NAYOMI MUNAWEERA IS A Sri Lankan-American author and artist. Her first book, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, was published in September 2012, and I interviewed her about her work–as a writer, a feminist, and a member of the South Asian diaspora.
DB: Hi Nayomi, welcome to Ultra Violet! Could you tell us about yourself and your book?
NM: Hi Dilnavaz, thank you. I am a Sri Lankan-American writer and Island of a Thousand Mirrors is my debut novel. It follows two families through the Sri Lankan civil war. The conflict in Sri Lanka spanned 26 years from 1983 to 2009, and about 100,000 people lost their lives in the fighting between the Sri Lankan military and the Tamil Tigers. The two families are from either side of the conflict and the story is told by the eldest daughter of each family. It’s also a novel about love, immigration, etc., so I want to be sure that people realize a lot more than war happens to these characters through the course of the book!
DB: What inspired/compelled you to share this story against the backdrop of the Sri Lankan civil war?
NM: Toni Morrison says “If there is a book you want to read that hasn’t been written, you have to write that book.” I think I wrote the book I really wanted to read. All through my life I devoured fiction, especially South Asian fiction and there just wasn’t that much about Sri Lanka or the conflict there. Of course, there are the perennial favorites, Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost, and Karen Roberts’ July and a few others. In fact, in one of Salman Rushdie’s novels he describes Sri Lanka as the snot glob hanging off the nose of India. And as much as I enjoyed the image, I was also interested in changing the dialogue and possibly putting Sri Lanka in a more central role. I do think that as writers in Sri Lanka get further away from the war, we will see a great deal more writing about it.
DB: How difficult or easy was it to ‘face’ the civil war, given that it ended barely 3 years ago?
NM: It was incredibly difficult. As I did the research needed to write this book, I often found myself in tears. Even now I sometimes choke up a tiny bit when doing readings, and I’ve had a few readers share with me that they loved the book but that it made them cry at certain moments. I do think that grief is an appropriate response to this conflict, but so is hope, and I leave the book in a moment of tremendous hope- when the possibility of love and peace is very much a reality.
DB: The story is told through the eyes of two central female characters, one a Sinhala immigrant to America, and the other a village girl-turned-LTTE-militant in Sri Lanka. Was the creation of strong female voices a conscious choice? Was it specific to this particular story or is your writing intrinsically feminist in nature?
NM: I didn’t I set out to write a feminist novel. But as a feminist, the viewpoint that women’s stories are important and must be told- that women are tremendously important and as important as men- was an inevitable factor in my writing. I don’t think it would be possible for me to write a novel that isn’t feminist.
DB: Novels that bear human narratives against the backdrop of political battles often successfully make a larger humanitarian statement, but did you at any point feel you had to make a concerted effort to “be fair” and not take sides?
NM: This conflict is so contested, so divisive, that attempting to be fair and not take sides was a huge motivation for me. I was never interested in advocating the cause of either the Sri Lankan government or the Tamil Tigers, whom I see as equally corrupt forces. I think that if one reads the book, one gets the message that there are no innocents, that each side was engaged in brutality, and that each side suffered massive injury. I was very much interested in telling the stories of both Tamil and Sinhala people as best I could. It was tremendously important to me to not take sides or advocate any particular political position.
DB: What has been the response from various audiences so far? Have you faced any backlash from political groups who felt you portrayed one ethnic group more sympathetically than the other?
NM: Well, there has been some backlash, but interestingly it has always been from folks who haven’t read the book. They say things like “Well, we heard this book was either pro-Tamil or pro-Sinhala,” depending on their particular viewpoint, but when they actually read the book they do come back and say “Oh, we were wrong- you actually did present an unbiased view.” All I can hope is that people actually read the book before they decide one way or the other!
DB: What research was undertaken to get the Tamil character’s story right? Did you visit Sri Lanka to observe? Did you draw on your memories? Was the character based on a person you knew?
NM: I grew up in Nigeria but we would return to Sri Lanka every year for a month, so I had a very good sense memory of what Sri Lanka felt like, tasted and smelt like; it was very much part of my consciousness. The Tamil character’s experience however was the furthest from my experience. In fact, the war ensured that the North of the country was closed off for most of those 26 years, so I had never been to the area I set the Tamil character in. However, I have to say that even though her experience was the furthest from my own, somehow her voice came to me loud and clear and perhaps even more clearly than those of characters whose experience was closer to my own. I did do a great deal of research and read everything I could find about the Tigers, yet, at the time I was writing, they were an incredibly secretive group. They would kill themselves with cyanide capsules rather than be caught. So I read everything I could find and filled in the blanks as best I could. This is the privilege of fiction after all- we get to make up what is unknown and if the character is strong enough, he or she can carry it.
DB: What part/trait/feature of your nationality most affects your work?
NM: The food! If you read my book, you see how much I’m driven by an absolute love and desire for Sri Lankan food. I’ve had readers tell me that the book made them hungry and I take this as a huge compliment.
DB: Since this is your debut novel, how much of yourself did you write into the story?
NM: Well… that’s an interesting question for any first time novelist and one that I think must be left to the imagination of the reader. That said, yes there are some small parallels but for the great majority of the book- it’s fiction.
DB: What is your hope for Sri Lanka and for post-war writing emerging from the country?
NM: I do hope that we can keep it together in terms of peace. The reports coming out of Sri Lanka are not heartening. There are accounts of human rights violations and the disappearances of activists and journalists continue. Twenty-six years is a very long time for any community to undergo active warfare and militarization- it will take time to heal these physical, psychological and psychic wounds. I do think that as time goes on we will see a lot more writing about the war emerge, as people are able to process their trauma and start to talk and write about it.
DB: Thank you for sharing your thoughts and views with our readers. Here’s wishing you and Island of a Thousand Mirrors the best!