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Interview with Nayomi Munaweera

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“Below me the island glistens verdant green. I imagine all that it holds. Such things of horror and exhilaration as seldom gathered together……..” excerpt from Island of a Thousand Mirrors

Nayomi Munaweera’s debut novel, Island of a Thousand Mirror, about two women living through the 26 year long Sri Lankan civil war was originally published in South Asia where it was long-listed for the Man Asia Literary Prize and the Dublin IMPAC Prize. It won the Commonwealth Regional Prize for Asia and was short-listed for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. It was released in America by St Martin’s Press in Sept 2014. Publisher’s Weekly wrote, “Munaweera’s… lyrical debut novel [is] worthy of shelving alongside her countryman Michael Ondaatje or her fellow writer of the multigenerational immigrant experience, Jhumpa Lahiri.” The New York Times Book review called the novel, “incandescent.” Nayomi lives in Oakland, California and her second novel will be released in Spring 2016.

The Good Book Corner interviewed Nayomi:-

  1. What is the significance of the title?

The title is reflected in various scenes in the book. For example, there is an early scene where Nishan is swimming through a shoal of fish which breaks and scatters light through the water like mirrors. I also wanted to incorporate the word “mirrors” since a civil war is always about fighting the reflected self.

  1. What inspired this story?

Toni Morrison says, “If there is a book you want to read that no one has written, you have to write it.” Growing up I was a voracious reader but barely ever saw my own experience reflected in literature. When I realized I wanted to write, this was the most persistent story that came. It was the topic that I could not ignore.

  1. You write like someone who has seen how events unfolded in Sri Lanka. Given that you grew up in Nigeria and moved to the U.S. in your teens, was your research based on certain true accounts?

I did grow up outside Sri Lanka but my family would spend a month of every year in Sri Lanka so I absorbed how it might feel to live there. I had many loved ones, cousins, aunts who lived there through the war so of course I drew on their experience. I also read everything I could find about what happened during those years. The book is the result of a tremendous amount of research.

  1.   The character you liked the most and why- Yasodhara, Lanka or Saraswathi?

That’s like asking a mother to choose which kid she loves best! I like them all very much. They feel like fully formed women to me and I am so grateful they each appeared to me and revealed their various stories.

5.You have managed to write very objectively, has there been any opposition from people as to how the two distinct cultures and communities have been portrayed?

Of course. There’s opposition no matter what one writes- especially when you’re dealing with such a sensitive subject. Interestingly most of the criticism has come from Sinhala people of whom I am one. But I also have to say these kinds of comments are quite rare. The overwhelming response has been great joy that this book exists and I’ve been privileged to meet people all over the world that really love this book. I’m especially grateful when Sri Lankans, both Sinhala and Tamil tell me this book means something to them. I was in Jaffna teaching a workshop and it was wonderful to have people say that the book resonated with their experience of war. The reception in India too has been overwhelming. I was up for several of the big Indian prizes which was really the turning point for me. That’s what caused the West to pay attention and I am so grateful to Indian readers for making that happen and for caring about what happened in Sri Lanka.

6.How easy was the publishing process, given that you are not based in Sri Lanka or the subcontinent?

Ha! The publishing process is never easy. I started writing this book in 2001. It was only published in 2012. Initially in Sri Lanka and then in India and now internationally.

  1. What next?

I just sent off my second novel to the publisher. It will be out in Spring 2016. It’s about a woman who does a very bad thing. I can’t tell you more than that.

  1. Your favourite Sri Lankan writer?

Shyam Selvadurai. I grew up reading his books, especially Funny Boy. Since my own book came out, we’ve taught together in Sri Lanka in a wonderful program called Write to Reconcile and I’m so happy to report that besides being such a talented writer he’s also a dedicated teacher and friend. He’s a wonderful writer and a wonderful teacher and friend.

  1. What advice do you have for first time writers?

Read a lot. Write daily in a journal. Do not give up. You’ll need to write for years and years before anything happens but that’s just the nature of this game. It’s about persistence as much as talent and luck. If you keep doing it past any normal point of endurance, things will start happening for you. Also don’t show your work to anyone too early. It can have a very negative effect. Only show your work after you’re quite confident that you’ve found the heart of it for yourself.

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This entry was posted on June 20, 2015 by in Interviews and tagged , , .
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