“I Exist in an In-Between Sort of Place” – Nayomi Munaweera on Life and Writing
Posted on February 11, 2016 at 5:34 am
(The following is one of a series of interviews conducted by International Alert Sri Lanka with various Sri Lankans living overseas, their achievements in their respective fields and how they connect with Sri Lanka)
By Dasanti Wimalaratne
Nayomi Munaweera and her family left in 1976 before the war started but like all diaspora members, she was profoundly affected by the war anyway Both of her novels have Sri Lankan protagonists and are set at least partly in Sri Lanka. Her first novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, featured two girls growing up during the civil war and her second novel, What Lies Between Us, will be released this Feburary and focuses on the life of a Sri Lankan girl who must immigrate to America. She has won multiple awards for her novels, including the Commonweath Book Prize for the Asian Region in 2013 and the Man Asian Literary Prize. She has also taught in Shyam Selvadurai’s “Write to Reconcile” program which gives writing lessons for two weeks to aspiring Sri Lankan writers.
She currently resides in America but returns to Sri Lanka frequently. During one of her visits, she took time to talk to International Alert about what Sri Lanka means to her and why it always features in her fiction.
Q: What inspired Island of a Thousand Mirrors?
The ideas came to me gradually. I had a vague idea that I wanted to write about the war. I grew up in Nigeria but we would go back to Sri Lanka every year for a month and I saw how the war affected people, how people got used to the everyday presence of danger. Once my family and I were at the site of a bombing; there was blood and hurt people but that night we went out to dinner and laughed about the experience. Violence had become normalized. I think that was the moment of catalyst even though I didn’t start writing for years.
Q: What made you choose to write about the civil war for your first book?
A: 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.
Q: Did you struggle with the idea of writing about Sri Lanka while not living here?
A: I did struggle with it a great deal. There was always a sense that since I did not grow up here but would only spend a month here every year, my experience was invalid. I struggled with the authenticity question as most writers do. But I think in order to write, which is most profoundly an act of memory and imagination, the author has to get over these fears. Every author relies on imagination and memory, otherwise we would be reduced to only writing autobiography- which is not the project of literature. And I think for better or worse, being somewhat of an outsider is good for a writer- it means you see things other people might not notice since they are used to it.
Q: How does your family feel about your books and their subject matter?
A: “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 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. 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. I think once the novel came out 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.
Q: How do you meld your Sri Lankan and American identities?
A: I think a more important question is how my identity is seen by others. In America I am considered a South Asian writer. Despite being an American citizen and living in California since 1984 I will never just be considered an American or Californian writer. In America they assume that I am claimed by Sri Lanka. Meanwhile in Sri Lanka I am considered an American or diasporic writer. I will never be seen as just a Sri Lankan writer since Sri Lanka assumes I am claimed by America. I exist in an in-between sort of place. I don’t mind this. It’s a powerful place for a writer to inhabit and feeds my work tremendously.
Q: What has been the reaction of diaspora as well as Sri Lankans to the book?
A: People love it, people hate it. The Sinhala nationalists of course feel that I have committed some act of betrayal by writing about the harsher aspects of what was done in the North. But I feel that I gave as fair a depiction of both sides as I could. So I don’t take these people very seriously, especially as they almost always haven’t read the book before they decide to disparage it.
On the other hand I often have very moving interactions with readers who have been touched by the book or fallen in love with certain characters. A lot of people tell me they really loved the character Mala and want to know more about her. Recently after a reading a woman came up to me with tears streaming down her face, saying, “I didn’t know, I didn’t know.” She came straight up and hugged me and thanked me for writing the book. To affect a reader emotionally like this is a powerful thing.
Q: Would you ever consider living in Sri Lanka?
A: Would love to at some point- at least temporarily. This most recent trip has me considering this in a way I never have before.
Q: Are there any other Sri Lankan authors you would recommend?
A: All of them. I think it’s important that people here read Sri Lankan authors. I wish books were cheaper so more people could read. Growing up, reading saved me and I’m sad to think other kids might not have that pleasure and joy. The ones who come to mind are: Shyam Selvadurai, Micheal Ondatjee, Sonali Deraniyagala, Vivi Vanderpooten, Aparna Halpe, Ru Freeman, Shehan Karunatillake, Mary Anne Mohanraj. Also the Indians who have written about Sri Lanka-Rohini Mohan and Samanth Subramanian.