The Sri Lankan-American novelist on Sri Lanka’s brutal history and grappling with the right to tell the story of the country she left behind.
Image by Nathanael F. Trimboli.
Nayomi Munaweera’s debut novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, looks back at the civil war in Sri Lanka, a struggle nearly three decades long and one of the bloodiest in history. Its subjects are a trio of women whose lives begin in the same place but then diverge: sisters Yasodhara and Lanka immigrate to the US, but Saraswathi remains in Sri Lanka and becomes a Tamil Tiger. An epic that traverses generations and borders, the book confronts the intimate repercussions of a conflict that cost over 80,000 lives, and explores the ways in which history defines and constrains us.
Munaweera was born in Sri Lanka, but its troubled economy prompted her family to leave in 1976, years before the war began. They moved to Nigeria, where Munaweera’s father, a civil engineer, helped build that country’s infrastructure, and after a military coup, fled to Los Angeles in 1984. “It was amazing how fast I adjusted to the American way of life,” the author tells me. “By the time I was sixteen I had a boyfriend and was sneaking out of the house.” She went on to study English and South Asian literature, but eventually abandoned academia because she felt compelled to write a novel.
She began the book not knowing exactly where the narrative would go. “Slowly, my characters started revealing themselves,” she says. “Then it was like, ‘Oh shit, this is a book about the war.’” Having been raised far from Sri Lanka, away from the fighting, she grappled with her own authority: “I’m Sri Lankan, and I’m writing about the war, but I live in America. Can I even tell this story?” Ultimately, though, Munaweera felt it was more important to puncture her community’s silence around the war than to cave to her own fears about legitimacy.
Island of a Thousand Mirrors, which took Munaweera about five years to complete, was first published in Sri Lanka by Perera Hussein Publishing House in 2012. It was then picked up in India and landed on the longlist for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2012, as well as the 2014 shortlist for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. In 2013, it won the Commonwealth Book Prize for the Asian Region. And last fall, it was published in the US by St. Martin’s Press, to critical acclaim. The New York Times praised Munaweera for her “vivid, occasionally incandescent, language,” and “startling scenes” that expose the personal humiliations common to civil war-torn nations.
Over several phone conversations, Munaweera spoke with me about her diasporic childhood, her attraction to fiction writing, and the hush around the war. Her lilting accent was a reminder of her varied upbringing, and occasional indignant interjections (“Holy shit!” she said throughout the interview) laid bare the bold spirit that propelled her through this dark but hopeful novel.
—Neelanjana Banerjee for Guernica
Guernica: How old were you when you left Sri Lanka, and what do you remember about living there?
Nayomi Munaweera: I was three years old. I remember our family house, upon which I based the house in my novel. It is a big house by the ocean in Colombo, and my earliest memories are of that home. It has been in my family for generations.
I remember that through some of the war years we had a Tamil family move in. We were in Nigeria, and they were renting. This was very common because if you are not living in Sri Lanka, you lose your rights to your property. The Tamil family had come from Jaffna and had probably been displaced by the war, but they weren’t paying rent and we didn’t know how to get them out. Then the war ended, they left, and we got our house back. I never thought either of those things would happen: I never thought the war would end, and I never thought we’d get our home back.
Guernica: You spent most of your childhood in Nigeria. What are your most vivid memories from there?
Nayomi Munaweera: We started in Lagos, then we went to Aba. Eventually we ended up in a tiny village called Birnin Kebbi, which is now quite large. I’m a little vague on the details, but I’m pretty sure my parents had never seen a black person before they went to Africa, so that was pretty bold of them [laughs]. It was never strange for me because I was a kid and it was all just normal.
When we were in Birnin Kebbi, I went to a native school for a little awhile. It wasn’t good. I wasn’t learning anything, and they would hit you with sticks as punishment. I would get hit every day because I didn’t speak the language. I remember something about having to take your desk home on weekends—perhaps because there were thieves? My dad had this Suzuki jeep, and we would put the desk in there. My father worked for a polytechnic institute, and my mother was a Montessori teacher. Clearly, I needed a better school, so they decided that they would start a school. So they created a school for the children of the people who worked at the polytechnic, and my mom was the headmistress.
All the books I was reading were for British schoolchildren. I wanted to eat boiled eggs and kippers. What the hell are kippers?
Guernica: Were you always interested in writing and reading, even as a child?
Nayomi Munaweera: Yes, I was a super shy, nerdy kid. To supplement my education, I enrolled in a correspondence course in Britain. The books would come, and I would read all the novels and literature. I was hungry for books because we didn’t really have access to a lot of English-language books in Nigeria. Every time I left the country, I would buy as many books as I could.
All the books I was reading were for British schoolchildren, so the stories were all about this other world—boarding school. It’s such a common experience for postcolonial writers from all over the world. We grew up up with Enid Blyton’s Noddy and The Famous Five, and then you just want that life [of adventure in the English countryside]. From Nigeria, I totally desired this other place. I wanted to eat boiled eggs and kippers. What the hell are kippers? It was such a different experience from my own life, and I didn’t see my own life reflected at all. It was all white people.
Guernica: When the coup took place in 1983 in Nigeria, to what extent were you aware of what was happening?
Nayomi Munaweera: It was really scary and unsure, and it all happened so quickly. The new government wanted all the Asians to leave within a month or two. I remember my parents’ fear. While we were living there, my dad would drive around and videotape our lives there. He was just taking pictures of the market: the tribes bringing in their cattle for slaughter and other everyday sights. But before we left, [possessing] these tapes became dangerous. So then my father had to sit there and erase parts of the video, maybe because he picked up something in the videos that would seem suspicious. I remember that very clearly, my mom being really worried that we would be stopped at the airport and searched and detained due to these videos. We were told to leave our assets behind—everything. I remember my best friend and her brother and I dividing up my collection of books. She could take more because she was going back to Sri Lanka.
My family wasn’t sure where we were going to go. We were deciding between England, Sri Lanka, and the US. Of course, I wanted to go to England and go to boarding school because of all the books I had been reading. My uncle ended up sponsoring us, and that’s why we came to Los Angeles.
I don’t know if I felt a sense of injustice about being kicked out, but I was really sad to leave the life and the friends that I had known. I had this dog that I really loved, and we had to leave her. It was really traumatic.
Guernica: Once you moved to the US, what was the hardest part of adjusting to American life?
Nayomi Munaweera: Growing up in Nigeria—especially where we were—there had been a real sense of innocence. I didn’t know how to dress. My clothes were terrible. I had always worn uniforms, so I never had to worry about clothes and fashion. In America, you have to make all these choices about your outfits and your shoes and your hair. Especially at twelve years old, that is such important stuff.
Once we moved out of my uncle’s huge house, my family lived in a two-bedroom apartment with six of us. It was really tight, and we didn’t have a lot of money. I also didn’t understand the American accent for a long time, so I was placed in remedial English classes at first. I was also confused about geography, where exactly Los Angeles was in relation to the rest of America. Once, at a Sri Lankan party when I had first moved here, a girl asked me if I was from LA. I didn’t know what that was because I had only heard the city referred to as Los Angeles.
But it was amazing how fast I adjusted to the American way of life. By the time I was sixteen I had a boyfriend and was sneaking out of the house.
Guernica: How did your parents react to that?
Nayomi Munaweera: My first boyfriend was Tamil, actually. My mom really wanted me to be involved in the Sri Lankan community. She was afraid that America would corrupt me. She kept signing me up for all these community events. There was a variety show, I was an usher, and that’s where I met my boyfriend. Ironic, right? It totally backfired on my mom. It was bad for so many reasons. I wasn’t supposed to have a boyfriend because I was sixteen, but also because he was Tamil and there was a war going on. The Tamil and Sinhalese communities didn’t [mix] because of political reasons. The war was totally funded by the diaspora.
We were dating secretly, and then an uncle of mine found out and all hell broke loose. I developed a reputation as a crazy slut in the community. There are all these systems of control for women: I was seen as a threat and really shunned by the community. Even recently, when I came back to LA for a reading, an uncle introduced me as someone who used to have a lot of boyfriends. A man would never be talked about in the same way.
Guernica: You were a student of literature, studying specifically South Asian literature. Why do you think you felt such a strong pull to write a novel?
Nayomi Munaweera: When I got to college, it was like, “What’s practical?” My parents wanted me to be a doctor, and that wasn’t going to happen.
I think all the reading and studying was preparation. Very early on I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t know any writers. I didn’t know what it meant to be a writer. It was a slow-boiling preparation my entire life to become a novelist—reading everything I could get my hands on was the education that I needed. I feel like the MFA route wouldn’t have worked for me, because it would have been way too much pressure. [Exposing] my work until it is as perfect as I am going to get it doesn’t work for me. So my way was to read and absorb everything I could.
Saraswathi just started talking, and even though she is the furthest from my experience, somehow she is the most real character to me. Her voice came strong and clear.
Guernica: Did you know what the book was going to be about when you started?
Nayomi Munaweera: I had no idea! It was a complete leap of faith. I moved to Berkeley and was like, “I’m writing a novel.” When I started, it was a completely different story line. There were these two roommates living in San Francisco, one was Sri Lankan and one was a white girl, and they might have been lesbians. I have no idea what that was.
Slowly, my characters started revealing themselves. Then it was like, “Oh shit, this is a book about the war.” A lot of people in Sri Lanka and in the diaspora—we don’t talk about it. It’s too much. I think, in retrospect, that the idea [to write about the war] had always been there, something I wanted to address.
For example, one of the characters—Saraswathi, the Tamil Tiger rebel—she just started talking. The north of the country where she lives has been closed off for thirty years, so I have never been up there. I had to do a lot of research. I was reading everything that I could get my hands on, trying to find archives, news reports, photographs—which was all really hard to do. It was such a bloody thing that happened. But she just started talking, and even though she is the furthest from my experience, somehow she is the most real character to me. Her voice came strong and clear, and I was creating it and also not creating it.
Guernica: Did you research female suicide bombers?
Nayomi Munaweera: There are very few instances of female suicide bombers in the world, and the Tigers are one of the few organizations that do use women. I remember seeing a news story about a female bomber, and there was a graphic detail about her head lying on the ground. It was an image that stayed with me. There wasn’t a lot of information about these women because they killed themselves. There were no first-person accounts, just news records.
I think one of the pivotal questions that really drove the novel was: Why would someone do this? And I think I kind of worked backwards from that.
Guernica: The book is almost obsessed with origin stories—you trace everyone’s births and myths and love affairs. The narrator tells stories of her ancestors, but we also hear origin stories of those she cannot know, like Velupillai Prabhakaran—the leader of the Tamil revolutionaries. How did you come to that?
Nayomi Munaweera: The questions [that guided me] all along were: Why are people doing this? Why are they acting this way? What would cause a young woman to give up everything and harm others? For Prabhakaran, I wanted to know: What would cause someone to go on this forty-year quest? What are his impulses and motivations? I put him in for just a minute, but I wanted to show what the consequences were. It’s a chunk of history, but we can follow it back as far as we want. The conflict is really old.
I realized that if I grew up in Sri Lanka, I probably wouldn’t have written this book.
Guernica: A friend of mine who read the novel said that the descriptions of violence made her put the book down at certain points; they were that visceral. What was it like to embody this violence?
Nayomi Munaweera: It was incredibly painful. During the research about the rape, I cried a lot. I cried writing it. I cried reading it later. And then, researching the war, I had to look at pictures and pictures and pictures. I made myself look at pictures of suicide bombers. It was heavy, heavy stuff, but at the same time, I was granted the privilege of having one foot in Sri Lanka—because my family is there and we would go back every year—but I didn’t have to live through it. I had the distance and safety. I looked at this very academically and emotionally. The threat wasn’t viable in the same way as it would be if I were living there, or had been living there.
I did have this experience when I was fourteen, which was as close as I got to the war. My aunt is a horticulturalist. She had a flower show, and my whole family went to the flower show and we were hanging out. My aunt had a booth with her plants. My cousins and I went out for ice cream. There was a bomb inside the flower show. No one died, but there was blood, and people were really injured. We found my family, but everyone was completely freaked out. We went back to my aunt’s stall, and there were ball bearings all over. These were dirty bombs, right?
Later, we found out it wasn’t even related to the war, it was gang violence or something like that. But that night, we went to dinner at someone’s house. It was completely normal, and people were joking about it. I thought, “Holy shit, this is what it means to live with this stuff every day. You just have to make light of it and continue.” I realized that if I grew up in Sri Lanka, I probably wouldn’t have written this book.
Guernica: What other works inspired your book?
Nayomi Munaweera: There wasn’t much. There was The Road From Elephant Pass by Nihal de Silva, about a Tamil woman and a Sinhala soldier escaping from battle; and Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje, a beautiful book where the war is not totally confronted, which is an interesting choice for him.
There might be more work that hasn’t been translated to English yet, or maybe people weren’t ready to talk about it. Maybe now that the war is over, there will be a lot more written about it. There is that Toni Morrison quote—if you want to read a book that hasn’t been written, you have to write it. This was the book I wanted to read.
Also, holy shit, this many people died—80,000 to 100,000! I mean, who is going to tell their story? Not that I presume to be the voice, but I would like to be one of the voices. Many, many people should tell this story.
Guernica: The war in Sri Lanka ended in 2009. How did that affect your writing of the book?
Nayomi Munaweera: I started writing in 2001, and it took me about five years. I signed with this agent, and he really loved it, but he said he didn’t like the end. At this point, the war wasn’t over. This was around 2007, maybe. The ending of the novel was really dark. My agent said that it didn’t work, and I was like, “Screw you. You want me to write a happy ending?”
He said he just needed to know what happened with the characters, after the tragedy that strikes, but I really did feel like that was the end at that time. The book didn’t sell [to a publisher], and I thought, “Fine, this book won’t ever get published.” I put it away.
I started writing book number two. Then the war in Sri Lanka ended in 2009, and I realized, “Oh! That’s how it ends!” I got to write another ending, and it worked. My agent said, “Yes, this is awesome!” He still couldn’t sell it here [in the US], though, but then, in 2012, Perera Hussein [published it] in Sri Lanka.
Guernica: You couldn’t give closure to the novel before there was closure in real life.
Nayomi Munaweera: Yeah. In 2006 or 2007, it just felt like the war would go on forever. But I was really happy I got to give the novel a hopeful ending.
It is a heavy book. It is dark, and there is so much blood. Prabhakaran, at one point, talked about how there is a tree that is watered with the blood of the martyrs. The original title was Blood at the Root. The publisher thought it was too dark.
The war is over after twenty-six years, and there is this tremendous “anything is possible now” feeling. Where we go from here is up to the country itself. But that was an important moment, to mourn and then feel hope.
You have to be extremely patient and sort of naively, stupidly trusting that whatever happens, you will write this book.
Guernica: Were you or your family worried that you writing about the war would cause a backlash?
Nayomi Munaweera: My parents were definitely worried. There was a lot of “You shouldn’t do it.” But I had to ignore them. It’s true, writing about this stuff isn’t the safest thing you can do.
I threw my book launch party at the Center for International Studies [in Sri Lanka in 2013]. An editor of a pro-government paper showed up. My publishers warned me that this might happen. He showed up and asked me in the Q&A, “Why did you write this? You’re from the outside, and you don’t know what’s going on.” You know, the whole authenticity thing. I had to say, “You’re right. That’s why I am here, to learn from people like you.” And again, he said that I shouldn’t have written this. Then I asked if he had read the book, and he said no. Then the audience started clapping. I told him that we’d talk when he read the book.
He went on to write a pretty scathing review. It called me a “cheerleader from Los Angeles” who threw this lavish party—basically calling me an outsider who didn’t know anything. One point he made that drove me crazy was when he wrote that the war had ended in 2009 and that these issues had been put to rest. He said that it was a dead subject. People are still writing about any number of things that happened in the past! You would kill most of literature if you said you couldn’t write about something [that happened] three years ago.
After that piece came out, it was a little scary. That article came out when I was in Sri Lanka, living alone in my family house, and at night I was scared. There are reports about people getting disappeared. It’s just not safe.
But there was also a really positive reaction, too, and opportunities to work and meet with Sri Lankan writers, academics, and young people. It has changed my relationship with Sri Lanka in a positive way.
Guernica: What was it like to drum up all this international attention before finding a publisher in the US?
Nayomi Munaweera: My path to publication [in the US] was long and often painful, but I think this is how it works for most writers.
It was a really big deal for me that a Sri Lankan publisher picked it up. I didn’t grow up there, and I didn’t go through [the war], so there’s always been a question of legitimacy. When I was at the Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation (VONA) workshop in 2011, I had these tremendous concerns: “I’m Sri Lankan, and I’m writing about the war, but I live in America. Can I even tell this story? Am I qualified?” So it was this tremendous stamp of approval that these people who had lived through the war wanted to publish it.
When Perera Hussein accepted the book for publication, I found a second agent in the US. He read the book before it was published in Sri Lanka. He liked it, but said he wasn’t sure he could sell it in America. Then Perera Hussein nominated the book for the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Commonwealth, and it started getting recognition. Then I asked the agent in the US to take another look, and he was able to sell it to St. Martin’s a few months later. I’m with a different agent now, but he was pivotal in getting the book out here.
You have to be aware that you are running the marathon, not the sprint. You have to be extremely patient and sort of naively, stupidly trusting that whatever happens, you will write this book. You will try everything you can to get it out in the world. It’s a stupid, blind sort of obstinacy, but you have to have it.
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