Saturday, September 6, 2014

A Thousand Ways to Write about Love and War: an interview with Nayomi Munaweera, author of Island of a Thousand Mirrors

Nayomi Munaweera, debut author of Island of a Thousand Mirrors, pulls no punches with a lyrical grace that gently, but fiercely, sweeps readers off their feet. Her chronicle of the Sri Lankan Civil War, told through the eyes of women warriors, survivors, and refugees is a startling record of brutal accuracy and intimate damage. At the same time, it is an ode to the vitality of a near mythical place and a love letter to the glimmer of hope and possibility inside of all fighters- whether the battleground is a war-torn country or a grief-stricken heart. Island of a Thousand Mirrors is a novel of love and war, written with a poet’s sensibility, and I was honored to be able to speak with Munaweera about craft, about ideology and about the long journey it took to bring such a powerful book to the literary stage.  

Steph Post: I’d like to start with the monumental, yet obvious, comparison. Publisher’s Weekly noted that Island of a Thousand Mirrors is worthy of being on a shelf with the works of Michael Ondaatje (one of my favorite writers of all time, by the way) and I couldn’t agree more. Aside from the novel’s setting in Sri Lanka, there are similarities in your use of storytelling patterns and lyrical language. These lines, near the end of the novel, particularly reminded me of Ondaatje- “We are again as we were, a perfectly balanced triangle. The three of us. My sister, her love and I.” Has Ondaatje been an influence on your writing and if so, in what ways? Who else do you believe has had an impact on your writing style?

Nayomi Munaweera: I am honored and thrilled that people are making a comparison between my work and his. He is one of those rare writers who does everything with grace- memoir, poetry and fiction. I don’t have pretensions to be anywhere near his scope, but I am deeply influenced by the poetics of his prose, the invoking of moments, his obsession with words. He is a very careful writer and one I’m honored to claim as a sort of literary father-figure. When I first read Running in the Family, it was a revelation. I was starved for Sri Lankan fiction and there was little else at that time, but here was a master of the craft writing about our island, about families like mine. It was one of the first times I realized our stories too were worthy of being told. I didn’t start writing until years later but it was a moment of huge impact. Other influences are Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai, Arundhati Roy, Lionel Shriver, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Milan Kundera, Vladimir Nabakov.

SP: In light of the Ondaatje comparison, your novel clearly stands on its own and is the epitome of the powerfully feminine novel. I think that both men and women will relate to and appreciate Island of a Thousand Mirrors, but it’s dedication to all of the complexities of different female characters is notable. Was it your intention to delve so deeply into the female psyche?

NM: I’ve heard my novel called unapologetically-female character centered and I think that’s true. We’ve had centuries of writing dominated by men and male characters and I see no problem with challenging those tropes. I think of Sylvia Plath who when writing a job application listed herself as “mother, housewife” and not “poet, writer.” Even she with all her powerful talent didn’t feel like she could claim the position of writer. That was only a few decades ago and I think women writers need to challenge that. We are talented. We are here to stay. Our voices and stories matter just as much as men’s. Writers like Lionel Shriver, Alissa Nutting and Clare Messud are writing fantastic, dark female characters and I think men should be interested in these characters and read about them as much as women read about male characters.

SP: You write about the savagery of civil war and love side-by-side. While the graphic descriptions of the atrocities committed by both sides during the war were difficult to read, I was also deeply moved by your descriptions of characters falling in and out of love. When you described recovering from heartbreak as “scar tissue” I felt the immediate sense that I was in the hands of a writer who really understood the difficult emotions she was writing about it. How important do you think it is to understand exactly what your character is feeling as you write? Do you think that your readers are going to sense this connection and respond to it?

NM: I think that if you’re really authentic about the feelings (especially those in the body) meaning you feel them yourself and write from that place readers most probably will respond. This is a heavy tale. I’ve had readers tell me they cried reading parts of it and I say those are probably the parts that had me crying as I wrote them. Writing is a transfer of emotion right? You want to make people feel things. As Kafka said, “A book is an ax to break the frozen sea within us.” So to get to that raw vulnerable place, I do think the writer has to go there first. I had to go to some dark places in the psyche, in history (through research) to write this book and I think the reader feels that.

SP: Going back to war and love occupying the same space on the pages of Island of Thousand Mirrors, what do you believe the connection is between these two concepts, both physically and ideologically?      

NM: I was writing about a civil war between two ethnicities that have lived on the same small island (about the size of Rhode Island) for centuries. So even as there is enmity and hatred there is also intimacy and desire and yes-love. For example, in Sri Lanka, Tamils and Sinhalese may be enemies, and they may continue that enmity here in America as immigrants. But also, even in diaspora, no one is going to know you like another Sri Lankan. They might hate your politics, they might support the opposing side, “back home” but they eat the same food, they are subject to the same racism from the larger culture. They also live in a country where no one knows what or where Sri Lanka is so there is deep intimacy in the shared memory and love of “home” whether it is acknowledged or not. I wanted to show this in the book- that there is both war and also deep, deep love.

SP: There is a lot going on in this novel, and many characters, yet the plot pattern is cyclical so that the reader never feels lost within the story. Phrases and images such as “To be there is to be surrounded by living shards of light” and later, “the lagoon reflects sunlight like the shards of a thousand broken bottles” are intentional, but not pretentiously, reoccurring. How did you plan for the structure of this novel? Was water always going to be a grounding point for the reader or is this something that developed as you were writing?

NM: In writing about an island, the sea is inevitable. It’s the inescapable boundary- that makes us what we are as a people. Yet I didn’t really think of it as a theme while writing the book. I had no idea there was so much sea in the book! When it came out in India, I was invited to the Jaipur Lit Festival and found myself on a panel called, “Writing the Sea” and I thought- oh my god- of course. It took me by surprise. But I’m also obsessed by really good writing about the ocean, because it represents the boundless variety of life, the unknown, the darkness of the uncovered psyche. Moby Dick of course, which is so incredibly, unbelievably modern, and also Life of Pi. I also love ocean documentaries! Anything with octopi makes me happy- they’re so fascinating and brilliant. So all of this water-love clearly seeped or flooded its way into the book.

SP: While Island of a Thousand Mirrors is a novel, it reads like the memoirs of two families and the accuracy of the descriptions of the land, lifestyles and events is precise to the point that I had to remind myself that you were not actually writing about yourself. How did you prepare to write this novel? What events in your own life led you to write about women experiencing the Sri Lankan Civil War?

NM: Very little of the book is memoir. I left Sri Lanka at the age of three with my family. We moved to Nigeria and then in 1984, there was a military coup in Nigeria and we moved to California. So I didn’t live through the war. My extended family did and we would get these breathless phone calls from them in the middle of the night- like in the book. My family would go back to Sri Lanka for about a month every year so I did see the reports on TV, the checkpoints on the roads, etc. There are family stories in the novel, bits I picked up, a lot of research into the Tigers. When I was writing the Tigers were a shadowy force. They all wore cyanide capsules around their necks so if they were caught, they committed suicide. Hence not much was known about them. But somehow after the book came out, the war was over and we got to know much more about the Tigers, it seemed I got a lot right.

SP: This is your first novel, but the craftsmanship and artistry apparent in the prose makes it appear that Island of a Thousand Mirrors was written by a seasoned literary powerhouse. What previous literary endeavors have you undertaken?

NM: Ha ha ha! Bless your heart. I have nothing else published except a non-fiction introduction essay to the Write to Reconcile Anthology (which you should look up and buy because it’s an amazing reconciliation program in Sri Lanka). In 2001 I dropped out of a PhD program in Literature to write this book. I was supposed to be writing a Dissertation but all that came was this book so I dropped out and wrote it while working various jobs. I tried to find an American publisher but no one wanted it. So I started writing a second book. Island was published initially in Sri Lanka in 2012. It will be released in America in Sept 2014, more than a decade after I embarked on this wild and crazy trip. I’m currently working on a third novel which will be published as my second. So I seem unable to write anything but novels. I do think that the years of studying literature-up to the PhD and before that a childhood and adolescence spent devouring books was the real education needed to do this work. 

SP: I can honestly see Island of a Thousand Mirrors taking off like wildfire in the literary world. What are your hopes for the reception of this novel? What do you want readers to take away from your words?

NM: Your lips to God’s ear- as they say! As for hopes-I really don’t know. This is my first-born and of course I wish for it to catch on fire and do further mad, marvelous things but I’m still quite astounded by the fact that after such a long journey my book found it’s way into print. When I quit my PhD program I really was jumping into the unknown. Immigrant kids are not supposed to do these things. They are supposed to be practical and become doctors, engineers, dentists. My family was very upset. I worked some pretty crappy jobs and was dirt poor for years so that I would have time to write. When the novel sold in America and I could finally breath a sigh of relief and go to the dentist after years of not- that seemed huge! I’m hugely, immensely grateful for all that has already happened.

Readers- just keep reading! It really is one of the great and wondrous pleasures of life and you are the reason we get to do this amazing and possibly important work. 

Island of a Thousand Mirrors debuted this week. Thanks so much to Nayomi Munaweera for sharing her thoughts and for writing such a brilliant novel!

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