Nayomi Munaweera’s Writing Life

Photo: Nathaneal F. Trimboli

When Nayomi Munaweera’s first novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, was released in 2011, she threw a dance party at Club Baobab in San Francisco.

“There were probably a hundred or more of Nayomi’s friends and fans there,” said novelist Keenan Norris who met Munaweera in 2006.

Island’s coming out party was the best book event Norris has ever been to. “There were people who had passed away that we missed very much. And so we partied,” he said.

They danced in the red, warm light of the Senegalese club. Everything was open and beautiful before them, then, as new writers, said Norris.

And then the DJ cut the music.

“Nayomi walked to the front of the club and everybody sat down like kids around a classroom or a campfire and we listened to her read from her new novel, which was such a mysterious, underground thing at that moment.”

This was before Island came out in the U.S.; before it won the Regional Commonwealth Book Prize for Asia; before the rush and frenzy of book tours.

“Later,” said Norris, “she would sign with St. Martin’s and publish Island for the American audience. The book would become very popular and she would follow it with her new work, What Lies Between Us. But that was a special moment.”

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Munaweera was born in Sri Lanka in May of 1973, but her family left three years later due to the civil war. They moved to Nigeria and lived there until 1984 when they decided to leave because of unrest in that country, too. They immigrated to the United States, when Munaweera was 12, settling in Los Angeles.

In her twenties, she began work on a PhD in South Asian Studies, but dropped out to move to Berkeley, where she taught at community college, and started writing Island of a Thousand Mirrors.

It wouldn’t be until ten years later, when Munaweera was 38, that Island was first published in Sri Lanka and India after being rejected by several U.S. publishers. Only after Island did well in Asia did U.S. publishers come calling.

Munaweera signed a two-book deal with St. Martin’s Press and Island came out in the US. Shortly thereafter, Island was the Commonwealth Regional Prize Winner in Asia. It has also been shortlisted for the Northern California Book Award and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.

Sri Lanka forms the backbone of Munaweera’s first two books. She says her first book is the “story of a country trying to find itself.” With her second, she wanted to write something “deeply personal,” and be focused in on one point of view. She won’t talk about her third novel, even with close friends, since it is still being written.

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Munaweera seems taller than she actually is — probably 5’1” or 5’2”. She doesn’t wear a lot of makeup, but often wears jewelry, including a hoop in her left nostril. Most days, her dark hair is loosely pulled up, away from her face. Her eyes are bright and attentive.

At one point, she was pursuing painting, as well as writing, but said she had to choose between the two art forms because she doesn’t think a person can be a serious artist with their time split between two passions. She chose her greater passion, which led her to write Island.

Since she was little, she always wanted to be a writer. She kept four books on her at all times. When she traveled with her younger sister, Namal Tantula — something they did frequently — books made up half of Munaweera’s luggage. She would often only bring two pairs of pants, even for a four-week long trip.

Munaweera’s writing process involves extensive preparation — time spent talking to people, at the library, traveling.

“I’ve seen how much effort she puts into it,” said Tantula, who was one of the first readers of Island.

Munaweera doesn’t write in a straight line. She compiles pages in her draft — her goal is to get to 300 — and then she excavates the story from those pages: rearranging, cutting, adding, and, always, rewriting.

“Nayomi is a writer who creates worlds and complex relationships inside those scenarios,” said writer Elmaz Abinader. “Her portrayal of Sri Lanka in Island of a Thousand Mirrors is magical without pandering to the exotic.”

Island is written about the civil war in which Sri Lanka was embroiled from 1983 to 2009. Having grown up in America, Munaweera didn’t experience much of the conflict firsthand.

It took lots of research to get the book right.

“I was reading everything available about that specific conflict, and also about women in war, wartime atrocities upon women, etc. etc. — you know, light fun stuff!” she said. “About 80 percent of my research didn’t end up in the book, but it was essential that I know the world.”

Also, though Munaweera mainly grew up in Nigeria and then the United States, she and her family went back to Sri Lanka for a month every year.

“So, more than the research, I was living in the place, absorbing the stories, feeling and tasting the island.”

Munaweera finished Island in 2007 and sent it to her first agent, who said that it was unfinished.

“I wanted to kick him in the balls because at that point I had been working on it since 2001.”

But she also understood what he meant — the war in Sri Lanka was still going on.

“In 2007, I didn’t know how to end my book, and I didn’t know what would happen to my characters. The end I had written was unsatisfying because I myself couldn’t imagine how this war would end.”

When the war did end, she was able to write the final piece.

“It was a strange moment in 2009 — the war was over, people were rejoicing all over the island. But there was also this tremendous heartbreak about the 80,000 to 100,000 people we had lost in the course of those 26 years. A lot of conflicted emotion, but it was finally possible for me to actually finish the book.”

Island follows the lives of two families, one Tamil, one Sinhala. Munaweera is Sinhala, and, like her own family, the Sinhalese family in Island is forced by the war to immigrate to the United States. The book is told in two parts, beginning with the last British ship sailing away from Sri Lanka — then called Ceylon — in 1948.

The story progresses quickly, but in minute detail, carrying the reader forward into the present day and into the lives of the focal characters for Part I: Yasodara, and her sister Lanka, called “La”. The sisters come of age in LA, as Munaweera and her own sister did. Yasodara and La experience the frustration of being mistakenly labeled “Indian” and the painful adjustments to a new kind of body awareness that being a teenage girl in America requires. Though the family is removed from the island, it still consumes their collective conscience. Donations are made to the war effort, and news is sought of family members still there.

In Part II, we’re introduced to Saraswathi, whose family is from the northern part of the island and has remained in the country. Munaweera gets into the body of her Tamil characters, deftly telling their stories — a difficult thing to do, when writing about warring factions. Though Munaweera deals harshly with the leaders of the war, and doesn’t hide from the horrible actions some of her characters carry out, she is careful to preserve humanity in each of them.

With her second book, What Lies Between Us, which came out this February, Munaweera wanted to focus in and tell the story of one woman. This book tells the story of Ganga — who isn’t named until the second to last page of the epilogue — and of a crime she commits. From the beginning, we know Ganga has done something, but what that something is doesn’t become clear until the last few chapters of the novel.

“The walls of my cell are painted an industrial white,” the story begins. And though we are aware of this part of the book’s ending from the very beginning, it has the effect of heightening the climax. Munaweera doesn’t reveal her hand until she absolutely has to, until her readers are irretrievably invested in Ganga’s story.

As an author, Munaweera is like a benevolent but honest God, ruling her creations. As with her characters in Island, she depicts this convicted woman with love. Indeed, when the book comes to a close, and we see what Ganga has done, pity and care for her is elicited — not judgment.

Munaweera is clever enough to imply a harsh societal critique: that people with mental illnesses often don’t receive the help they need and, because of this, much worse things happen. She’s able to do this within her story, without impeding its momentum, or making her book into a polemic. Lies incites new ways of thinking about crime and punishment.

Her second book made the BBC’s list of ten best books of February and Buzzfeed’s 27 most exciting books of 2016.

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Munaweera met her partner, Whit Missildine, when they became Craigslist roommates.

Missildine was born in Ohio and raised in Pennsylvania. When he met Munaweera, he had recently moved to California from New York City, where he went to school. They met to do a roommate interview, and she was late.

Munaweera was quiet, he said, going through a divorce, and “very hardcore into meditating.” They became friends and would often talk into the night.

Munaweera and Missildine, now 43 and 37, respectively, began dating and have been together for nine years. Though they started out as roommates, the two now choose to keep separate apartments, in the same building, his directly above hers.

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” said Missildine. “A key aspect of our relationship is to respect each other’s space.”

He is the first reader for his wife’s work.

Before he saw Island, she had worked on it for five years. Missildine said he was committed to liking whatever she showed him, and that it was such a relief and “so awesome” that he could really enjoy it.

The couple has decided against having kids. They talk openly about the fact that Missildine recently had a vasectomy. Munaweera has never wanted children. Missildine hadn’t either, but he’d been open to the idea if the person he was with had wanted them.

Once the idea was definitely off the table it became unfathomable that they would have ever had children.

“The world’s overpopulated,” said Missildine. “Maybe we should all be reconsidering it, since it’s a huge environmental burden.”

Munaweera said the decision “should be taken as celebratory.”

Environmental concern went into this decision, but Munaweera’s razor-sharp passion for her work and non-parental life was also behind it.

Her friends speak of her big heart, of her willingness to help — all of their examples of her personality are active. Many of them said that she often brings the people in her life together around homemade Sri Lankan food.

Munaweera met her friend Ajesh Shah while out dancing one night.

She is the reason that Shah was able to move last year, helping him to recover from a broken heart and rebuild his life. She wrote his recommendation letter and suggested he move into her building.

“Effortlessly, she will inspire and help people that are in her life. She is extremely modest about it and won’t acknowledge or even realize the positive impact she can have,” Shah said. “At various points in my life, she has been my Florence Nightingale.”

Munaweera’s friend, Candi Martinez, said Munaweera has taught her how to honor her vulnerabilities, and acknowledge her discomforts and fears.

“A few summers back, she was visiting me in Hawai’i. I am an avid open ocean swimmer, so when at the beach with friends, I tend to forget that the ocean can stir up a lot of fear for people,” said Martinez. “We were visiting Kua Bay, a gorgeous white sand beach along the Kona Coast of the Big Island.”

It’s popular, there, to swim out to the rocks, climb to their peaks, and jump back into the ocean. Munaweera swam out with Martinez and they climbed to the top.

“When it came time to jump back in the water, her reservations kicked in,” said Martinez. “Soon, she was shaking. The rest of us were in the water, explaining why it was safe for her to jump back in.”

This was the first time Martinez saw Munaweera visibly scared.

“Here, this super goddess of a woman was showing me the fragile side of her human-ness. She received loving applause once she finally decided to make the jump,” said Martinez. “Nayomi is reflective, thoughtful, genuine and knows that life requires a leap of faith sometimes.”

Munaweera’s reach goes beyond her friends and out into communities across the world, through activism. Munaweera has regularly volunteered in a soup kitchen in San Francisco for years, serving food.

She also takes part in Write to Reconcile in Sri Lanka, a project begun in 2012 by Sri Lankan author Shyam Selvadurai. Write to Reconcile brings together Tamil, Sinhala, and Muslim kids who want to write, so that they might address issues of conflict, peace, reconciliation, memory, and trauma.

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Munaweera’s home is colorfully decorated. Fabric drapes across the ceiling. Books abound: on shelves, the wooden coffee table, next to her bed. Her home is warm and welcoming, like its inhabitant. She’ll often turn the oven on, prop the door open, and sit in front of it — after all these years in the U.S., she still finds the cold of the Bay Area oppressive. Her bed is the hub of her writing life; the place where her research, her thoughts, and her experiences can come together to form her vivid novels.

For her friends and family, Munaweera is the center. They revolve around her, are inspired by her. She does interesting things, invites fellowship, incites new experiences.

And all the while, she writes. She doesn’t get hung up on her success or on how her books are being perceived. As soon as something is finished, she moves on to the next project.

It was a revelation to Munaweera that being a paid artist was possible in the U.S. Though she’s not a shy person, the legwork of functioning as an author exhausts her — on top of the writing, there’s the travel and the publicity, her teaching job.

“Any kind of outward stuff is draining,” she said.

When put this way, it makes sense that she seeks the solitude and intimacy of her bed as a workspace.

Munaweera says, sometimes, from a distance, she’s really proud of her work. At other times, she’s aware of its flaws. She avoids opening her published books unless she has to do readings.

“It’s always in the feedback,” she said. That’s when she knows what her work means in the world.

Munaweera left Sri Lanka when she was very young. Yet she was able to insert herself firmly into the Sri Lankan world, bringing in the folktales, landscape, class tensions, and political concerns. It was scary for her, writing about a war she hadn’t directly experienced and, at times, she felt very unsafe.

“People who talked about the war — journalists, activists, writers — they were disappearing,” she said.

Because she’s so compassionate towards both sides of the conflict, she was considered a “race traitor”.

In America, she is relatively safe. Some people have taken issue with her work, but that is bound to happen to any writer who engages with divisive topics like war and family, religion and nationalism. Overwhelmingly, the response to her work has been positive. She wrote — as Toni Morrison instructs — the book that she wanted to read. And now she has published her second and is deep into the writing of her third. Her readership will grow with each. Hers are the sort of books that you pass onto friends and family, the sort you read again. The truths and sweeping histories that cradle her characters are addictive dreamscapes, exercises in imagination not quickly forgotten.

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