from there, in Sri Lanka’s modern history. The beginning is also straight out of my PhD studies and the incredible material I read under the influence of wonderful Professor Parama Roy.
Rumpus: One of the characters asks the following question: “What will it (the world) be for our child who is both American and Sri Lankan but beyond this, also Tamil and Sinhala?” Did writing this novel furnish any answers? Is there an answer?
Munaweera: I don’t think so. My identity is split into several different places and belonging is hard enough for me so I have no idea how someone like my character who is American and also biracial and then Tamil–Sinhala would grow up to incorporate these parts into a whole.
Rumpus: Perhaps as we grow older we realize there is no one authentic being and that we are all authentic in our own way.
Munaweera: You know, authenticity does come up. There are so many Sri Lankan readers who say they love the novel but then there are also those who ask how dare I wrote it since I did not grow up in Sri Lanka, that I’ve shown Sri Lanka in a bad light, that how could I have written it since I’m an American. But then in America I get “Do you speak English?” or “Wow, you speak English.” The immediate assumption that you are not American, that you are from some other place, a constant “where are you from” depending on where I am in the country. Though since I live in the San Francisco Bay area it’s not so bad here. My partner is a white American from Pennsylvania and his ancestors have been here for generations and generations and to me that means that he belongs in a certain way that I may not, but even he has questions about displacement.
Rumpus: So many people are transplants from state to state and that does mean no deep roots to one place.
Munaweera: Jhumpa Lahiri talks about the “hydroponic” identity where one’s roots are in the air and I feel that sort of identity allows you to claim anything and everything which is such a powerful ability especially for a writer, any artist.
Rumpus: How much research did you do for the novel, especially for the Tamil Tigers and its female branch?
Munaweera: Everything is research-based, but, that said, I was writing this novel before the civil war ended in 2009, and so there was very little information available. So I relied heavily on imagination. I made up my main character and then tried to inhabit her as best as I could, the challenge being of course to make her choices absolutely plausible to readers in that readers may feel that, were they in her situation, they might make the same choices. The Tamil Tigers actually were a very secret force and if they got caught they would just commit suicide—they had cyanide capsules—rather than give up any secrets. And so information was so limited. Now, however, there is a ton of information. You can even go to North Sri Lanka and take a tour of the bunkers where they would hide and also where the Tamil Tiger leader, Prabhakaran, lived for years.
Rumpus: On a panel at the 2014 Jaipur Literature Festival you talked about a writing workshop, Write to Reconcile, that you conducted in Sri Lanka where a teenager had no idea about Sri Lanka’s thirty-year civil war. Your response was that this is not right. Do you believe children should be protected from the truth?
Munaweera: Depending on the age level, of course I do not think children should be “protected” from the truth, and so what was done to the fifteen-year-old is actually a disservice. She had frequently visited Sri Lanka, to her an island paradise, and so the truth was a shock to her as well as having to suddenly reconcile with the terrible things that were done here. If history is not shared then nothing can be learned from it and it is all the more doomed to repeat itself, perhaps.
Rumpus: The very last line of the novel seems to suggest that in order to move ahead, the past should be forgotten. Is this a correct interpretation?
Munaweera: It’s not about forgetting but rather than one can write a hopeful future, a peaceful future, over the history of the past.
Rumpus: A fresh set of footprints. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said in regards to the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in South Africa, “I hope that the work of the Commission, by opening wounds to cleanse them, will thereby stop them from festering. We cannot be facile and say bygones will be bygones, because they will not be bygones and will return to haunt us…” Islands tells us that after the Civil War when President Mahinda returns to Sri Lanka, he does not want a Truth and Reconciliation Committee because, as he says, “I don’t want to dig into the past. I don’t want to open this wound.” In the novel the Americans ask for “moral certainties,” a clear distinction between the good guys and the bad guys—is there a moral certainly between Desmond Tutu’s perspective and President Mahinda’s?
Munaweera: I am very much of the Desmond Tutu perspective that you need to talk about these things and delve into them and try to understand it before you can say everything is now good. Sri Lanka’s official policy was “we’re done, we’re good.” At my book launch in 2013 much of the press asked, “Why are you writing about this? It’s over and done with.” There seemed this huge push to forget the war and I was like, it’s 2013, the war ended around three years ago, a thirty-year war, how can this subject possibly be closed?
Rumpus: What do you make then of one of the accusations leveled against truth and reconciliations committees, that the blanket forgiveness that is given affords victimizers another avenue to re-victimize the victims?
Munaweera: I understand this, but at the same time I do believe that there has to be some sort of answering, apology, or accounting. I don’t know what that looks like or even how to figure that out; I just feel that none of that was addressed and that people smarter than me and more political might come up with ways that people could have talked to each other. People are of course relieved that the war is over but that doesn’t mean that the trauma has ended and I think it needs to be addressed, and I’m of the opinion that there should have been a lot more healing. The end of the war was incredibly brutal and if you don’t talk about it the successive generations are not aware of it. Then this runs the risk of repeating itself. We just finished a thirty-year war and now a new enemy has been found—Sri Lankan Muslims.
Rumpus: Your publisher, Ameena Hussein, just published a powerful personal essay, “That Which Shall Not Be Named,” about this.
Munaweera: It is not a war but there are tensions. History can of course teach us anything if we pay attention but it depends on who is paying attention.
Rumpus: Writing and painting are obviously one way to go about addressing trauma from the war. Island of a Thousand Mirrors explores the emotional differences between art and words as well the healing qualities inherent in both. Do you agree with the adage “a picture is worth a thousand words?”
Munaweera: I’m a writer, so I’m going to have to disagree with a picture being worth more than words. That said, I’m also an artist and for years I wrote as well as painted and had exhibitions.
Rumpus: So you gave the dual artists in yourself a split identity as two sisters in the novel.
Munaeera: Yes, in the form of two siblings who are otherwise imaginary. In my life I had to choose between these two art forms, because I don’t think you can necessarily be a serious artist with both forms laying claim to your time and energy so I went with my primary passion, which was writing.
Rumpus: If Lanka were to paint the novel, what might the picture be?
Munaweera: This is such an interesting question… I think she would end up writing a graphic novel.
Rumpus: That is such a perfect answer, a union of the two forms. How do you see yourself? Sri Lanka, Nigeria, the US—what do home and nationality mean to you?
Munaweera: I can’t really claim Nigeria as home in any sense; I would love to, but I can’t since I was a very young child when we lived there and then had to leave and I haven’t been back. My memories are those of a child. I have memories of Nigeria, but they are not very clear. I do know that Nigeria has changed tremendously since my family was there. Nigerians tell me that the very small village I grew up in is now a big bustling city—I can’t even imagine. I would love to visit some day. I think I see myself as more of an American than anything else. I believe in much of what this country stands for. As a woman there is freedom here. In Sri Lanka patriarchy can be quite in your face all the time.
Rumpus: Do you think this sort of intellectual success, by which I mean publishing to critical acclaim, translates into more respect for women in Sri Lanka?
Munaweera: The idea of being a full-time writer in Sri Lanka is so new. People still think I write as a hobby and the idea of it being a career is still hard to understand. But I do think it has influenced other young women to start writing, to at least start to tell their stories. When I visited Sri Lanka in 2013, writer Shyam Selvadurai and I ran this residential writing workshop, Write to Reconcile, mentioned above, in which the majority of our participants were young women and I really hope that they start thinking more of expressing themselves and having more ownership over their stories and through that, over their lives.
Rumpus: Is empowerment different between ethnicities or is it also class-based? Because I saw in the novel that the different choices available to Saraswati and Mala quite reflected the opportunities available to their social strata despite the fact that they both experience devastating personal tragedies.
Munaweera: Absolutely. Economic and social circumstances are such a big deal because Mala, even though she’s older and from a different generation, has access to education which allows her to make her living whereas a village girl from the North like Yasodhra does not have the same opportunities per se or the family support. Of course the funny thing is that the Tamil Tigers would say that they were also all about liberation because they let the women fight along with the men. For women, though, freedom comes with economic independence, and so access to paid jobs makes all the difference, but this depends on so many variables.
Rumpus: Such as?
Munaweera: How educated are you? What sort of a job can you get? Will your husband allow you to have a job? Or do you have to depend on your husband? Is your husband drinking away the family’s wages? Did you have an arranged marriage? How old were you at the time? All these questions really go into how much autonomy a woman is going to have over her life. Sri Lankan gender politics are quite complicated. I mean Sri Lanka was the first country in the world with a female President in the 1960s, which was a very big deal, but still the patriarchy remains well and alive.
Rumpus: There is a very poignant moment in the novel where a Sinhala grandmother cautions her granddaughter against getting too chummy with a Tamil friend. She says, “They’re darker. They smell different. They just aren’t like us.” Does living in the Diaspora make unity easier?
Munaweera: Growing up in LA in the ’80s and the ’90s there was so much discord between the Sinhala and the Tamil communities. There was the war going on back home and then there was this shadow war being played out here. There was very little crossover and people were aware that both sides were sending money back to fund their particular side—I mean that war might have ended very quickly if it had not been diaspora supported. Growing up I did not have much access to Tamil people until I met my first boyfriend who was Tamil. I was sixteen years old.
Rumpus: How did you meet him?
Munaweera: At a Sri Lankan Culture Show. We dated for eight years and I became part of his family. They were very welcoming and, though we broke up, I have stayed a part of his extended family and that gave me the sort of access into the Tamil experience of the Sri Lankan civil war that most Sinhala might not have.
Rumpus: You tackle racism in both Sri Lanka as well as in America through humor, and especially showcase the absurdness, be it one character pointing out that a Sinhala character is so much darker than any Tamil or, in the US, the scene with the landlady and Wogums the dog. Was humor an intentional device?
Munaweera: I actually don’t feel like I can do humor very well because humor is such a genius thing to do. So I’m glad you found parts funny. You know I wanted to write that scene with the landlady in LA and her impressions of this immigrant Sri Lankan family because Sri Lankans are constantly mistaken for being Indian or Pakistani and this makes you further question whether you even exist, whether that place no one knows about even exists. I mean when I first came here, everyone thought I was Mexican. I don’t look Mexican at all. You know growing up in the ’80s in America—and perhaps this is true for any small community—you don’t see yourself anywhere and so you take on the culture that surrounds you and so there were all these Sri Lankan kids who really thought they were black or Indian—so you’re trying to get close to what you are but become something else.
Rumpus: I thought the whole concept of smell was also so interesting. How the grandmother discriminates on the basis of smell, as does the American landlady. It’s not skin color, or looks, but scents which define us.
Munaweera: That is so true. People connect people with smell and a smell that isn’t familiar becomes alien. But then scents are part of identity too and you can change the way you smell much more easily than anything else.
Rumpus: That makes me think of the role of bodies of water in the novel and how water can also take on different shapes. The bodies of water in the novel are very much characters, be it the Indian Ocean, or Pacific Ocean, or even a swimming pool. How did this come about?
Munaweera: This novel was so dark in some aspects and water became a countering symbol for that. In my new book I’m writing about a river, so I’m finding that I’m always drawn to some body of water. Actually, I didn’t even realize how obsessed I was with water until I was on a panel at the Jaipur Literature Festival called “We the Drowned: Writing the Sea,” or how much water is a character in the novel. One of the great pleasures of life is being in the water for me and I just love water, the sensation of it.
Rumpus: For those who come from Island nations, or port cities, and so grow up around bodies of water, they have to obviously feel so much more connected to all the symbolism that water offers.
Munaweera: If one goes back far enough in my family history, my ancestors were actually fisherman and so were intimately involved with the ocean for their very livelihood, their survival which is, I think, very different from water just being used for entertainment. But then so many writers are obsessed with the ocean and what it means—Melville with Moby Dick and Yann Martel with The Life of Pi come to mind. You know, unlike other island people such as Hawaiians and Polynesians who are in the water and surfing, most Sri Lankans until recently did not even go swimming in the ocean. Swimming was not considered a thing to do. Maybe in a pool, but certainly not in the ocean. Sri Lankans consider the ocean a dangerous place, one where only fisherman go to earn a livelihood. If you are upper class you would not go anywhere near the ocean and women especially did not swim. Only very recently has this changed and Sri Lankans have started to swim.
Rumpus: How fascinating to see water as a status symbol. So have you swum in Sri Lankan waters?
Munaweera: Yes. Every chance I get when I go back.
Rumpus: What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Munaweera: Read a lot. Grapple with language. Keep a journal.
Rumpus: What is the most surprising reaction you have gotten from a reader?
Munaweera: A lot of people told me they cried which is very humbling and profound.
Rumpus: What are you working on now?
Munaweera: A book on maternity, motherhood.
Rumpus: And I’m sure you already know your title and will not go through three months of despair this time round!
Munaweera: I haven’t even thought about a title yet. I think that is the last thing I will do!